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Four More Years of Arne Duncan? That's the Last Thing our Schools Need

While it isn't official yet, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hinted that he will return to President Obama's cabinet for a second term. This isn't good news. As a 17-year-old high school student, I'm both a No Child Left Behind and a Race to the Top baby. I've lived through two pieces of failed legislation—under former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and now Duncan—that have seriously derailed the status of education in this country.

At the Council of Chief State Officers conference earlier this month, Duncan outlined the basics of a second-term education agenda with plans to "replicate" the work the administration did in its first term. He hopes to reauthorize the defective No Child Left Behind Act and continue his carrot-and-stick approach to ramming his proposals into states and school districts. Secretary Duncan's most likely reappointment is a clear sign to the American public that President Obama has turned a blind eye toward students, educators, and parents.

I wholeheartedly respect Secretary Duncan and I've met him a number of times, but the Department of Education deserves nothing more than a big fat F for its first term. Race to the Top has been an utter failure for brutalizing the teaching profession, adding irrational testing for preschoolers (I wish I was kidding), driving a national obsession over high-stakes testing, and pushing for charters to hijack public schools. As one superintendent quipped, it's like a "Russian novel, because it’s long, it’s complicated, and in the end, everybody gets killed."

And now Secretary Duncan wants to replicate all of this. Give me a break. Education is not a race; it's a journey. And as John Dewey said, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."

I don't have a doubt that the president will reappoint Mr. Duncan, but my question is: Why should the future of American education hang in limbo because President Obama wants to keep his pal for basketball scrimmages? Let me begin by noting that the president doesn't even agree with Duncan on a number of things. In his State of the Union address last year, Obama declared that schools should "teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test"—antithetical to his very own Department of Education’s policies.

Duncan's model of education reform, adopted from the Chicago schools system, is simply broken. Recollect his unnerving operations when he was the head honcho of Chicago Public Schools a few years ago, when he bounced kids around from district to district to make it appear as though schools were "turning around." Duncan did not confront the issue of the effect of poverty on learning in a city where 80 percent of the school children live below the poverty line. He dumbed down standards, misleading the public when he proclaimed that test scores had risen. Mr. Duncan shuttered "failing" schools, replacing neighborhood schools with charters, often run by billionaires and corporations. Duncan also didn't address the abysmal 40 percent dropout rate, a national embarrassment. If his reforms unequivocally failed miserably in Chicago, how were they supposed to work successfully on the national level?

In September at NBC's Education Nation, Governor Mitt Romney lauded Duncan for his stellar track record—Romney raving about a Democrat should raise some eyebrows. Finally, take note that Duncan called Governor Bobby Jindal—a politician who has tried to obliterate public education and establish a voucher system affecting more than half of the students in the state of Louisiana—"a visionary leader."

The last thing our schools need is Arne Duncan for four more years. President Obama: sack him now or you will soon find millions of educators, students, and parents in your backyard. Mark my words. Public education has had enough. Teachers have had enough. Students have had enough. Parents have had enough. Keeping Duncan is a blatant, full-blown assault on the institutions that educate the members of our democracy: schools.

Still, I'm optimistic. Along with millions of frustrated students, educators, and parents, I'm committed to a radical reinvention of the system from scratch.You know what would be a radical, and a popular, move by President Obama? If he appointed a progressive thinker to be the Education Secretary, someone such as Joichi Ito, Monika Hardy, Sir Ken Robinson, Lisa Nielsen, Gever Tulley, or Alfie Kohn, all of whom want to truly transform the way we learn. Now, that would be a big deal.

A version of this post originally appeared at NBC

Photo via Albert H. Teich /

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