There were many things I liked about President Obama. However, my big disappointments with him came on my home court, education. First, there was the appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. My more prescient friends were more troubled by the choice than I. I pleaded to give him a chance to prove himself. He seemed like a good guy. He played basketball with the kids in the ‘hood whom he knew because of the tutoring program his mother ran. He had done some good things as CEO of CPS, particularly during a period when he seemed to be putting issues of instruction and learning front and center. Strange to say, that’s not always CEOs’ first priority.
But I was wrong. Unfortunately, his time in office lasted through the entire eight years of Obama’s tenure in office. As many other critics have commented, those eight years were largely an elaboration and extension of the department’s work during the previous administration. Bush’s secretary Margaret Spellings’ priorities were two – testing and privatization. Arne ran his train on those same tracks and left the nation’s school systems worse off than when he started. Read the book he produced once he returned to civilian life and you’ll get a sense of how tone deaf he was – and remains – to the damage his tenure inflicted.
So why rehash all this almost five years after the fact? Here’s why: With the most welcome victory of Joe Biden in 2020, we’re seeing an encore performance of Barack Obama’s administration in many areas. For the most part, it signals a much-needed return to the competency and calm after the years of a government run by self-serving, unqualified grifters. At the Department of Education Trump’s appointee Betsy Devos was too rich to be classified as a grifter but she definitely wore the badge of incompetence proudly. Her sole mission, it seemed, was the dismantling of public education and the transfer of as much as possible of that system’s considerable treasure chest of riches into private, preferably religious hands.
Almost every Biden cabinet department is populated by repeat performers from the Obama years, returning to complete the work they had begun and to restore the achievements Trump had sought to erase. For me, that’s good news in areas like the resuscitation of the Iran Nuclear Deal and the restoration of environmental policies that have a shot at saving the planet. But once again, things don’t look so rosy on the education turf that I know best. Although Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education is a new face, the people nominated to the positions just below him are returnees from the Obama years. They are the same people who were responsible for some of the most misguided of Arne Duncan’s policies, like Race to the Top which pitted school districts against one another based on who could clear the path for the approval of more charter schools and who could commit to the core curriculum and testing most fully. Given Cardona’s inexperience, it’s these returning veterans who are going to steer the Department of Education in the new administration.
That means that an end to the dominance of testing, the most consequential change of direction that could have emerged from the pandemic year, is not likely to happen. President Biden himself has been insistent that this year’s testing needs to move forward without any waivers in order to assess where students are in their learning trajectories. The general consensus is that the numbers that emerge from these tests will be meaningless because of the conditions under which learning has – or hasn’t — taken place during this most disrupted year. There’s more hope for permanent change among the colleges and universities where the abandonment of the SAT and the ACT as part of the admissions process has a greater chance of sticking than suspensions in testing in K-12 schools. We don’t know much about Cardona’s plans, except that he too has strongly endorsed plans to move ahead with testing this year. This is a huge lost opportunity for ridding our public schools of a twenty+ year blight which has distorted the meaning of education in ways that have become so normalized that they have been rendered invisible to practitioners and the general public alike.
Seeing how the return of Obama era policies is playing out in education leads me to wonder whether I should be concerned about the downside of the return of the “old” guard in areas about which I’m less well-versed. Take foreign policy and defense, for example. Like so many others on my side of the political spectrum, I’ve been delighted by the bold proposals of Biden’s first Hundred Days which include the support for early childhood education that Obama campaigned on but never really delivered. But carryovers from Barack’s administration in areas like China policy may be less desirable. We’ve already witnessed a near misstep in immigration with the announcement of the continuation of a distressingly low cap on the number of immigrants permitted to enter. I’m not sure whose advice Biden was following here. Obama’s immigration policies left much to be desired, and it’s entirely possible that this was the work of returners from his administration. Fortunately, the outcry from many Democrats who expected better of the new administration led to a quick reversal.
The Progressives’ honeymoon with Biden will not last. Dissatisfactions are sure to emerge in other policy areas outside my education bailiwick. There’s lots to take encouragement from in the President’s early moves, but we have to be ready to raise our voices in protest when we see that oft-quoted arc bending in the wrong direction.
One of our dearest New Hampshire friends, Jim Curran, died on May Day at age 92. He’s one of those rare larger- than- life figures whose death intensifies the light he shed rather than diminishing it. He and his equally amazing wife Polly lived an adventurous life in the Foreign Service, including postings in Australia and South Africa with their seven children in tow. When he retired, they settled in New Hampshire, to our great good fortune, where, among other things, Jim became active in local Democratic politics.
True to his Irish heritage, Jim was blessed with the storyteller’s gift. Around the age of 88 he turned those talents toward writing a novel based on his adventures in the pre-WWII US Navy. He knew it was a race against time, a concern he reiterated every time he sent me a new chapter for comment. He might have made it under the wire if he hadn’t been knocked back by battles with pneumonia, COVID and, finally, an unyielding leg infection. When we make our annual pilgrimage to New Hampshire, I’m really going to miss his full-throated laugh and that ever-present mischievous glint in his eye.
May his memory be a blessing.