I Spoke to Arne Duncan About School Reform. Here Are 5 Takeaways

Frederick M. Hess
5 min readOct 12, 2023

Last week, at the American Enterprise Institute, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I sat down to talk about the future of school reform with The New York Times’ Erica Green (you can see the video here). Across town, at exactly the same time, Rep. Matt Gaetz and his gang of very online arsonists were toppling the House Speaker out of pique.

Against that backdrop, our conversation felt civilized, even convivial. That’s funny both because so much educational debate of late has felt far from that and because, as longtime readers may recall, I had a fairly contentious relationship with Arne and his team during Obama-era fights over stuff like Race to the Top, teacher evaluation, Title IX guidance, and the Common Core.

Well, last week, we covered a lot of ground: Testing. Parents. “Book bans.” Leadership. Chronic absenteeism. And more. I don’t want to rehash the whole thing here (watch it if you’re curious or read a summary here). But as I reflected on the conversation and heard reactions to it, there are five thoughts I thought were worth sharing.

First, as I’ve found in my A Search for Common Ground book with Pedro Noguera and my “Straight Talk” exchanges here at Ed Week with Jal Mehta, it’s a lot easier to find significant points of principled agreement than you might think. The clickbait, fiery denunciations, and breathless coverage frequently make it sound like no one can agree on anything. That’s not my experience. As I’ve often said, I’ve found that it’s just not that hard for me to get to 50 percent or 60 percent agreement even with someone who sees things real differently, if we’re willing to sit down and get clear about the particulars. That means that there’s 40 percent or 50 percent we won’t agree on, but that’s life — and if we whittle our arguments down to human size, they can feel less daunting and more manageable.

Second, Duncan lamented the sense that we’re adrift and articulated a vision of leadership focused on a set of broadly shared goals. This seemed to land with people. Arne urged a bipartisan focus on something like early-childhood access, 3rd grade reading score, graduation rates, and some gauge of postsecondary completion — with the understanding that there will be healthy disagreement on how to make these things happen. The degree to which this notion seemed to resonate with viewers had me pondering how much of a full circle we’ve traveled, given that the Clinton-Bush-Obama school reform era really took off when the nation’s governors (including a guy named Bill Clinton) and the first President Bush embraced a set of national goals at their historic Charlottesville meeting more than three decades ago.

Third, the conversation reminded me just how partial or tentative the conversation can be when it comes to parents. For instance, the question of “book bans” came up. This is an issue that’s often presented as a caricature, inevitably leading to a partisan dead end. When the reality is framed more fully and precisely, though, asking why parents might be concerned about graphic sexual imagery in elementary school libraries (for instance) as well as which parental complaints are unjustified or excessive, it’s a lot easier to find common ground. Similarly, when it comes to chronic absenteeism and youth well-being, it turns out there’s a fair bit of agreement that schools must do their part, but parents also need to get kids off their phones, in bed at a reasonable hour, and to school on time.

Fourth, like it or not, I was reminded yet again that would-be school “reformers” can’t just go back to the policy agenda that they spent so much time building and buffing during the Bush-Obama years. This is true even for those who cherished No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core. Why? Well, I hate to break it to anyone who really loved those programs, but they weren’t some elegantly designed, Platonic ideal of “reform.” Rather, they were compromise-laden attempts designed with a careful eye to the educational priorities, technological tools, and political realities of the moment. That means both that those reforms may be poorly suited to where we are today; they’ll almost inevitably include features that may be outdated, not necessary, or counterproductive. And, of course, it’s a mistake to imagine we can dust off old ideas that were bipartisan 10 or 20 years ago and assume they’ll be popular (or productive) in a very different environment. The future of school reform may look quite different from the past of school reform. And that’s OK.

Finally, watching Gaetz’s antics play out, and then seeing him soak up primetime cable time and campaign contributions as a result, is a reminder of how the rewards for performative behavior have been fundamentally corrupting across so much of American life (my colleague Yuval Levin has written elegantly about this). While there are plenty of toxic right-wing and left-wing performance artists in the education space, to my mind, those most guilty of abandoning their scruples for the cheap thrills of clickbait and culture war have been the stewards of once-austere establishment organizations who’ve eschewed mature leadership and instead embraced the satisfaction of being part of the performative mob. They’ve corrupted unifying institutions, hollowed out constructive places for Americans to work out principled disagreements, and burned the hard-won credibility that a long list of predecessors had carefully accumulated. Who do I have in mind?

In particular, I’m thinking of organizations like the National School Boards Association and the American Library Association, which have eschewed the chance to lead inclusively in favor of performative theatrics. During the pandemic, many parents were furious about how school districts approached reopening, masking, “anti-racist” education, and more. In response, a few parents behaved indefensibly, threatening district officials. But most were just vocal, angry, and active. Instead of distinguishing one from the other and working to honor both parent frustration and the need to police unacceptable behavior, the NSBA infamously asked the federal government to treat irate parents as “domestic terrorists” — even though most of the examples flagged in its letter to the Biden administration didn’t involve any actual threat. More recently, the American Library Association has passed on the opportunity to help bridge the gap between parents troubled by what they consider pornographic images and text found in elementary and middle school materials and those reasonably concerned about censorious behavior. If any group is situated to provide measured guidelines and guardrails for reaching reasonable judgments about such materials, it should be the ALA. Instead of noting that library curation is something librarians do, and helping communities talk constructively about reasonable distinctions and age-appropriateness, the ALA has lent its credibility to those who seem determined to label even modest efforts to remove perceived pornographic texts from elementary and middle school libraries as “book banning.”

Arne argued that we’re at a point where we need leadership from anyone who’s willing to provide it: Governors. Mayors. Educators. Parent leaders. National officials. That resonates. As Erica Green noted, we opened bars before we opened schools during the pandemic. Yep. As I’m prone to note, we’ve just given K-12 over $200 billion in borrowed funds that our kids and grandkids will have to pay back, and it’s hard to find anyone who thinks we got our money’s worth. Our kids need the adults to step up, and we need more adults in the room. Let’s work on that. That just may be the way forward when it comes to the future of school reform.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.