Privatization, Charters & High-Stakes Tests: Arne Duncan’s Legacy

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Professor Pauline Lipman and educator Jose Luis Vilson discuss the legacy of Arne Duncan and what we know about his successor John B. King

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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: On Friday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his resignation. President Obama has appointed his successor, John B. King. Duncan became one of the longest-serving education secretaries in history, advancing controversial policies like increasing standardized testing, expanding publicly-run and often privately-managed charter schools, and linking teacher pay to student test scores. President Obama praised his tenure at a press conference on Friday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than 30 states have upped their investment in early childhood education. Nearly every state in America has raised standards for teaching and learning, and expectations for what our kids can learn. And our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. We’ve helped millions more families afford college, and more Americans are graduating from college than ever before.

NOOR: Now joining us to discuss Arne Duncan’s legacy as well as his replacement Deputy Secretary of Education John B. King are two guests. In a moment we’ll hear from Jose Luis Vilson, an author and New York public school teacher, but first we go to Chicago, Arne Duncan’s hometown, where he served as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools prior to serving as education secretary. We’re joined by Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies and the director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois Chicago. Thanks so much for joining us again, Pauline.

PAULINE LIPMAN: Thanks for inviting me.

NOOR: So Pauline, in Chicago you had direct experience with Arne Duncan. And then President Obama took him to the White House with him when he became president, and he advanced similar policies across the nation. Talk about what his legacy has been.

LIPMAN: Well you know, it’s interesting. When Duncan left Chicago and went to Washington, the first thing he did as Secretary of Education was fly to Detroit and tell that cash-strapped city that there would be an infusion of federal funds for education, but only if they followed the Chicago model. And it’s really the Chicago model that Duncan has expanded as a national education agenda.

And the main features of that are really the ones that you talked about. Increased testing, expansion of charter schools through the Race To The Top initiative, paying teachers based on student test scores. And in general shifting education more and more towards business methods, business people in charge of education, creating more influence for corporate think tanks, neoliberal think tanks, venture philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation in the national education agenda. And shifting public education increasingly toward preparing students for corporate workforce needs rather than a broad public education.

So really, if we look at Duncan’s legacy, we can see that he has presided over a further dismantling of public education in the U.S. And also, I think we have to look at some of the claims for the successes under Duncan.

NOOR: Well, exactly. Because, Pauline, so supporters would say graduation rates have increased, test scores have increased. How do you respond to those claims?

LIPMAN: Right. Well, actually, if we, if we look at it, it’s true that test scores have gone up, nationally. But as we know, first of all, if we focus education around preparing kids for tests, it’s likely the test scores will go up. So test scores are just one measure of the quality of education. What I’m more concerned about are the equity questions.

So in Chicago for example, which has followed the Duncan policies beginning in the, you know, for the last 10, 15 years now, what we see is that even though test scores have gone up and graduation rates have gone up, and dropout rates have gone down, that the racial gaps have actually increased. So what we’ve seen is the closing of over 100 schools in several cities, and over 25 schools in many cities in the U.S., and the privatization of those schools. Turning them over to charter school operators. And this has been devastating to low-income communities of color around the country.

So I think when we measure Duncan against the broad goals of education and the devaluing of teaching, and the introduction of competition and markets into education and the increase in inequities, his legacy is not one that really he should be proud of.

NOOR: Pauline Lipman, thanks so much for joining us.

LIPMAN: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: We now turn to Arne Duncan’s successor, John King, who also spoke at the press conference Friday.

JOHN B. KING: In that speech Arne said education can be the difference between life and death. And I know that’s true, because it was for me. I grew up in Brooklyn. I lost my mom when I was eight, my dad when I was twelve. My dad was very sick before he passed. I moved around between family members and schools. But teachers, New York City public school teachers, are the reason that I am alive. They are the reason that I became a teacher. They are the reason I am standing here today. Those teachers created amazing educational experiences, but also gave me hope. Hope about what is possible, what could be possible for me in life. I know schools can’t do it alone, there’s work we have to do on economic development and housing and healthcare.

NOOR: Now joining us to discuss John King is Jose Luis Vilson. He’s a math educator, blogger, speaker and activist in New York, author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOSE LUIS VILSON: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: So we just heard John King talk about how educators in New York, he grew up in Brooklyn, were essential to his success. At the press conference he also praised the policies of Arne Duncan, and we know–as we know, he advanced charter schools, standardized testing. The same things that John King did in New York. Talk about what his legacy is there.

VILSON: Well as we know, if we think about analogies, President Obama to Arne Duncan is what Andrew Cuomo was to John King. In a way they were the go-to people–.

NOOR: And you’re talking about the governor of New York.

VILSON: Yes, I’m talking about Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, decided that he would follow the same plan that Obama did. Two Democrats who have gone hand-in-hand as far as education policy is concerned, with hedge fund billionaires, if you will. So all of the different policies that we see there, whether it be the over standardized testing, the reliance on test scores, [inaud.] teachers, and just the general mismanagement, I believe, of public schools in the way of trying to disenfranchise public schools, is a large part of the legacy of John King.

NOOR: And so during his tenure–and I was in New York for part of this period–there was an unprecedented protest against the increase of high-stakes standardized testing. John King actually received a no-confidence vote last year because of his policies. What’s your response to President Obama choosing this figure? And even the New York State Teachers’ Union condemned Obama’s move, and we know how close teachers’ unions have been to the Democratic party.

VILSON: Well, as we know, there is really no Democratic versus Republican party when it comes to education. It really is about pro-current education reform versus those who are against the education reform that we have now. And so a lot of that is mired with a supposed [line] between what a liberal is versus what a conservative is. And unfortunately that has been blurred in the last 15, 20 years thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. And so what we see with Andrew Cuomo and John King, especially, is that they’re willing to pick some of the things that used to be a truly conservative neocon alliance, like charterization of public schools, and a lot of accountability measures for everyone involved, and take them as Democratic lines.

And so I wonder if a lot of the strategy for Obama was to take someone who’s been in high-press situations, someone who’s been at the, at the head of many, many protests, and put them in a situation that’s more national so they can continue on with some of the things that are happening already.

NOOR: So many people aren’t expecting a big difference from the policies of Arne Duncan to now John King. But what’s often missed is just how these policies, these abstract things, actually affect classroom conditions. You’re talking to us from a classroom right now. Can you, can you talk about this? What impact does it have on students and on teachers?

VILSON: Well, recently it has been a bit of a change of tone from Arne Duncan, which I am not fully–I would like to see more before I give my full confidence vote on it. I see how John King may be a successor that can talk about things like cutting down the school-to-prison pipeline, bringing out suspensions, and just generally trying to bring, restorative practices to the classrooms. But having said that, you can’t have a legacy where you’ve been at the head of, you know, shutting down [mass] schools. You can’t be the head of, someone who’s been part of all this testing and bringing in a whole lot of different weird measures for how we evaluate schools and classrooms, and then at the same time say oh, we’re going to become more restorative, we’re going to become more thoughtful about the things we do. And then out of the classroom.

So as a classroom teacher, I am still under the burden of all these different numbers that I’m not even fully understanding. And I’m a math teacher, so that does have some sort of irony. But you know, it’s hard for me to determine how I’m going to be evaluated. And I often wonder if trying to be more constructivist about the way that I do my pedagogy is in direct conflict with achieving high test scores, or whatever achievement may be. Or whether I should even attempt to do the whole high-achieving test scores because as it turns out, you know, I really don’t care that much about testing. I prefer that kids actually learn something. And I don’t really see that much of a connection between achievements and learning.

NOOR: All right. We want to thank you so much for joining us.

VILSON: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: And for our viewers, thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.