Monday, June 30, 2014

Arne Duncan Outdoes Himself

In my antepenultimate (to this) post, I described Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as “the worst cabinet member of the millennium (and yes, Curmie includes the likes of Alberto Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld in that analysis).” It wasn’t always that way—I even praised him for his confrontation with the NCAA over graduation rates for athletes. But a). virtually anyone looks good by comparison to the NCAA, b). that was over four years ago, and c). give enough monkeys enough typewriters…

Since that good start, moreover, Duncan has managed to espouse positions which represent the worst of both political perspectives. An arrogant buffoon who has never actually taught a day in his life, Secretary Duncan manages to blend the union-busting, anti-teacher, corporatist Machiavellianism of the GOP with the top-heavy bureaucracies, nanny-state sensibilities, and documentation fetishes of the Democrats. He has become a self-styled Tsar, and President Obama has not only let him get away with it, he’s encouraged it. Obama’s education policy is probably no worse than Bush’s, but it’s no better, either, and that’s a rather scathing condemnation when you get right down to it.

Arne Duncan Attempts to Be Worst Cabinet Secretary Ever

But now comes a statement from Arne the Idiot that boggles the mind in its inanity—even by Duncan’s standards. In announcing a “major shift” in the way the government evaluates federally-funded special education programs, he declared that whereas most states are indeed in compliance with federal standards, including an “individualized education plan” for each student, “it is not enough for a state to be compliant if students can’t read or do math.” And it is certainly true that the dropout rate for students with disabilities is twice that for those without, and that two-thirds of students in special education programs perform below grade level in reading and math. Um… that’s why they’re in those programs, Ace.

Here’s the response of teacher and blogger Peter Greene, in a post aptly entitled “Quite Possibly the Stupidest Thing To Come Out of the US DOE”:
Arne Duncan announced that, shockingly, students with disabilities do poorly in school. They perform below level in both English and math. No, there aren’t any qualifiers attached to that. Arne is bothered that students with very low IQs, students with low function, students who have processing problems, students who have any number of impairments—these students are performing below grade level….

But who knows. Maybe Arne is on to something. Maybe blind students can’t see because nobody expects them to. Maybe the student a colleague had in class years ago, who was literally rolled into the room and propped up in a corner so that he could be “exposed” to band—maybe that child’s problems were just low expectations. Maybe IEPs are actually assigned randomly, for no reason at all….

We don't need IEPs—we need expectations and demands. We don’t need student support and special education programs—we need more testing. We don’t need consideration for the individual child’s needs—we just need to demand that the child get up to speed, learn things, and most of all TAKE THE DAMN TESTS. Because then, and only then, will we be able to make all student disabilities simply disappear.

This is just so stunningly, awesomely dumb, it’s hard to take in. Do they imagine that disabled students are just all faking, or that the specialists who diagnose these various problems are just making shit up for giggles?
If what we were discussing here was only that group of students with ADHD, dyslexia, or similar conditions, it might make a little sense to expect to see progress roughly equivalent to norms for students without those conditions. But no, we’re also talking about kids with developmental disorders so severe they can’t sit, talk, or hold a pencil to take one of Duncan’s precious high-stakes tests.

And now we get the capper, an utterance so mind-meltingly idiotic that it would embarrass Michele Bachmann: “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.” Really, Arne, and where is the evidence for that assertion? Any evidence for that? You’re dealing with educators here, dude. You can’t just make shit up and think you can get away with it.

Despite the cringe-worthiness of Duncan's absurd assertion, the Secretary did manage not to be the stupidest person on the conference call. That dubious distinction went to Tennessee’s education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, who put forth the proposition that it is lack of testing, of those magical words “strong assessments,” that’s the real problem. Because mandated testing cures everything from Down Syndrome to celebral palsy, apparently.

Seriously, it’s difficult to imagine what it must be like in the universe these guys inhabit. Unfortunately, the fact that what Duncan, Huffman, and their fellow charlatans propose is utter nonsense doesn’t change the fact that there are serious implications associated with their delusional ravings.

First, tens of thousands of good and effective teachers will have their hard work demeaned by Duncan’s transcendent silliness. Second, schools, already facing budget crises across the country, will have to re-direct resources to accommodate this boondoggle. That means less money to pay teachers, to support libraries and technology centers, to underwrite gifted and talented programs, in short to, well, be a school. Third, since Duncan seems pathologically incapable of doing anything without attaching a threat to it (do it my way or lose your funding), he further alienates anyone who actually knows anything about education from both his own inanities and the DOE in general, and enhances the impression of Chicago-style politics run amok in the Obama administration.

Finally, whereas high-stakes testing of the regular student population is unnecessarily stressful, often incompetently administered, and frequently used as “evidence” of utter falsehoods, at least we can understand the impulse. As a university professor, I do often despair at how remarkably underprepared many of my students are when they arrive in my freshman classes. If testing actually worked (it generally doesn’t), at least we’d have some means of determining what they know and what they don’t—and, as I’ve said before, I do look at a prospective student’s ACT or SAT scores as part of my decision of how to vote on a scholarship application. (I’d never use those scores to evaluate a teacher or a school in any way, however.)

Here, though, the proposal makes no sense at all. There’s no possible way that testing disabled students could do any good at all, could provide any useful information, could in fact accomplish anything remotely positive. The only way this makes sense is if it’s some sort of elaborate ruse to get people like Curmie to say “testing of the regular student population isn’t so bad, because see how much worse it could be.” (Note: ain’t gonna happen Arne—regular high-stakes testing is still awful, even if this is worse.)

Either that, or Arne Duncan is off his meds.

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