I just finished hate-reading Arne Duncan’s book, “How Schools Work.”
I didn’t hate the book, but for so many reasons, I really hated reading it.
As a teacher, the most damaging, dangerous thought I carry with me is that I am not doing enough. It’s a fear that both terrifies and inspires me, depending on the day, depending on the moment. It is a fear that carries faces with it, students I feel I’ve failed, coworkers I’ve disappointed. They are the faces of my fear, and I add to them every year I teach.
I hate it.
And here is Duncan’s book, written from the top of the mountain, the very tippy top of the American education system (Duncan himself says “at most days, I flew along at 30,000 feet,” and threw in that, very occasionally, that flying came in the form of a hitched ride on Air Force One), and it’s like he’s seeing right into my room, right into my teaching, and telling me, “You’re right, you aren’t doing enough. You’re failing to reach kids who need desperately to be reached, and not only that, it’s happening all over.”
I hate it.
But let me also say this. It’s a good book. It’s super important, I think, for people who care about education to attempt to understand it from the perspectives of all its stakeholders.
So, as a teacher, it’s a good thing to read about what it’s like to be secretary of education, just as it would be important for, you know, Duncan to read my book (or a better one, like “This Is Not a Test,” by José Vilson, and also to read what our students and their parents are writing and saying).
I’m an eighth-grade English teacher, which is exactly as high up the power chart as I am interested in going. This year, I was told I would also have to serve as department chair for a department of three people. I don’t wanna, and plan on handing it off as soon as I possibly can. So, I read “How Schools Work” with the sort of detached interest as I read “Girl With a Knife,” a memoir about being a professional chef and building a tiny home in the woods, both things I have no interest in ever ever doing, ever.
The book is an interesting, and, it would seem, mostly honest look at what it’s like to be in charge of what should be the most important thing we do as a country. I say only mostly honest, because Duncan has a legacy to defend, and he no doubt believed strongly in the work he was doing and the reasons behind it.
Because of this, there is little space given to the legitimate resistance that was given to some of the moves his department made, or to the whole system of thought most of his ideas about education come from.
For example, Duncan is, unapologetically, a devotee of data. From his early years in Chicago on, he writes of the importance of quantifiable results and analytics in a way that many leaders do, and in a way that makes many teachers bristle.
I’m sometimes one of those teachers. I’ve seen students who blow me away with their ability to read, synthesize, and analyze complex texts again and again in class, and yet do poorly on standardized tests.
It’s easy to let my personal experience with bad data push me to say that all tests are garbage and so are all the numbers from them. But I also need to be honest about what the bulk of that data is telling me, telling all of us: We aren’t doing enough for the kids who need it most.
In many ways the poster boy of the liberal ed-reform movement, Duncan’s reading of the data is everything that movement contained. It is equal parts earnest frustration with the places our system is failing and blind ego about who carries the answers needed to fix it. Sharing that frustration is what originally brought me into that movement, and the ego is what eventually drove me away.
The conversation around reforming schools and the school system started nasty and has only devolved, but much of what Duncan discusses side-steps the pointless bickering and focuses on the soul of the movement, staying grounded in what he says the reform movement is after: “Figuring out ways to equip our kids with the skills and habits that will make them successful for the rest of their lives.”
Duncan’s book harkens us back to a better time when the people running our country’s schools showed some interest and aptitude for doing it well, who showed a desire to understand the real issues people were facing and entertained the idea of helping them, who carried real grief with them when the worst things that happen in schools happened in the schools they oversaw.
In fact, the very strongest part of Duncan’s book came near the very end. His chapter on gun violence in schools, “We Matter!” is one everyone should read. Duncan is clear about opportunities missed after Newtown, speaking with obvious regret and anger: “Somehow, keeping and even expanding access to guns, as happened throughout the Obama presidency, became more necessary after the massacre.”
He continues, and I think this a pretty striking statement coming from someone of Duncan’s status, by saying “the lives of Black and Brown Americans are absolutely and systemically less valued than those of White Americans, but Newtown showed that, in truth, we don’t value the lives of young people at all.”
The book starts by stating, “The education system runs on lies,” but Duncan’s willingness to tell the truth about violence in and around schools and what it says about our country is powerful. That said, the lies he highlights that prop up the system we work in, that keep me from facing my own failures as a teacher, are why this book impacted me so much.
As if pointing to my own rationalizations, Duncan says, “The lie here is one that any reasonable person under duress might tell themselves, and it’s that they can’t make a difference.”
But Duncan believes in teachers, in the power of teachers, while admitting we do not do nearly enough for them, “More than anything, teachers need resources, yet in America they are consistently starved of them.”
He brings up some good ideas to support new teachers and struggling schools better, but also seems aware that, as much as policy is important, there is an art to teaching that is impossible to write into law.
The book ends rather close to my real life, in an eighth-grade English classroom. Duncan tells of visiting the classroom, a classroom held up as what it may look like when schools do “work.” By his account, it seems like a great class run by a great teacher, but also not hugely different from thousands of classrooms around the country.
The interesting thing is Duncan’s perspective, as he moves from student to teacher to administrator, and reflects on what happens at every level to make this classroom work, from the federal level and down. It was a stark reminder of how much work is being done we don’t see when things go right in our rooms, and how much danger we are in when those who are doing that work don’t care about our kids.
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