Robert Maranto: Arne Duncan in the AERA Lion’s Den

by Robert Maranto, Ph.D.

The ironies abounded. Education and Poverty was the theme of the annual American Educational Research Association (AERA) meeting in San Francisco, held in fancy hotels occupied by low tipping professors, and surrounded by homeless people.

My hippie Silicon Valley friend Karl told me that he didn't go into San Francisco since the homeless had taken over. I figured Karl had become a hyper-sensitive suburbanite, but he was on to something. San Francisco has weirded out in the past decade, with the homeless far more numerous and aggressive. One fellow sold a conference program out of his shopping cart, and I am pretty sure he was not an AERA member. At twilight a bunch of folks started yelling and howling, which was evocative, sad, and well, annoying.

I chatted with a cabbie who lives downtown next to the conference hotel (and had a neat scam with the hotel to fleece tourists like me). He said the street people were not really homeless: they sleep at one church, eat at another, and panhandle on the streets for drug money. (My very straight laced co-author had six different people try to sell him drugs.)

One thing we learned back in the 1980s—read A Nation in Denial—is that homeless folks left on the streets have a mean lifespan, and it is mean, of 2-3 years. It is sad to see people suffering slow motion chemically dependent deaths, probably even sadder than institutionalizing them. San Francisco has chosen the more libertarian, and cheaper Hobson's choice.

The actual AERA meeting featured a surprising speaker, Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan normally snubs AERA; indeed in 2011 he spoke at a KIPP charter school a mile away while avoiding AERA. This year Secretary Duncan had the courage to enter the lion's den, and some courage was in fact required. Duncan is for everything most of AERA is against, measuring achievement to see that students learn and teachers teach, merit pay, alternative certification to break the monopoly of education schools in teacher preparation, and even school choice in the form of public charter schools.

Outside, about three dozen AERA members protested Duncan's talk chanting "students are more, than just test scores." AERA President William Tierney spent a good two minutes sternly admonishing the audience to be civil, which seemed to limit the booing. Still, several dozen professors held up small protest signs at key parts of Duncan's speech, which was followed by hostile Q and A. One well known, PC, pre-selected professor "asked" Duncan a four-part, three-minute "question" to the effect that low income students can't learn, so the Obama education policies expect too much from schools and kids. (I thought that much of the reasoning behind free and reduced breakfast and lunch, which the European welfare state does not provide, was to assure that students can learn.)

Initially nervous, Duncan came into his own in the Q and A, mainly by playing the street cred card. Duncan recalled numerous low income African Americans he knew growing up who had succeeded in part because of his mom's preschool and afterschool program. Duncan was among the few in a full ballroom who grew up around disadvantaged young people. Duncan actually cares about poor people rather than just pretending to care. Say what you will, Arne Duncan is no poser. The Secretary was heartfelt, effective, and even earned some applause. Against all odds, he started with a quarter of the AERA audience on his side and probably ended with half.

Often, you can learn something from seeing public officials up close. I learned why Arne Duncan backs preschool. The evaluations on preschool programs give little cause for optimism about its long term impacts, as the center right Chester E. Finn (Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut) and the more reliably left Bruce Fuller (Standardized Childhood) document at length. Preschool programs have shown little success in altering life trajectories (school achievement and attainment, employment, staying out of jail).

Duncan admits that, but says this time it will be different since the new preschool programs will be "high quality." I doubt he is right. If small scale programs with handpicked teachers have mediocre results, how likely is it that the programs will soar once brought to scale with typical staffs?

But for Arne Duncan, and this is why I like him, this is personal. When Duncan sees preschool and after-school, he doesn't see the average government program staffed with average teachers; Duncan sees what his mom did with all her talent and idealism on the south side of Chicago for decades. If only we could clone her! But we cannot.

Still, as a school reformer, I love having an education secretary who takes education personally rather than politically. Now if Duncan would only overcome his fear of religion and embrace vouchers, nothing could stop him.

Robert Maranto ([email protected]) is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and author (with Mike McShane) of President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political. 

05 13, 2013
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