Reasoning with and Resisting Arne Duncan’s Education Reform Agenda: Scribbling Lines in the Sand

There are times when a line in the sand can shift the course of a life – or of history. At other times a line in the sand may push us towards a common vision – or act as an incitement to trespass. In some instances a line in the sand may be narrow and thin – easily crossed or bridged. Or, alternatively, a line in the sand may be wide and deep – betraying no easy paths or footholds, and leaving travellers vulnerable to unforeseen dangers. And, of course, there are times when a line in the sand is no more than a line in the sand.

A line in the sand is no uncommon sight, and might be drawn by a friend, lover, or stranger. More broadly, lines in the sand may be wielded as technologies or tactics of power by politicians, police, and educators. Teachers, for instance, can employ lines in the sand as tactics for teaching values or understandings. This happens, for example, when teachers disallow certain behaviours (e.g., bullying, plagiarism, tardiness, absenteeism), or utterances (e.g., homophobic, racist, sexist, violent). It follows, then, that there are times when lines in the sand can be strategically employed for inducing a more democratic and socially just otherwise.

Against this backdrop, I believe a meaningful line in the sand has come into view, and in the following analysis I will contextualize Arne Duncan’s speech for the American Education Research Association (AERA) and its spill-over effects as a line in the sand capable of demarcating a more democratic and socially just otherwise.

AERA is the largest education research organization in the world, and in 2013 its annual conference was held in San Francisco. AERA’s annual conferences span 5 days, and typically draws 15-30,000 – a dizzying array of education researchers, administrators, policy makers, and even a few school teachers. This year Arne Duncan – President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education – was among the “distinguished invited speakers.”

To set a stage for the Secretary’s invited speech, it’s worth noting that Duncan is no stranger to privilege and power. Before his promotion to Secretary of Education Duncan

attended the exclusive University of Chicago Lab Schools for grades K-12 and then went to Harvard and played pro basketball in Australia. After that, he set up a charter school funded by an investment firm (Ariel Investments). This apparently qualified him to become first an executive in, and then the head of, Chicago Public Schools. -Arne Duncan’s cloudy legacy from Chicago Public Schools

While managing Chicago’s public school system, Duncan ordered 60 public schools closed and opened more than 100 charter schools (The School Reform Showdown in the Chicago Arne Duncan Left Behind). He also implemented education reforms that insured Chicago would have

a two-tiered education system, with a handful of these selective enrolment magnet schools, or boutique schools … in gentrifying and affluent neighborhoods, and then many disinvested neighborhood schools. So parents across the city are scrambling to try to get their kids into a few of these schools. So instead of creating quality schools in every neighborhood, what CPS has done is created this two-tier system and actually is closing down … neighborhood schools … and replacing them with charter schools and a privatized education system, firing or laying off, I should say, certified teachers, dismantling locally elected school councils, and creating a market of public education in Chicago, turning schools over to private turnaround operators. – A look at Arne Duncan’s VIP list of requests at Chicago schools and the effects of his expansion of charter schools in Chicago

  1. Duncan also took steps to exploit economic and racial inequalities by militarizing Chicago’s public schools:

According to the CPS website, Chicago has “the largest JROTC program in the country in number of cadets and total programs.” CPS has five military high schools, more than any city in the nation, and 21 “middle school cadet corps” programs. The military high schools teach military history and have military-style discipline. Students wear military uniforms, do military drills, and participate in summer boot camps. The hierarchical authority structure mirrors the Army, Navy, and Marines, with new students (“cadets”) under the command of senior students who work their way up and require obedience from those in “lower ranks.” Like in the military itself, questioning, let alone challenging, authority is not looked upon kindly. In a city where barely 50 percent of entering high school students graduate (Swanson, 2008), and in a country involved in two wars, the option of military service tempts many, especially in a period of economic crisis. All but one of the military high schools are in African American communities, and all the middle school cadet programs are in overwhelmingly black or Latina/o schools. – Arne Duncan and the Chicago Success Story: Myth or Reality?

In spite of this dubious record in Chicago – or, more alarmingly, because of this record – President Obama nominated Duncan as US Secretary of Education in 2009. Since then, among Duncan’s more notable “achievements” in this role has been the implementation of the $4+ billion Race to the Top (RttT) competition.

In brief, RttT compels states into competing for funding by expanding charter schools, and links teacher evaluation and pay with standardized test scores. Professor Mark Naison (Fordham University, American Studies and History) concludes that “in strictly economic terms, Race to the Top represents a huge subsidy for test and software companies while serving as a jobs program for the upper middle class” (Why Race to the Top Has Increased, Not Reduced, Income Inequality).

Professor Joseph Onosko (University of New Hampshire, Education) has a similarly dreary view of Duncan’s ‘crowning achievement’:

When thinking about Race to the Top, comedian Lily Tomlin’s quip about American life from years ago seems quite appropriate: “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” The rats in Obama’s race are not our highest scoring students, rather the rats are myopic educational reformers focused on student competency in reading and math, and on overhauling the profession by evaluating teacher and administrator performance using standardized test results. This agenda falls far short of what it means to be an educated person and democratic citizen. Obama’s reform plan will not take us to the top precisely because it fails to “pay as much heed” to many other important, complex, and difficult-to-achieve (and measure) educational goals. It’s a plan that employs crisis rhetoric about a dire economic future and then offers up test-score surveillance as a central strategy to supposedly motivate educators to develop children in narrow ways for national purposes. In short, the opportunity cost to individual human development and our nation’s most valuable resource, human capital, will prove devastating. And, of course, lurking in the background is plan B: the privatization of our educational system should Obama’s nationalized, centralized, standardized reform effort fail. – Race to the Top Leaves Children and Future Citizens Behind

Notwithstanding, the powers that be at AERA saw fit to extend Duncan a special invitation, and his speech was highly anticipated by many of the conference’s attendees. Although a contingent of picketers marched in front of the conference hall, voicing indignation and contempt for Duncan’s policy agenda, at the time of his speech the hall was crowded full and spilling into the foyer. Even through Duncan made several assertions in his speech that warrant critical analysis – e.g. “America’s schools have yet to find the best teachers,” “high-stakes standardized tests motivate students,” “criticisms of standardized tests have merit,” and that all these concerns can and will be resolved, thanks to “Assessment 2.0” and “Assessment 3.0” (for a transcript of his [ironically titled] speech, see “Choosing the Right Battles”) – what I would like to highlight and analyze is thereaction to the response to Duncan’s speech. More specifically, I’d like to frame Duncan’s speech as a stimulus that induced [reactions to] a response, and thereby illuminate a line in the sand – a demarcation that can be strategically employed for inducing a more democratic and socially just otherwise.

As Secretary Duncan made his way to the podium to give his speech – prior to uttering a single word – he was greeted by a chorus of “Booooooos.” While he spoke more “Booooooos” followed and more signs of protest went up. After his speech, Duncan demonstrated remarkable poise while fending off a hostile audience with critical questions. For instance, one conscientious attendee had the audacity – and bravery – to ask Duncan if he actually knew what Race to the Top was; and another confided that “We were hopeful but found RttT is NCLB [No Child Left Behind] on steroids. [It is] taking the joy out of teaching.” Duncan’s responses relied on equivocation and obfuscation to sidestep the inconsistencies and gaps in the policy agendas he has implemented (i.e. standardization, privatization). At the end of the session Duncan trotted away, leaving some attendees appreciative for his time and “reasoned discourse” – while others were left fuming.

One of those left fuming was Jennifer Jennings (New York University, Sociology). In a “bombshell” post at, Jennings took pains to apologize to Duncan for the colleagues that booed. Jennings expressed “embarrassment” and “humiliation,” and argued that those who had booed Duncan had “abdicate[d] [the] most sacred responsibility as researchers – a commitment to ideas, to data, to real debate – at the altar of one-upmanship.” Jennings expressed sadness over the realization that the “education policy debate has become an overwhelming chorus of boos, of shout downs, and of bitter personal insults.” For these reasons, Jennings felt the need to personally and publicly apologize to Duncan:

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that a faceless minority of the educational research community lacked the courage to meet you with ideas rather than with heckling that is so easy to deploy when you are sitting among hundreds of others. – An apology to Arne Duncan

To conclude, Jennings called for “a different debate – one in which we rely on ideas and open disagreement and reason, and not on schoolyard bravado.”

It should be noted that Jennings was not the only one who felt the need to apologize to Duncan:

Be that as it may, Jennings’ apology – a reaction to a response (i.e., boos) to a stimulus (i.e. presence and context of Duncan’s speech) – caught many by surprise, and it attracted the gaze of major players in the world of education. This attention was due, in part, to Jennings’ profile as a crusader for public schools. From 2007-2009 Jennings earned “superstar status” while blogging anonymously under the name, “Eduwonkette.” In 2009 she “came out” and since then has focused more on academic publications than blog posts. Then, after years with nary a peep, Jennings blasted back onto the scene with her apology to Duncan.

In a blog post titled “Why did educators boo Duncan? Jennings apologizes,” Diane Ravitch (New York University, Education)responded to Jennings’ reaction to a response. Ravitch noted that “booing is the behavior of the powerless,” and described Duncan as “uninterested in dialogue and unwilling to change his hardened belief that his policies are successful, no matter what anyone says.” Ravitch insists that Duncan “is actively abetting the misuse of testing” and “supporting the forces of privatization.” Ravitch dismisses Jennings’ apology and concludes by challenging Duncan to “apologize to the children, parents, and educators of America for what he has done and continues to do.”

Education blogger Mike Antonucci responded to Ravitch’s response to Jennings’ reaction to a response. Antonucci cited Lori Ungemah (City University of New York, English) to argue that the audience at AERA is “filled with academics, researchers, graduate students who want to be academics and researchers, and a few teachers,” and on this basis Antonucci questioned Ravitch’s claim that “booing is the behavior of the powerless.” Antonucci also argued that since Duncan was booed as he approached the stage, this “indicat[es] that it was primarily his presence that was objectionable.”

Norm Scott, a “grassroots education activist” and blogger, took quite a different tack and was categorical in stating that he “disagree[d] with almost every word in [Jennings’] apology.” Scott suggests that Duncan’s speech was a calculated attempt to get “the people in the middle of the road to say, “You see, he is reasonable and can be talked to,” instead of responding, “You lying piece of crap, you say one thing but act and do the opposite. You will rot in hell.'” Scott asserts that “there never was an enlightened, or any, conversation or debate about these policies” (e.g. RttT), and considers booing Duncan as “being kind of kind.” For Scott, Duncan “is a criminal verging on child abuse,” and if Scott had his way, he would bring Duncan “up on murder charges.” In the mean time, Scott argues in favor of not “let[ting] these ed deform guys (sic) talk in public if you can stop them. Don’t care about bad publicity or offending people … They are the enemy, not people to engage with.”

Un(der)articulated and skirting beneath these reactions and responses is a line in the sand – one that demarcates the horizons of true and good vis-à-vis democratic citizenship: How to respond to what amounts to an institutionalized and systematic war of attrition over the very soul of public education? Is the attack on public education yoked to the lack of reason or “irrationalism” of Duncan and similarly minded education reformers? Or, alternatively, what are the chances that Duncan could be convinced of his errors if only he read paper X or Y, or were exposed some particular study, critique, or set of data? Can this dilemma be reasoned away?

More pointedly, I believe the line in the sand that confronts us all is one that compels us into resistance or complicity: Do we assume that we might reason, dialogue, and debate our way to a more democratic otherwise or do we deny legitimacy to the purveyors of anti-democratic rationalities and organize to mount sustained resistance?

Paul Thomas (Furman University, Education) has suggested that

Now is the time for non-cooperation, not moratoriums, not compromise, and not civility on other people’s terms.Now is the time for non-cooperation so that teachers are not foreigners in their own profession and students are not foreigners in their own classrooms.

Although Thomas’ essay does not address the question of what “non-cooperation” with Duncan might look like, I would suggest that – at a minimum – it does not look like an apology for colleagues who offer resistance in the form of boos and/or stinging rejoinders. Indeed, I read Thomas’ call for non-cooperation as an incitement to bear witness to a line in the sand, and an open challenge to find idiosyncratic yet complementary ways of resisting – not reasoning with – the institutions and advocates that are reconceptualizing public education along an axis of “teacher accountability,” standardization, and privatization. I also assume that we stand a better chance of bridging this line in the sand by prioritizing solidarity in resistance (e.g. recognizing the value of those who booed and challenged Duncan), rather than assuming these institutions and advocates can be politely reasoned into a more democratic otherwise. In so doing, we may actually stand a chance of re-capturing the spirit of public education from those who would see it bludgeoned into job prep, a prison pipeline, or a de-politicized site of content delivery.