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Duncan and Obama: Airballs

Posted: 2009-03-06

from Huffington Post, March 5, 2009.

My only 'quarrel,' is the claim that Obama was
issuing "wonderful oratory on education" before
the election. Not so. I've been issuing warnings
for several years about his allegiance to
standardized tests and merit pay. That said, this
commentary is on target.

They might have great jump shots, but on

education they're both tossing air balls. While

both have visited charter schools, neither has

entered a regular public school. Their oratory

has been uninspiring and sometimes downright


At the New York City charter school that Duncan

visited, he said, "We're not just facing an

economic crisis here in America. I'm absolutely

convinced we are facing an educational crisis as

well." Uh oh, here we go again. We had an

education crisis in 1957 (Sputnik), another one

in 1967 (ghetto riots--schools took the hit),

1977 (On Further Examination), 1983 (A Nation at

Risk), 1998 (international comparisons in math

and science) and yet another one in 2002 when

George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind


How did we ever survive? Much less, thrive?

Recall that shortly after that education crisis

in 1983, the country experienced soaring

productivity and the longest economic expansion

in the nation's history. In 1994, in the midst of

that expansion, school critic and then IBM CEO,

Lou Gerstner, announced on the op-ed page of the

New York Times, "Our schools are failing."

How did all those lousy schools generate all that

economic gain? Well, it turns out that there is

precious little link between test scores and the

economy. High-scoring Iceland is an economic

basket case. High-scoring France is on strike and

even higher-scoring Japan speaks mournfully of

its "lost decade" of recession in the 1990's and

is, as of 2007, once again in recession.

Institute of Management Development ranks 55

nations on global competitiveness. The U. S. is

number one. The World Economic Forum ranks 135

nations on global competitiveness. The U. S. is

number one Alas, both President Obama and

secretary Duncan seem to have bought into the

long-standing--but wrong--assumption that high

test scores equals a healthy economy.

Maybe that's why Duncan told the charter school

the stimulus should spend more money on more

testing. More money on more testing?!?! No wonder

former George H. W. Bush assistant secretary of

education, Diane Ravitch, called Duncan Margaret

Spellings in drag.

Obama's speech observed, "three quarters of the

fastest-growing occupations require more than a

high school diploma...." What it didn't observe

is that those occupations produce very few jobs.

For every systems engineer a computer firm needs

(and we have three newly-minted, home-grown

scientists and engineers for each new job), Wal-

Mart puts about 15 sales people on the floor.

Sales people, hamburger flippers, janitors,

maids, waiters--those are the jobs that people

find. Given what these jobs pay, they often they

find more than one so they can feed their own


Of course, that "more than a high school diploma"

is a meaningless weasel-phrase usually tossed

around to scare everyone into thinking that

everyone needs a college degree. The Bureau of

Labor Statistics reports that overwhelmingly, the

great majority of jobs need--and will need in the

future--only a high school diploma and short-term

(one week to three months) on-the-job training.

Obama told Congress and the nation, "We have one

of the highest high school dropout rates of any

industrialized nation, and half of our students

who begin college never finish." Where did this

dropout rate statistic come from? Secondary

school programs in other nations last from just

two years to more than five. Kids in other

countries are tracked into different kinds of

schools--vocational, technical, pre-college. How

can "dropout rates" be compared?

Less than half finish college? Tell that to the

dean of admissions at Stanford or even the two

oldest public schools in my home state, the

College of William & Mary and the University of

Virginia. Where you find low completion rates is

at community colleges. One reason is that, even

with the low tuitions, many students have to work

too many hours at paying jobs to earn the

requisite number of credits for a degree.

Community colleges were conceived as a tryout: Do

you think you want to stay in an academic setting

for a while longer? You'd expect some people to

decide, "No."

Candidate Obama's gave us wonderful oratory on

education sounded--supportive and humane. Now it

sounds more like a third term for George W. Bush

along with Margaret Spellings in low heels. We

deserve better.

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