Arne Duncan and Neoliberal Racism:



Educational justice advocates are understandably displeased with President Elect Obama’s appointment of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Arne Duncan to the position of Education Secretary in the next White House. 


As the Chicago public school teacher Jesse Sharkey notes, "In the past couple years, Duncan has been turning public schools over to private operators – mainly in the form of charter and contract schools – at a rate of about 20 per year. Duncan has also resuscitated some of the worst ‘school reform’ ideas of the 1990s, like firing all the teachers in low-performing schools (called ‘turnarounds’). At the same time, he’s eliminated many Local School Councils (LSCs) and made crucial decisions without public input…Charter schools and test-score driven school ‘choice’ have been the watchwords of Duncan’s rule in Chicago" (Sharkey 2008). [1]


University of Illinois at Chicago education professor Kevin Kumashiro notes that Duncan’s Chicago policies  have been "steeped in a free-market model of school reform" that feeds the drop-out rate, increases segregation, and does little if anything  to increase student achievement. "Duncan’s track record is clear," says Kumashiro: "Less parental and community involvement in school governance. Less support for teacher unions. Less breadth and depth in what and how students learn as schools place more emphasis on narrow high-stakes testing. More penalties for schools but without adequate resources for those in high-poverty areas." (Kumashiro 2008).


Privatization, union-busting (charter and contract schools operate union-free), excessive standardized testing, teacher-blaming, military schooling, and the rollback of community input on school decisions – these are the interrelated hallmarks of private school graduate [2] Arne Duncan’s six and a half years at the helm of CPS. It’s all very consistent with the legacy of his predecessor and mentor, the roving urban schools chief and leading privatization enthusiast Paul  Vallas [3].


It is little wonder that Duncan recently won the support of the leading Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks (Brooks 2008).




Under Duncan as under Vallas, teachers in Chicago’s predominantly black and Latino and highly segregated [4] schools have experienced relentless pressure to gear instruction towards all-powerful standardized examinations. Those tests determine which schools are honored as successful and which are shamed as "failures" and sanctioned – often with severe budgetary consequences – and even closed outright.


The "high-stakes testing" regime that has prevailed in Duncan’s CPS often makes the inner-city classroom experience unimaginably oppressive. It privileges the authoritarian, mind-dulling search for the narrow-spectrum right answer over the democratic and mind-opening pursuit of the good question. It emphasizes rote, quasi-vocational memorization over the cultivation of intelligent, well-rounded citizenship capacities and creative vision. As Jonathan Kozol notes, it subordinates "critical consciousness" to the "goal of turning minority children into examination soldiers – unquestioning and docile followers of proto-military regulations" (Kozol 2004).


In Chicago as across the nation, test-based "skill and drill" instruction is offered mainly in impoverished Latino and black schools.  "Affluent public or private schools," Asa Hillard III has noted, "rarely if ever use the scripted non-intellectual programs. This is the new segregation" (Hillard 2004).


Beyond its deadening impact on children’s passion for engaged learning and critical thought, the testing regime drives many teachers away from urban schools.  Those teachers prefer (richer and whiter) places where students and parents would never tolerate the "teacher-proof" curriculum that predominates in inner-city schools.