Privatization, Charters & High-Stakes Tests: Arne Duncan’s Education Legacy

Yves here. The remaking of public education continue, and not in a good way. A Real News Network interview helps keep tab on this struggle over America’s future.

AISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: On Friday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his resignation. President Obama has appointed his successor, John B. King. Duncan became one of the longest-serving education secretaries in history, advancing controversial policies like increasing standardized testing, expanding publicly-run and often privately-managed charter schools, and linking teacher pay to student test scores. President Obama praised his tenure at a press conference on Friday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than 30 states have upped their investment in early childhood education. Nearly every state in America has raised standards for teaching and learning, and expectations for what our kids can learn. And our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. We’ve helped millions more families afford college, and more Americans are graduating from college than ever before.

NOOR: Now joining us to discuss Arne Duncan’s legacy as well as his replacement Deputy Secretary of Education John B. King are two guests. In a moment we’ll hear from Jose Luis Vilson, an author and New York public school teacher, but first we go to Chicago, Arne Duncan’s hometown, where he served as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools prior to serving as education secretary. We’re joined by Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies and the director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois Chicago. Thanks so much for joining us again, Pauline.

PAULINE LIPMAN: Thanks for inviting me.

NOOR: So Pauline, in Chicago you had direct experience with Arne Duncan. And then President Obama took him to the White House with him when he became president, and he advanced similar policies across the nation. Talk about what his legacy has been.

LIPMAN: Well you know, it’s interesting. When Duncan left Chicago and went to Washington, the first thing he did as Secretary of Education was fly to Detroit and tell that cash-strapped city that there would be an infusion of federal funds for education, but only if they followed the Chicago model. And it’s really the Chicago model that Duncan has expanded as a national education agenda.

And the main features of that are really the ones that you talked about. Increased testing, expansion of charter schools through the Race To The Top initiative, paying teachers based on student test scores. And in general shifting education more and more towards business methods, business people in charge of education, creating more influence for corporate think tanks, neoliberal think tanks, venture philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation in the national education agenda. And shifting public education increasingly toward preparing students for corporate workforce needs rather than a broad public education.

So really, if we look at Duncan’s legacy, we can see that he has presided over a further dismantling of public education in the U.S. And also, I think we have to look at some of the claims for the successes under Duncan.

NOOR: Well, exactly. Because, Pauline, so supporters would say graduation rates have increased, test scores have increased. How do you respond to those claims?

LIPMAN: Right. Well, actually, if we, if we look at it, it’s true that test scores have gone up, nationally. But as we know, first of all, if we focus education around preparing kids for tests, it’s likely the test scores will go up. So test scores are just one measure of the quality of education. What I’m more concerned about are the equity questions.

So in Chicago for example, which has followed the Duncan policies beginning in the, you know, for the last 10, 15 years now, what we see is that even though test scores have gone up and graduation rates have gone up, and dropout rates have gone down, that the racial gaps have actually increased. So what we’ve seen is the closing of over 100 schools in several cities, and over 25 schools in many cities in the U.S., and the privatization of those schools. Turning them over to charter school operators. And this has been devastating to low-income communities of color around the country.

So I think when we measure Duncan against the broad goals of education and the devaluing of teaching, and the introduction of competition and markets into education and the increase in inequities, his legacy is not one that really he should be proud of.

NOOR: Pauline Lipman, thanks so much for joining us.

LIPMAN: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: We now turn to Arne Duncan’s successor, John King, who also spoke at the press conference Friday.

JOHN B. KING: In that speech Arne said education can be the difference between life and death. And I know that’s true, because it was for me. I grew up in Brooklyn. I lost my mom when I was eight, my dad when I was twelve. My dad was very sick before he passed. I moved around between family members and schools. But teachers, New York City public school teachers, are the reason that I am alive. They are the reason that I became a teacher. They are the reason I am standing here today. Those teachers created amazing educational experiences, but also gave me hope. Hope about what is possible, what could be possible for me in life. I know schools can’t do it alone, there’s work we have to do on economic development and housing and healthcare.

NOOR: Now joining us to discuss John King is Jose Luis Vilson. He’s a math educator, blogger, speaker and activist in New York, author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOSE LUIS VILSON: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: So we just heard John King talk about how educators in New York, he grew up in Brooklyn, were essential to his success. At the press conference he also praised the policies of Arne Duncan, and we know–as we know, he advanced charter schools, standardized testing. The same things that John King did in New York. Talk about what his legacy is there.

VILSON: Well as we know, if we think about analogies, President Obama to Arne Duncan is what Andrew Cuomo was to John King. In a way they were the go-to people–.

NOOR: And you’re talking about the governor of New York.

VILSON: Yes, I’m talking about Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, decided that he would follow the same plan that Obama did. Two Democrats who have gone hand-in-hand as far as education policy is concerned, with hedge fund billionaires, if you will. So all of the different policies that we see there, whether it be the over standardized testing, the reliance on test scores, [inaud.] teachers, and just the general mismanagement, I believe, of public schools in the way of trying to disenfranchise public schools, is a large part of the legacy of John King.

NOOR: And so during his tenure–and I was in New York for part of this period–there was an unprecedented protest against the increase of high-stakes standardized testing. John King actually received a no-confidence vote last year because of his policies. What’s your response to President Obama choosing this figure? And even the New York State Teachers’ Union condemned Obama’s move, and we know how close teachers’ unions have been to the Democratic party.

VILSON: Well, as we know, there is really no Democratic versus Republican party when it comes to education. It really is about pro-current education reform versus those who are against the education reform that we have now. And so a lot of that is mired with a supposed [line] between what a liberal is versus what a conservative is. And unfortunately that has been blurred in the last 15, 20 years thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. And so what we see with Andrew Cuomo and John King, especially, is that they’re willing to pick some of the things that used to be a truly conservative neocon alliance, like charterization of public schools, and a lot of accountability measures for everyone involved, and take them as Democratic lines.

And so I wonder if a lot of the strategy for Obama was to take someone who’s been in high-press situations, someone who’s been at the, at the head of many, many protests, and put them in a situation that’s more national so they can continue on with some of the things that are happening already.

NOOR: So many people aren’t expecting a big difference from the policies of Arne Duncan to now John King. But what’s often missed is just how these policies, these abstract things, actually affect classroom conditions. You’re talking to us from a classroom right now. Can you, can you talk about this? What impact does it have on students and on teachers?

VILSON: Well, recently it has been a bit of a change of tone from Arne Duncan, which I am not fully–I would like to see more before I give my full confidence vote on it. I see how John King may be a successor that can talk about things like cutting down the school-to-prison pipeline, bringing out suspensions, and just generally trying to bring, restorative practices to the classrooms. But having said that, you can’t have a legacy where you’ve been at the head of, you know, shutting down [mass] schools. You can’t be the head of, someone who’s been part of all this testing and bringing in a whole lot of different weird measures for how we evaluate schools and classrooms, and then at the same time say oh, we’re going to become more restorative, we’re going to become more thoughtful about the things we do. And then out of the classroom.

So as a classroom teacher, I am still under the burden of all these different numbers that I’m not even fully understanding. And I’m a math teacher, so that does have some sort of irony. But you know, it’s hard for me to determine how I’m going to be evaluated. And I often wonder if trying to be more constructivist about the way that I do my pedagogy is in direct conflict with achieving high test scores, or whatever achievement may be. Or whether I should even attempt to do the whole high-achieving test scores because as it turns out, you know, I really don’t care that much about testing. I prefer that kids actually learn something. And I don’t really see that much of a connection between achievements and learning.

NOOR: All right. We want to thank you so much for joining us.

VILSON: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: And for our viewers, thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Inverness

    I can really identify with the teacher from the video’s dillemma: “Should I practice solid pedagogy, or teach to the test?” I was troubled by these questions as a teacher in the New York City Department of Education. I chose to teach minimally to the Regents exam, because the Regents is a pretty awful test, primarily because of the multiple choice section. However, my real tests were essay and short-answer based, so students would have to demonstrate actual learning, rather than the memorization of test questions from an online data base. Thankfully, I was never caught doing this, I did it on the sly, and word didn’t get out. However, I should add that I taught in a school for gifted kids, so since the kids passed the state exams anyway, I could get away with a BIT more.

    By not focusing so much on state tests, students had time to write research papers, work on projects, have class debates, and even go to museums. When you’re drilling questions ad-nauseum, you don’t have as much time for real learning activities, and students start to hate history. The same applies to their other subjects!

    It isn’t so easy for most urban teachers to simply decide to come up with more authentic learning activities and tests, because most teachers work in underprivileged schools where student failure rates on state regents exams are very high, so the pressure to teach to the test is far greater. Also, your value as a teacher is LITERALLY tied to those test results! No wonder there have been so many cheating scandals, where teachers and administrators have been caught changing student answers so their schools won’t get shut down and they wouldn’t lose their jobs.

    1. Steven D.

      I didn’t think Obama could find someone worse than Duncan, but showed again he’s not to be underestimated. It also figures he went to the loathsome Andrew Cuomo for his education secretary.

      Michael Hudson put Duncan in great context as just one aspect of Obama’s neoliberal plan. Just because Obama is smooth in comparison to Cuomo’s boorishness doesn’t mean he’s not loathsome, also.

  2. flora

    Foisting high-stakes testing onto the public schools is very like pushing high debt onto home buyers or college students. The goal isn’t to improve the public school education or the financial well being of home buyers or college students. Quite the reverse.

    1. Steven D.

      It’s the shock doctrine. Wreck the public schools so the hedge fund vultures can swoop in and pick up the pieces.

      Just like the goal with student and homeowner debt isn’t to help them but to lock them into loans they will never repay. This creates a nice continuous income stream for the lenders.

      1. Inverness

        Charters are also a way of breaking unions. Many charters aren’t unionized, and favour the hiring of young teachers who are willing to work extremely long hours for less pay.

  3. Kokuanani

    I continue to be dumbstruck at my friends (including one family member) who view Obama favorably.

    OTOH, they are younger than I, so presumably will live longer under his “legacy.” Perhaps someday they’ll learn.

    1. tongorad

      Political affiliation in the states is about identity and little else. Try talking to an Obama supporter about policy or power.

  4. equote

    US secondary immortalized in song

    When I think back on all the crap I’ve learned in high school
    It’s a wonder I can think at all …
    Paul Simon (fm Kodachrome)

  5. Chauncey Gardiner

    Volunteered at a public elementary school in a nearby exurb last year. Watched first hand the amount of computer and network resources, teacher and student time, and the stress being placed on both in “teaching to the test” through “practice tests”, etc.

    Even if one totally buys into computer-based testing as the sole basis for measuring student and teacher performance and potential (which I do not), it is important to point out that various school districts around the state (and even different classes within schools) have varying levels of access to resources ahead of the tests. I suspect this relates in large part to the relative economic affluence of various school districts around the state.

    In my own experience, the computer network was frequently down. When it was up, the amount of time that test-preparation resources were allocated to various classrooms varied significantly. It is my view that among many other major drawbacks to this process, these tests are being gamed, test results are being misused, and test results are far from being the “objective metrics” portrayed by their proponents. This entire process merits broad and deep public review. Surely we can do better for our kids.

    1. Kris Alman

      Has King been a shill for EdTech too?

      Getting Smart®, led by Tom VanderArk who is “passionate about accelerating and amplifying innovations in teaching and learning.” VanderArk is the former Executive Director of Education for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

      Getting Smart® seems to think King will move away from standards to personalized education. Presumably with the gates (pun intended) wide open through more charter school expansion?
      October 7, 2015
      By Getting Smart Staff
      EdTech 10

      With Arne Duncan stepping down in December we’re witnessing the end of the active fed and a quarter century of national standards-based reform. Rather than an EdPolicy frame, we think the next two decades will be a sorting out of personalized and learner-centered driven more by teacher leaders and EdTech entrepreneurs–and there’s lots of evidence for that hypothesis in this week’s news.

  6. Bobby Dale Bailey

    High Stakes is finding and keeping gainful, satisfying employment upon completing education.
    Nationally our education system, with few exceptions, is failing students and their families miserably.
    It seems their is a need to try different approaches to find what works; a national system WILL NOT work, as the education needs of rural North Dakota or the Delta,for example, are vastly different from those of New York or San Francisco.
    There is a tremendous need for ALL stakeholders to evaluate their participation and work toward the needs of the students, not the politicians, financiers of education, think bond sales, the teachers and their unions and ultimately the parents and students.
    Blaming the President, or his cabinet for the failures of individual schools is ridiculous. The only means the U.S. Department of Education has to influence education on a local level is withholding incremental funding from those who do not go along with centralized ideas generated by think tanks (cronies).

Comments are closed.