Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Duncan and Obama: Airballs

Publication Date: 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.

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.