Clever Rhetoric Won’t Save Your Undemocratic Reform from Failure: An Open Letter to Arne Duncan

Dear Secretary Duncan,

I am sure many have read your May 2, 2011 Open Letter to teachers. I am impressed with its rhetorical slight of hand, how it gently yet forcefully pushes — with all apparent conviction — what more and more of the research community and the public is rejecting.

I presume that it is this broad and growing opposition to Race to the Top (the nearly $5 billion in discretionary monies given to the U.S. Department of Education by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) that caused you to publish your Open Letter. But I do not believe that your rhetoric, however clever, can erase from consciousness the fact that Race to the Top is anti-democratic — imposed through bribery using taxpayer money. It is an open agenda for privatization and the elimination of any last vestiges of democratic governance of and purpose for schooling. Wall Street and various monopolies are attempting total control through for-profit charters, anti-worker legislation, publishing and testing companies, private foundations, and of course, a national curriculum and privately managed testing regime aimed at workers compliance.

Given this reality, I think it is very important to examine how your letter makes its case. And while others have spoken to what is wrong with what you say, and what is wrong with what you propose, I want to focus on something that might be missed, possibly even by you: your letter’s appeal to your personal convictions and beliefs as a basis for legitimating government action.

Your letter constitutes a public sharing of your personal conviction about teaching and the teaching profession. The theory of action appears to be this: teachers believe that you are ill-willed, and have wrong-headed ideas about education. To counter, you are disclosing yourself, and we educators are to be comforted by your stated respect for teachers, and your commitment to fair evaluation systems that you believe will raise the prestige of the profession. You confess, for example, to believing that teachers actually work hard (Well, now, you must be an ally!). And you suggest, although you never really openly say so, that you oppose teaching to the test and the narrowing of curriculum that follows. I should expose the trickery in pretending to address concerns with a curriculum narrowed only to tested subjects with a plan for more frequent testing in all subjects (that is, a national curriculum and series of tests developed by CEOs of corporations, private foundations and publishing and testing companies, with no role for the public). But this is not what I find most striking.

What I find most striking is how you position your personal beliefs and experiences as criteria for the legitimacy of government action. To quote a former president of the United States, you are “the decider,” and you decide based on your beliefs. We the subjects are called upon to accept government action on account of the public expression of your beliefs.

For example, you state: “I have a deep and genuine appreciation for the work you do.” Are the completely invalid pay-per-test-score schemes being imposed in state after state as a result of your Race to the Top competition (referenced in your letter as “sophisticated assessments that measure individual student growth”) somehow now acceptable because the Holy Education Executive has uttered his genuine appreciation for the work teachers do?

Does the fact that you believe “that most teachers did not enter the profession for the money” justify pay and healthcare cuts, layoffs and terminations for those who’s students don’t show enough growth on the “sophisticated assessments” you believe in? After all, you believe the key to reform is building “an accountability system based on data we trust” — so as long as the “data” are trustworthy test hell for parents, students and educators is acceptable? If we don’t go along with “in data we trust” will Senator McCarthy rise from the dead to demand our testimony? (“Mr. Garrison, are you, or have you ever been, or have you ever been associated with, a critic of standardized testing and merit pay for teachers?”)

Equally impressive is how you position yourself as the great leader who has these personal relationships with people — “I am here to help,” you offer (if it were that simple, we could just respond, “thanks, but no thanks!”). You assert, as if it is a settled matter: “We understand that the surest way to [help America’s children] is to make sure that the 3.2 million teachers in America’s classrooms are the very best they can be.” This master lie deserves its own book, but the fact of the matter is the majority of people in America understand that poverty is a very serious and rapidly growing problem. But poverty is brazenly ignored by you and most education reformers. If you want to “help America’s children,” eliminate poverty (and I guarantee the test scores will go up too, without any test prep!).

Like the Royal Wedding which celebrated the grossest forms of inequality, you’re governing strategy is reminiscent of a period of history humanity has fought hard to leave behind: the despotic rule of kings and their royal families. During those times, the beliefs of royalty were all that mattered, and royalty were the only public officially recognized.

So, Mr. Duncan, at the end of the day, I don’t care what you believe. In a democracy, the government must represent the will of the people, not impose its beliefs on them. No one wants a patronizing government that figures its role as “helping.” Any reform that disempowers, any reform that doesn’t help realize social equality, will fail, as the corporate reforms you defend in your letter already have.

2 Comments Clever Rhetoric Won’t Save Your Undemocratic Reform from Failure: An Open Letter to Arne Duncan

  1. tracey douglas May 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    GREAT letter!!!! Here’s mine for your entertainment: (WARNING: My letter is on the smart-alecky side.)

    Dear Secretary Duncan:

    When I read the title for your open letter to teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, I rolled my eyes. I mean, I couldn’t help it; my eyes just automatically started rolling. So, Arne has penned a missive to teachers to express his appreciation? RUFKM? Seriously.

    You said that teachers “deserve to be respected, valued, and supported”. But aren’t you the guy who applauded when every teacher at Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School was fired? Remember that school? You know, it’s one of those high-poverty, failing schools?

    And aren’t you the guy who applauded again when the Los Angeles Times published a list ranking teacher effectiveness based on a test score? I don’t think Rigoberto Ruelas was feeling your love. He was that highly regarded teacher who the LA Times rated less effective than his peers. After that list came out, Ruelas killed himself. But that little bump in the road didn’t sway you from giving New York City educrats the thumbs up when they announced their intention to publish teacher rankings. I guess, you some people are just slow learners.

    You said that you appreciate the challenge and skill involved in the work teachers do and applaud those who have dedicated their lives to teaching??
    “How we recognize, honor, and show respect for our experienced educators will reaffirm teaching as a profession.”
    I mean, you really said that! I am NOT making this up. You also said that the days of a last-in-first-out (LIFO) policy of layoffs are over. Wow, Arne, that certainly is an innovative way to honor those dedicated, experienced, veteran educators.

    To put it in words, many of which you incessantly overuse, that you can understand: I am fundamentally tired of your laser-like focus dramatically aimed at dismantling public education during your hugely historic tenure as Secretary of Education. I am tired of you putting absolutely amazing veteran teachers on the trajectory to obsolescence. Your unprecedented attack on our nation’s schools has been dramatically rigorous as you work to super-size the status quo. You demonstrate an amazing sense of 21st century urgency while pimping for the Billionaire Boys Club as they incent you to do their world-class dirty work. No Corporation Left Behind! Inequitable funding through your ill-conceived Race to the Top should be the civil rights issue of our generation, not getting rid of LIFO and due process for those teachers you so honor and respect.

    BTW, a lot of people can say that they have spent much of their life working in education – custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, health clerks, bus drivers and playground supervisors. So when you say that you’ve spent much of your life working in education… well, I’m just not overly impressed. In fact, I’m not impressed at all. With your laser-like commitment to imposing your failed Chicago Public Schools policies on our nation’s schools, well, I’m just feeling hugely unimpressed with your understanding of teaching, learning, and how to best serve our most needy children. I’m willing to bet that those school workers I mentioned above have a greater grasp on what is really happening in schools across the land than do you. You’re just the drive-by photo op dude to me.

    Next year, please don’t write another love letter to teachers. We’re just not that into you.


    One Amazing Hugely Pissed-Off Awesome World-Class Teacher

    p.s. You might want to try to out-educate yourself and do a little reflecting: Chicago Tribune says ‘Renaissance 2010’ has failed

  2. Mark Garrison May 5, 2011 at 8:09 am

    As Susan Ohanian has suggested, maybe Arne miscalculated teacher consciousness…or his ability to author reality as he wishes.

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