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Why President Obama Must Replace Arne Duncan If He Hopes to Win Re-Election

Barack Obama's 2008 campaign 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-seventies, 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 the passion to elect the first African American president in American history?

Every single one of them were college professors or public school 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 are so disillusioned with the Obama administration that their participation in the 2012 is a big question mark.  Most 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’s schools and universities.

But to do that, President Obama will have to remove the Harvard-trained lawyer who runs the U.S. Department of Education, Arne Duncan.  Not only does Duncan promote policies which force schools and universities to make testing and assessment a far more significant part of classroom learning than it ought to be, his comments to the press and elected officials literally ooze contempt for teachers and school administrators.  In Arne Duncan’s view, 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.

To those who suggest that teaching involves more than preparing students for tests, and involves characteristics such as nurturing, mentoring and character building, or involves stimulating imagination and creativity, Duncan responds with impatience and contempt.  He sees himself as single-handedly driving the nation towards educational competiveness by shaking up the nation’s teachers, made soft by tenure and union protection, 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.

At 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 1960s.  The same obsession to find out if teachers have been “successful” according to a one-size-fits-all formula has been forced on universities through by threatening their funding.  As a result, faculty members throughout the country have been forced to used 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 morale-sapping effects 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 more greater respect for the idealism, creativity and hard work of a group that played a central role in his 2008 campaign—America’s Teachers.