Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Duncan's Lack of Classroom Experience Shouldn't Be Held Against Him

One argument that gets thrown around every time someone wants to complain about the state of education in America, or about Common Core, is Sec. of Education Arne Duncan's supposed lack of experience in education. These arguments are predicated on the assumption that someone in charge of education for the entire nation should have some experience at the ground level. He should be been a classroom teacher or an administrator. Maybe a superintendent would be acceptable, but we have all complained that our own superintendents are too divorced from what actually happens in the classroom, so it probably wouldn't be good enough.
Before we talk about whether or not the Sec. of Education should have been a teacher, lets's check out the history of the position and previous Sec. of Educations. Grab a snack, kids. This might take a minute.

The Department of Education was first created way back in 1867 for the purpose of data collection so the government could help teachers teach better. Yeah, is was created to collect data and help schools be more effective. So that's not new then.
It went through a few evolutionary phases before becoming the Cabinet position we know it as today. Congress made it Cabinet-level, and thereby necessitating a Sec. of Education, in 1980. As far as I'm concerned this makes it a fairly young position. It also means there aren't as many Secretaries to go through as you might have thought. I'm sure most of them were teachers though, right? They had to be.

#1: Shirley Hufstedler (1979-1981)
Appointed by Pres. Carter
Hey, we start with a woman! That's rare for politics, so points to us right there. But was she a teacher?
Nope. She was a lawyer and a judge. She did teach law after she left the position though.
Verdict: NO

#2: Terrel Bell (1981-1985)
Appointed by Pres. Reagan
He was a teacher! High school, then administration, then superintendent. He was one of us. During his tenure Reagan tried to reduce funding to the Department of Education and he was expected to dismantle it but ran into legal issues. He's one of the architects of A Nation At Risk, something many of us might not be fans of. He eventually resigned because of disagreements on the funding issue.
Verdict: YES

#3: William Bennett (1985-1988)
Appointed by Reagan
Lifetime politician. No mention of educational positions in his bio until he is appointed. He did chair the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities. No classroom/administrative experience in schools. He was pro:
  • Competency testing for teachers
  • Opening the teaching profession to knowledgeable individuals who have not graduated from "schools of education"
  • Performance-based pay
  • Holding educators accountable for how much children learn
  • A national examination to find out exactly how much our children know
  • Parental choice of schools
Guess we dodged a bullet there, huh?
Verdict: NO

#4: Lauro Cavazos (1988-1990)
Appointed by Pres Reagan/served under HW Bush
He taught not at the lower educational levels but in the collegiate levels at Tufts University and the Medical College of Virginia. He also served at dean of Tufts University School of Medicine. Let it not be said that teaching college students isn't teaching. He also resigned early for misusing frequent flyer miles.
Verdict: YES

Right now we are at 2 NO/2 YES

#5: Lamar Alexander (1990-1993)
Appointed by Pres HW Bush
He was a lawyer and then Governor of Tennessee. He was president of the University of Tennessee from 1988-1991, but never faculty. If being Sec of Education doesn't count as being a teacher then neither does being president of a university. It looks like he made a lot of money in office and not much else.
Verdict: NO

#6: Richard Riley (1993-2001)
Appointed by Pres Clinton
Never a teacher, always a politician involved in education as Governor of South Carolina. He helped get the internet into schools and was a major player in improving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Verdict: NO

#7: Rod Paige (2001-2005)
Appointed by Pres W Bush
Classroom teacher, college dean, school superintendent, Doctor of Physical Education. As superintendent he launched charter schools and introduced teacher pay being impacted by test scores in his district. Under him the "Houston Miracle" happened, where test scores rose dramatically, and was celebrated as a hero. Those claims turned out to be false. He was also in charge when No Child Left Behind went into effect, which we all loved so much. 
Verdict: YES

#8: Margaret Spellings (2005-2009)
Appointed by Pres W Bush
She worked in an education reform commission in Texas. Not quite teaching, that. She was also an Associate Executive Director of the Texas Association of School Boards. So not in a school. Not on a school board. So not a teacher in any way.She did advise Bush during his gubernatorial campaign and as governor.
Verdict: NO

#9: Arne Duncan (2009-Present)
Appointed by Pres Obama
Never a classroom teacher, Duncan served as CEO to Chicago's Public Schools and was executive director of the Ariel Education Initiative. So involved in schools on not a ground level, but seemingly more hands-on than many previous Secretaries. Also accused of increasing charter schools and leader of Race to the Top.
Verdict: NO

So what's the final score?
YES- 3
NO- 6

Which means attacking Duncan for not having classroom experience is historically ridiculous because there is little precedent for the Sec. of Education actually having classroom experience. In fact, there's barely any precedent for the position to have any educational experience at all. 

Do I think there should be a former teacher in office? Yes. I want decisions impacting teachers to be made by a former teacher. But the fact is it's a political appointment. Secretary of Education is not elected. If you want to be The Man you need to leave the classroom and either become a Governor or lawyer or adviser. You need the president to know who you are. The Secretary of Education is not a teacher anymore. They are a politician. S/He makes policy and deals with reporters and sits in Cabinet meetings and gets yelled at all the time. S/He doesn't deal with students. S/He is not a teacher or a principal or even a superintendent.

There might be reasons to complain about Arne Duncan. His lack of classroom experience simply isn't one.

    1 comment:

    1. It seems as though the Secretaries with classroom experience didn't necessarily do us any favors either....