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 both pieces of failed legislation under former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and now current Secretary Arne Duncan that have seriously derailed the status of education in this country. But I'm optimistic. Along with millions of frustrated students, educators, and parents, I'm committed to a radical reinvention of the system from scratch.
And while it isn't official yet, Secretary Duncan has hinted that he will return to President Obama's cabinet for a second term. I can tell you that isn't good news.
At the Council of Chief State Officers conference last week, 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 law and continue his carrot-and-stick approach to ramming his proposals into states and school districts. Secretary Duncan's most likely appointment is a clear sign to the American public that President Obama has turned a blind eye toward students, educators, and parents.
Look, 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. It's like a "Russian novel, because it's long, it's complicated, and in the end, everybody gets killed," as one superintendent quipped.
And now Secretary Duncan wants to "replicate" all of this. Give me a break. Education is not a race; it is 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 re-appoint 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.
This model of governing, adopted from the Chicago schools system, is simply broken.
Recollect Secretary Duncan's 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% 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 didn't address the abysmal 40% dropout rate, a national embarrassment. If his reforms unequivocally failed miserably in Chicago, how the hell were they supposed to work successfully on the national level?
At NBC 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 strenuously with his iron fist to obliterate public education and establish a voucher system to 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.
Call it whatever you want, but this is a blatant full-blown assault on institutions that educate the members of our democracy.
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.
Nikhil Goyal is the author of "One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School," and was a panelist during our Education Nation town hall on September 23 (above). Goyal, 17, is also a student at Syosset High School in New York.