Arne Duncan’s History Lesson to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT): Elevating the Teaching Profession?

One teachers response: Part 1

As a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), I just received the newest edition of the American Educator, Winter 2009-2010, Volume 33, #4). As I fingered through the pages and perused the educational landscape of the magazine, I was not surprised to find a three-page article by Education Secretary Arne Duncan addressed to readers of the American Educator, generally members of AFT. Nor was I surprised to read the well scripted double-speak, the mendacious half-truths, the bad faith efforts at distorting and revising the history of education, the destructive allusions to Race to the Top, (Duncan/Obama’s brainchild for ‘curing what is wrong’ with American education) and the sycophantic and perfidious appeals to teachers and educational workers as professionals.

Stated plain and simple: Arne Duncan and his voracious privatization policies are a deep cause of concern to anybody interested in generational mobility, morality, education and social concerns. His harsh zero tolerance only policies in Chicago were horrendous, if not criminal. The number of school expulsions in Chicago where Duncan ruled for seven years went from 32 in 1995 to 3,000 in the school-year 2003-2004.1 In other words they skyrocketed under Duncan’s leadership.

Duncan is part and parcel of the neo-liberal educational policies of fear, repression and punishment and this is reflected both in his tenure as Superintendent of Schools in Chicago as well as the policies he promotes today. His support for zero-tolerance policies, data driven education, merit or incentive pay for teachers, standardized testing, charter schools and the diminishment if not the destruction of teacher unions is cause for immediate social movements for citizens to struggle for real values in social and educational institutions: solidarity, diversity appreciation, equity in educational opportunities and participation in the day to day decisions that govern our working lives.

In light of this, it is important to devote a bit of time to spot Duncan’s tail dragging rhetoric, quote it and then put it into historical perspective, a job Duncan seems to want to take quasi-seriously but with callous disregard for grounding our current educational reality within actual historical and material conditions under capitalism. What Arne Duncan prefers is revisionist history and this is useful to those in power for they can often count on those who raise families and work for a living not to have a detailed historical understanding necessary to spot erroneous public policy claims. With TV and corporate media devoted to celebrities and shallow commercial coverage of political and economic issues, those in power more than often get away with skillfully manipulating the public. Due to the lack of diverse voices and dissent, they are able to present historical reality from their myopic and self-serving perspectives as if their analysis was truth to be built on, when in fact it is an assemblage of rusty facts and pernicious assumptions cobbled together to present a counterfeit historical and contemporary reality they can then sell to the public while conjuring up solutions in the form of their own market driven ideological agendas. In the case of the Department of Education and its Secretary Arne Duncan, the solutions put forth are definitely corporate based solutions, fundamentalist market based elucidations for a growing educational and social malaise based on fundamentalist capitalist and free-enterprise answers to what supposedly ails education and society.

Arne Duncan does AFT

The Arne Duncan article in the American Educator, a quarterly magazine put out by the American Federation of Teachers, begins with a long historical glimpse back to a time in 1958 when then Senator, John F. Kennedy penned a piece for the National Educators of America (NEA) journal. Better teachers are needed was the platform for the piece Kennedy penned. He also called on the educational community to provide better rewards for these enhanced teachers. Kennedy went on to state that the profession must make more appropriate use of probationary periods for teachers in an effort to retain only those teachers with satisfactory performance.

In his article, Duncan uses and draws on Kennedy’s piece in the NEA journal in a comparative attempt to create metaphors for his own self-serving analysis and educational call to action. There is the metaphor of the liberal Kennedy and the liberal Obama; the metaphor of a country in division but with strong bold leadership; and the metaphor of Camelot confronting the modernist need to reform education. Furthermore, Duncan will go on to use these comparisons in a vocal call for intrepid action in educational reform; but not until he flashes us forward 25 years later, to 1983 with a reference to Albert Shanker, then president of AFT.

Arne is clever, and this won’t be the first time in the article in American Educator that he resurrects the memory of the former and now deceased, AFT president. He’ll open Shanker’s coffin quite a few times in the article, as we shall see, in an obvious attempt to obsequiously try to smuggle his anti-teacher message into the hearts and minds of unionized educational workers over the corpse of the deceased union leader. Duncan resuscitates Shanker in an appeal to unionized teachers to ‘prove’ that in 1983 and 1984 teachers and their leaders, such as AFT president Shanker, themselves re-echoed the call to arms made by JFK in the late 1950’s. In other words, this controversy is hardly over, according to Duncan and the great teacher plagues of the past are now the dusty ghosts in the cellar of the present and future. Arne feels he is in good company.

Of course what Arne doesn’t mention is that the top US marginal tax rate for those making over $400,000 per year was 90% in 1958; by 2003 it had fallen to 35%.2 . In 1958, 39% of private sector employees were unionized. The numbers have been falling steadily since 1960; in 2006 only 7.4% of private sector workers were unionized and the figure is less now.3 With the drop in unionization and the decrease in corporate taxes to levels below that of a middle class worker coupled with massive social cuts, we’ve seen a great inequality created. But there is no mention by Duncan of the destruction of the so-called social contract that lasted up until the 1970’s.

Ironically, in 1958, Soviet researcher and author, I. Mikuson found that in the United States:

for the nine months from September 1957 to May 1958, the number of totally unemployed persons, according to official figures, grew from 2,500,000 to 4,900,000—in other words, nearly doubled. During the entire post-war period the United States has never experienced such widespread unemployment.4

He concluded then, along with many leaders in the US, that the only way out of the problem of too much redundant labor was the arms race and the transformation of the cold war into a hot one.4 Today with unemployment figures currently hovering over an official figure of 11%5 and a whopping 50% in Detroit alone, the back door draft and multiple wars the US is engaged in is understandable as one of the last vestiges for “three hots and a cot” throw away society — a society that is seeing more and more disposable human beings.6

Then there is the little matter of the “post racial society” where black unemployment is double the rate of white unemployment. Don’t expect Arne Duncan to tell you any of this either. For Duncan, education is wholly separate from any notions of the brutal implications of a racist, capitalist economy, unless of course it is to work to assure the permanence of such a society through educational policies of containment. For Duncan and his hyperventilating investor class, this is indeed is the role of education — to maintain Empire.

Duncan as the purveyor of revisionist history

To begin with, then Senator John F. Kennedy’s address to the NEA, in their journal in 1958, was not an attempt to push merit pay for teachers and tie their salaries to student test scores, as Duncan would have us to believe. Not at all; Kennedy was calling for better pay for better teachers and an uplifting of the profession in the spirit of the New Deal, something Duncan is doing but in the spirit of market fundamentalism through salary based pay incentives. This is the material reality of neo-liberal economics and the role of government and the successful attempts by the conservatives to repeal the New Deal policies of the past. Far from Kennedy’s exhortation to professionalize teaching, Duncan instead seems to be involved in contrarian calls: panoptical surveillance of teachers and students through longitudinal computerized data systems linked to standardized tests; the extension of the school year which (although a good idea), under his proposals would mean educational workers would work more for less pay; the destruction of seniority rights and tenure; incentivized merit pay linked to performance tied to student test results; the death of collective bargaining and inevitably teacher unions; and better teachers through corporate run, market based teacher preparation classes tied to market based curriculum and capitalist values. These are all the pernicious aspects of his Race to the Top federal venture fund that seeks to obliterate the teachers’ union and collective bargaining by extorting states to redesign their educational systems autocratically. It is important to pay attention to the year 1983 which Duncan references in his piece, for it was during this year A Nation at Risk was published.

A Nation at Risk

In 1983 the publication, A Nation at Risk, expressed dissatisfaction with schools in the United States, capitalizing on the controversies over why ‘Johnny Can’t Read’, and similar magazine and newspaper articles at the time that appeared in the corporate media. The preoccupation then was similar as it is today, but Arne Duncan seems either unaware of the similarities or he is downright perfidious in his presentation of history.

The Regan years began with market fundamentalism as its mantra and the beginning of the destruction of the New Deal policies of the past as its primary goal; in 1983 Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce dissatisfaction was being expressed regarding the performance of public schools. This was the catalyst for the development of the education privatization movement that would gain momentum in succeeding decades, advocating vouchers and charter schools and as a result would become the resting place for where we find our controversies and realities today. It is also important to take a perfunctory look at the Nation at Risk report itself for it provides an echo from the past we can hear being employed now, albeit under a more stale and comforting language, as opposed to the more virile and vitriolic attacks on public education we heard back in the early Reagan years. The report begins its introduction:

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.” The argument is keeping with the back to basic argument of the 1970’s.7

To build the case for a mediocre public school system, the NCEE turned to an analysis of Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores to make its point. The government National Center for Educational Evaluation (NCEE) pointed to the long SAT score decline from 1963 to 1980, and it also began to disparagingly compare public U.S. education to other Western school systems. Playing to a sense of pseudo-political patriotism and crass economic nationalism, A Nation at Risk pointed out that the United States would continue to be a preeminent country only so long as material benefits and great ideas remained a part of the country’s legacy and the report argued that the nation’s national security was in jeopardy as long as public schools threatened this legacy. Education was transformed once again, 25 years after the Sputnik controversy and JFK’s letter to the NEA, into a zone of fear and accusatory blame aimed at teachers and their unions. Our national security we were told was at stake. Strikingly, these calls resonate even louder today, but now under a greater canopy of fear and repression.

In June 1983 on the heels of the A Nation at Risk, another report, entitled Action for Excellence: A Comprehensive Plan to Improve our Nation’s Schools, was published by a state governors’ group called the Education Commission of the States (ECS). Often referred to as the Hunt Report, after Governor James B. Hunt of North Carolina, this report continued to repeat the notion that American schools were failing.8

The alarms didn’t stop with the Hunt Report, however. The next major statement regarding the state of public education was issued in September 1983 in a National Science Board (NSB) report. In its dramatic work Educating Americans for the 21st Century, the NSB warned that

the nation that dramatically and boldly led the world into the age of technology is failing to provide its own children with the intellectual tools needed for the 21st century. … Already the quality of our manufactured products, the viability of our trade, our leadership in research and development, our standard of living, are strongly challenged. Our children could be stragglers in a world of technology. We must not let this happen; America must not become an industrial dinosaur. We must not provide our children a 1960’s education for the 21st century world. (National Science Board 1983, 9.

The barrage of attacks on public education and the teaching profession in particular along with market exhortations as to the exigencies of ‘functionalism as education’ were once again being linked to the nation’s competitive economic readiness, or lack thereof. This fit in nicely with the new economic theory of neo-liberalism, now firmly pegged to the public stage and colonized in the American consciousness. Global supremacy, once again we are told, is based on our ability to compete and this say the entrepreneurs and coin-operated politicians like Duncan, can only be done if we go forward to an era of super-functionalism, where math, science and English instruction form the cornerstones of education. To hell with the arts, to hell with critical thinking to hell with humanities — what’s important is cost effectiveness and the development of values and sentiments that would be necessary to accept the new administration of life.

In the 1980s, not only was the public’s obsession with everything private fueled but the case for a super-functionalism was built on conservative think tank reports cheering on the anti-teacher union banshee calls. Instead of the rudimentary skills required by the social functionalism that arose during the time of early industrialization, we were now being told that the new information and technological revolution that was taking place needed a different type of worker with different kinds of skills. Preparing students for the twenty-first century’s technological and cybernetic revolution, or “the third wave,” became the mantra of reports similar to A Nation at Risk. Calls to focus education on “back to basics” and ‘English only’ became the antidote for the economic crisis, similar to the “objectives first” clamor in the early 1900s. The NSB defined the new cognitive-economic relationship between school and work as follows:

Alarming numbers of young Americans are ill-equipped to work in, to contribute to, profit from and enjoy our increasingly technological society. Far too many emerge from the nation’s elementary and secondary schools with an inadequate grounding in mathematics, science, and technology. This situation must not continue. . . . We must return to the basics, but the “basics” of the 21st century are not only reading, writing, and arithmetic. They include communication, and higher problem-solving skills, and scientific and technological literacy.9

The new super-functionalism and neo-basics, now defined as “ultra-basics,” included science, computers, higher-order reasoning, social studies, foreign languages, and correct use of the English language. What were once thought to be basic skills were now obsolete, and schools were now to place the ultra-basics at the core of their curriculum. While “the second wave” of educational restructuring was established for the industrial age of the 1900s, “the third wave” restructuring movement of the 1980s focused on preparing students for the information/technology age – but as mindless producers and consumers, not as critical purveyors.

Educator Larry Hutchins expressed the new third-wave super-functionalist restructuring argument like this:

The old design [schools] worked relatively well for the society it served; it brought schooling to millions of immigrants [who] … were needed to stoke the engines of the industrial society. Today’s society no longer requires such a work force. We need people who can think and solve problems using information and technology.10

Maintaining the U.S. “empire,” creating better goods and services to do so, dominating world markets under the guise of competition and free trade, and creating the new workforce for a consumptive future were all interwoven into the cat calls for a new and radical restructuring of schools. Any discussions as to what type of society Americans wished to create, what it means to be an ‘educated person’, or any discussions regarding the relationships among and between school, democracy, culture and the emerging cybernetic society were conspicuously absent from these ‘debates’ and if the matter was discussed, neoliberal theory was quickly mobilized by conservative think tanks to parade in the media, circle the wagons around their economic theory of competitive rationalism in an attempt to convince the public of the super-efficiency of the privatization model and the anti-reform postures of the teacher’s unions.

Furthermore, much like the efficiency-of-production arguments of the industrial age, teachers were once again encouraged to develop curricular goals based on step-by-step procedures and time schedules that corresponded to “the schools of tomorrow” (Goodman 1995, 10). The super-functionalism was now itself a burgeoning business opportunity for the investment class and consistently spoken of in business terms, offering schools and teachers corporate educational solutions in the form of kits, packages, services, and products. This entrepreneurialism was to later be codified in the repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) by a bi-partisan legislature in favor of a new noxious national policy the Business Roundtable and their suitors had conjured up — No Child Left Behind.

With the advent of neoliberal theory deeply embedded in cultural, individual and public life, during the 1980s the educational reform movement once again increasingly found expression in a language of business efficiency, productivity, and the application of management theories to the educational enterprise. More than at any other time, other than perhaps now, test scores became the products of the schools. Students became the workers who created this product using instructional programs given to them by “the educational organization.” Teachers were transformed into shop managers who presided over the students’ production within the confines of the ‘new curriculum’; school principals became the plant managers or ‘CEOs’ who managed the school personnel and assured the functioning of the clerical aspect of education; and specialists, such as social workers or school counselors, were employed to handle the students’ emotional needs (Goodman 1995, 11). If this sounds familiar it should, for as we will soon see, it is the vision and ideology of the new super-functionalists like Arne Duncan and his corporate ideology of schooling.

Transformed into being classroom managers overseeing the student-workers, teachers became further disengaged during this time, and further divorced from the nature of teaching as they were galvanized to follow prescribed “teaching recipes” in the form of corporate produced, pre-formulated lesson plans. With the increasing rise of pre-packaged instructional materials in the 1980s, intellectual engagement with the curriculum had now become for many teachers a luxury, as they were transformed into mere managers of learning in service to the state tests. If this was true during the 1980’s it can only said to be worse now as teachers are rapidly being transformed into ‘associates’ in a new Walmart business approach to education.11

What Arne Duncan, his philanthropic friends who make up his DOE and business entrepreneurs, anxious to get their greedy hands on the 5.6% of the national economy that education represents are doing is simply mouthing the same themes as A Nation at Risk enunciated more than 25 years ago. And they are doing so for many of the same reasons. They say the US cannot compete globally without an educated workforce; that America is falling behind in the global race to the top; they say US competitiveness is failing and thus the entire enterprise of America stands held hostage to the unforgiveable failures of American public education which can be pinned on the teacher’s unions. Sure, I know, we have heard it all before but it is far more powerful of a message today if only for the fact it is being implemented as social policy throughout the nation at lightening speeds, undercover of scant media attention and during a time of economic disaster for cities, states and the federal government.

Further on in his article, in an appeal to teacher sentiments, Duncan goes on to extol the many exemplary teachers who pay out of their own pocket for student supplies and who wake up often worrying about the plight of their students. These, he says are the teachers people remember, and he goes on to exalt these teachers as those who led their students through problem solving, poetry, novels, journalism, and art. He even goes so far as to stand-up and seemingly cheer for teachers, rhetorically claiming they are the unsung heroes of society and that they are not accorded the respect they deserve. From Duncan’s perspective, teachers are not being treated like skilled professionals. Who could argue with that? The answer depends on what is meant by a “skilled professional.”

Teachers as skilled professionals?

The reason for teacher de-skilling and educational woes, according to the piece written by Duncan in American Education, is that we as a nation are still shackled to an old industrial system of education, one that harkens back to the early 1900’s. This factory style production line of teaching and learning, claims Duncan, comes with the malicious baggage of a broken system of teacher training and induction and preparation for entry into the educational profession. Duncan claims the current professional development and system of teacher promotion is an artifact from the early 1900 factory system of education. Not even progressives would disagree with the identification of the problem; the issue lies with the solutions.

Referencing Shanker again, as a bold reformer, Duncan goes on to bemoan the industrial age format for teaching he claims we are mired in and then takes a swipe at the current school day, only 180 of them in a year he notes and still based on ideas put forth by the Carnegie Foundation in 1910. But true to form, Arne leaves out much of the history that is absolutely necessary and salient to understand what it means to be a professional teacher and why we are still laced to a rote competitive model of factory style education and a de-skilled teaching profession. The awful Obama educational policy, the Race to the Top (RTTT), which Duncan’s department cunningly promotes along with a chorus of market fundamentalists and think tanks who have been working since the publication of A Nation at Risk to dismantle public education in favor of a “private option” for parents in the form of ‘choice’, is taking all the professionalism out of teaching in favor of the new super-functionalism and teacher as a classroom and crowd control manager.

One thing is for sure, without historical understanding there is no critical comprehension of the present moment we labor in or any chance for historical agency in the interest of future change. Duncan uses his own brand of revisionist history in a thinly veiled attempt to smuggle a bit of the tenets of his market-based ideological reform positions into the educational arena normally hostile to calls embedded in his policies. He shrewdly capitalizes on criticisms that progressive educators have been making for years about the factory approach to education, with its rigid detachments from learning but he does so to advance a neo-liberal policy that is little more than a giveaway to privatization forces while assuring education is reduced to test taking, the best police for the social corridors of power.

The problem is that Duncan’s history lesson is incomplete; and as to be expected so are his ideas concerning education reform and teacher professionalism. Setting the historical record straight with an informed historical materialist analysis that includes the struggles and sentiments of working people, teachers and their students is necessary to combat the elitism and historical revisionism Duncan attempts to use to charm his way into the community of AFT teachers. It is also useful to draw on this rich history to illustrate the bankruptcy of the DOE’s educational reform package and specifically the Race to the Top, which other than the ruthlessness of its competitive nomenclature, assures that history will not be repeated again as tragedy, but this time as farce.12

In part two of this four part series we will look at the rise of industrial education, examining the period after the American civil war and continuing to the present.

  1. Advancement Project in partnership with Padres and Jovenes Unidos, Southwest Youth Collaborative, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to jailhouse track. (Chicago: Children and Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law, March 24, 2005, p. 11. []
  2. TruthandPolitics.org, Top US Marginal Income Tax Rates, 1913–2003 []
  3. US Private Sector Trade Union Membership. []
  4. International Affairs, 4:7, 1958, p. 86-87. [] []
  5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2009. []
  6. Detroit’s Unemployment Rate Is Nearly 50%, Detroit News, 12/16/09. []
  7. A Nation At Risk. []
  8. Education Commission of the States 1983, 3. []
  9. National Science Board 1983, 12. []
  10. Hutchins, L. Achieving Excellence. Aurora, CO: Mid Continent Regional Laboratory, 1990, p. 1 []
  11. Weil, D., Neoliberalism, Charter Schools and the Chicago Model — Obama and Duncan’s Education Policy: Like Bush’s, Only Worse, Counterpunch. []
  12. Danny Weil, The future of education if Bill Gates and Arne Duncan get their way, Counterpunch, January 1, 2009, print version. []

Danny Weil is a junior college teacher at Allan Hancock College in California where he teaches philosophy. He is a former kindergarten, first grade, and second grade teacher who has written a great deal on education. Read other articles by Danny.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. lupita said on January 3rd, 2010 at 10:20am #

    “neo-liberalism, now firmly pegged to the public stage and colonized in the American consciousness”

    “With the advent of neoliberal theory deeply embedded in cultural, individual and public life”

    We are all Duncans.

  2. bpeterson1931 said on January 3rd, 2010 at 6:04pm #

    Since the 1980s we have had a string of political and economic failures. These have been not only failures in style, but also in fundamentals. Just yesterday a Bloomberg headline read “Stiglitz Says Crisis Exposed ‘Major Flaws’ in Economics Ideas.” In addition we have had a continuing transfer of power to large corporations, and a huge transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy. In times like these, we must find someone to blame when things go wrong, and those we blame must have a minimum of political and economic power. Immigrants have always been high on the blame list; but this time schools including administrator, teachers, and students appear to be a close second. Thus, we have educational problems which are just symptoms of political and economic failures, and rather than solve the underlying problems, is it surprising that we end up with schemes for competitive distribution of federal education funds, and aggressive assessment of teachers and students.

  3. jcrit said on January 3rd, 2010 at 7:53pm #

    When the education system was allegedly failing the public, the environmenal poisoning of the world by corporate powers was just coming to the fore. Civil rights were being addressed by affirmative action and other methods. De-stabilization of democratic nations via civil wars was happening. The obscure concept of freedom was infiltrating schools. The truth is that this time in history was a time of increasing consciousness of the need to address these kind of issues. The urgency was growing, the need was made evident to all. This is what has been ground under the heel of neoliberalism and corporatism since 1983. The urgency is even greater now than then. The leadership of the federal government is as tardy now as it was then. What a shame these liars are coming out of the Democrat corner. Obviously these so-called “educators” have never seen the eyes of students light up in the context of positive action. How much longer must children be treated as sequestered inmates? Surely these idiots can imagine a better day for the children. So many other real teachers can!