Duncan Promises to Move Another Piano

In 1999 a Sam Gross cartoon appeared in The New Yorker showing the heavens and the Earth. In the foreground on a cloud stands God in his beard and gown. He has his arm on an unfortunate looking boy. Both of them are looking at Earth. God says, “I have the whole universe to look after, so I’m putting you in charge of this planet.”

I thought of this cartoon last week when I read that Arne Duncan is at it again, this time proposing to rate teacher training programs. Unlike the unfortunate boy in the cartoon, Duncan has a proven track record of stumbling at the hurdles. Consider, for example, that Duncan is making this proposal as we approach the end of the milestone year of 2013 – 2014, when No Child Left Behind mandated that 100% of Americans high school students would be proficient in English and math. Everybody knows, but nobody says or reports, that NCLB has been a complete failure. He might have called for the repeal of this act, but instead he made an own-goal end run around it in the program called RAce to the Top (RAT), which is as useless as NCLB, as its unfortunate progeny prove. During Duncan’s five or so years the US has languished on its accustomed seat of mediocrity on PISA results while Asians surged ahead of the Finns and Canadians on tests of ability to solve problems they were not familiar with. His announcement of readiness to work up another program should therefore be regarded with the same caution as an offer by Laurel and Hardy to move another piano.

One person whose antennae of danger are up is Professor Linda Darling-Hammond[1] of Stanford, who quickly penetrates to the absurdity of judging teacher preparation programs by the test scores of new teachers’ students on standardized tests, a proposal that Duncan is actually airing. Her alternatives, including an evaluation of a portfolio, need supplementing by guarantees of an effective practicum effectively supervised, but they are moves in the right direction.

I am afraid by contrast that if the Department of Education comes up with another plan like the other plans, some years hence we will be sweeping up another broken Steinway, or sweeping it under the rug.


[1] She also warned convincingly about the wrongness of “value”-“added” “metrics”, which Duncan’s new plan may rely on.

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