Arne Duncan Isn’t the Enemy

photoEarlier this week, I had a chance to give a short speech at the White House ConnectEd to the Future Summit. It was a surreal experience to get a chance to meet President Obama and Secretary Duncan in person. I was nervous about how the speech would be received, because I brought up the need for better metrics to replace standardized tests and better policies to encourage true innovation. To my surprise, the superintendents and the member of the Department of Education in the audience were receptive. I had made so many assumptions about the faceless institution of the Department of Education and failed to remember that it would be filled with people who, in many cases, have the same passion for student-centered learning that I have.

This experience confirmed something that I have begun to believe over the last few years:

The enemy isn’t a person. The real enemy is a flawed system and a set of policies that get in the way of meaningful learning.

There’s something about meeting Arne Duncan face-to-face and hearing him talk unscripted that allowed me to realize that he isn’t the villain. In fact, I have a hunch that he holds many of the same values and beliefs that I have. I don’t think he hates teachers or hates students. I don’t think he wants to ruin our schools. In many cases, he is advocating the same teaching strategies I advocate (project-based learning, inquiry-based STEM projects, maker spaces, etc.) We just have very different views on the nitty gritty policies that should govern teacher evaluation, accountability, and school choice.

I regret some of the things I wrote about Arne Duncan five or six years ago. I took easy shots at him that simply weren’t fair. I viewed him as an icon onscreen and failed to think of him as a person in the flesh. I blasted him on Twitter and mocked him on my blog and treated him as the sole person craft educational policy (which is far from the truth). He became my scapegoat for everything I didn’t like in Federal education policy. Looking back at it, that kind of vitriolic attack on a single person had no chance at bringing about real change. If anything, it burned potential bridges to meaningful dialogue.

Ultimately, the real enemy isn’t a person at all. The true villain is a set of toxic policies that prevent innovation from happening. If we can attack things like VAM scores or excessive testing, using reason and intelligence rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks on people, we have a better chance at changing the system. If we can engage in a real dialogue and bring actual solutions to the table, we have a higher likelihood at transforming our schools into the places we know that they can be.


John Spencer

John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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