Valerie Strauss's 'The Answer Sheet' blog hits Duncan after Daily Show

Hardly had 'The Daily Show' gone off the air on February 16, 2012, than the blogs and education web sites began lighting up with commentary about how inane the U.S. Secretary of Education is. Despite the best efforts of Daily Show host Jon Stewart to get Duncan to answer straightforward questions and talk about the reality of his "Race to the Top," as just about everybody pointed out, Duncan remained mired in his sticking points, the talking points that he has been rehearsing since he became Chief Executive Officer of Chicago's public schools in July 2001, courtesy of Chicago's Mayoral Control version of how schools should operate. During Duncan's first week in office, I heard Duncan's Swengali, Peter Cunningham, rehearsing Duncan on his talking points for a press conference, while I sat outside the Board's "Office of Communications" and waited to pick up some materials. (Since then, Chicago's Board of Education has eliminated press conference for the schools CEO, so there hasn't been a need for the current CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard to rehearse anything).

Among the talking points that Duncan unveiled over the years was the false claim, now a national favorite, that the "proof" that America needs more charter schools is the "fact" that charter schools in Chicago have a "waiting list" of "19,000." Duncan first made that one up at a press conference held at Chicago's Englewood High School during a publicity stunt for "Requests for Proposals" (RFPs) for "New Schools" (which in Chicago means charters). When I asked him to provide the "waiting list," he said "I'll get back to you on that." I also asked him for the "waiting list" for Chicago's prestigious magnet high schools, including Whitney Young, Walter Payton, and Northside College Prep, and he said "I'll get back to you on that..."

That was in 2007. I'm still waiting for the "Waiting List," but in January 2012, Chicago's charter school touts were still claiming that charter schools in Chicago had a "waiting list" of 19,000, and charter school fans in Chicago's corporate media were still repeating it in their "news" columns as proof that charters are in demand by "consumers" of public education (i.e., children and families in Chicago).

It may be with the 2012 election approaching that more news people — other than Jon Stewart — will begin challenging Duncan's lies on the national talk shows and in the national news. If so, it would be a first. Beginning in December 2008, New York Times reporter Sam Dillon went in the tank with Duncan, providing a regular series of "news" stories that are nothing more than propaganda for the latest talking points regarding "Race To The Top." Apparently, as long as The New York Times is willing to turn its "news" articles into propaganda for Duncan, the rest of the nation's media will follow.

Until February 2012? Below is what Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post provided on the Duncan/Daily Show event.

WASHINGTON POST MATERIAL BELOW HERE: Posted at 06:47 AM ET, 02/17/2012. Jon Stewart tries to talk to Arne Duncan. By Valerie Strauss

Jon Stewart tried to engage Education Secretary Arne Duncan on “The Daily Show” Thursday night [February 16, 2012], but the effort was an exercise in the futility of conversing with someone who won’t deviate from his talking points.

Duncan was so programmed that Stewart was even unable to get the basketball-playing secretary to have some fun talking about the New York Knicks’ new hero, Jeremy Lin.

When Stewart jokingly asked Duncan whether, having graduated from Harvard, it was “a disappointment” that he “ended up as just the secretary of education” and not as an NBA superstar, Duncan’s only response was about how great a role model the hard-working Lin was for young people.

Stewart surely knew at that point he would get nothing from Duncan, but he made a polite effort anyway, because he had time to fill and, perhaps, because he knew his mother, a teacher who apparently can’t stand Duncan’s policies, would be watching.

Stewart told Duncan that his mother tells him that the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative is exacerbating the standardized testing obsession of No Child Left Behind and making it harder for teachers to creatively do their jobs.

This is happening because the administration’s policies encourage states to link teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, which not only has lead to more “teaching to the test,” but also an expansion of standardized testing into areas besides the traditional math and reading areas. I ran a guest post last year from a high school student who wanted to know why he had to take a standardized test in his yearbook class as his district field-tested 52 such tests in all kinds of subjects so that teachers in all subjects could be evaluated by the results.

That’s the kind of thing teachers are complaining about, but Duncan gave no indication that he has heard them.

When Stewart said that a lot of the rhetoric about Race to the Top centers around innovation and creativity but that the reality is the opposite, and that teachers shouldn’t be teaching to the test, Duncan said: “I actually agree with that.” Huh?

Duncan then quoted President Obama as saying recently that “we have to stop teaching to the test,” betraying not a hint of irony that it is the administration’s policies that are continuing this dynamic in public schools.

Stewart tried again and again to get Duncan to have a real conversation, but Duncan seemed to never directly respond to a question, always coming back to one of his talking points.

He even said that “teachers have been beaten down,” again without betraying any recognition that many teachers blame his policies for this state of affairs.

What we learned from this exchange (the part that was televised) is that Stewart displayed a great grasp of the issues and the consequences of Race to the Top, and Duncan, well, not so much. I don’t need to say that something is wrong with this picture, so I won’t.

Follow The Answer Sheet every day by bookmarking


Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

3 + 5 =