Email This Post Email This Post
Home » Blogs, Education Reforms

Master of Myth: What Arne Duncan Says and Does

3 September 2010 24,870 9 Comments

Master of Myth: What Arne Duncan Says and Does

The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.

—John F. Kennedy

U.S. Secretary of Education has been called the most powerful education secretary in history. With billions of dollars of borrowed money, Duncan has achieved unprecedented changes to American education. “We’re getting more change in 18 months in education than in the previous decade,” said Duncan on a recent trip.

The changes he has been championing, mostly represented by the Race to the Top grant program, are controversial, to say the least. As a Christine Science Monitor article writes:

Ultimately, proponents from all across the political spectrum say, Duncan could help dramatically narrow achievement gaps and even bring the United States back to high standing internationally. Or, as critics such as the irked teachers’ unions see it, he’ll further devastate an already demoralized teaching profession and subject children to more of the high-stakes testing that’s been sucking the soul out of American schools.

But what is surprising is that he has not met many critics during his meetings with the people who should be most critical of him—teachers and students. Recently Duncan was on a bus tour of schools across the nation to “honor the nation’s teachers.” I had expected that many teachers would file complaints about the increasingly poisonous teaching environment imposed by the federal government. I also had expected students to question the excessive burden of testing. But according to a New York Times story:  “Mr. Duncan heard little criticism in the Northeast states he visited.”

Did I miss something here? How is this possible? What happened to all the criticism?

I found the answer in yesterday’s Talk of the Nation hosted by Neal Conan on NPR.

During this one-hour call-in radio program, Duncan took questions from students and teachers in the Washington DC area in the studio and a few callers from around the country. Out of all the questions asked, only one gets close to criticism: “When are we going to start learning how to think and not just how to pass a standardized test?” To which Duncan answered: “It got to happen yesterday.”

That’s the moment of epiphany: Secretary Arne Duncan is a master and all criticism melts away before this great master, master of myth because all critics are told what they want to hear.

If “[I]it got to happen yesterday,” why is he working so hard to push using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and schools, which has been shown to lead to teaching to the test and narrowing of curriculum?

Using a similar strategy, he “won over” a career and technical education teacher who complained the profession is undervalued, according to a Washington Post story. Duncan’s answer: “We have to think about how to reverse that.”

If he values and will truly think about career and technical education, why does he want to pay only math and science teachers more and why his Race to the Top program rewards only STEM and English language arts?

Duncan has been promoting the myth that he respects teachers, values a well-rounded education, and respects diversity and use the myth to hide the truth that all he promotes is more testing, more standards, narrower curriculum, and his lack of faith in public schools and educators.

More of examples of Duncan’s myth promotion record:

Duncan: And the biggest thing is, we have to give everyone of you a well rounded education. So reading and math, English and math are hugely important, but so is science, so is social studies, so is foreign languages, so is financial literacy, so is environmental literacy. We have to get back to a well rounded curriculum. (NPR Talk of the Nation)

Question: how much money has he and the federal government invested in subjects other than English and STEM?

Duncan: Today in our country, 99 percent of our teachers are above average. (New York Times story)

Question: If so, why do we need such drastic, expensive, and unproven measures such as tie teacher evaluation to student test scores to deal with the 1% of below-average teachers? I have to believe he does not believe his Lake Wobegon inspired statement himself.

Duncan: And one thing I’m always conscious of is that the best ideas in education are always going to come at the local level, never from me, never from Washington. (NPR Talk of the Nation)

Question: If the best ideas never come from him, never from Washington, why has he been dangling money to lure the states to change laws to allow more charter schools, accept national standards, develop common assessments, and base teacher evaluation to test scores?

Secretary Duncan has also been promoting the myth about how bad American education is.

Duncan: A quarter of our students never graduate high school. Many of those who do either don’t enroll in college or fail to earn a degree. (Duncan speech in Little Rock)

Question: Why does the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) say “the status dropout rate declined from 14 percent in 1980 to 8 percent in 2008?” “The status dropout rate represents the percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential (either a diploma or an equivalency credential such as a General Educational Development [GED] certificate).”

Duncan: In just one generation we have fallen from first in the world to 12th in the percentage of young adults with college degrees. (Duncan speech in Little Rock)

Question: Where is the evidence? I gather Secretary Duncan was relying on a report by the College Board. According to the report, however, the U.S. ranked 4th, NOT first in the percentage of 55- to 64-Year-Olds with an Associate Degree or higher after Russia, Israel, and Canada and the percentage of 25- to 34-Year-Olds with an Associate degree or higher ranks 12th, but the 4 countries immediately above the U.S. (Israel, France, Belgium, and Canada) are about 1% better.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)


  • Bruce Kezlarian said:

    Yong – Thank you, once again, for speaking to us yesterday at Model HS. I listened to Talk of the Nation on the way home from school. Your voice is a breath of fresh air compared to what I heard on the radio from our “esteemed” Secretary of Education. I listened to the same question posed by a student and waited, like you, to hear Duncan’s response. “It got to happen yesterday.” Hello, Arne Duncan. Is this really a response to the question. No! You are “right on”, Yong, when you say he is a master of myth. What a pitiful attempt to answer a very good question.

  • Pondoora said:

    Thank you for everything you are doing of behalf of public education, Professor Zhao.

    Duncan has a growing record of totally avoiding interaction with his strongest critics and of denying the existence of widespread criticism. The mainstream media is his willing enabler.

    The events Duncan attends are extremely well-orchestrated, so as not to put him in potentially embarrassing situations; I observed one personally. Duncan is a tool, which explains why he can only respond with canned rhetoric.

    Here are several examples of Duncan’s MO:

    I am certain Duncan’s behavior is an intentional strategy devised by the billionaire-funded school reform force. By wearing blinders, looking straight down, and charging ahead as rapidly as possible, the pro-privatization “reformers” are able to proceed unhindered with their destruction of everything which was planted before. Eli Broad calls it “transformation.”

  • Susan Brooks-Young said:

    Thanks for taking the time to analyze and share this important information. One needs only to spend a few days in the Chicago Public School system to see the reality…

  • florence sullivan said:

    Hi Dr. Zhao – Excellent (and entertaining) analysis of Duncan’s myth-making. I am sharing it with colleagues here in Massachusetts and New York.


  • Jesse Turner said:

    Thank you again Dr. Zhao for articulating an excellent critical response to this insanity. This is Jesse Turner who walked for 40 days for 400 miles to DC this summer to protest Secretary Arne Duncan’s policies. On my walk I did not find one parent, teacher, or student who thinks NCLB/RTTT is good policy. Teachers in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia have informed me that they are spending 9 to 12 weeks testing or practicing for the test in grades 3 to 8. This amounts to nearly three months of lost instructional time. Testing is not teaching. No one values this loss of learning time, but a United States Department of Education who has lost its moral compass.
    Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
    Silence and apathy are not acceptable any longer my friends. A nation that reduces our children, their parents, teachers, and their schools to data is immoral. Join our struggle, fight the fight, come walk with us next July 30 in Washington DC?
    We are coordinating a demonstration in DC, and a teach-in at the American University.
    I am one of the many voices of the resistance,

  • John Horn said:

    This posting today provides exactly the kind of challenges that need to be made about the huge disconnect between what Secretary of Education says and what he does in the policies he promotes. Thank you for both the challenges and the links you provide for those who want to check the source for his comments and your responses.
    Most state and federal policies are taking us in the wrong direction. It is time for many more thoughtful school leaders to speak out against the test-focused and bureaucratically run schools which are resulting in detrimental experiences for children. As an example, I would suggest a visit to the Texas Association of School Administrators website (TASAnet) and click on Visioning Institute. Thirty-five Texas school superintendents representing over 1.4 million Texas school children met over a two-year period and developed a set of principles and premises that they have proposed as the basis for A New Vision for Public Education in Texas. This group has made clear what they believe and painted a compelling picture of what public education could and should look like in the future. They are committed to work diligently to see the vision become a reality. All such like minded leaders and groups need to know about, encourage and support each other. Please continue to share your observations and insights. Thanks.

  • Jason Morgan said:

    Thank you for nailing it on the head. After reading a number of your blog topics the last few days I am glad to know I am one of many that feel Arne Duncan and his lip service is just that. Being in the public education system I am still waiting for something positive to come from this man’s ideas. He tries to wooo and calm the american people with his sly talk and used car salesman ways. When are we going to realize that all this focus on achievement testing is actually holding back our abilities to guide chidren to become thinkers. We spend all our time teaching them to take tests. Slowly turning them into robots that are afraid or not allowed to be creative or think outside the box. Very few of these charter schools at least in my state are able to perform. They aren’t achieving on the tests or providing a quality education. They are more like babysitters that just pass kids along without kids learing anything. When is someone in Washington going to step up and make a real change that benefits the future for our students and country.

  • “The Education Industry is Proud to Award This Diploma to…” | Andrew Gripp said:

    […] Duncan remarked during an interview with National Public Radio that the best ideas in education are “never from Washington.”  Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like […]

  • Prof. PRW said:

    I would ask: why does Arne Duncan have no graduate degree? WHY? WHY? Was he actually in the classroom for any length of time? I can’t imagine who would hire him — for he has no graduate degree. And he went through undergrad school as an athlete, not primarily a scholar.

    He doesn’t have the qualifications to address the issues he pretends to address. He offers the typical platitudes, and (more business as usual) wants us to teach to tests (by the way, who’s designing these tests?).

    You’re more of the same-old: implicitly blaming teachers for what is “Broken” in the school systems in the U.S. MR. Duncan, do you respect teachers, really? If so, how about getting some input from us?

    You like the Finnish model? Well, do you know that their students are not “tracked”? That they don’t even a universal grading standard at the college level? That tuition is completely free? That teachers are strongly unionized and well paid? I watched the the televised international education conference at which you spoke to the Finnish educators about their model, so I know! I’m fine with the Finnish model, but you probably aren’t. Stop trying to snow us, stop talking down to us: it’s easy enough for us to see through you.

Feel free to comment:

The views expressed on this site are entirely my own. They do not represent my employer or any other organization/institution. All comments are subject to approval.

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.