Watching the Watchdogs: It’s Everyone’s Job

By Becky O’Malley
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 06:54:00 PM

Those of us who voted for President-elect Barack Obama (possibly 95 percent of the readers of this paper) are waiting for his arrival with the same eagerness that our children and grandchildren are waiting for Santa Claus. But like the children of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the anticipation we feel is tempered by a bit of anxiety: Perhaps instead of sugarplums we might get Ashes and Switches or lumps of coal in our stockings. 

The left-leaning chattering class, in print and in conversation, seems not to be thrilled with most of Obama’s announcements about what he calls his “team.” The economic team in particular seems to have an overrepresentation of the Clinton-era architects of the policies that are currently causing the financial system to crash and burn in a spectacular way. Environmentalists don’t particularly like Obama’s choice for Interior, a fellow who seems to have made some bad decisions along with a few good ones.  

The overwhelming pride that many felt when America finally elected a president of African ancestry, someone who could speak in complete sentences and who has even written a very fine book, has been tempered by the realization that it’s possible to be intelligent, articulate, even charismatic, and still be wrong from time to time. Monday’s announcement of the choice of Barack’s Chicago basketball buddy Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education was greeted with groans from some of the most visible and active critics of the disastrous No Child Left Behind program.  

Here’s Greg Palast, for example, the frequently bombastic though seldom fact-checked columnist-at-large:  

“Hey, you Liberal Democrats. You may have won the election, but you’re getting CREAMED in the transition. 

Today, President-elect Barack Obama stuck it to you. He’s chosen Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. 

Who? Duncan is most decidedly NOT an educator. He’s a lawyer. But Duncan has this extraordinary qualification: He’s Obama’s pick-up basketball buddy from Hyde Park. 

I can’t make this up.” 

Like many of us, Palast claims to be an education expert because he’s got a couple of little kids. But those of us who have seen lots and lots of public school systems, even some in places less demographically challenged than Chicago, know that there’s more to good education management than being an educator by profession, and certainly more than just being a teachers’ union activist. (The worst teacher any of my three children ever had was a union officer, an activity which interested her more than her classroom charges.) 

I’m in perfect agreement with Palast that the Bush administration implementation of the No Child Left Behind law has been a disaster. But that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because this particular attempt to hold schools and teachers accountable for the children’s failures hasn’t worked, the goal shouldn’t be abandoned. Congressman George Miller, who perhaps now regrets his co-sponsorship of the original NCLB bill, is ready to try again to get it right. 

A more reasoned critique of the kind of management style touted by people like Arne Duncan (whose title is “CEO,” not superintendent, of the Chicago schools) is offered by Arnie Kohn in the current issue of The Nation. He offers an excellent checklist of school “reform” methods which he accuses Duncan and others of promoting which are more retrogressive than progressive. Several of his targets are unarguably bad: fill-in-the-bubble testing, top-down curriculum management, “disproportionate emphasis on rote learning.”  

But then Kohn throws in a blanket condemnation of charter schools with no rationale for why they’re all bad, and his argument falters. If you don’t like top-down curriculum management, how can you be categorically opposed to charter schools? There are good charter schools and bad charter schools, just as centralized school administration produces both good and bad schools (but mainly bad). 

Reading all this polemical prose prompted me to engage in some cheap-and-dirty fact-checking: a long-distance call to a trusted old friend and fellow grandmother in Chicago to find out what Arne Duncan looks like at ground zero. Her three accomplished adult children went all through the Chicago public schools. Two of them (and/or their spouses) now teach in the system. One is a special education teacher who has a child of her own with learning disabilities.  

Several of the grandkids are now in the Chicago system. A couple of them attended an excellent bilingual charter school, but it was disbanded because of anti-charter agitation. My friend is certainly not anti-union herself, since she’s retired from a glorious career as an in-the-trenches union organizer. 

Her verdict? Duncan’s fine. She points out that the main problem with Chicago schools in her experience (now going back 40 years or more) has been chaotic management: not necessarily the wrong policies, but just no policies and no (here’s that word again) accountability. Her view is that if anyone can get a grip on the situation, the kids benefit.  

What we might be tempted to forget is that we elected Obama to be a lever, not a hammer. He’s not, nor does he claim to be, an expert on education. What we can and should do is prepare to hold him accountable, just as his management choice for Secretary of Education claims to want to do with schools, for the success or failure of his administration’s program. That’s our job, and it’s a big important one. 

Here in Berkeley, right now, there’s an excellent debate in progress about major changes which are being proposed for Berkeley High. Various theories and points of view have been well articulated, and experts of every stripe have claimed authority. The solutions-du-jour seem to be block scheduling, which my informants tell me is widely hated in Santa Cruz, but which local proponents say has been successful elsewhere, plus small schools within the large high school, which look a lot like the better kind of charter schools.  

Some local opponents have charged that changes are being rushed through in secret. Concerned citizens (especially parents) need to inform themselves of the facts, and also of the reviews that similar programs have gotten elsewhere, and then participate intelligently in the discussion. The Berkeley Unified School District board members need to do their part by scheduling informational and decision-making meetings so that both current and future high school students and their parents can take part before the decision is final.  

The worst way to make crucial decisions like this one is to leave everything up to self-styled professionals, particularly to consultants from outside the local system who offer one-size-fits-all solutions to all their clients. Students and parents have different perspectives from those of consultants, administrators and teachers—all are valuable. The best argument for open and transparent democratic decision-making is that it prevents mistakes which are easy to make if criticism is shut out of the process.  

That’s something Arne Duncan will need to keep in mind in his new job as well. We Liberal Democrats need to help him do it in case he forgets.