Secretary Duncan made a speech at Harvard Graduate School of Education-- here's what I think

Below is an analysis of Secretary Duncan's speech to HGSE students in Feb 2012.  Of course this post is part of an assignment to connect the talk to larger policy frameworks--notably, John Kingdon-- but, all the same, it's my analysis of where I think Secretary Duncan and the Obama Administration are in the education space.

Find the speech HERE.

Consistent with Kingdon’s description of political appointees, Secretary Duncan laid out issues that are of particular importance to him, even though his policy agenda has been set by President Obama.  Secretary Duncan believes in the real world and wants debates rooted in the actual challenges on the ground.  He talks about the sense of urgency ingrained within him, and he talking about the kids and communities he lived in, worked in, and understands.  The policy agenda that he delivers, however, does not seem to be his own.  He delivers an agenda about how brokered policies are better for our country than stubborn faithfulness to absolutist solutions.  He’s trying to soften up the system such that when a window opens—perhaps post November 2012—the policy agenda he is delivering about mutual respect and collaboration will be heard.

The field of education is filled with opposite choices, remarks Secretary Duncan.  He finds incompatibility that being for one choice means that one is necessarily not in agreement to other choices (i.e. flexible state funders being against accountability, English and math tests for performance being against well-rounded curriculum, etc.).  He suggests that win-win is possible and compromises of “both . . . and” exist.  But what he is really saying is that a policy community of people who should all care about kids has splintered—that this policy community is fragmented by the specialists who avow their approaches are best in their pure form: the perfect has become the enemy of the good, he says. 

Duncan’s speech was particularly unapologetic about setting out policy alternatives to the status quo—in fact, the title of his speech “Fighting the Wrong Education Battles” suggests that the dominant discourse and the standard way of thinking about education is least preferred.  He picks out two issues: in-school versus out-of-school influences and teacher evaluations.  Ironically (and in quite a political sophisticated way), the Secretary’s alternative to the status quo on both these issues is less about the substance of policies and more about the structure of the policy arguments.  Duncan wants the discussion to move from absolute solutions to relative solutions.  He asks, “compared to what?” to prompt advocates to recognize that the status quo is not sustainable and that new windows will have to open soon.  Duncan hopes that in this analytical move, his alternative frame of relative comparisons will win him buy-in.  The Secretary hopes more people will leave saying:  “Yes!  There is a problem.  It can be fixed.  We have policy options.  The solutions to our problem may lie in the combination of some of those options.  Now let’s do it—together!”  Duncan wants the policy community to listen to each other and do things differently.

In this way, Duncan’s premise, that there is an alternative to perceiving policies as absolute solutions, is actually a counter-intuitive reading of the political stream.  It is precisely because there is gridlock in Washington and because ESEA (NCLB) has not been reauthorized that political opportunity (open window) to do something else will emerge.  Kingdon requires that national moods must be given attention because they often dictate what happens to policies, and Duncan is giving the national mood attention.  He is reading a national mood that’s urging politicians to overcome partisan battling for the sake of the larger good.  Duncan understands that for important education policies to move forward in the interests of children, he must acknowledge that infighting is happening, but he must also acknowledge that opportunity is coming soon.    

It’s also clear that certain advocacy communities have gained traction within Duncan administration.  Duncan spoke about “taking to scale” solutions that are working in education.  That lingo is purely an invitation for business and/or corporate interests to have a piece of making education better.  Duncan specifically referenced Geoffrey Canada and the Obama Administration’s embrace of Promise Neighborhoods.  He also explicitly stated that he believes that beyond students’ circumstances all children can learn—which is a mantra repeated inside the ranks of Teach For America and other achievement gap focused organizations.

I did not hear Secretary Duncan speak of what Kingdon would consider to be final considerations in the steps of policy, namely the anticipation of constraints.  Here, is where the Secretary could have strengthened his speech more.  Duncan mentions the “curious visitors” and “skeptics” that would object to “no excuses schools” and obstinately point to poverty as the premier explanation variable for perpetual student underperformance.  But he does not explicitly say how those constraints or skeptics will be overcome.  Instead, Duncan suggests that the preliminary results pouring in will change those skeptics.  Skeptics are probably not readily convinced by information countering their opinions.  To make solutions salient, even for skeptics, a strategic public relations strategy must be untaken.  Advocates in the policy community should be empowered to do this.

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