Education

Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?

Our Secretary of Education is fixated on distracting the public from the real problems with education in America.

Photo Credit: Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com

Sometimes when politicians fail on social media, the result is mostly humorous fodder for critics, such as when South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley posted this Tweet:

But other social media snafus represent much more than that. For example, a recent tone-deaf moment on Twitter, detailed by Michael Stratford:

The U.S. Department of Education early Wednesday morning apologized for a tweet that some people found offensive because it appeared to mock low-income students.

On Tuesday evening, the Twitter account for the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid sent out a message that said: “If this is you, then you better fill out your FAFSA.”

It included a photo of a woman frowning with the caption, “Help me. I’m poor.”

The photo depicts a scene from the movie “Bridesmaids” in which Kristen Wiig’s character is intoxicated and protesting a flight attendant’s decision to kick her out of the first-class cabin.

Early and often, the Obama administration’s education agenda, headed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has driven the public narrative about public schools, teachers and students with a relentless claim that everything wrong with education comes down to a single problem: expectations are too low.

Impoverished children have low achievement in the U.S. Why? Low expectations!

African American and Latino students have low achievement in the U.S. Why? Low expectations.

Special needs students have low achievement in the U.S. Why? Low expectations!

Over the course of his career, Secretary Duncan has offered a pattern of veiled to outright abrasive claims about students, parents, teachers, and schools. Duncan’s comments often include soaring idealized promises about education:

"Education is the surest path out of poverty in America," Duncan said. "That is why we need to make sure that civil rights laws are vigorously enforced and that all students receive a fair shot at a good future."

Beneath his rhetoric of hope, Duncan maintains a commitment to blaming the individuals suffering under the so-called failures of public education—and thus, ignoring the social and educational inequities causing those conditions:

And the truth is that states with low standards are lying to children and parents -- telling them they are ready for college or work when they are not. Many of those who attend college need remedial education and half of them drop out…

The above assertion about “lying,” leveled by Duncan in 2010, reflects the core claim to be found in many of Duncan’s speeches:

But the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn't encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when, in fact, they are not…

Low standards also contribute to the nation's staggeringly high dropout rate. When kids aren't challenged they are bored—and when they are bored they quit. Students everywhere echo what 9th grader Teton Magpie told me on a reservation in Montana—adults simply don't expect enough of him and his peers…

The discourse of lies and low expectations has now become a common refrain throughout the USDOE, thanks to an Obama administration that is inexcusably incompetent and embarrassingly tone-deaf in its responses to education—–an administration that speaks to and reinforces a negative cultural attitude about people and children in poverty, teachers and schools (as well as all public institutions). And, of course, an administration that is not afraid to attack parents. As education journalist Valerie Strauss reported late last year:

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a group of state schools superintendents Friday that he found it “fascinating” that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

While the Obama administration has cultivated the appearance of hope and change, its education policies are essentially slightly revised or greatly intensified versions of accountability reform begun under Ronald Reagan: commitments to new standards and new high-stakes tests, as well as administrative support for charter schools and Teach For America, both of which perpetuate problems of segregation and inequity.

Given this administration’s clear intention to maintain the status quo of education reform, this latest snafu on Twitter cannot be viewed an isolated mistake. It is, in fact, just the newest proof of the twisted culture inside the USDOE—a culture that maintains a message of high expectations for students, teachers, and schools and thus diverts attention away from the more powerful influence of poverty and inequity in both society and schools.

Yet it seems increasingly evident that the only place where low expectations are the main sources of failure is inside the USDOE itself—specifically with the appointment of Duncan.

Just how misguided are these attempts to focus attention and efforts on raising expectations alone? In a review of Common Core standards for the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis notes that the last 30 years of accountability reform based on standards and high-stakes tests have failed to raise achievement or close gaps, concluding:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

Blaming students, parents, public education and teachers, then, is a distraction—an unfair and ugly one at that—from social and educational policy that addresses directly poverty and inequity. And the mainstream media is complicit in that ugliness.

US Department of Misinformation

The offending tweet from the USDOE sends an unintended message as well, one that confirms political scientist and blogger David Kaib’s argument about “politics as a contest of claim making.”

As a political appointee, Duncan has a bully pulpit, an uncritical mainstream media, and a host of public assumptions that all work in his favor to support a steady stream of misinformation.

In a recent blog post, Jack Schneider identified 10 popular reform claims offered by the current slate of education reformers, including Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Duncan himself:

Claim 1: American teachers need more incentive to work hard….

Claim 2: Schools need disruptive innovation. The status quo is unacceptable….

Claim 3: The public schools are in crisis….

Claim 4: It should be easier to fire bad teachers. Tenure is a problem…

Claim 5: Schools need to teach more technology….

Claim 6: Teachers should be paid for results….

Claim 7: We need more charter schools…

Claim 8: We’re falling behind the rest of the world….

Claim 9: Teacher preparation is a sham….

Claim 10: Teachers only work nine months a year….

What do these claims have in common? First, each can be found repeatedly in comments made by Duncan, media reports, and the day-to-day assumptions held by the public. Second, each claim is misleading at best, and false at worst.

Obama’s USDOE and Secretary Duncan, however, use these widely accepted though false claims as partisan political distraction, rather than relying on evidence-based cases to target politically volatile and unpopular issues related to poverty, racism, inequity, and the short-comings of the free market. That’s not just a shame, it’s deplorable.

Smirking, privileged arrogance is not the sort of quality we need leading the education agenda in the U.S., yet that is what we have. And that is the reason sophomoric tweets that marginalize the impact of poverty, racism, special needs and the crushing weight of student loan debt (each of which is characterized as the result of low expectations) emanate from the culture that is the current DOE.

That careless tweet is a direct representation of the condescending attitude of our USDOE, a collection of appointees under Obama that lacks the experience, expertise and political will to lead the needed reforms facing U.S. public schools. Once the brief flurry of outrage passes, we must admit that the Obama education agenda will remain one of the greatest failures of the hope and change that Obama once promised.

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.