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Profiles: Class Warrior

Pete Farruggio
Assistant Professor
Bilingual Education
College of Education, University of Texas Pan American
co-founder of CalCARE (calcare.org) and a classroom and resource teacher with 22 years of experience in low income schools

The New Yorker Duncan profile is a puff-piece written by yet another person uninformed about education who gets published because he knows Arne and he can write. Duncan is depicted as an earnest guy who really cares about poor kids and who understands them because he hung out in his mother's after school program and played basketball in tough neighborhoods. A missionary who will save the underprivileged.

He's said to be "free of politics" because he associated neither with Dems or Republicans (according to Mayor Daley) and he steers a middle course between free-market solutions and teacher union/liberal academic ideas. No mention is made of the billionaires and corporate front groups whose ideology he actively implements. He's just a free agent in the world of ideas who has figured out his "own" program for improving education.

Numerous conservatives are given a voice to characterize Duncan and his policies without being labeled (the Hoover Institute and Fordham Foundation are not described as having any political leaning), but one of the only two education experts cited who are Duncan critics is labeled a leftist. The other critic, Diane Ravitch, is given several quotes, but her recommendations for real reform, such as smaller class size, better curriculum, etc, are subsequently dismissed as having been tried before and having failed. Oh, really?

His massive failure in Chicago, after closing schools and charterizing, is ultimately soft peddled as the result of trying to change a system that is too intransigent, and that includes backbiting by teachers and their union. But Joel Klein, the corporate version of Duncan in NYC, is uncritically quoted as endorsing Duncan's policies.

The author is probably an honest guy who knows nothing about education, who tried to achieve balance but doesnâ't understand how craven his sources are, and who accepts and promulgates the ruling class wisdom (the beltway blather) that the real reform measures suggested by Ravitch are "too expensive."

Ohanian Comment: I put this very brief excerpt from the February 1, 2010 New Yorker Profile of Arne Duncan in Notable Quotes, on this site, but then I read the whole article. The New Yorker is releasing the article only in a jpg version, which is nearly impossible to read and certainly impossible to post here. But I'll type in a bit of it.

"Republicans who otherwise have little use for the Obama Administration's policies approve of Duncan's commitment to market-based reforms. John Kline, of Minnesota, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, told me, 'In many ways, it's a Republican agenda.' "

Carlo Rotella, Profile, New Yorker, Feb. 1, 2010

One could hope from such a quote that the Profile itself might be a real deconstruction of Duncan's role in education policy. Alas, I now have the magazine in hand, and the article is a disappointment.

Carlo Rotella is a good writer, and he makes an attempt to be even-handed but one can wonder who lined up his sources. When you divide education into free-market reformers, who believe that competition, choice, and incentives must have a greater part in education; and liberal traditionalists who rally around teachers' unions and education schools, where does that leave the teacher and the parent, not to mention the student? As evidenced by the Marilyn Stewart quote, teachers unions do not represent teachers: teachers unions represent the power elite of teachers unions. And education schools, so noticeable silent about NCLB and Race to the Top, represent education schools and the extra dollars available for consulting, professional development, and so on.

Marilyn Stewart, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, praised Duncan for his willingness to work with her, but she bridled at his eagerness to close schools. "There were a lot of things done to make a sound bite," she said. "You have one chance to get it"--a child's education--"right, and sometimes they rushed."

We get yet one more version of a union leader happy to supposedly have a seat at the table. Sometimes they rushed??? Later in the article, president of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten is quoted as saying, "Everything is on the table, as long as it's great for kids and fair to teachers." And Dennis van Roekel, president of the NEA, says that while he and Duncan may disagree on tactics, "I don't believe we'll ever disagree on fundamental goals and purposes."

Union members should stop paying their dues.

Liberal traditionalists? This isn't where I'd put myself--or Stephen Krashen, Don Perl, Alfie Kohn, Ken Libby, Jim Horn, Marion Brady, Danny Weil, Pete Farruggio, and legions of others. Far from it.

The New Yorker piece starts out with an anecdote similar to what George Schmidt, editor of Substance, the only newspaper of the education resistance, has been telling us for years: "They have to keep Arne on script." He repeats the same air-filled remarks over and over because he's been trained to stay on script.

by Carlo Rotella

Riding in a black S.U.V. to an appearance at the Andrew Jackson Language Academy, in Chicago, Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, marked up his prepared remarks in an angular left-handed scrawl. Two aides briefed him on the upcoming event and urged him to stick to the written text. Matt Yale, his deputy chief of staff, reminded him, "You can't say 'screwed.'" Duncan often says "screwed" or "lied to" when he describes what American students face--low standards, chronically underperforming schools, inequities in spending and opportunity. He also repeats the claim, sometimes several times a day, that American schooling is stuck in old ruts while that of other nations has improved. We've fallen behind, he says, but we can still regain our former preeminence in public educaiton and, while we're at it, "educate our way out of the financial crisis."

. . .

"He plays basketball with the President," Lamar Alexander, the Republican senator from Tennessee, who served as Geroge H. W. Bush's Education Secretary, told me. "If you're not in charge of anything"--no actual school systems, that is--"and you speak for the President, it matters that he's closer to the President than anybody else in the Cabinet." [emphasis added]

In the fight over education in America today, there are, roughly speaking, two major camps: free-market reformers, who believe that competition, choice, and incentives must have a greater part in education; and liberal traditionalists who rally around teachers' unions and education schools. Obama's choice of Duncan, who was the only big-city superintendent to sign both camps' manifestos during the Presidential campaign in 2008, was widely viewed as a compromise. But Duncan, who argues for linking teachers' pay to their students' performance, is firmly on the market-forces side. In Chicago, he even experimented with paying students for improving their grades. His appointment represented a defeat for the unions.

. . . .

Duncan, like his boss, is a pragmatic idealist from the South Side of Chicago. David Axelrod, who serves as the President's senior adviser--and first met Duncan when he was a thirteen-year-old hanging around the basketball courts of the University of Chicago--told me that Obama and Duncan are "in lockstep on educational issues." But the affinity goes deeper. "They come essentially from the same community," Axelrod said. "Arne came back; the President came there in his twenties. Each of them came as kind of an outsider--Arne even though he grew up there, and Obama because he came there--and both had to learn the community and earn trust."

. . . .
[ 1/1/2 pages of Duncan's association with his mother's after-school program, which, we are told, shaped his education policy.]

Duncan got along with Daley, who told me, "He doesn't have any politics, Democrat, Republican, city, suburban--he doesn't get into that nonsense. He just wants to do the job." Duncan served as C.E.O. from 2001 until 2009, a long tenure for a big-city superintendent. His record in Chicago is his main credential, a blueprint for his national agenda as Secretary of Education, and a source of continuing controversy. . . .

. . . .

How you read Duncan's record depends to some extent on what you think of his approach to reform. His signature move as C.E.O. was the turnaround: shutting down a school that has a chronic record of poor performance and reopening it with an entirely new staff. . . .
. . . .

During the course of his career, Duncan has relied on strong allies--Rogers, Vallas, Daley, Obama--to cover his political flank, allowing him to preserve his image as a practical idealist. "Now, there are people I have to trust, and others I have to be wary of," he told me. He made a face that his mother makes all the time, a downward twist of the mouth. "it's about understanding people's motivation. You learn to spot a phony a mile away. It goes back to why I visit schools. It's how I learn, trying to get a sense of who people are, what their values and motivations are. Numbers don't lie, but they don't tell the whole truth."


This secondary piece by Rotella is now on the New Yorker website. It is not the article that appears in the magazine. If you find sports to be a metaphor for something, then you find this of interest.

On the Basketball Court with Arne Duncan

Posted by Carlo Rotella

For President Obama's athletic in-crowd, pickup basketball is the new golf. Arne Duncan, whom I profiled in this week's New Yorker (subscribers only), played basketball on the playgrounds of the South Side of Chicago and for his high school team, then at Harvard and on professional teams in Australia--all before he served as C.E.O. of the Chicago public schools and then became Secretary of Education.

Despite the rustiness of my game, which wasnât much to begin with, your intrepid reporter seized the opportunity to get on the court with his subject when I followed Duncan on an official visit to our mutual hometown. (I was in the same class year as Duncan, 1982, at the University of Chicago Lab School.) He squeezed in an hour of pickup basketball at a downtown athletic club between a speech at a school and a visit to the Chicago Tribune's editorial board.

This was a weekday lunchtime game in which Duncan had often played before he moved to Washington. The pace was briskâan employee of the club ran a clock to ensure that games did not drag on too longâand the regulars knew each other's habits. The players, ranging in age from thirtyish to fiftyish, included John Rogers, the well-connected financier who graduated from the Lab school a few years ahead of Duncan and has been one of his most important political allies, and James Fleming, who was a playground star on the South Side before middle age and hard knocks slowed him down.

Duncan's team didn't look like much: a crabby beanpole, a runt who could shoot, a thick aggressive guy, and a bespectacled stranger (me). But these unimposing parts coalesced around Duncan into a quietly effective whole. Wearing shorts and a synthetic black long-sleeve T-shirt, he played with relaxed ferocity, combining opportunistic defense with slashing moves to the basket, shrewd passes, and feathery hesitation jumpers. He attended to the finer points of the game with a contagious virtue that had his teammates racing up and down the floor and passing up shots to swing the ball to the open man. We broke the other team and ran them off the floor.

Winners play again. Late in the second game, Duncan threaded the ball to me through a tangle of bodies, then darted between defenders to the basket, his gait becoming ducklike when he forced an unnatural burst of speed. He took my return pass in stride and gently laid it in, completing a pretty little throat-cutting give-and-go. I felt good about it until the end of the third game, when with a few seconds left on the clock and our team ahead by a basket I tried a similar exchange with Duncan and got too cute with my pass, allowing the other team to steal it and sink the winning three.

I could have just held the ball until the clock expired. I felt as if I'd personally let my teammates down and should make it up to them by doing a better job next time and every time after that. Then I snapped out of it. What kind of poltroon runs out the clock in a pickup game?

The prevailing sentiment in Obama's ballplaying inner circle is that on-court behavior reveals character. But, like the line attributed to the Duke of Wellington about the battle of Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton, this notion doesnât hold up. Generous souls can become monstrous ball hogs on the court, and terrible jerks will set picks, make the extra pass, and otherwise devote themselves to the greater good of the team.

It is more true, however, that the necessary negotiations and improvisations of pickup ballâand especially playground ballâdo teach lessons in practical politics. In my article, Duncan describes the period in his teens when he roved the South Side in search of the best competition: "A bunch of places where I played were extraordinarily dangerous. I couldn't fight. There were times when I was really scared, but that's where the best basketball was." So, he said, "I learned to read people's character. I learned to trust certain people completely." In part of our conversation that didn't make it into the story, he went on, "There were people who I literally entrusted with my life, people who would say, 'It's okay to go there, I'll make sure youâre all right,' and there were others I had to be very, very careful of, people who wanted to hurt me. I developed a sense, to survive."

Earnest passion and skill weren't always enough to get Duncan onto the court. Getting next in a high-level game on a strange court on the South Side when you're a slow, no-jumping, pigeon-toed white guy--now there's a test of nascent political chops, especially the ability to cultivate allies. "I never got next myself," he said. "Never. Somebody always set me up. Some were kids from the neighborhood who made me a little brother and some of them were gang leaders I didn't know that well. I remember there was a guy named Cabbage. I didn't even know his real name, just Cabbage."

Once in the game, Duncan had to carve out a supporting role for himself by passing to teammates, moving without the ball on offense, and playing diligent defense, but he also had to take responsibility for his share of the scoring. "There'd be thirty guys waiting for next game; you need to win," said Duncan. If his team lost, he probably wouldn't get on the court again for hours, if at all. "When I was little, I would play whole games and not shoot. But I noticed other players would not want to shoot at 22 or 23"âgames were usually played to 24â"so I would take those shots, and it would become my role. You haven't shot all game, so you're open" because your defender has pegged you as a non-threat and judges it safe to freelance elsewhere, "and so you take the shot. Then you start doing it more. I learned to thrive on pressure."

Obviously, the pressure goes up with the stakes, which for the Secretary of Education are as high they get: billions of dollars, millions of citizensâ futures and livelihoods. A game-on-the-line sports metaphor may suggest itself here, but resist it. In trying to deliver on a policy agenda that will reveal its full consequences over years, even decades, Duncan is doing the opposite of putting up a shot that will either go in or rim out. If you want to pursue a more apt basketball analogy, follow the lead of one of Duncan's heroes: Bill Bradley, the former Princeton star, New York Knick, and senator from New Jersey.

Among the more substantive lessons taught by basketball, especially pickup ball, is the importance of striking a balance between fitting in and asserting oneself. When I talked to Bradley about Duncan, he said, "The interest groups are deeply entrenched, and they're used to getting their way, but where he will really excel is the ability to mediate and negotiate with all the competing interests. It might cut against the teachers at one point, the textbook manufacturers at another, or governors, but he can show them it's an emergency and persuade them to coöperate." In his first year as Secretary, Duncan has used the leverage afforded by economic-stimulus money, the statesâ urgent need, and his relationship to the President to recruit the support of both conservative Republican legislators and heavily Democratic teachers' unions for an ambitious agenda that includes controversial prioritiesâsuch as merit pay for teachers, or using charters to turn around chronically underperforming schools. Success may depend in part on cultivating allies, but, says Bradley, it also depends on "having a clear idea of where he wants to go that others have to react to."

Kudos to Kugler, who posted this on the New Yorker site:

News delayed is news denied.... The Skeleton in Arne Duncan's Closet US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appears to have a noisy one dating from his years running the Chicago Public Schools. Her name is Carol J. Spizzirri. A little background. Spizzirri is a convicted shoplifter. According to a sworn affidavit by her ex-husband, a court ordered psychological evaluation diagnosed her as a paranoid schizophrenic and pathological liar. Spizzirri said SALF trained 67,000 Chicago Public School (CPS) children in first aid the year before and that the training was free to the children. In fact, records show that CPS paid the foundation a considerable amount. invoices, totaling $49,000, were processed and signed off by CEO Arne Duncan's office. One includes this handwritten notation: "per AD per Ann Whalen 9-14-05." Whalen was Duncan's personal assistant. She now works for him in Washington. Why did CPS pay SALF over $60,000 for a "free" program? What happened to the more than $1,000,000 SALF received from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for one year (there were other CDC contracts)? What about the millions SALF received from Illinois taxpayers? In the case of the Illinois State Board of Education, it's a guessing game. ISBE's complete records consist of a form showing a disbursement of $600,000 to SALF â no application, no review, no evaluation, no nothin'. Federal Case Number is 09-cv-07599


— Carlo Rotella, with comment by Pete Farruggio
New Yorker




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