Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Arne Duncan's Folly

Taking a short break from my usual topic of historical fiction to blog about something I touched on a couple months ago: the Obama administration's approach to education reform, a topic that should concern any American writer. I decided to write about this after listening to Education Secretary Arne Duncan on NPR's Talk of the Nation radio show yesterday. Let's just say that it's depressing that this administration--which nearly let crucial health care reform legislation go down to defeat, and finally had to water down the reform legislation that did pass, because for months it stood passively by and let a Republican minority dominate and control (and distort) the public discussion--talk about education as if they are Republicans. Republicans are famous for assuming the worst about educators and our education system, for starting from the standpoint that it's all bad, and for questioning, underfunding, and attempting to undermine every federal education initiative no matter how promising or successful. That essentially was the tenor of Duncan's remarks yesterday on NPR. Duncan, by the way, is not an educator, having never actually stood in a classroom and taught students. This is another aspect of the American education debate that bothers me. How is it that non-professionals in the field feel they have the right to criticize and dictate to people who have worked in the field for years? In what other industry would this be permitted? Can you imagine an oil company being run by executives who have never worked in the oil industry before? Can you imagine auto manufacturers or computer software designers or giant retail companies being ordered around by people who have no inside knowledge of making cares, creating software, or selling clothes? Of course not. Such a situation would not be tolerated. Yet in education everybody assumes that they have all the answers, that they know what the real problems are--even if their last experience in a classroom was 25 years ago when they were seniors in high school. And unfortunately, as so often in life, those who are most convinced they know it all usually know the least.

And this gets me back to Arne Duncan. The man doesn't even realize the details of the very proposals he is pushing. Compete, compete, compete, Duncan says. Instead of funding existing programs that deserve it, we're simply going to create a big pile of money and individual states will compete for that money to fund the programs that they want to support. Putting aside the fact that this is utterly and completely a Republican approach to education coming from a Democratic administration (I never expected to get a repeat and exaggeration of George Bush's educational approach from the Obama administration), Duncan's argument that all the programs that currently work will be rewarded under his system is factually incorrect. A number of federal financed programs with a national infrastructure--the National Writing Project, Reading is Fundamental, Teach for America--cannot exist if it is left up to individual states to try to get money. How will a national infrastrcuture survive if some states are rewarded with money and others not, and when even the states who receive the money may not care to support local writing projects? But here's the thing. Such a scenario is not only impractical; it's illegal. I know something about the National Writing Project, because my wife has played a role in it for over ten years. And it's a simple fact that it is illegal for a national organization to compete for funding that is intended to go to states. Under federal law, they are forbidden from doing so. How come the Secretary of Education does not know this? How come he didn't find out before putting together and arguing vociferously for a proposal that would pit the National Writing Project and other federal education programs against state programs? A very valuable program that has for thirty years encouraged and shown K-12 teachers how to better use writing in their classrooms--no matter what subject they teach--is about to go under, and the Education Sectretary doesn't seem to realize that this outcome is due to his own misguided proposals.

I'm a writing teacher and I hear all the time about "How kids can't write these days." Well, some can and some can't. But if we're concerned about getting our students to write better, it doesn't make sense to allow a program to die that has been working hard and effectively for 30 + years to realize that desired end. And if anyone cares to find out exactly how successful the National Writing Project has been--and what a loss the death of this program would be--you should head to their web site (click on the above link) to find out.

No matter what we do, let's not let misinformed and arrogantly powerful Republicans-in-the-guise-of-Democrats undercut valuable educational initiatives. When Mr. Obama was elected, the very last thing I thought I would have to do is write that his administration does not know what it's doing in regards to education. Because Mr. Obama is a man who has drawn so much benefit from his own education, and he is man who clearly cares about the subject dearly. But appointing Arne Duncan was a mistake, one that becomes more aggravating and more apparent every day.

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