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NCLB Outrages

Is Arne Duncan Really Margaret Spellings in Drag?

NOTE: Diane Ravitch and
Deborah Meier engage in conversations about
important education issues on Education
blog. Their conversations are always
worth thinking about, especially as Diane
becomes increasingly caustic about education
policy spewing forth from the Washington D.

by Diane Ravitch

Dear Deborah,

I have been watching and listening to our new
secretary of education, trying to understand
his views on the most important issues facing
our schools and the nation's children. I wanted
to believe candidate Barack Obama when he said
that he would introduce real change and restore
hope. Surely, I thought, he understood that the
deadening influence of No Child Left Behind has
produced an era of number-crunching that has
very little to do with improving education or
raising academic standards.

We truly need change and hope. I thought he
understood. He chose to keep his own children
far from NCLB. He decided to send them to a
private school in Washington, D.C., that shuns
the principles and practices of NCLB.

However, based on what I have seen to date, I
conclude that Obama has given President George
W. Bush a third term in education policy and
that Arne Duncan is the male version of
Margaret Spellings. Maybe he really is Margaret
Spellings without the glasses and wearing very
high heels. We all know that Secretary
Spellings greeted Duncan's appointment with
glee. She wrote him an open letter in which she
praised him as "a fellow reformer" who supports
NCLB and anticipated that he would continue the
work of the Bush administration. (Recall,
Deborah, that the media today defines an
education reformer as someone who endorses
Republican principles of choice and

Everything I have seen and learned since Duncan
came to office has supported Secretary
Spellings' admiring comments about Secretary
Duncan. It turns out that Duncan, like the Bush
administration, adores testing, charter
schools, merit pay, and entrepreneurs. Part of
the stimulus money, he told Sam Dillon of The
New York Times, will be used so that states can
develop data systems, which will enable them to
tie individual student test scores to
individual teachers, greasing the way for merit
pay. Another part of the stimulus plan will
support charters and entrepreneurs.

Duncan paid his first visit to New York City
last week ("New Education Secretary Visits
Brooklyn School," New York Times, Feb. 19,
2009). He did not visit a regular public
school, but a charter school. Such decisions
are not happenstance; they are intended to send
a message. Bear in mind that the regular public
schools enroll 98 percent of the city's one-
million-plus students.

At the charter school, Duncan endorsed the core
principles of the Bush education program.
According to the account in the Times,
Secretary Duncan said that "increasing the use
of testing across the country should also be a
spending priority." And he made this
astonishing statement: "We should be able to
look every second grader in the eye and say,
'You're on track, you're going to be able to go
to a good college, or you're not...Right now,
in too many states, quite frankly, we lie to
children. We lie to them and we lie to their

Wow! More testing is needed. In New York City
right now, students take a dozen tests a year.
How many more should they take? How much of the
stimulus package will be used to promote more
testing across the country?

Are we lying to children? Deborah, you were
principal of an elementary school. Could you
look second-graders in the eye and tell them
that they were on track to go to a good college
—or not? Did you know? Did you lie and say that
they were when they were not?

Doesn't this inflated and grandiose rhetoric
grate on your sensibilities? Are teachers
"lying" to children and their families right
now when they can't project whether second-
graders are on track to go to a good college?
Isn't this claim—that we know which 7-year-olds
will go to a good college and which will not—a
baldfaced lie?

I am sorely disappointed in Arne Duncan. I
don't see any change from the mean, punitive
version of accountability that the Bush
administration foisted on the nation's schools.


Education Week blog


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