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Education Sat Jul 04 2009

Arne Duncan at the RAINBOW/PUSH National Convention

North Lawndale Little Village High School for Social Justice Teacher and Co-Chair of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), Jackson Potter, sent me a report on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's speech at the RAINBOW/PUSH National Convention.

A Slam Dunk for Duncan

By. Jackson Potter

At RAINBOW/PUSH's annual convention on June 29th, 2009, the audience was filled with college students working for the city college system. Two of these students who told me that they were getting paid $9.00 an hour to be at the event and claimed that the summer program was "excruciatingly boring" and that they had to beg their supervisors for "something to do." It should surprise no one that patronage and trading favors was part of the Secretary of Education's homecoming, after all he's been rewarded mightily by his corporate sponsors for spawning Chicago style school reform. Regardless of why people were there, the topic of the day was an admirable one, how to fix our failing educational system.

Jesse Jackson began the session asserting that "strong minds break strong chains" but deemed it unacceptable that a school like Harper High gets a mediocre education while other school communities get an "Olympic education." In a comment seemingly directed at the young people in the room Jackson insisted that "if you're behind, you have to run faster."

That opening gave Duncan an opportunity to expand upon his educational vision for the country. He started by thanking himself for doubling "the number of those passing and taking AP courses" in Chicago and for the fact that we "have more Gates Millenium winners than anyone in the country." Then he delivered the bad news "we [the United States] have a 30 percent dropout rate, we used to lead the world in the number of college graduates." Never mind that we have never had such a high number of low-income students of color attending college in our nation's history. Duncan then proceeded to insulate himself any doubts that his compassion and empathy for student struggles might not be legit. Referencing his close ties to the White House, Duncan insisted that the president and first lady "were not born with silver spoons in their mouths" and "the president talks about being on food stamps at one point." He also commented on the importance of Historically Black Colleges for training "half of our nations African American Teachers," this despite the fact that his Turnaround policies have led to a tremendous loss of black teachers in the Chicago Public Schools. Last, he took aim at the bad guys, us teachers.

"We're gonna push a very strong reform agenda" apparently necessary because "standards have been dummied down," something Duncan ensured was the case when he presided over a new Illinois State Achievement Test test that drastically improved the performance of elementary schools on state exams. Arne got on with his message, teachers are at the center of the achievement gap because "talent matters tremendously, great teachers, great principles matter." Last came the punch line; "were challenging the country to think about the schools that are not performing....when that happens we as educators perpetuate poverty and perpetuate the status quo." Another speaker challenged the Secretary of Education to think about the "health gap and the wealth gap" when diagnosing the distress of our schools but Duncan was nonplussed and responded, "this is not just about closing the gap, we have to raise the bar."

Apparently, that bar is to be raised, even if it chokes us!

Potter's experience at the convention prompted him to write the following letter to President Obama, who nominated and strongly advocated for Duncan's appointment:

Letter to Barack Obama

By Jackson Potter

Dear President Obama, as a Chicagoan who campaigned for you and has admired you from afar since your state senate days it pains me to write this letter. I am a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and I also graduated from Whitney Young, your wife's Alma Mater. I have dedicated 7 years of my professional life to becoming a good teacher, it has been a difficult but supremely gratifying journey. I taught at Englewood High School and was the union delegate there when Arne Duncan closed our school. At the time i was not certain of what school reform had to offer, now i strongly believe that it is a scheme to privatize schools and weaken teacher unions.

Recently Arne Duncan has given a series of speeches where he has repeatedly said that "were challenging the country to think about the schools that are not performing....when that happens we as educators perpetuate poverty and perpetuate the status quo."

Does Duncan indict the very wealthy who have neglected to pay their share of taxes to rectify the lack of equity in our school system, does he lambast the fact that our low income students of color have the worst access to health care in the industrialized world, does he shame the haves for accumulating wealth while, for more than a generation, the have-nots languish? No, he blames teachers.

This is an outrage. I can tell you with no exaggeration whatsoever that everyone in my profession is extremely insulted by this type of rhetoric. You must reign in the Secretary of Education and ensure that rank and file teachers are an integral part of your education initiatives. I would be very happy to share my thoughts with you in more detail if given the opportunity. Thank you.

Disclosure-I am a member of CORE.

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