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One Thing Is Certain: Duncan Must Be Dumped

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I'm Old School. I celebrate compromise. I believe our handshakes must be good, contracts must be honored. Especially in the effort to improve schools, the politics of destruction are wrong.

I don't believe in drawing lines in the sand, except in extreme cases. I used to teach my students to respect the political principle of the "loyal opposition," where "my opponent is my opponent, not my enemy."

Politics is supposed to be a contact sport; elbows are thrown, but it is wrong to take your opponent's knees out. And, when a player celebrates an injury inflicted by a cheap shot, he should be benched.

This has been an incredibly confusing week for anyone seeking to deescalate the scorched earth assault on teachers. At this point, only two things are clear. I was wrong in hoping that we are close to deescalating our reform wars. Second, Arne Duncan must be fired.

The Sunday Washington Post documented the Gates Foundation's rush toward Common Core standards and testing, and how it was enabled and vastly accelerated by Duncan's Race to the Top. It raised some tough questions about the role of economic elites and the democratic governance of our schools.

The Post told the same story that was documented by Steve Brill when Gates and Duncan brushed off warnings from education researchers, and RttT funds were used to coerce states into changing their laws and adopting value-added evaluations.

Duncan then adopted policies that were even more grandiose. Seeming oblivious to the spirit of constitutional democracy, he began granting waivers to the discredited No Child Left Behind Act, requiring states to submit to all of his policy preferences. It's like Duncan assumed the status of a de facto billionaire.

I am often told that I've been naïve in hoping that Gates and Duncan are the opponents -- not the enemy of teachers. In addition to advancing their own obsessions with testing, both give aid to market-driven reformers who seek to destroy the teaching profession as we know it, as well as collective bargaining and, perhaps, public education. I have seen Gates and Duncan as archetypical dirty ballplayers, bending and breaking the rules to defeat their opponents. But, I haven't viewed them as comparable to inveterate teacher-bashers like Michelle Rhee, the Broad Foundation, and the sponsors of Vergara v California, who see teachers as enemies to be destroyed.

Two days after the Post's excellent article, my optimism grew even more. Perhaps influenced by the Post and/or their recent defeats on Common Core, and maybe even influenced by a series of peer-reviewed studies that explain why the Gates-favored, test-driven teacher evaluations are invalid and unreliable, the foundation made a major concession to reality. The foundation's Vicki Phillips urged a two-year moratorium on high-stakes testing during the transition to Common Core.

I had once assumed that Arne Duncan was doing the bidding of the Gates Foundation in ramrodding its test and punish policies, and refusing to acknowledge its unintended destructive consequences. But, maybe I had it backwards. The USDOE now seems to resist the Gates' proposal and it still claims that we should stay the course. Apparently, Duncan likes the power he has expropriated, and wants to cling to his dubious waiver policy for micromanaging the nation's schools.

While I'm not satisfied with just a pause in high-stakes testing, and while I respect educators who reject it as a tactic that is too little, too late, I believe teachers should respond with an olive branch to the Gates' call for a moratorium. If two years without test-driven punishment doesn't cause the earth to spin off its axis, perhaps we can negotiate an alternative to bubble-in accountability. After all, I question the mentality of "Which Side Are You On?"

But, soon afterwards, the plaintiffs in Vergara won a major battle, as a trial judge struck down the rights that teachers had earned through decades of democratic efforts. He bought the reformers' situational ethics and started the process of voiding good faith contracts.

The corporate elites who funded Vergara disrespect the spirit of constitutional democracy by turning the courts into just another political battleground. With their billions, they seek favorable venues for lawsuits that are very unlikely to stand on appeal. But, that is not their concern. Vergara and the lawsuits it will spawn are fundamentally a platform for spreading an anti-union message.

Some seek to use Vergara as a Trojan Horse to undermine public education. Some of its supporters are sincere and believe that teachers are so untrustworthy that anything goes when attacking us. Some corporate reformers have been insufferable in their gloating but, still, we're in the early stages of resisting this no-holds-barred campaign, and their spin is best ignored.

With Arne Duncan, however, it is different. He is supposed to be a cabinet secretary, not the head of a brass-knuckled, anti-teacher interest group. And, yet, Duncan now endorses Vergara. His gratuitous announcement in support of the case is comparable to applauding a dirty foul that hurts a player. In doing so he shows his true colors. Duncan, I believe, has always been an awful Secretary of Education. But, now, he is clearly unfit for that position

Ironically, it is the Gates Foundation that articulated the reason why sincere advocates for students should repudiate Vergara, as well as the overreach of Arne Duncan. Regardless of the education agenda, it takes teachers to implement reforms. If teachers don't trust policies, they can't work.

So, I want teachers and unions to work with the Gates Foundation on a moratorium, as they engage with states and the federal government to mitigate the extreme damage done by high-stakes testing. But, Duncan became one notch too brazen when he endorsed Vergara, volunteering an answer to "Which Side Are You On?"

Unions and educators should remain on the side of compromise, but now our offers to work with the Obama administration must come with a reservation. We should continue to try to patch up our already tense relationship with the administration -- after it dumps Duncan.

We will still face a bitter, multi-year counter-attack against Vergara. And there is no guarantee that we can persuade the Gates Foundation and others who are in love with standardized testing to fundamentally change course. I sure don't have answers to those complex issues, but one thing is clear. We must DEMAND that Arne Duncan be fired.