New Yorker magazine runs major piece of Arne Duncan puffery... '[Arne Duncan's] ... is a Republican agenda '

Profiles: Class Warrior.. The New Yorker piece on Arne Duncan

Comment: Pete Farruggio Assistant Professor, Bilingual Education, College of Education, University of Texas Pan American co-founder of CalCARE ( and a classroom and resource teacher with 22 years of experience in low income schools

FARRUGGIO COMMENT: The New Yorker Duncan profile is a puff-piece written by yet another person uninformed about education who gets published because he knows Arne and he can write. Duncan is depicted as an earnest guy who really cares about poor kids and who understands them because he hung out in his mother's after school program and played basketball in tough neighborhoods. A missionary who will save the underprivileged.

He's said to be "free of politics" because he associated neither with Dems or Republicans (according to Mayor Daley) and he steers a middle course between free-market solutions and teacher union/liberal academic ideas. No mention is made of the billionaires and corporate front groups whose ideology he actively implements. He's just a free agent in the world of ideas who has figured out his "own" program for improving education. Numerous conservatives are given a voice to characterize Duncan and his policies without being labeled (the Hoover Institute and Fordham Foundation are not described as having any political leaning), but one of the only two education experts cited who are Duncan critics is labeled a leftist. The other critic, Diane Ravitch, is given several quotes, but her recommendations for real reform, such as smaller class size, better curriculum, etc, are subsequently dismissed as having been tried before and having failed.

Oh, really?

His massive failure in Chicago, after closing schools and charterizing, is ultimately soft peddled as the result of trying to change a system that is too intransigent, and that includes backbiting by teachers and their union. But Joel Klein, the corporate version of Duncan in NYC, is uncritically quoted as endorsing Duncan's policies. The author is probably an honest guy who knows nothing about education, who tried to achieve balance but doesn’t understand how craven his sources are, and who accepts and promulgates the ruling class wisdom (the beltway blather) that the real reform measures suggested by Ravitch are "too expensive."

OHANIAN COMMENT: I put this very brief excerpt from the February 1, 2010 New Yorker Profile of Arne Duncan in Notable Quotes, on this site, but then I read the whole article. The New Yorker is releasing the article only in a jpg version, which is nearly impossible to read and certainly impossible to post here. But I'll type in a bit of it. "Republicans who otherwise have little use for the Obama Administration's policies approve of Duncan's commitment to market-based reforms. John Kline, of Minnesota, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, told me, 'In many ways, it's a Republican agenda.' " (—Carlo Rotella, Profile, New Yorker, Feb. 1, 2010)

One could hope from such a quote that the Profile itself might be a real deconstruction of Duncan's role in education policy. Alas, I now have the magazine in hand, and the article is a disappointment. Carlo Rotella is a good writer, and he makes an attempt to be even-handed but one can wonder who lined up his sources. When you divide education into free-market reformers, who believe that competition, choice, and incentives must have a greater part in education; and liberal traditionalists who rally around teachers' unions and education schools, where does that leave the teacher and the parent, not to mention the student?

As evidenced by the Marilyn Stewart quote, teachers unions do not represent teachers: teachers unions represent the power elite of teachers unions. And education schools, so noticeable silent about NCLB and Race to the Top, represent education schools and the extra dollars available for consulting, professional development, and so on.

Marilyn Stewart, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, praised Duncan for his willingness to work with her, but she bridled at his eagerness to close schools. "There were a lot of things done to make a sound bite," she said. "You have one chance to get it" — a child's education — "right, and sometimes they rushed."

We get yet one more version of a union leader happy to supposedly have a seat at the table. Sometimes they rushed???

Later in the article, president of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten is quoted as saying, "Everything is on the table, as long as it's great for kids and fair to teachers."

And Dennis van Roekel, president of the NEA, says that while he and Duncan may disagree on tactics, "I don't believe we'll ever disagree on fundamental goals and purposes."

Union members should stop paying their dues. Liberal traditionalists? This isn't where I'd put myself — or Stephen Krashen, Don Perl, Alfie Kohn, Ken Libby, Jim Horn, Marion Brady, Danny Weil, Pete Farruggio, and legions of others. Far from it. The New Yorker piece starts out with an anecdote similar to what George Schmidt, editor of Substance, the only newspaper of the education resistance, has been telling us for years: "They have to keep Arne on script."

He repeats the same air-filled remarks over and over because he's been trained to stay on script.


" Carlo Rotella Riding in a black S.U.V. to an appearance at the Andrew Jackson Language Academy, in Chicago, Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, marked up his prepared remarks in an angular left-handed scrawl. Two aides briefed him on the upcoming event and urged him to stick to the written text. Matt Yale, his deputy chief of staff, reminded him, "You can't say 'screwed.'" Duncan often says "screwed" or "lied to" when he describes what American students face — low standards, chronically underperforming schools, inequities in spending and opportunity. He also repeats the claim, sometimes several times a day, that American schooling is stuck in old ruts while that of other nations has improved.

We've fallen behind, he says, but we can still regain our former preeminence in public educaiton and, while we're at it, "educate our way out of the financial crisis." . . . "He plays basketball with the President," Lamar Alexander, the Republican senator from Tennessee, who served as Geroge H. W. Bush's Education Secretary, told me. "If you're not in charge of anything" — no actual school systems, that is — "and you speak for the President, it matters that he's closer to the President than anybody else in the Cabinet." [emphasis added] In the fight over education in America today, there are, roughly speaking, two major camps: free-market reformers, who believe that competition, choice, and incentives must have a greater part in education; and liberal traditionalists who rally around teachers' unions and education schools.

Obama's choice of Duncan, who was the only big-city superintendent to sign both camps' manifestos during the Presidential campaign in 2008, was widely viewed as a compromise. But Duncan, who argues for linking teachers' pay to their students' performance, is firmly on the market-forces side. In Chicago, he even experimented with paying students for improving their grades. His appointment represented a defeat for the unions. . . . . Duncan, like his boss, is a pragmatic idealist from the South Side of Chicago. David Axelrod, who serves as the President's senior adviser--and first met Duncan when he was a thirteen-year-old hanging around the basketball courts of the University of Chicago--told me that Obama and Duncan are "in lockstep on educational issues." But the affinity goes deeper. "They come essentially from the same community," Axelrod said. "Arne came back; the President came there in his twenties. Each of them came as kind of an outsider--Arne even though he grew up there, and Obama because he came there--and both had to learn the community and earn trust." . . . . [ 1/1/2 pages of Duncan's association with his mother's after-school program, which, we are told, shaped his education policy.] Duncan got along with Daley, who told me, "He doesn't have any politics, Democrat, Republican, city, suburban--he doesn't get into that nonsense. He just wants to do the job." Duncan served as C.E.O. from 2001 until 2009, a long tenure for a big-city superintendent. His record in Chicago is his main credential, a blueprint for his national agenda as Secretary of Education, and a source of continuing controversy. . . . . . . . How you read Duncan's record depends to some extent on what you think of his approach to reform. His signature move as C.E.O. was the turnaround: shutting down a school that has a chronic record of poor performance and reopening it with an entirely new staff. . . . . . . . During the course of his career, Duncan has relied on strong allies--Rogers, Vallas, Daley, Obama--to cover his political flank, allowing him to preserve his image as a practical idealist. "Now, there are people I have to trust, and others I have to be wary of," he told me. He made a face that his mother makes all the time, a downward twist of the mouth. "it's about understanding people's motivation. You learn to spot a phony a mile away. It goes back to why I visit schools. It's how I learn, trying to get a sense of who people are, what their values and motivations are. Numbers don't lie, but they don't tell the whole truth." Indeed — Carlo Rotella, with comment by Pete Farruggio

New Yorker



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