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Leadership and Activism

Why President Obama Must Remove Arne Duncan As Secretary of Education if He Hopes to Win Re-Election

The following is a guest post by Professor Mark Naison. Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book White Boy: A Memoir, published in the Spring of 2002, was reviewed in the New York Times, the Nation and the Chronicle of Higher Education and was the subject of feature stories on Black Entertainment Television, New York One News and the Tavis Smiley show on National Public Radio. One of his most popular courses at Fordham, “From Rock and Roll to Hip Hop: Urban Youth Cultures in Post War America” has also received media attention, becoming the subject of stories on National Public Radio, Bronx Net, and WFUV. His most recent course, “Feeling the Funk: Research Seminar on Music of the African Diaspora” focuses on Latin and Caribbean traditions on American Popular Music.

The 2008 Election Campaign of Barack Obama inspired a spirit of sacrifice and idealism that I had not seen among close friends since the early days of the Civil Right Movement. My upstairs neighbors, both in their mid 70’s, camped out in Virginia a week before the election to help get out the vote in that state. My best friend and his wife did the same in Florida. At least ten people in my circle took regular trips to Pennsylvania and Ohio on weekends to help move those “swing states” into the Democratic camp. And my dear friend Rich Klimmer, now deceased, spent three months in a hotel room in Philadelphia, while undergoing dialysis three times a week, coordinating the labor campaign for Obama in Pennsylvania.

What did all these people have in common, other than a passion to elect the first African American president in American History?

Every single one of them were college professors or public schools teachers!   No group worked harder for Barack Obama’s election than America’s teachers, who not only contributed funds to his campaign, but were the campaign’s most effective “grunt workers,” doing everything possible to reach voters in swing states, whether by participating in phone banks or by travelling long distances to reach voters door to door.

Today, America’s teachers stand so disillusioned with the Obama administration that their participation in the 2012 is a big question mark. Teachers I know may ultimately vote for Barack Obama, but they will do so only because they fear the Republican candidate will do more damage, not because they think the Obama administration’s policies are moving the nation in the right direction. When it comes to education policy, most teachers and professors  see the Obama administration as promoting national initiatives which strip teachers of their autonomy, make them scapegoats for the nation’s problems, and promote formulas for assessing teacher quality that will, if accepted, turn reduce instruction at all levels to memorization and test prep. They are very likely to sit out the next Presidential campaign unless the administration switches gears and embraces a teacher centered strategy for improving American schools and universities.

But to do that, President Obama will have to remove the Harvard trained lawyer who runs the US Department of Education, Arne Duncan. Not only does Duncan promote policies which force schools and universities make testing and assessment a far more significant part of classroom learning, in his comments to the press and elected officials, he literally oozes contempt for teachers and school administrators. In Arne Duncan’s field of vision, America’s schools and universities are islands of backwardness and inefficiency in a dynamic society where competition produces excellence and those who can’t compete lose their jobs. Obsessed with quantifying success and punishing failure, he is on a mission to turn every dimension of classroom learning, from kindergarten through graduate school, into something that can be measured and evaluated with the simplicity and clarity of sales figures in a bank or corporation, thereby allowing for ironclad measures of teacher evaluation on a national scale. When anyone suggest that teaching involves more than preparing students for tests, and involves characteristics likes nurturing, mentoring and character building, or involves stimulating imagination and creativity, Duncan responds with impatience and contempt. He sees himself as single handily driving the nation towards educational competitiveness by shaking up the nation’s teachers, made soft by tenure and union protections, and forcing them to be as success driven and fearful as those who work in the private sector.

While Duncan’s approach has succeeded in making teachers angry and fearful, nowhere has it improved the nation’s schools. The strategic mix of school closings, teacher assessment protocols based on  student test results, and the closing of “failing” schools, mandated by No Child Left Behind has not raised tests results in a single major urban school district, nor has it brought new idealism and energy to teaching and learning. Instead it has enraged teachers, confused administrators, and led to protests by students and parents who feel that their input has been erased by the national formulas that determined a larger and larger portion of school policies.

On the University level, Duncan has forced rating agencies like Middle States to require assessment protocols that vastly simplify what goes on in college classrooms and strip faculty members of powers of peer evaluation that have been in place since the 1960’s. The same obsession to find out if teachers have been “successful” according to a one size fits all formula, forced down the throat of local school districts through the financial incentives of Race to the Top, has been forced on universities  through the threat of the cutting off of federal funding. As a result, faculty members throughout the country have been forced to use a language in evaluating their work that has no standing or credibility in their discipline (what “outcomes” and “goals” would one measure in a course on Greek philosophy or Hip Hop Dance) and violates every norm of academic freedom that faculty members have fought for since the McCarthy Era.

The negative effect on teacher morale of such policies is well documented, but they have also started to inspire resistance. All over the nation, teachers are taking to the streets to resist attacks on their autonomy and professional status, and university professors are starting to mobilize against the threat posed to academic freedom and departmental self-governance by nationally designed and enforced assessment protocols. Everywhere you go in this country, the name Arne Duncan inspires outrage, not only among teachers, and college professors, but among school administrators and college presidents.

If President Obama has any hope of being re-elected in 2012, he’d better pay attention to this groundswell of outrage and replace Arne Duncan with a Secretary of Education who shows greater respect for the idealism, creativity and hard work of a group that played a central role in his 2008 campaign-America’s Teachers.

Mark Naison June 7, 2011

About Deven Black

I'm a highly curious middle school teacher-librarian for the NYC Department of Education. My other major pleasure is being a husband and the father of a teenager. I've done lots of other things (news reporter, restaurant manager, food writer, etc.) that will show up in my writing from time-to-time. I have strong opinions but I try to keep an open mind. I'm always ready to learn something new.


7 thoughts on “Why President Obama Must Remove Arne Duncan As Secretary of Education if He Hopes to Win Re-Election

  1. Personally I think not voting for Obama over Duncan is not worth the other option, but that being said…. Duncan has not been a champion of the people and has more in common with republican governors than we (obama voting, I have at least 5 obama shirts and campaign hard from Obama,) want to believe. He had the chance to come out against all the recent efforts to break up unions, to put teachers down, to close schools and he was either silent or endorsed their efforts as innovative or against the status quo….

    Obama has said repeatedly that we should challenge him, and I think this post is aimed at Duncan more than anything, but I wonder if we should step up and enough is enough! We needs some change at the DOE!

    Posted by dloitz | June 10, 2011, 2:53 am
  2. To me the point of the post is that with Duncan helming @usedgov, Obama will have fewer volunteers in his campaign, fewer supporters among educators, and fewer teachers turning out to vote, rather than more teachers turning out to vote Republican. Regardless of our judgments about teachers who choose this way or that – or to do this or that – I think that these are valid concerns and we should tweet the hell out of everyone involved in education at the national level – government officials, elected representatives, and those in the ed media and corporations.

    Obama has a great candidate for Secretary of Education in Karen Cator, director of the Office of Educational Technology. Despite her work with Apple, which might draw some anti-business attention, Cator has managed the National Educational Technology Plan, which is the only sound pedagogical document I’ve seen come of of the USDOE in over a decade. Moreover, it makes the most cogent case for meaningful standards met through differentiated, student-centered means that I’ve seen from our government, ever.

    What I would suggest, and what I’m happy to help organize beginning next week, is an online #Cator4EdSec campaign. If we could get a significant number of our networks’ members to blog and tweet “X instead of Y” posts comparing and contrasting what Cator proposes with what Duncan is doing, then we’d have a tidy set of arguments for achievable change to tweet at government.

    The larger problem here, though, as I see it, is the sheer political juggernaut that is the economic crisis – it’s an unstoppable force, but Obama is not an unmovable object. Making one policy statement out of alignment with Duncan doesn’t make Obama any less culpable for keeping Duncan in office or for playing so much ball with the House Republicans.

    While we can all acknowledge the “realities” of politics, finance, and government, it does fall to someone to say, “No more,” and to push for new conversations. With all due respect to the “realists” out there, problem-solving our crises doesn’t always equal coming to a bullied consensus with Republicans, who are, paradoxically, budget cuts and cut-throat competitive ethos aside, closer to the vision of choice and community schooling that some of us hold than are Democrats aligned with the unions.

    Regardless of who is in the White House or on Capitol Hill, it falls to us to imagine and enact a system of public education that side-steps the debate “raging” about effectiveness at raising test scores. If we agree that the tests are not the thing, we have to teach and learn that way, document our efforts, and share our proofs to sway the system, every little bit we can. We might get the odd friendly nudge from a Cator USDOE; it will not come from a Duncan USDOE.

    We cannot simultaneously aim for sliding-scale test scores and new kinds of schools without compromising those schools irreparably. If there is a reality regarding our schools to face, it’s that our schools are sorting mechanisms for gatekeepers. Excellent scores do not equate to excellent work. Excellent individual grades do not amount to excellent individualized instruction or learning. Excellent teacher evaluations based on test-scores do not equate to excellent teaching.

    We need be less concerned with the “political” act of voting or joining this union or that, and more concerned with making that quintessentially individual political choice to change what we do each day in our work so that teaching and learning around us become more humane, sane, authentic, inquiry-driven, and engendering of excellent work of lasting benefit to our students and their communities. Waiting for a union or political party to win this concession or that before acting is tantamount to not acting today out of fear of current policy. The intrinsic decision to change what we’re doing – made by each educational stakeholder – is all. I don’t begrudge anyone his or her comfort level or livelihood, but I urge us all to reflect on what we do and to change what we can.

    I know I still have a lot of decisions to make and work to do – that much is clear to me, as is my determination to make those choices and do that work in public schools.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 10, 2011, 9:05 am
  3. Re: “But to do that, President Obama will have to remove the Harvard trained lawyer who runs the US Department of Education, Arne Duncan.”

    This is a misconception held by a number of people. Duncan only has a Bachelor’s degree. Here’s more background information.

    Duncan is a former private-school attending Chicago native who graduated from Harvard in 1987 with a B.A. in Sociology. He was on the college’s basketball team, and after graduating, played professional basketball in Australia for four years.

    After his oversees basketball adventure, Duncan returned to Chicago and was immediately given a job by John Rogers, a longtime friend and former Hyde Park basketball buddy who had also attended the Chicago Lab School (where the Obama children attended before they moved to DC). At that point, Rogers had become the CEO of the largest US minority-run mutual fund firm, Ariel Capital Management. Rogers is the son of the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School who then became a prominent Republican lawyer. It was she who nominated Richard Nixon.

    So in 1991, Rogers placed Duncan in charge of running the Ariel Education Initiative, a non-profit set up by Rogers’ firm to advance “…educational opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas.” It seemed like a good fit for Duncan, after all, he had tutored a lot at his mother’s inner-city after school program when he was a kid, he had an unused bachelor’s degree in sociology, and he was Rogers’ friend and a basketball player.

    In 1998, after running Rogers’ local non-profit for several years, Duncan went to work for Chicago Public Schools, becoming Deputy Chief of Staff for former CEO Paul Vallas. In 2001, he was appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools by Mayor Daley. At the press conference when Obama announced his appointment of Duncan as U.S. Secretary of Education, Rogers was right there to praise him. Duncan was sure to thank Rogers, his “mentor” and close friend of 35 years.

    Basketball happens to be a HUGE part of Rogers’ life. For years he has played in three-on-three basketball tournaments where Arne Duncan has been a regular member of his team.

    Another of Rogers’ regular basketball teammates for many years is Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s older brother. Both men attended Princeton and played together on the school’s basketball team. After graduating from college, Robinson became a wealthy businessman but gave up that work in 1999 to become a college basketball coach.

    Knowing Rogers via her brother, Michelle introduced Obama to him when she started dating Obama seriously, around 1990. This would have been about the time Arne Duncan returned to Chicago and was starting to work for Rogers’ non-profit, as well as playing basketball with him again. Connections made on the court, rather than on the green.

    By the way, Rogers’ ex-wife, Desirée Glapion Rogers, was the first White House social secretary. She was in charge when that couple crashed a White House party, and eventually resigned.

    Posted by Sharon | June 10, 2011, 10:44 am
  4. Re: “But to do that, President Obama will have to remove the Harvard trained lawyer who runs the US Department of Education, Arne Duncan.”

    Duncan only has a B.A. in Sociology (Harvard, 1987), but his important basketball qualifications have always helped him get jobs.

    Posted by Sharon | June 10, 2011, 12:46 pm
  5. Thank you to Professor Mark Naison for speaking truth to power. Although none of us wants to see a Republican White House, Congress, or Senate we need to put pressure on President Obama to clean up his act, so to speak. Arne Duncan does not speak on behalf public school teachers or any other educator, for that matter. He speaks for the corporate interests that bolster and sustain him, and themselves, through financial means, and whatever means necessary. Their so-called reforms have not helped improve education on any front and have in fact made matters worse. Educators were important supporters during Obama’s presidential campaign. I would venture to guess that unless there are some tangible changes made in the DOE, there won’t be the same groundswell of support as in 2008. I am hoping that the massive presence of families, students, teachers, teacher educators, members of the community, and teacher unions, will speak loudly and clearly to this disappointment and for the need for radical change in DOE policy. Join us in DC in July. Go to for more information.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | June 11, 2011, 6:50 pm
  6. Thank you Mark Naison for this right on post. It is powerful and important to us to have you here.

    The NCLB era, which Duncan’s administration supports, is a failed policy, as even the most assiduously pro-test folks now assert in a new research study.

    Duncan himself is backing off as of Friday:

    We are here to pump up the volume. Thanks for firing us up Dr. Naison.



    Posted by Kirsten | June 12, 2011, 9:59 pm
  7. Hello. Thank you for all for your thoughtful comments on my piece. My goal in writing it was to create pressure on President Obama to remove Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, not necessarily in the expectation of achieving that goal- since Duncan’s ties to Obama are forged in friendship, family and b-ball – but in getting Duncan to back off his most objectionable policies, which
    have impact on higher education as well as the nation’s public schools. I would like to see a national petition drive to remove Duncan as Secretary of Education started by public school teachers, but I can assure you that college professors will sign it too as Duncan is using the threat of cutting off federal funding to enforce assessment protocols on the nation’s universities that are deeply objectionable to their faculties.

    We are seeing signs of revolt among the nation’s teachers against merit pay, tying teacher evaluation to student test scores, funding charter schools at the expense of public schools and other components of Duncan’s policies, but we are also seeing the first signs of resistance among college professors as university assessment protocols, imposed by the top down from the Department of Education become more intrusive and more threatening to academic freedom

    The Save Our Schools March in July, which I am participating in, is an important step in bringing teachers voices to the forefront of political discussion, but I also think that people should consider a national petition drive to remove Duncan and should tell Democratic fundraisers that they will not give the DP another cent until Arne Duncan is removed as Secretary of Education. That
    is what I have started doing and if enough people do it, people in the White House will hear it

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on my piece

    All My Best

    Mark Naison.

    Posted by Mark Naison | June 13, 2011, 6:48 am

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