Arne Duncan's "staggering statement": Why ed reformers are having second thoughts

Major elements of their platform -- like merit pay -- have been tried and failed, author Dana Goldstein tells Salon

Published September 24, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)

As arguments about Common Core become ever-shriller and ever-dumber, Americans who are not dedicated partisans of one side or another could be forgiven for hoping to find a nice quiet spot to lay low for a while and wait until it all blows over. Unfortunately, if the new book from education reporter and Nation Institute Puffin Fellow Dana Goldstein is anything to go by, folks hoping for the national debate over public education to quiet and calm down may find themselves waiting for a long, long time.

Titled "The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession," Goldstein's latest is a thorough, lively and reasoned examination of the history of American education reform — a history that is a lot more voluminous and turbulent than those who thought the reform movement began with Michelle Rhee might expect. Almost from the moment public education went from being a revolutionary idea to a reality, Americans have been bitterly arguing over it, butting heads over disagreements both big and small.

Salon recently spoke with Goldstein about her book, why Americans ask so much of public education, and how even some of today's most dedicated reformers are coming to have second thoughts about one of their most ballyhooed reforms. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you decide to write this book? Was there something about the debate over school reform in the U.S. that struck you as so misguided that it deserved a lengthier treatment?

I really started to notice after the recession hit in 2008 that there were these incredibly high expectations on teachers to close inequality gaps. And I wrote the book because I wanted to find the roots of that expectation in American history, knowing that the United States is sort of unique among other nations in terms of having a weak social safety net outside the schools and yet expecting schools to be a fix or solution for poverty and inequality. So I really wanted to write the book to add nuance to that, to really look at the history and the social science and to ask the question: What do we know about teaching? What is its effect on poverty and inequality? Are the expectations on teachers fair and where do they come from?

So you felt the way we were talking about our expectations for schools in the wake of the Great Recession was misguided, at least to some degree?

Yeah. I did feel that. Interestingly, I think the conversation has become more nuanced since 2008. Even as recently as 2011, when I started writing the book, you heard it often said … that teachers are the number one impact on whether or not a child escapes poverty. The number one impact.

As I show in the book, and as pretty much all honest education reformers now acknowledge, teachers are not the number one impact on whether a child escapes poverty. The number one impact is family [and] the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood. Teachers play a secondary role — an important role, but a secondary one.

One of the questions of the book is, “What can we expect from teachers in that secondary role? How can we empower teachers to make the most of the impact that they do have while being realistic about what that impact is?”

You mention in your introduction that you come from a family of public school teachers. As you were doing your historical research and your reporting for this book, did you find yourself having to revise some of the assumptions about public education that you grew up with?

I attended unusually integrated schools in terms of race and class. I grew up in a town called Ossining, New York. It’s a prison town. It’s where Sing-Sing prison is. It had a busing program to desegregate its schools, and unlike a lot of other districts that abandoned their busing programs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, my town stuck with it. So even though I grew up as a pretty typical suburban, upper-middle-class white kid, I had this unusual experience of going to school with a lot of kids that were living in poverty.

I think I really, in some ways, idealize this experience. One of the things I learned during the book was how complicated the history of the school desegregation movement was, and the ways in which communities of color had been disappointed by that movement, how often white teachers had low expectations for students of color in integrated settings.

Aside from your own personal estimation of the virtues and shortcomings of public education, did you come across anything else in your research that really surprised you or caused you to see parts of the school reform debate in a different light?

Yes. One [discovery] was how so many of the roots of today’s “No Excuses” school reform movement — which focuses on strict discipline for kids, has a big emphasis on college attendance and a big emphasis on measurable student achievement — a lot of this actually came from ideas of African-American educational theorists working as far back as the Civil War. One of the interesting things was that this whole ideology of “No Excuses” and tough expectations, strict discipline, I think there’s a difference of hearing no excuses from someone who comes from your own community and hearing no excuses from an outsider. So it’s interesting how these ideas that started in the black community are now part of interracial, multiracial school reform movement.

A part of the book that’s gotten some attention is your observation that some of the most influential and well-known Americans in history spent time as teachers — LBJ, Thoreau and Melville, to name a few. As you were learning about these people in the classroom, were there any you especially would’ve liked to have as a teacher yourself? (Personally, I’d pick LBJ.)

Me too. That’s definitely who first came to mind. I think the descriptions that we have heard of LBJ’s teaching make him sound like he was a really interesting teacher. He really embodied the idea of having high expectations for poor children in a good way. He was also really old-fashioned; he would beat the kids if they spoke Spanish, even though he was teaching right on the Mexican border in southwest Texas. (All his kids spoke Spanish at home and were all English language learners.)

Was there anyone in particular who struck you the opposite way, who you were relieved to never have had as a teacher?

That’s a good question. I actually ended up cutting this from the final version of the books for length reasons, but Horace Mann, who was the founder of the Common School Movement, he himself actually briefly taught at the college level at Brown University, which is where I went to college.

He was a classics tutor, and he was known for his classes being completely out-of-control and also incredibly boring. He was drilling the students on memorization, but at the same time they loved to poke fun at him because he was such a stick in the mud and couldn’t control the class. He was a total stick in the mud, a lifelong stick in the mud.

I think it’s so interesting that the father of our modern public school system in many ways was a failed teacher — and probably would’ve admitted as much.

About that modern public school system Mr. Mann helped bring us — is it true that we in America expect more from our model, in terms of ameliorating poverty, than other developed nations do?

We definitely do. I think it has to do with our American conception of meritocracy. We have such high expectations of education in America because we expect people to be self-made and to be able to pick themselves up from their bootstraps and transcend their origins. We don’t do a lot of other things to help people do that, of course; we don’t have a free healthcare system, we don’t have a good minimum wage, we don’t make it easy for people to join unions. Given all that, our meritocratic ideals — we really play those out through our education system.

But a problem you outline in the book is that, due to that impulse, we often have saddled public educators with either the blame for social unrest that they had nothing to do with, or the responsibility to fix a problem they can’t possibly solve on their own.

That’s true, and we have the research on this. It seems that about 7 percent of the current achievement gap is driven by differences in teacher quality between schools. So that’s not to say that we couldn’t make progress toward closing those gaps if we brought the best teachers to the neediest kids. Research seems to suggest that we could. But we don’t really have a set of policies that would prioritize actually improving teaching for poor children. We have a set of policies that prioritizes measuring teachers, not improving their practice.

And one of the more surprising and ironic findings in your book is, we’ve already tried that approach before. You argue, in fact, that basically all the major elements of the reform movement’s platform have been tried before — and they didn’t work.

Absolutely true. Merit pay for teachers based on student test scores is one of the big ones. We see it attempted in the 1920s. In the early 1960s. In the 1980s, and again today — [and] it hasn’t worked. The systems that are set up to collect the data and to rank the teachers tend to be highly bureaucratic and difficult for administrators to implement. Then when we see these financial bonuses actually paid to teachers for student test scores, it doesn’t actually improve student achievement. So both the systems are difficult to implement, and where they are implemented, they don’t improve things for kids.

Do you have a theory as to why it is that we’re seeing old ideas repackaged as new ones, instead of actually new ideas?

There’s a sort of ahistorical quality to American public life. I’m definitely not the first person to notice this, but you don’t get a sense that policymakers are calling up their elders and asking, “How did this go when you tried it 30 years ago?” Which is funny, because you can definitely call those veteran old-hands up and talk to them and oftentimes they’ll be pretty frank. I did some of that for this book.

Secondly, another thing that I write about is that in every generation, corporate philanthropists get involved in education reform; and every generation, they bring a pretty similar set of ideas to the fore, which really have a lot to do with measuring, ranking, rating, performance pay. These are ideas that tend to make sense to business people because they seem to embody efficiency. And yet they play out in schools quite differently than they do in the for-profit world. We see generation after generation of philanthropists trying to learn that lesson.

One of the interesting things about [Microsoft billionaire and education reformer] Bill Gates — and I’ve gotten the opportunity to interview him several times — is that he really has learned a lot from his experience and his own views have evolved on some of these questions. But because … his foundation prioritizes using student test scores to rate teachers, that was picked up by the Obama administration and spread nationally.

So while Gates might be adding nuance toward thinking how he’s doing his grant-making, it’s difficult for all of the states and the federal government who have embraced these policies to make a similar change.

Do you think that policymakers and politicians are as willing to reassess as Bill Gates seems to be?

They’re laggards. It’s not that they’re not willing to reassess, it’s that they’re always very slow to acknowledge new evidence — not just on education, but generally. The political system is slow to respond to evidence from social science.

That creates this weird disconnect between the policy that is actually happening on the ground and the debate occurring among experts and enthusiasts. For example, right now, a lot of the changes the education reform movement first proposed are being implemented across the country by state governments responding to federal incentives — yet this is happening exactly when many of those reformers are having second thoughts.

Absolutely. We saw this when Arne Duncan recently made … this staggering statement that standardized testing is sucking the oxygen out of the room in schools. This is the guy who created a million incentives that resulted in local schools upping their testing to these unprecedented levels (there’s more testing now than ever before in our school system). So for this guy to now be saying, “Oh my gosh, we may have jumped the shark” — it’s a really big deal.

My last question is about one of the big picture debates that’s been happening on the left when it comes to public education for a long, long time. Namely, whether improving public education outcomes is worth the left’s time or whether the problems of public education are really the problems of capitalism, which would mean that education reform is something of a red herring. Where do you end up in that discussion?

I think it’s really cynical to say that we shouldn’t improve our schools and focus on that.

My whole career, I’ve kind of been caught between this argument from the left that any focus on school improvement is a distraction from the poverty question; and then, to my right, the argument that there’s this really narrow set of policies that will fix it, that is all based on accountability and testing.

I think we know that in the life of an individual child, a good school system can be transformative. So, as progressives, we have to do everything we can to improve schools. But on the same token, we need to be realistic about the scale of inequality and the poverty problem, and what impact teaching and education is going to have on that, which is ultimately a modest impact.

I lied. This is my last question: Will the teacher wars in America ever really end?

One of the things I say at the end of the book is that they won’t end unless we realize that we have a very decentralized education system, and thus a lot of big, top-down reforms imposed by outsiders on local systems are probably not going to work very well. In the book, I make an argument about feeding reform from the bottom-up through replicating teachers’ best practices. Replicating the best practices of excellent teachers, as opposed to bringing in so many outside plans and programs. Ideas about school reform in America are typically introduced by philanthropists and politicians at the national level, but we have no structure in our system to nationalize education reform.

Of course, we’re not going to be centralizing our system. It’s just not politically feasible. So we need to look for solutions that don’t require that. I mean, the U.S. Constitution does not mention education. It is a responsibility of state and local governments, the way our government is structured — and this just fundamentally makes us different than all of the other countries that we’re constantly comparing ourselves to. Our federal government does not have the power to create a national curriculum and impose it on teachers in the classroom. Our federal government does not select reading lists, it does not select textbooks, it does not create tests.

If you look over at Finland or France or the U.K., you’ll see that they can have a big national conversation about school reform, adopt a policy, at the central government-level, and then practices in schools change. The practices actually change. We’re never going to see that here because of the way our system is structured.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith