The former Secretary of Education makes an impassioned plea for school reform.
Don’t let the blandness of the title fool you. The first chapter is titled “Lies, Lies Everywhere,” and its first sentence is “Education runs on lies.” So who is doing the lying? According to Duncan, pretty much everyone involved with setting and maintaining educational standards or representing teachers or overseeing the buildings or using the issue of education as a political football. “The truth is that we not only don’t value our teachers,” he writes, after suggesting that teachers unions resist educational reform. “It’s that we don’t value our kids.” It’s hard to argue against schools putting kids first, though many of the policies advanced by the author when he was in the cabinet of his fellow Chicagoan, Barack Obama, proved far more contentious. Their program was called Race to the Top, and “it challenged some sacred cows of the left: namely, that the teachers’ unions were loath to cede any power when it came to deciding how to pay, train or evaluate teachers.” It also placed a premium on data for assessment and accountability, though the author’s conversational tone here stresses classroom interaction rather than numbers. He also insists that the emphasis on standardized testing and Common Core standards has been misunderstood, partly because of some communication failures. Education was plainly an Obama priority, and the numbers under Duncan were often impressive, as performance rose and dropouts decreased. Yet there was contention from the left, from unions that are generally considered a Democratic stronghold, and from the right, where Obama faced tea party resistance on practically every front. Those who play politics with education are missing the big picture, he writes: “This is not about test scores, knowledge, or even school. It’s about life.”
Duncan’s heart is in the right place—he’s for kids and against lies—but the specifics of his analysis remain open to debate.