During my August trip to Minnesota I was able to check two books off of my summer reading list: Relativity – The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein and How Schools Work by Arne Duncan. As the old joke goes, one was a book that asked me to rethink basic concepts and ideas long-held as fundamental truths, and the other was a book by Einstein.
I will attempt to reconcile Relativity and large-scale assessment in a later post. Today’s post is devoted to my five takeaways from Arne Duncan and How Schools Work.
1. Lies and Incentives
“Education runs on lies.” This is the first sentence of the first chapter titled Lies, Lies Everywhere.
The in-your-face focus on lies no longer has the same shock value that it did when most of us were introduced to Arne in 2009; no, not after eight years of life in the honesty gap that rolled into the current era of fake news and alternative facts.
What was surprising, however, was how freely he uses the word lie. In some circles, the word lie implies more than a simple departure from the “truth” or reality. To say that a person has lied or is a liar suggests an intent to deceive or mislead. Arne, however, uses the word lie to describe a broad array of statements and actions that one might refer to as myths, misconceptions, misinterpretations, untested beliefs, or defense mechanisms. In one example involving a Chicago principal, Arne begins the section stating, “One such principal told this lie directly to Mrs. Daley and me, and I’ll never forget it..” He ends the same story about the same principal stating, “I loved Chester’s honesty throughout – first when he challenged Mrs. Daley and then when he told me he’d been mistaken about his kids.”
In the end, perhaps actions based on lies or misperceptions cause the same problems and have the same negative impact on children. If your role is to solve those problems, however, understanding whether you are dealing with a lie or a misperception should influence your approach to a solution. And if you are counting on current teachers, administrators, and policy makers to be part of the solution, starting off by call them liars might not be the best approach.
Incentive is another special word in the Arne lexicon. Arne rightfully notes the importance for school improvement efforts to include incentives as well as the sticks associated with NCLB. One example he offers of an incentive, however, is firing Chicago teachers caught cheating on a standardized test. I believe his argument is that the district ensuring that bad behavior is not rewarded is an incentive for the good behavior of all of the other teachers. A second incentive he discusses is related to the teacher evaluation requirements associated with Race to the Top and the administration’s NCLB waivers. I don’t know many teachers who viewed state-designed educator evaluation systems as an incentive.
You can only show me a stick and tell me it’s a carrot for so long before I figure out that’s a lie.
2. Story Driven
After reading How Schools Work, it is clear to me that Arne is story-driven. By story-driven, I am not referring to the many stories that drive the narrative in How Schools Work. Rather, I am referring to the concept of story-driven described by Bernadette Jiwa in her 2018 book Story Driven – you don’t need to compete when you know who you are. Story-driven individuals and the organizations they lead have a “clear sense of purpose and identity” that defines and drives them.
Jiwa’s story-driven framework is defined by five words – Backstory, Values, Purpose, Vision, and Strategy. The backstory is our journey to now, which create our values (guiding beliefs) and purpose (reason to exist). In a story driven organization, those are the forces that drive the organization’s vision (aspiration for the future) and strategy (align opportunities, plans, and behavior).
Arne’s backstory that defines his identity, values, and purpose are his experiences growing up in Chicago with his mother’s inner-city after-school program. As he describes it, the Chicago that he saw with her program was just two miles but a world away from the section of Chicago where he lived. That’s not a bad backstory for a U.S. Secretary of Education.
3. No place for states
Virtually my entire career has been spent closely connected to state departments of education, as an assessment contractor, an employee, and for the last 16 years as a consultant. It appears, however, that state departments play, at best, a minor supporting role in Arne’s world. At worst, they are another one of the liars, a barrier to improving schools.
There are three direct references to state departments of education that stand out in the book. The first is a reference to low achievement standards set on the Illinois state assessment; offered as a direct instance of the lies told to students and parents in Chicago and as a general example of the so-called race to the bottom by states across the country as they prepared for NCLB accountability requirements. In the second reference, a DOE official in New Jersey is simply a pawn in a story detailing how the arrogance/incompetence of the Christie administration led to the state not being awarded millions of dollars of Race to the Top funding. The third was a reference to speaking with Connecticut’s “chief education officer” on the day of the Sandy Hook shooting in the emotional and powerful chapter on guns in schools and society.
I guess this should not be a surprise. Arne made his mark at the district level and it is clear that his vocation is in schools. He does acknowledge the role that strong (and weak) governors can play in improving education, but like many in education does not seem to have a handle on the role that a state department of education can and should play.
Can the department be more than simply an agent implementing the policies of the federal government, governor or state chief? Can a state department of education be a change agent on its own? It behooves those of us who have centered our careers at the state level to be proactive in answering that question.
4. Time Travel
Reading How Schools Work, I felt that I had traveled back in time. It is the same feeling that I get when I read remarks from former President Obama; and I am sure I would feel the same if I spent the $500 for an Intimate Conversation with Michele Obama. It is the sense of hope and change that had me sitting in a store front office in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the summer and fall of 2007 updating databases and making phone calls for an upstart candidate for president.
Then I remember that it is 2018. This group had their eight years in office. Yes, they made some improvements, but they fell far short of achieving their vision. I understand the obstacles in their way. What I have not yet determined for myself is how hard they tried to overcome those obstacles. And the frightening thought, if they did do their absolute best then what will it take and how long will it take to truly make a difference?
5. The Public School Model
It may be confirmation bias, but after reading How Schools Work I am convinced now more than ever that our public school model is not only broken but is outdated and is not something that we should try to repair.
To be clear, the ideal and concept of public education (i.e., the right to access for all to a high quality education) is as important as it ever was, arguably more important.
Also, there are fine schools and educators in suburbs, rural towns, and cities across the country where children are receiving a world-class education.
Our general model of K-12 public education, however, is broken at its core. The funding model is not sustainable. We are well beyond the point where it is possible to fit the student-centered policies of the last 50 years into an educator-centered system. We have burst through the age-based boundaries of the K-12 system at both ends and we long ago passed the point where the internal markers of grade levels have any meaning.
Everything in Arne’s book from his mother’s after school program to the foundation(s) he founded to his experiences in Chicago and USED to his plans for the future tell us that we need a new model for public education.
Arne and many of the rest of us have spent our lives trying to improve education from within the current system. Arne’s mother worked outside of the system – although not necessarily by choice. I think that it is time to abandon a K-12 system clinging to a past that no longer exists for a new system that reflects the present and anticipates the future.