Like Water Off A Duck’s Back [A Note on Duncan’s Legacy]

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

Six years ago, I remember sitting in an afternoon meeting with my principal and about 25 other administrators and educators, waiting patiently for a central official to come down and give us some awful news of some consequence for us and all of our work. The school official stood there whispering to an assistant, arms folded while everyone else chatted each other up about Mayor Bloomberg’s latest overnight budget purge. The meeting started as a mundane set of manufactured talking points from the PR department, but quickly escalated to a shouting match between those of us who sat (educators) and the one who stood (the school official). That was also the night that I found out firsthand how nice and well-meaning these central folks are, and, no matter how many insults and ad hominems shouted at the official, he would not be moved.

It’s the first time I learned the difference between temperament and action in education policy. Too many folks obfuscate both when we mean to address one.

Take, for example, the legacy of former Washington DC public schools Michelle Rhee, who remains in the spotlight after Deadspin’s thorough discrediting of Sacramento, CA mayor and Rhee’s husband Kevin Johnson. Initially, too many of my colleagues focused on her abrasiveness and orneriness as if they were reflections of the true nature of her larger agenda. The same can be said of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, and dozens of other education reform leaders full of grump and circumstance. With friends who agree with them on these educational issues, they’re all nice people who care about kids. That’s not enough.

That’s why, when I was interviewed by The Nation about Secretary Arne Duncan’s legacy, I tongue-in-cheek said “He’s a nice guy who cares about kids, but he showed that in all the wrong ways in policy and practice.”

In my interactions with him and successor and former New York State Education Commissioner John King, I’ve had nothing but pleasant experiences. I’ve met Duncan thrice, and I asked nothing but hard questions that eschewed the normal line of questioning, such as testing and charter schools. With King, he has interesting thoughts on integration and schools. In fact, the last time I fielded an oppositional comment to him, he (or his people) responded. These encounters disabused me of the confusion between nice and kind. 

Yet, with both men, they rarely have gotten held accountable for the avenues they left open for the private sector, including excessive standardized testing and unnecessary charter schools all across the country. While our current American politic prefers personalities over policy, everyone from the President of the United States (a very nice guy) down to principals who’ve bought into the education reform narrative (lots of them, very nice people) has taken the accountability narrative on without taking a harder look to see if our schools are working for our kids.

In New York, we have an evil villain in Mrs. Moskowitz, too. She makes it easy in her attention-seeking approach to her hype machine, but what about all the swell, aw-shucks folks sipping champagne on the first day of school while kids pee in their pants during test prep? Or my colleagues who speak up in her defense in commercials and staged protests, many of whom smile and nod while Teach Like A Champion strips our black and brown kids of their voices? Or the softer, gentler folks in central offices who still believe in their predecessor’s visions for public schools? And the plethora of other colleagues who believe parents, students, and rank-and-file educators deserve minimal voice in the workings of our schools?

There are so many nice people. Recently, in POLITICO’s Education Issue, the interviewer asked him about his matter-of-fact gaffes in the media, including his now famous “Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans.” He said, ”

“Water off a duck’s back,” he told me. “There are a lot of pressures to maintain the status quo, and if you’re not challenging that, why are you here?”

That is correct. Too many of us worried about what he had to say instead of paying attention to what he and the very nice, nameless folks who laid waste to New Orleans’ education did. Saying does a lot, too. It can inspire and move ideology, and it can convince millions of people to some level of sincerity. It can do nothing when 25 educators get hammered by the droning voice of a school official who shakes off the barbs like ducks do.

Words mean so little in the face of execution.

photo c/o