Arne Duncan’s “How Schools Work”

Moderates and liberals concerned about public schools will enjoy “How Schools Work,” the new book by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Conservatives and Second Amendment acolytes will not be happy because Duncan cares deeply about our national failure to restrict access to guns.  However, those who care about accuracy and full disclosure will be deeply disturbed by the omissions and distortions that run through the book.  Luckily for Duncan, this last group is probably not large enough to slow down his publicity machine.

Education runs on lies.” As attention-getting opening sentences go, this one from Arne Duncan has to rank near the top. And toward the end of the book, he writes, “The truth is that we not only don’t value our teachers. We don’t value our kids.”   Strong stuff. However, except for passionate, angry, and deeply moving chapters about gun violence, “How Schools Work” is not the ‘inside account’ Duncan promises; instead, it’s notable for what he glosses over or omits entirely. Duncan was by far the most powerful and consequential United States Secretary of Education in the Department’s 42-year history. In 2009, the year he arrived in Washington, Congress gave him $4.35 billion to spend as he saw fit, far more discretionary money than the other 10 Secretaries combined.  How he spent that money changed public education and upended the federal-state relationship.

Duncan is an admirable and likable person. Many children growing up with supportive parents, a private school education, and basketball skills that opened doors to the Ivy League might emerge feeling entitled, but that did not happen in Duncan’s case. He acknowledges that basketball got him into Harvard, and he seized the opportunity. He graduated magna cum laude (sociology) and co-captained the varsity basketball team. When he did not make the NBA, he played professionally in Australia for several years before returning to Chicago to work with underprivileged youth, which he and his sister had done regularly in their mother’s early childhood center in inner city Chicago.

Though education has been Duncan’s career, guns and gun violence are central to understanding the man. Children at his Mom’s center lost family members to gun violence, and as CEO of Chicago’s schools he went to a student’s funeral every two or three weeks for seven years. Early in his career, the National Rifle Association singled him out for disapprobation, a badge he continues to wear with honor. In fact, the most eloquent and moving chapters of “How Schools Work” are those about gun violence, the seemingly intractable problem that the passionately optimistic Duncan is now tackling back in Chicago.

“How Schools Work” includes many engaging stories. One concerns a Chicago rising senior, Calvin Williams, an African American who was ‘twice the player I was.’  As Calvin’s tutor, Duncan asked him to take a language arts test, to establish the skills he needed to work on.  Looking over Calvin’s shoulder, “I plainly saw that Calvin struggled to read and could barely form a proper sentence. His letters were fine but his spelling was dismal. His ability to craft a cohesive thought using written language was nonexistent. I wasn’t an expert, but if I had to guess, Calvin Williams, a rising high school senior on the B honor roll, could read and write at a second- or third-grade level.”

His conclusion: Chicago schools had systematically lied to Calvin and his parents about his progress.  How many more Calvins were there, and what could he do about it?  He would get his chance in 2001 when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed him CEO of the public schools. He closed many schools and opened charter schools, and, although test scores and graduation rates improved, many other cities made greater gains. He served until 2009, when another Chicagoan, Barack Obama, asked him to come to Washington.

Throughout this century, two school reform strategies have competed for domination. The top down ‘Better people’ approach identifies and rewards ‘good’ teachers and drives out ‘bad’ ones, with good and bad determined largely by students’ standardized test scores. By contrast, the ‘better job’ approach gives teachers more responsibility for what is taught and how success is measured.  In Chicago Duncan kept one foot in each camp; in Washington, however, he embraced the ‘better people’ approach.

In Chicago Duncan chafed under No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that required that all students achieve proficiency by 2008; he writes about traveling to Washington to beg Secretary Margaret Spellings for a waiver from a federal ruling telling him who he could hire for his summer school program (She eventually granted the waiver). Although Congress hated NCLB, it couldn’t agree on a revision when it expired in 2008, and so the law, which Duncan called “fundamentally broken and obsolete,” remained in force.

When he became Secretary, every state needed a waiver to avoid being in violation. Given his strong feelings about NCLB and federal overreach, Duncan could have said, “Of course. Now let’s work together to improve schools.” He did not do that. Instead, he granted conditional waiversWhen I interviewed him for the PBS NewsHour, I posed this question: “So, states will get more money if they do this thing that Mr. Duncan wants?” His response: “If you play by these rules, absolutely right.”

In other words, although Duncan had railed against federal “micromanagement,” he embraced the opportunity. Readers looking for some acknowledgment of the irony will be disappointed.

Then Duncan announced his plan for allocating the discretionary money. A former professional basketball player, the new secretary decided to make states compete for the money.  Independent reviewers would judge states according to their commitment to 1) improving their data collection, 2) raising their academic standards; 3) ‘turning around’ high schools with high dropout rates and poor academic scores; and 4) overhauling teacher evaluation.

(A quick aside: When Duncan announced ‘Race to the Top,’ we saw a great opportunity for a compelling NewsHour series. I called Peter Cunningham, Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, to propose we be given access to the application process, the judging, and everything else behind the scenes. Peter invited me to pitch the idea to Duncan, which I did. Declaring that openness was essential to show the public that the process was not ‘political,’ Duncan agreed. We were thrilled at the prospect of a gripping ‘serial’ that would run for several months, but at the eleventh hour the Department’s General Counsel nixed the idea, on the grounds that setting that precedent would make it difficult to turn down other journalists who wanted to report on the department’s inner workings. However, Duncan did have the process recorded, and the judging’s integrity was not questioned.)

Two of Duncan’s targets, teacher evaluation and higher academic standards, were genuinely controversial.  Most states set their own academic standards, but, as Duncan writes, “Wouldn’t it be nice if what a kid learned in El Paso was equivalent to what a kid learned in Nashville or Boston?”  An effort—led by the National Governors Association, not the federal government–to raise standards was well underway, but when Duncan’s Race to the Top required higher standards, accusations of ‘national curriculum’ and ‘federal takeover’ filled the airwaves, and before long Duncan was accused of acting like ‘the nation’s school superintendent.’  In the end, however, nearly every state adopted what the NGA called the Common Core. Although over time some states dropped the name for political reasons, nearly all have remained committed to the goal.  Chalk that up as a win for Duncan.

Although almost everyone in education acknowledges that teacher evaluation is embarrassingly inadequate, changing it proved to be problematic.  Generally, ratings were based on how well prepared teachers appeared to be, not on how their students performed; in some districts principals needed a teacher’s permission before they could sit in the back of the room to observe.  In hopes of rewarding the ‘best’ teachers with extra pay and identifying the ‘worst’ teachers, Duncan wanted them to be judged largely based on their students’ academic achievement, something that was prohibited by law in California, Wisconsin, and a few other states.  When Duncan announced that states with those laws could not enter the competition, legislatures were quick to get rid of the offending legislation.  Another win for Duncan.

However, using test scores as the primary measure of teacher effectiveness created serious problems. All teachers were to be evaluated by test scores, but students were tested only in math and English language arts. How should teachers of science, social studies, art, music, and physical education be judged? Because those tests did not exist, some of those teachers found themselves being judged based on the English and math scores of students who weren’t in their classes–and in some cases not even in their schools.

That test-centric policy has meant more tests, more test-prep, and, sadly, cheating by adults fearful of losing their jobs. Googling ‘cheating by teachers on their students’ standardized tests’ produces 2,400,000 hits with stories about Atlanta, Columbus Ohio, Austin, Texas, and Duncan’s favorite reform ‘success,’ Washington, DC. Even that approach’s strongest supporter, billionaire Bill Gates, has concluded that teaching is too complex to be measured so narrowly, but Duncan makes no reference to the controversies, except for what amounts to an aside: “(M)aybe we had screwed up on the amount of testing districts were subjecting their kids to, but not the importance of testing in general,” he writes.

Duncan’s other two ‘pillars’ were not controversial.  School district data systems were notoriously unreliable; some made their own rules for counting dropouts, for example, making district-to-district comparisons virtually impossible, and Race to the Top forced the states that entered the competition to improve their systems.  That’s a win for Duncan.

Duncan’s fourth ‘pillar,’ the effort to ‘turn around’ failing schools, was both reasonable and ambitious.  In 2009, about 12 percent of the nation’s 27,000 high schools were producing a disproportionate number of the nation’s dropouts—if those schools could be ‘turned around,’ the overall graduation rate would soar.  Calling this effort his ‘biggest bet,’ Duncan doubled down on ‘school improvement,’ using both Race to the Top money and additional billions from another program.

That failed spectacularly. As the Washington Post reported in January 2017, “One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.”  Its failure is not mentioned in “How Schools Work.”

Although the 3-year Race to the Top competition produced only 19 winners, Duncan notes that the 46 states (plus DC) that applied changed their rules in order to be eligible.  While that’s a clear win for Duncan, the more important question has to do with educational outcomes.  At one point, Duncan writes, ”As I look back I wonder, Have we succeeded?”   And, while he asserts that we won’t know until today’s 4th and 5th graders are in college, the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress.(NAEP) results reveal that most scores have remained flat since 2007. In a particularly offensive attempt at deception, Duncan celebrates the increase in scores since 1971 but makes no reference to the ‘lost decade’ that occurred largely on his watch.

Duncan the author wants to have it both ways. For example, his closing chapter is about a school whose faculty and staff worked as one to support one troubled child; Duncan presents this as the ideal situation, but his own Race to the Top policies pitted teachers against each other (those test scores).  Is he unaware, hypocritical, or late to understand?

In the end, “How Schools Work” is mostly the memoir of a decent, unassuming, and genuinely nice man who insists that everyone “Call me Arne.” Duncan highlights what went well on his watch, ignores what didn’t, and uses old NAEP data to try to make it look as if his approach worked.   While he should be taken to task for this, he probably won’t be.

I hope I am not the first reviewer to suggest that his story (unintentionally) demonstrates that Washington cannot run public education, a lesson we ought to have learned from No Child Left Behind.

A final omission: Duncan never addresses the Congressional rebellion against federal domination of public education that he inadvertently brought about. When Congress enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, it took pains to limit the power of future secretaries of education.  The current secretary, Betsy DeVos, has an estimated $10 million in discretionary money, not even one quarter of one percent of what Duncan had at his disposal. Moreover, one suspects it will be a cold day in hell before Congress gives future secretaries of education piles of money to spend however they choose.



8 thoughts on “Arne Duncan’s “How Schools Work”

  1. This is a work of fiction created by a delusional, egotistical moron. Greed was/is his motivating factor if you look at who was really controlling the DOE for all those years. Arne is a decent and nice man, only in his own mind.


  2. Fine review of Mr. Duncan’s attempted K12 rock-rolling up Sysphus, Mr. Merrow.

    My thoughts after 58 years of being a party of it:

    First off, only 19 schools made it to the top, begging the question of how’s the rarefied view working….not for the schools, but for the students. God bless those Superintendent candidates who come into an urban school district and tell us that we need all students, no matter their skills or talents, above average. Without pausing on the ridiculous here, at least there target is right: the student.

    Arne’s aim wasn’t. Buildings don’t get smarter. Students can, though. The simple fact is that if you raise the performance of each student, so will the scores go up for their school. Bingo! But who cares about schools. We need to care about each learner.

    Answer: each learner needs their own Personal Learning Plan…created by them and managed by them (with help, of course, from their teachers, parents, mentors). But the students are the ones who have to stand and deliver. They need to show us what they know, and what they are still working on, and what they need to achieve their plan goals. The onus of learning falls first on the learner….not the teacher, not the parent. They are helpers, coaches, encouragers, and hand-clappers. Kids need to do it. They know best and can show they know.

    It’s the student’s needs and performance we need to address….not the schools. Just as Mr. Merrow did with the kid with all that great basketball talent, but lagging in standards skills. When those basketball skills are gone, it sure helps if one can read a good book.

    The best thing about NCLB was what the letters stood for, and certainly not for the host of plans that followed. They focused instead on No School Left Behind. What happened to each “Child”? It’s even more maddening if we challenge betterment with a race to the top for school districts, states and our nation. It ain’t gonna happen, as too many kids would say today.

    It’s “How Students Work” that matters more. We have nigh of 100,000,000 students in this country who also have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The practice of all those rights is theirs too, and one’s own lifelong learning is the key.


    • You and I share some important views on things. In “Addicted to Reform,” one of my 12 steps (to rescue public education) is ‘ask the right question.’ Most schools look at a child and ask ‘how smart is she/he/’ instead of wondering ‘HOW IS HE SMART?’ or ‘HOW IS SHE SMART?’ Ask that question (and follow through), then everything changes…


  3. You didn’t really expect him to admit that all his efforts to improve education, USING HIS OWN YARDSTICKS, namely the NAEP, actually failed miserably, do you?

    I draw an additional lesson: you should let neither professional athletes nor neophytes (ie neither Michelle Rhee’ nor her two husbands, nor Arne Duncan, nor Andre Agassi, nor Lebron James, nor Betsy DeVos) run education.

    Liked by 1 person

      • “Public education is a public responsibility, an invaluable investment in our future and our present…”

        So is Public Health, but you generally find health professionals making the choices and policy.

        When has there ever been a Surgeon General who did not have some connection to the medical professions? When has there ever been an Attorney General who didn’t have a law degree?

        Only 3 of the eleven Secretaries of Education had teaching experience in K-12 education.

        Education is still something that most people think “anyone can do” since “we all went to school.” Unfortunately, the problems facing education are complicated and generally come from the outside such as the effects of poverty on children and their families and the inequity of funding. If Duncan, as a sociologist (his Harvard degree), used his position to try to impact the social order that has led to one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world, that would be different. But he didn’t. He pushed policies that had a direct impact on how schools were run, how teachers were evaluated, and how tests were used (misused).

        Public education is a public responsibility, but, I respectfully disagree, that is not the end of the story. There can be no “race to the top” when kids, schools, and school systems don’t all have the same starting point. There can be no “no child left behind” while children are still being left behind economically and socially. We will never be a nation where “every child succeeds” until we are a nation where every child is given a fair chance to succeed.

        The achievement gap will continue to plague us until we can rid ourselves of the economics gap…and the racial gap. No amount of charter schools, vouchers, or the misuse of testing will change that.


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