Blog: The Educated Reporter

Guest Post: Arne Duncan’s Kick-Off Keynote at EWA’s 66th National Seminar

EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University, took place earlier this month. We asked some of the journalists attending to contribute posts from the sessions. Additional content, including videos and podcasts, will soon be available at EdMedia Commons.Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of posts here, including those from the keynote sessions.

Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post is today’s guest blogger.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a man of many words, armed with well-rehearsed phrases to spell out his agenda. At the Education Writers Association May 1 lunch in California, Duncan brought out his greatest hits – while throwing new material into the mix.

First, the new:

The day before his EWA engagement in Palo Alto, Duncan spoke at the NewSchools Venture Fund summit in nearby Burlingame. There, he delivered a sharp critique of the lack of diversity among the education reform crowd. He chided “lily-white CEOs” for “posing with black and brown” students while their management teams are usually all or mostly white. That reality, he said, can limit the ultimate goal of education reform efforts: to level the playing field. If kids don’t see role models whose faces reflect their own, Duncan said, why should they be motivated to pay attention in school and pay for college?

When asked to elaborate on this sentiment at EWA, Duncan spared no mercy. “Everybody wants to be listened to, [but] you disenfranchise communities when you don’t listen to parents,” he said. “You can put a limit on how far students can go.” Duncan went on to sharply criticize education schools; pointing to insufficient diversity among teachers, he threw blame on institutions responsible for educating them. “Schools of education show little interest in increasing that diversity,” the education secretary argued.

Duncan also left open the possibility of further investigation into charges of cheating in Washington, D.C’s public schools. Veteran PBS reporter John Merrow – who has raised questions about former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s response to allegations that educators there changed student test responses – wanted to know if Duncan still supports her. Duncan didn’t give a clear answer, turning the conversation instead to cheating in Atlanta and Chicago. The Atlanta cheating case, he said, was about leadership. When he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he said, “We had to let go a number of teachers.” If any city is “turning a blind eye to things that are illegal and immoral, that’s unacceptable,” he said. D.C., he noted, has been investigated for cheating repeatedly. Should it be investigated further? “I don’t know,” he said.

Now, from Duncan’s greatest hits:

· What education candidates? Duncan has long been interested in raising the profile of education as a voting issue. Naturally, he expressed this to a room of reporters. “It’s amazing to me how … everybody is pro education. Nobody’s running on an anti-education platform. The real question is what do they do,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a … public conversation on what do they do. … Hold all of us accountable.”

· Boosting our littlest learners: Over the last few months, we’ve seen the Obama administration unveil a proposal to dramatically increase the number of “high-quality” preschool slots for 4-year-olds. While this pitch is widely believed to be dead on arrival given that it depends on an increased tobacco tax, Duncan is still stumping for it. “We don’t take lightly an ask for $75 billion,” he said. “We still think it’s one of the best investments we can make.”

And in anticipation of a common critique of Head Start – that there’s “fadeout” of its positive effects in later grades – Duncan questioned the evaluation that produced that data point. “It’s a fair question to talk about fadeout … but to evaluate a program based on 20 percent of people who didn’t attend,” Duncan said, seemed misleading. He also said it doesn’t take into account the benefits of the “non-cognitive side of early childhood.”

When a reporter noted the plan’s diminished prospects for passage, Duncan acknowledged that reality. “I’m not naive or anything,” he said. “Yes Congress is dysfunctional, we all know that. [But] 27 governors talked about early education” in their State of the State speeches. “If we have ministers and moms talking about this,” Duncan said, that might push the issue over the edge. “I’m not pretending it’s going to be easy, but it’s something I’m going to put a lot of time and energy into.”

· Teacher Effectiveness: The cornerstone of the Obama administration’s education efforts in its first term was a focus on changing the teaching profession – in particular, incentivizing “rigorous” teacher evaluations. Duncan said that professional development for teachers is in a sorry state, and when he tells teachers how much federal money is spent on those efforts, “they usually laugh or cry. They are not feeling it.” Duncan said he is casting about for “better ways to measure what are we doing to obtain that great talent.”

School Violence: Duncan called the preponderance of school shootings around the country “absolutely stunning and unacceptable.” Beyond the physical injuries, he said, students are left to cope with the psychological ramifications of having their friends or family touched by gun violence. “One high school in Chicago has had two dozen kids shot,” he said. “Is there a high school in Iraq or Afghanistan that has had two dozen kids shot?” Lawmakers who didn’t cast a vote in favor of the gun control bill, he said, showed “dumbed down courage.”