The Duncan Debacle: It’s Not (Just) about Duncan

If Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has prompted outrage from a wide range of people, as Rebecca Klein reports, by invoking “white suburban moms,” as I have noted, the controversy is much more complex than “clumsy phrasing.”

I remain adamant about my concluding point concerning the racial components of Duncan’s comment and the responses to it: If white outrage is the only outrage that counts in the U.S., any victory won from that outrage is no victory at all.

But there is another component of the response that deserves the “conversation” Duncan claims he would like to see us embrace: Duncan is simultaneously the embodiment and the victim of a toxic combination of privilege, bureaucracy, and arrogance.

First, Duncan’s incompetence is no different than the incompetence exhibited by previous Secretaries, such as Margaret Spellings. Where has the outrage been about the national leaders of education having essentially no grasp of data or statistics? Or the likelihood that they feel compelled to protect their partisan politics regardless of the truth?

Next, Duncan’s most recent embarrassment must be placed in the larger context of the entire education agenda under Obama—an agenda characterized by Civil Rights discourse used with Orwellian aims of masking classist and racist policies impacting negatively and disproportionately black, brown, and  poor children (“other people’s children”) as well as English language learners. Where has the outrage been about maintaining and expanding two separate education systems—one for the privileged children of our leaders and another for the impoverished and marginalized?

Duncan, then, is not an isolated failure as Secretary of Education, and his recent “clumsy phrasing” isn’t an aberration in his public discourse.

No, Duncan sits in a long line of failed bureaucratic education reformers, ripe for satire that borders on possibility.

Since Duncan has called for a return to a conversation, I want to repost here a simple request I made during the summer of 2013: A request that Duncan confront the wealth of evidence that refutes his Common Core advocacy.

Evidence? Secretary Duncan, You Can’t Handle the Evidence [1]

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appears now to be assuming the mantle of self-righteous indignation—a tenuous perch for someone who is leading a field in which he has no experience or expertise.

As Valerie Strauss has reported, Duncan this summer lambasted news editors, berating them for failing to demand evidence for claims against Common Core.

Duncan, first, is striking an insincere pose that manufactures a false universe in which only evidence-based support for CC and Tea Party railings against CC exist. This conveniently ignores the growing legions of educators, academics, and scholars who reject CC, and actually have the evidence.

Since Duncan is demanding evidence, it is high time he practices what he preaches (let’s all pause here because that strikes me as a bit of lunacy, in fact, to expect a political appointee to live by the rules he imposes on others).

Secretary Duncan, please either confirm or discredit the following body of evidence that refutes any credibility for needing CC or that CC will work as education reform:

  • Hout and Elliott (2011), Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education: Most recent decades of high-stakes accountability reform hasn’t work.
  • French, Guisbond, and Jehlen (2013), Twenty Years after Education Reform: High-stakes accountability in Massachusetts has not worked.
  • Loveless (2012), How Well Are American Students Learning?: “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning” (p. 3).
  • Mathis (2012): Existence and/or quality of standards not positively correlated with NAEP or international benchmark test data; “Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum” (2 of 5).
  • Whitehurst (2009), Don’t Forget Curriculum: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and high hopes attached to it. There is a rational argument to be made for good content standards being a precondition for other desirable reforms, but it is currently just that – an argument.”
  • Kohn (2010), Debunking the Case for National Standards: CC nothing new, and has never worked before.
  • Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, Don McLaughlin (2009), Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007: Why does research from the USDOE not show high-quality standards result in higher NAEP scores?
  • Horn (2013): “The 2012 NAEP Long-Term Trends are out, and there is a good deal that we may learn from forty years of choking children and teachers with more tests with higher stakes: IT DOESN’T WORK!”

Evidence? Secretary Duncan, you can’t handle the evidence.

For Further Reading, Secretary Duncan:

Baker, B.D. & Welner, K.G. (2011). Productivity Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and High-Quality Evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from


Bruce Baker and Kevin G. Welner

Evidence and Rigor: Scrutinizing the Rhetorical Embrace of Evidence-Based Decision Making Educational Researcher April 2012 41: 98-101, doi:10.3102/0013189X12440306
[1] The original blog posting has been identified by the National Council of Teachers of English in recognizing my work for the 2013 George Orwell Award.

10 thoughts on “The Duncan Debacle: It’s Not (Just) about Duncan”

  1. What makes Duncan a new order of bad is the level of control he exercises. Many (all?) Sec of Ed have been terrible, but they could be by and large easily ignored. The past fifteen-ish years of top down high stakes test-driven accountability have given us an office that can seriously mess up the day-to-day practice of teaching. I could ignore Spellings. I can’t ignore Duncan, because his choices have a far more dramatic impact on students’ educations.

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