Arne Duncan’s History Lesson to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT): Elevating the Teaching Profession? Part 3

In part three of this four part series, we will continue to look at the historical development of teaching and learning as well as the rise of neo-liberalism in the reconfiguration of schools.

Progressive Educational Responses to the Factory School

Although the factory style of education during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth imposed a functionalistic, industrial education on all U.S. citizens—African American, Native American, newly arriving immigrants, and Anglos—we can see it was not without its critics and staunch opponents, just as today. Even though the prevailing wisdom at the time argued for impersonal factory schools grounded on modernist approaches to curriculum and teaching, many educators protested as many are doing now. They not only saw the factory school as an impersonal social arrangement, they saw industrial society and the factory life, as expressed in capitalists relations of production, that was emerging as an impediment to and on human development. Margaret Haley, a union organizer and teacher-activist at the time, expressed the following:

Two ideals are struggling for supremacy in American life today; one the industrial ideal, dominating through the supremacy of commercialism, which subordinates the worker to the product, and the machine; the other ideal of democracy, the ideal of educators, which places humanity above all machines, and demands that all activity shall be the expression of life.1

Of course Duncan never speaks of the progressive movement in education nor does he tell his readers that in 1916, John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education was first published. Dewey’s views helped advance the ideas of the progressive educational movement that ran counter to the educational assembly line of despair that Duncan points to. The difference then and now is that unlike Secretary Arne Duncan’s market based solutions, progressive education sought to make schools more effective agents of democracy, critical thinking and citizenship education.

The term “progressive education”, although there has been an attempt to redefine the term by right wing talking points, has historically been used to describe ideas and practices that aim to make schools more effective agencies of a democratic society. Although there are numerous differences of style and emphasis among progressive educators, they share the conviction that democracy means active participation by all citizens in social, political and economic decisions that will affect their lives. The education of engaged citizens, according to this perspective, involves two essential elements: (1). Respect for diversity within solidarity, meaning that each individual should be recognized for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity, and (2). the development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good.2

Educators like Haley and Dewey opposed what they viewed as the rigid and impersonal social order imposed by the capitalist relations of factory life. Haley, like many of her contemporaries then and today, felt that the rise of corporations and corporate power was far more menacing to life in the United States than was the role of government (Kincheloe 2000, 159). These educational progressives looked to schools to provide educational experiences for children that expanded their involvement in citizenship activities, critical thinking and civic responsibility and to this end they argued that public education must construct its own mission and purpose. They viewed education as a vehicle for human freedom, emancipation, and democratic citizenship—not simply a utilitarian means to an economic end.

Brown v. Board of Education, Sputnik, Milton Friedman, and the 1950’s: Post World War II

Public education in post–World War II United States involved some of the most dramatic transformations and challenges in the context of the cold war: McCarthyism, economic prosperity, suburban development, technological innovations in consumer goods, the advent of television and advertising, the growth of the civil rights movement, and the rapid development of scientific innovation and discovery are just a few. During this time, controversial and rancorous debates arose over the role of education and universal access to school facilities, especially among minority constituencies.

Perhaps the most important event that marked post–World War II social, racial, and educational politics was the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). Up to that time, what was referred to as “the separate-but-equal doctrine,” upheld in Plessy vs. Ferguson, had governed relations between blacks and whites. The Brown decision overturned Plessy, declaring the separate-but-equal doctrine “inherently unequal.” In a 1955 follow-up decision, the Court further clarified its position on the matter by stating that public school systems that had been segregated until that time now had to become desegregated.3

The Supreme Court decisions also brought up the heated issue of “states rights” versus federal control—an issue as old as the Civil War itself. Many conservative southerners felt that decisions regarding local issues should be left to the states and local government bodies, not be mandated by the federal government. Many conservatives at the time saw the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education as a federal invasion of states’ rights. But it was more than that: the issues revolved around integration into a post-war industrial society based on capitalist relations of power and authority. Integration was seen as a panacea for educational equity.

Today, much of this ideology is currently being challenged and discussed by market fundamentalists and charter school proponents who, if not advocating ‘separate but equal’ as their mantra, certainly have posed many controversial questions and challenges to the wisdom of attempting to homogenize education. Brown itself has been gutted by recent Supreme Court rulings, and the education of black children has deteriorated, as has their economic position in society. Duncan doesn’t mention any of this in his article, in fact economics and social class are never mentioned in his myopic view of education. However one can simply study Chicago where Duncan was Superintendent of Schools. As I have pointed out,4 Duncan’s policies were and have been disastrous to the city.

The Sputnik controversy

Another important post–World War II event that we touched on briefly in part one of this series that was to have a massive impact on the nation’s school systems and the continued public debate over education and functionalism versus progressive ideas of education was the 1957 advance of the Soviet Union into space with the launching of Sputnik. U.S. leaders reacted to that Soviet success with shock and disbelief, arguing that the Soviet Union now had a military advantage over the United States. Business leaders, military leaders, and educational policymakers scrambled to assign the blame to the public schools and especially to the teachers. Given the permissiveness of the 1950s, in everything from music to new conventions regarding sexuality and conformity, blaming public education for not preparing the United States for global and economic competitiveness was convenient, and attacks on public education intensified with increasing regularity.5 Evidently, the functionalists had let down their educational guard. The reaction by the government and business elites was quick and forthcoming, just as they are today.

After the launching of Sputnik and given the perceived Soviet superiority in matters of technology and military development, the federal government began to become more involved in the legal and economic realities of public education. The National Defense and Education Act was passed, and the educational emphasis now focused primarily on science, mathematics, foreign languages, guidance, career counseling, and vocational endeavors in an effort to compete more effectively with the Soviet Union. The federal government also appropriated and spent massive sums for capital improvements and the construction of schools and buildings. Competition in education was now being ushered into the debate over educational improvement as world dominance and the United States supposed failings in the education for supremacy was wholly seen as lacking.

Worried that the Soviet Union was achieving technological and military dominance over the United States, educational policymakers believed they were the custodians of a public educational system designed to prepare U.S. citizens for the rigorous necessities of economic and military dominance. Education was now to be perceived as a vehicle for gaining the necessary skills for the promotion of “the national interest” and was directly linked to defeating communism at any cost. For the first time in its history, the U.S. government declared education a national preoccupation and a national interest, and linking U.S. readiness to educational standards became the talk of the day. The public schools were still organized like large factories, but they were now factories that were more preoccupied with the regulation of the curriculum in the interests of national sovereignty and economic readiness to meet the challenges of securing world dominance. In this atmosphere of political fear and a world-wide competitive stated educational purpose tied to military and technological preparedness, the voices of educational progressives, like Dewey and DuBois, were not merely muted, they seemed to have been silenced – at least for a time.

Education as competition for the new-world order

And so it is today – with the Soviet Union now long gone they have now been replaced by the new competitors on the world stage – the Chinese. “The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming” is the new mantra of the financial class, Gates, and the sock-puppet corporate press when they speak about preparing American students for the new demands of 21st century global capitalism. Threats of Chinese supremacy in math, science and engineering, as well as world dominance, are just some of the rants and raves one can hear or see in popular educational discourse from both liberals and conservatives – for they both remain committed to capitalist relations and a new Race for the Top, not just in education, but a race for full spectrum dominance by the United States in the socio-political affairs and world economic supremacy of the 21st century.

Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics

It is not surprising that amidst the historical shifts in American power and its conception the efforts to promote an educational marketplace through privatized school choice could be traced directly to the work of the conservative economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s. Unlike proponents of public education who sought restructuring and reform of factory-style public schools, Friedman, keeping with the competitive spirit of capitalism and the domestic debate over foreign affairs and public education at the time, proposed in 1955 that every family be given a federal “voucher” to be used for each child attending any school—public or private. Under the proposed plan, the voucher would be paid for by public funds and would allow families to select a school of their choice that met minimal governmental oversight. Parents could also add their own resources to the value of the voucher, and each school would operate like a business, setting its own tuition and admission requirements.6

At the time Friedman’s argument for market–driven education was not historically situated to win over much of the public. Not only did Friedman’s proposal fail to attract public interest at the time, the prevailing ideology argued that a simple retooling of the curriculum and the addition of advanced placement classes would remedy whatever problems were associated with public education. However, the ideology was that ‘public schools’ would remain ‘public schools’. Furthermore, after the Brown decision, any primacy of states’ rights over federal law in the form of state-imposed de-segregation was illegal. Although Friedman voiced his support for integration by asserting the primacy of freedom to choose over equality, Friedman’s proposal would have directly or indirectly furthered segregation.7 Why? Simple, the economics of voucher driven education further stratifies existing society resulting in higher percentages of inequality, class stratification, and racial segregation and social segregation.8 But all this would change as the Chicago School of Economics gained fame and Friedman’s ideas expanded to encompass what we know as capitalism today.

Even though Friedman’s proposal was rejected by the public in a time of increased government spending following Roosevelt’s reforms, it would return with a vengeance in the late 1980s and early 1990s when neo-liberalism ideology and its private and public think tanks and advocates convinced Americans to define less government with economic and social prosperity. The conservative proposal for educational reform would find currency and expression in these later decades and directly give rise to the development of market-based approaches to education such as privatization, public choice, and charter schools as reform movements. The proposal would prove to be one of the biggest and most controversial issues in U.S. politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the beginning of what can only be described as an ‘educational industry’.

Now, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we see we are faced with the same bitter and hostile calls Friedman made some fifty years ago. The difference of course is that Friedman’s economic policies have failed, as testified to by the Second Great economic depression of 2008. Despite this, they seem to have found a new foothold within the educational debate and the fact that the social policies we see emerge are geared towards a private option in public education, exhibits the hardening of ideological temperament and the power of bankrupt ideas.

The importance of the post–World War II era in education is significant for any understanding of the current debates regarding public schools and, specifically, charter schools, standards and assessment. Issues regarding states’ rights, race, market initiatives, the role of government and “failing U.S. schools,” so predominant in the educational discourse of the 1950s, encompassed some of the identical topics and questions that the educational community has to deal with today. The development of the charter school reform movement and the market based educational reforms from merit pay to the decimation of teacher’s unions must be understood as a direct outgrowth of the issues that faced the United States as a nation in the 1950s and those that continue to haunt and spawn educational debate today. It is not some historical aberration but in the alternative, must be seen as an extension of historical debates and current historical reality and the rise of neo-liberalism.

Neo-Liberalism and the Rise of ‘Choice’

In the first instance, neo-liberalism is a theory of economic and social practices that postulates that human well-being and freedom can best be achieved by unleashing the forces of individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills articulated within an institutional framework based on strong private property rights, free markets and open trade. Under this theory of society and the individual people are selfish, feckless, idle, competitive and distrustful and look only to monitor and strategize against others. The “rational selfishness” of Ayn Rand is the metaphor for this conception of human life. Fear and self-interests combat with trust and collaboration as general theories of life. Suspicion of others, self-interest, self-optimization, and the pursuit of segregated selves, even if it means the betrayal of others, become the psychic engine for capitalism relations.

In such a corrupt and distasteful society, schools operate to control and produce people through super functionalism itself tethered to a bleak theory based not on human nature, but on a Hobbsian vision of human exploitation under capitalism. The role of the government within this arrangement is to assure the stable institutional framework appropriate to such practices. Furthermore, the role of the government, or what is called ‘the state’ in economic parlance, is to assure that the legal structures and clerical and day to day functions required by such a societal commitment to property rights and market individual freedoms based on the entrepreneurial spirit are guaranteed. If the markets that are required under neoliberal theory do not exist then it is the role of the state to assure they do, by privatizing key industries and services such as health care, land rights, water rights and yes, the privatization of education through market ‘choices’ and deregulation and economic and political legislation.

Thus, any argument conservative or otherwise regarding the abolition of ‘state or government power’ or the ‘role of government’ is plainly contradictory and cartoonish hypocrisy for what neo-liberalism needs and wants is a strong, dictatorial state to assure the supremacy of its economic ideology and practices. The dystopian world view of neo-liberal, late stage capitalism is one that posits that there is no public duty, only duty to oneself; there should be no public investment unless it is investment in the ‘free market’ where profits can be privatized and costs socialized; there are no shared American goals, no “public interest”, only collections of people as self-motivated rational little profit centers. This is the neo-liberal self-interested model of human behavior.

Neo-liberalism advances market exchanges as a theory for the smooth and efficient running of society and as such, it also provides an overreaching ethic or morality that claims that market solutions to social problems will maximize the public good and thus it seeks to bring all institutions and indeed, all actors within the reach if not under the control of market transactions. Therefore, the role of the state under these stated specific economic policies is to produce legislative and regulatory frameworks that advantage private corporations, wealthy individuals and the property class. There can be no argument that the government does not play a role in educational policy and subsequent services; the only issue is ‘why and how’. And as one can see, this is done in myriad ways that currently advantage the neo-liberal agenda. Race to the Top is simply the latest fad or design in this dystopian economic arrangement. It is a form of collusion with powerful elite interests for purposes of privatizing and controlling the education of our nation’s citizens. For this reason it is simply another neo-liberal move on the historical chessboard, nothing more, nothing less.

Understanding the role of the Department of Education

Nowhere can neo-liberalism’s claims and assumptions be seen more dramatically in the calls for the elimination of the Department of Education throughout the 1980’s, which was met with severe resistance by progressive and liberal educators. The vocal opposition and activism on behalf of many teachers, their unions and parents and students made it virtually impossible for neo-liberal conservatives to abolish the department in entirety, which was their hope. As a result, the Reagan administration sought to use state regulatory and legislative power, the government, to reconstitute the Department of Education, transforming it into a vocal advocate for controversial policies like organized prayer, public and private school choice, charter schools and private school vouchers. Privatization and deregulation combined with competition and ‘choice’, so the claim went, would eliminate bureaucratic red tape, eliminate inefficiency in services, increase productivity (in this case student standardized test scores) and reduce costs (wages and benefits paid to teachers).

As a result, blistering attacks and recriminations were increasingly leveled by proponents of neo-liberal theory against public education, teachers’ school management, unions, and non-standardized curriculum. The Department of Education actually began in this period to actively work against the interests of the educational stakeholders in the public schools by promoting a new economic agenda for schools. The battle between neoliberal ideas of competition – competition between individuals, schools, teachers, firms, entities and in fact in all areas of economic and social life – and those of progressive ideas that valued cooperation and education for citizenship was now in full formation; but the institutional voice box had changed. Now the Department of Education, which was set up to assure education to all citizens, was quietly and slowly being transformed, though public policy changes and changes in personnel, into a privatized think tank that would in effect serve to undermine the goals and aspirations of public education in the United States.

The Secretary of Education’s Race to the Top sets out to do what the Bush administration was never able to accomplish, not even in its wildest dreams, and truly shines a spotlight on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the hideous policies of his Department of Education, basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Gates Foundation, The Fisher Family (owners of the Gap), The Walton Family, the Broad Foundation and other venture capitalists and philanthro-entrepeneurs.

One needs to simply look at the list of Gates and Broad officials stacked in Duncan’s DOE: Margot Rogers (Duncan’s chief of staff; formerly the assistant for Gates Domestic Education head, Vicki Phillips), James Shelton (former Gates official; also worked at the NewSchools Venture fund and started his own for-profit charter chain, LearnNow, which was sold to the for-profit Edison Schools), Carmel Martin (took a job at the Gates Foundation, but never spent a day at the foundation and instead headed for the DOE) Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana (trained through the Broad Superintendent’s Academy), and Carl Harris (also trained through the Broad Superintendent’s Academy). One could also include Joanne Weiss, head of the Race to the Top fund, as a de-facto Gates/Broad employee considering her previous experience at the NewSchools Venture Fund, which has taken many millions from the aforementioned philanthropic foundations.

Teacher tenure as an impediment to successful teaching and learning: merit pay and incentivizing teaching

Part of the Kabuki dance that Arne Duncan and his cronies are playing with the American people is over the issue of teacher tenure, merit pay and professional evaluations, development and performance. In his article in the American Educator, Duncan is quick to point out:

Today, union leaders committed to challenging the status quo are courageously and candidly speaking out about the need to move beyond their comfort zones. For example, AFT president Randi Weingarten is an outspoken critic of current teacher evaluation systems. “For too long and in too many places,” she says, “teacher evaluation has ranged from hollow to harmful. For most teachers the process for evaluation is a ritual in which a principal spends 15 minutes in their class room once a year checking off a grocery list of minimum competencies. The process does not improve teaching or learning.”9

Duncan goes on:

No area of the teaching profession is more plainly broken today than that of teacher evaluation and professional development. In district after district more than 95% of teachers are rated as good or superior, even in schools that are chronically underperforming year after year. Worse yet, evaluations typically fail to take any account of a teacher’s impact on student learning…. As a result great teachers don’t get recognized, don’t get rewarded, and don’t help their peers grow. The teachers in the middle of the skills spectrum don’t get the support they need to improve. And the teachers at the bottom don’t get the support they need either, and if they do and still don’t improve, they need to be counseled out of the profession. It’s not just students who suffer; as Al Shanker pointed out, “teachers have to live with the results of other people’s bad teaching – the students who don’t know anything.” To continue to tinker around the edges of such a dysfunctional system is a waste.9

Duncan is cunning, for once again he engages in the fallacy of authority, appealing to the deceased union leader as both evidence for his claims and as an enamoring tool to beguile the rank and file. Certainly no one would disagree that continuous improvement in teacher evaluations, teacher development, teacher educational programs and teacher performance are necessary, the issue is how they are articulated and positioned in practice. For Duncan and his protégés, since education must be defined and hitched to the needs of capitalism and capital accumulation, super-functionalism now must be reconfigured and allied with the exigencies of the 21st century factory model of education.

Defining education as a means to an economic end based on the neo-liberal individualistic account of human behavior and human nature, which Duncan and cohorts embrace so feverishly, forces social and educational policies that not only reflect the factory schools Duncan bemoans, but this theory of human behavior and thus education institutionalizes this thinking once again. Incentive pay, self interests, competition, rational selfishness, materialism and a self motivated public are the ideological pillars on which lye Duncan’s vision of education. It is a corporate market ideology that draws a chalk line on the playground of public education.

  • Read Parts 1 and 2.
    1. Tyack, David. The One Best System. Harvard University Press, 1974, 257. []
    2. John Dewey Project, Progressive Education website. []
    3. Brown vs. Board of Education II. []
    4. Weil, D., “Neoliberalism, Charter Schools and the Chicago Model, Obama and Duncan’s Education Policy:Like Bush’s, Only Worse,” Counterpunch. []
    5. Kincheloe, J. Contextualizing Teaching. New York: Longman, 2000. p. 164. []
    6. Freidman, M. “The Promise of Vouchers.” Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2005. []
    7. Lowe, R., and B. Miner, eds. Selling Out Our Schools: Vouchers, Markets, and the Future of Public Education. Milwaukee, WI: ReThinking Schools, 1996. []
    8. Weil, D. Vouchers and the privatization of education. ABC-CLIO publishing. Goleta, CA 1998. []
    9. Duncan, Arne. Elevating the teaching profession. American Educator, 33:4. Winter 2009-2010. [] []
    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.