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Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan -- What's the Difference?

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In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch, who was a devotee of No Child Left Behind-type policies when she served as Assistant Secretary of Education under Poppy Bush, shows that the data is in and the corporate educational "reforms" that have been rammed through for the past twenty years have amounted to nothing more than the downsizing and shredding of what was once a thriving public education system in this country.

"Our schools will not improve if we entrust them to the magical powers of the market. Markets have winners and losers. Choice may lead to better outcomes or to worse outcomes... Our schools cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools. Continuing on this path will debilitate public education in urban districts and give the illusion of improvement... Our schools will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises. Schools are not businesses; they are a public good." (p. 227)

This last point -- that "schools are not businesses; they are a public good" -- is what President Barack Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, (like Margaret Spellings before him) fails to understand. Secretary Duncan has used his $4.3 billion in "Race to the Top" cash as a cudgel with which to beat down teachers (and especially their unions), denigrate what they do in the classroom based on quantitative data of dubious value, and to promote "market" policies of coerced privatization that debase the teaching profession -- all in the name of "improving" public schools. No wonder Secretary Duncan was persona non grata at the recent convention of the nation's most important gathering of educators. (What a brilliant move it is to alienate public school teachers, a central pillar of the Democratic base, right before the 2010 midterm elections! Genius, I tell you! Genius!)

Ravitch notes that Secretary Duncan appointed Joanne S. Weiss, "a partner and chief operating officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund" to "design and manage the Race to the Top." Weiss, according to Ravitch, is "an education entrepreneur who had previously led several education businesses that sold products and services to schools and colleges." (p. 218) So like George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind," the Obama Administration has decided to turn over its hallmark educational policy to union busting profiteers?

At a time when state governments across the country, especially California, are using the budget crisis brought on by the economic meltdown as an excuse to roll back public education and beat up teachers and their unions, the Democratic administration in Washington is throwing its weight behind the privatizers and MBAs, joining the chorus of teacher bashing that seems to have come out of nowhere. Arne Duncan has never taught a class in his life and has thus far shown an arrogant disregard for professional teachers who have decades of hands-on experience inside the classroom. The "moderate" Republican governor of California, (whose budget eliminates welfare in the state), has also endorsed a bill by a troglodyte Republican in the State Legislature that would urge school districts to lay off, rehire, transfer, and assign teachers with no regard to seniority or collective bargaining contracts. In effect, it would make Wal-Mart workers out of professional educators.

Nobody in power seems to be listening to what teachers have to say about how best to improve public education. The Administration is telling teachers that all those envelopes they licked, and all those doors they knocked on, and all those phone calls they made to help elect Obama in 2008 were nothing but a goddamned waste of time.

And this raises a more fundamental point: Arne Duncan and other privatizers of public education don't know the difference between being a "teacher" and being an "instructor"; nor do they understand the difference between a "class" and a room full of students. They want to reduce professional educators to mere instructors, where all subjects, including arts, humanities, and science, are standardized and homogenized and handed to children as if instructing them on the techniques of CPR. The classroom is then reduced to an irreverent gaggle "instructed" on how to take a standardized test by Wal-Mart workers scared to death about losing their jobs. That's a long way from John Dewey! "Memorization, regurgitation - vegetation," would be an apt slogan.

"There are many examples of healthy competition in schools," Ravitch writes, "[b]ut the competition among schools to get higher [test] scores is of a different nature; in the current climate, it is sure to cause teachers to spend more time preparing students for state tests, not on thoughtful writing, critical reading, scientific experiments, or historical study. Nor should we expect schools to vie with one another for students, as businesses vie for customers, advertising their wares and marketing their services. For schools to learn from one another, they must readily share information about their successes and failures, as medical professionals do, rather than act as rivals in a struggle for survival." (p. 228)

The closing of schools and lay offs of teachers in the communities surrounding California's capital city have been devastating and demoralizing to educators. The brutal budget cuts have made it more difficult year after year for teachers to do their jobs. Budget cuts are followed by more budget cuts. Teachers are told each September that they're just going to have to make do with less, which means larger class sizes, cuts to music, art, literature, physical education, lack of supplies, low morale. And then useless politicians from both parties lecture teachers blaming them for all of society's failings to properly fund public schools. This cycle must be broken. Diane Ravitch has done educators a favor by honestly appraising the terrible consequences of policies she once championed. If we have to wait twenty years for Arne Duncan to see the light, it will be too late.