Arne Duncan’s Balancing Act

Last year, I supported Barack Obama in part because of his seeming desire to move beyond the Mondale/Dukakis/Clinton era-identity politics—a philosophy that has had devastating effects on higher education. For those hoping that a President Obama would abandon the failed policies of the past, however, the administration’s early months offered little of the promise that Obama’s campaign had provided.
Particularly problematic, of course, was the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, who few (if any) prominent commentators deemed the most qualified candidate of the people on the shortlist for the nomination. Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark, which reflected the conventional wisdom in most ethnic studies departments or diversity compliance offices, suggested that—even without the New Haven case—her Supreme Court jurisprudence will be heavily tilted in favor of upholding racial preferences in education. That such a figure was the first Supreme Court nominee selected by Obama contradicted much of the rhetoric from his campaign.
This week’s Time seems to bring news that, on one front at least, the Obama administration will make a break from the failed policies of the past. Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Columbia Teachers College—seemingly the only institution still utilizing the since-abandoned NCATE policy of assessing each prospective teacher’s disposition to promote social justice. Duncan was blunt: “By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.”
Duncan called for increased use of accountability, imitating a Louisiana model, according to Time, “in which student test scores in grades 4-9 are traced back to their teachers, who are in turn traced back to their place of training, whether it be an ed school or an alternative certification program like Teach for America.” (I strongly suspect that Teach for America would fare well in such a comparison.)
This all sounds like a good plan. But Duncan’s words are difficult to reconcile with his remarks about Teachers College itself, as reported by the Columbia Spectator. The Education Secretary opened with praise for TC, contending that his indictment of education schools as a whole didn’t apply to Columbia’s ideologically top-heavy program. And, he added later, TC had set an example through (according to the Spectator) “its focus on hands-on training and research.”
At the time of his selection, Duncan was widely viewed as a compromise choice for his position. The education establishment wanted Stanford Education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Reformers pushed New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Duncan’s remarks at TC—calling for genuine reform while praising an institution whose policies constitute a chief obstacle to that reform—suggest that he’s still trying to perform a balancing act between advocates of change and defenders of the status quo.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

    View all posts

2 thoughts on “Arne Duncan’s Balancing Act

  1. Hi!
    I was reading your forum for a long time now and just thought I might wanna get an profile here and comment once in a while.

  2. By his implicit endorsement of the “dispositions” requirement for TC certification as worthy-to-
    teach, Duncan resonates (or submits) to the assertively leftist program of the administration and of his old basketball buddy from Hyde Park.
    Another exemplification of that submission, though not mentioned by K.C. Johnson, was the bizarre appointment of Kevin Jennings, founder and long-term proprietor of GLSEN, (google it if you don’t know what they are trying to do in the schools) as Assistant Secretary of Education for “safe schools.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *