Secretary Duncan Should Wear a Dunce Cap


Lessons on Leadership and Humanity from Arne Duncan


As we wrote last month in our post about local school administrators: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, become administrators.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is the administrator of all administrators.


On Tuesday, Secretary Duncan was in Denver proclaiming that American children should attend school more hours each day, six or seven days each week and eleven or twelve months each year. For those of you who didn’t attend enough school to understand what that means, that’s roughly equal to at least 85% more classroom time for every child between the ages of five and eighteen. (Did Duncan bother to do the math before he made these statements? It’s hard to believe that the former head of the mediocre Chicago Public Schools really intended to propose that we increase the amount of classroom time by 85%.)


As the parent of three school-age children, I can tell you that more education does not equal better education. But that, my friends, is an argument for another day. (And let’s not even try to find out who is going to pay for 85% more schooling.)


China and India and Bears, Oh My!


“You’re competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; eleven, twelve months a year,” Duncan told a bored group of middle-schoolers in Denver.


His statement begs three questions: 1) What jobs? 2) Is more K-12 education the key to landing these mysterious jobs? And 3) Is this what life is all about?  


What Jobs?


Exactly what jobs are our children competing for with kids from India and China? Thirty-five cents per hour sweatshop jobs in China, or the $10,000 per year programming jobs in India? Perhaps Duncan was referring to the outflow of call center jobs to Indian companies that pay upwards of $5,000 per year. We can’t be sure, but we are fairly certain that you can’t even get an uneducated American to work for those wages.


Is More K-12 Education the Key to Landing These Mysterious Jobs?


Let’s give Arne Duncan the benefit of the doubt for a moment and say that there are indeed American jobs that can be saved. Is more education the key to landing these jobs? Can Duncan provide any guarantees that subjecting our children to 85% more schooling before they turn eighteen will have any effect on their ability to perform these jobs?


As someone with a public education (from elementary school through college) and a pretty good day job, I can tell you that I have interacted with hundreds of people (foreign and domestic) with more education than me who couldn’t perform my job with twice the training I’ve had. What I bring to my company (and what millions of others across the globe bring to theirs) cannot be taught with more hours of primary education – you either get it or you don’t. What counts in my job are business acumen, deductive reasoning and a high I.Q. – these are likely not going to be part of Duncan’s super-sized curriculum.


Is This What Life is All About?


Assuming Duncan is 100% right about everything; I have to know if this is what life is all about. Are we meant to be cogs fighting for national supremacy? Should we all start wearing our country’s colors and chant anti-globalization slogans? Do we want our kids to become over-educated automatons? Do we care at all about their personal, social and/or spiritual growth?


Duncan’s poorly planned proposal leaves no room for afterschool activities like the Mock Trial Club (which could help make some kid a great attorney), the Fashion Club (which could help make some kid a top designer), or the Operation Smile Club (which could help make some kid a terrific human being). (Yes, these clubs and millions like them exist in our schools today. We found these three at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School right around the corner from Duncan’s D.C. office.)


Duncan’s plan leaves no room for summer vacations to the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg or even Disney World. It leaves no room for summer camps or overseas trips. In other words, Duncan’s Folly leaves no room for discovery or wonder or life; it only leaves room for books.


I really don’t care if my kids land great jobs or if children in India and China get those gigs; I just want my kids to be satisfied with who they become and the choices they make. Of course, I’m especially hopeful they’ll make a difference in this world.


Taking away their childhood and everything that makes America a great place to live is not the answer, and shoving their nose in a book for eleven months a year will not help them do anything meaningful.