12/10/2010 12:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Taking Back the Narrative from Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had one of those high concept PBS interviews with Gwen Ifill the other day. What struck me is how the reactionaries have seized the narrative, taken over the points of arguments that we -- progressive teachers, social justice activists and critical students -- developed in the first place.

For example: Nothing was more irritating in a faculty meeting than to hear the old-line, do-nothing elitists declare that they could not make African-American and Latino urban students succeed. It was, after all, a problem of the home, of poverty, of broader problems than we could deal with. These arguments, and their barely disguised racism, were proffered as a reason we should do nothing. After all, they seemed to say, we simply need to find the "talented" and "smart" kids, the ones like ourselves, and work with them. Ugh.

We would fight back. No, school does not have to be a sorting mechanism, it does not have to reproduce class and racial stratification. We can teach all kids and can make them successful -- but we have to rethink curriculum, we have to build community, we have to change our whole approach to school structure. As Michelle Fine argued, schools are the one place where the promise of democracy, of options for everyone, is still something we can fight for. We can't abdicate our responsibility by blaming the community.

But most recently, with the Waiting for "Superman" juggernaut, the narrative has changed and twisted our very argument. The government line, however, is something much more mean-spirited. It has become: we won't do anything about community health, safety, housing. But we will punish teachers and kids when falling-down schools do not produce students strong in "academic literacy" and advanced mathematics. We will use this as an excuse to privatize education.

In the interview, Ifill pitches Duncan a softball question: "Now, there are some people who say that part of the stagnation in U.S. test numbers has to do with -- they call it the diversity excuse, that there is a preponderance, especially in a public school system, of immigrants or people of color who are not performing. What's your response to that?"

(Holy cow. I just have to take a deep breath. Really, Gwen? The diversity excuse? Is this how far you have come from the problems of the inner city?)

And Duncan hit it out of the ball park: "Well, it's fascinating, Gwen. That's probably the biggest -- one of the biggest fights I fight every day is, I have a set of folks who want to tell me that poverty is destiny. And what you see around the world is that poverty is not destiny. In other countries, much more systemically, student after student, school after school, year after year, educate poor and disadvantaged young people. And, so, anyone who says that you can't overcome these battles is a huge part of the problem."

So Arne Duncan has set himself against the idea that "poverty is destiny." How nauseating. It is one of those rhetorical flourishes which is so attractive, like the "thousand points of light." The fact that it means nothing is beside the point, it sounds so nice.

And he has appropriated the slogan from the Black Panther Party: You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem.

And he has made a false comparison. Yes, some of these other countries have different circumstances (Norway has 3 percent of its children in poverty; the United States: 27 percent). But even taking countries that are much poorer, such as China, we have to look on dollars spent on education not as a simple number but as compared to family income, as compared to the cost of a house. After all, only such numbers will give you a comparison of the actual capacity, the actual social priority, your society has dedicated to education. You can't ask us to educate children at Third World costs unless you want us to live in a Third World economy. Oh, right, that was the Republican plan.

But the problem here, Secretary Duncan, is that we must acknowledge the horrible, horrible effects of poverty, racism, violence in the lives of our children. We must face them, even in our educational reform efforts. To appropriate the language of reformers for his attacks on teachers and students is just cynical. It is like the right wing activists who appropriated Martin Luther King's declaration that he looks forward to people being judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Suddenly the right was going to be color blind, and thereby mount an offensive against affirmative action and even against the acknowledgment of race in any data gathering. In other words, they would like to re-hide the ugly truth of the data. Scratch the rhetoric and you uncover the cynical racism of these arguments.

Now, the problem is that true reformers, community activists and those closest to the painful realities of American cities, have been pushed into a corner, have found ourselves reacting to the Duncan-Rhee-Gates-Guggenheim offensive by falling back to a defense of teachers unions, a defense of good work done in schools, a reminder of the painful impacts of poverty. We have been pushed back to a place where we sound like we are defending the status quo. And we are not, by a long shot. We are disgusted by the slow and impeding bureaucracies, by the militarization and emiseration, and by the impersonal regimentation of America's factory model schools. Instead of allowing Arne Duncan to paint us as the reactionaries, the ones who are defending the awful way things are, we must continue to press our demands, best vision, our best hopes for education that really matters.

In a piece I did this week for the Washington Spectator, I suggested a few points that have been key to honest education reform. These are points which we must hold on to now to take back the debate:

  • Reform demands empowered communities -- not passive recipients of charity from above, but communities that demand the resources and freedom to pursue their deep interests. We need more Freirian, transformative education, not top-down command mandates.
  • Reform insists that children must be loved and, yes, cared for; they need to be supported through community construction, rites of passage, and the development of life goals.
  • Reform means a curriculum of inquiry, questioning, critical thinking, curiosity, imagination. It emphasizes civic discussion, and social ethics. It places a high priority on music and the arts as well as new digital media. It demands assessments that reflect the complexity and reality of student performance in schools -- not standardized tests but projects, portfolios, and actual work in the real world.
  • Reform means science and math curricula that are meaningful, engaging, and rigorous instead of the dreary regime of memorized formulas and the unscientific notion that we are teaching settled, decontextualized truths.
  • Reform recognizes how crucial it is that society reprioritize allocation of resources, funding education and recreation for youth. We are not in a time of scarce resources, not if we factor in the trillions wasted on war and prisons -- the shame of our society which is strangling our educational budgets.
  • Reform means real respect for the profession of teaching, supporting collegiality and initiative among teachers while at the same time inviting in a much broader array of community activists, local experts, and treasured elders to the classroom.