Date: Mar 23, 2010 6:39 PM
Author: kirby urner
Subject: Re: An Open Letter to Arne Duncan

On Tue, Mar 23, 2010 at 1:35 PM, Robert Hansen <> wrote:

<< SNIP >>

>> Business leaders certainly have the right to make
>> their voices heard in the ongoing debate. But public
>> schools do not exist exclusively to meet their needs.
>> The crisis they have manufactured to justify their
>> criticism is nothing new. To understand the basis for
>> this assessment, I refer you to my op-ed that was
>> published in the international edition of the New York
>> Times on Jan. 14, 2008 ("The 'crisis' of U.S. education"
>> --  see
>> ner.1.9196672.html).

This op-ed piece seemed somewhat full of non sequiturs.

Yes, these documentaries and reports showing the
relative quality drop are disturbing and stir up anxiety.

What doesn't follow is that these were phony, fake or
manufactured 'crises'.

Rather, these concerns gave rise to many responses,
including some challenges to authority and adventuresome
departures (e.g. Bill Gates from Harvard).

A lot of skeptics said the personal computer could never
take off.

We needed risk takers and we got some. New Math
made a difference, even if the name and branding were
quickly buried.

In other words, if you go back over the same events and
say the crises were real, and people responded (at least
some of them did), then you might still get the same

This outcome is nothing to wildly celebrate. The USA
is still mired in poverty and is apparently unwisely
consoling itself that its curriculum must actually be
OK because other countries are even worse basket
cases. Another non sequitur.

The author is quite correct that the support of teachers
is needed, and also the support of students.

Of each other.

It's not like threatening politicians with a loss of votes is
going to change the situation on the ground, vis-a-vis
whether much teaching and/or learning is really happening
or not.

I thought the analysis from Singapore was pretty good:
the USA system is less fixated on exams (although
ETS works in that direction), depends more on creative
risk taking.

OK, so where are the teachers willing to take risks
and challenge authority, and what does that look like?

Or are we thinking it's students who should take all
the risks?

Accusing businesses of manufacturing a crisis seems
like a cop out to me. The economy is very clearly in a
bad state and probably one of the most galvanizing
things we might do to pull out of it is overhaul the
education system in a way that gets a lot of people
working in new roles i.e. institution building is in order.

No, I'm not just talking about "charter schools" (don't
all schools have a charter -- some more recent than

For the sake of debate and argument, I might also
take the position that approximately no schools in
the USA are "world class" right now.

That's just not what we've got, based on the curriculum
I'm seeing.

I'm not saying this as simplistic way of blaming
teachers though.

Perhaps it's those same business leaders who
just aren't being clear enough?

If all that's coming across is a sense of "fake crisis"
then maybe the business community needs to spell
it out in a lot more detail -- perhaps by sponsoring
some show case schools and showing directly and
immediately what it would like to see more of.

We'd hope for a lot of diversity, with attainable reforms
on display, not just pie-in-the-sky. The newer curriculum
itself should start to come through, not just images of
students working with it. Adult viewers could use some
updates as well. Am I just talking about PBS then?
Is the BBC planning anything similar?

Like why not make it a TV series? But maybe not fiction
this time, and less scripted? We've got this "reality TV"
genre going, but just use it to play silly games. Does
anyone want to risk something more real? One school
might be inner city somewhere, another in the hinterlands,
another built from scratch in the course of the episodes.
Could we convert some spare aircraft carriers, even if
just moored in harbor, make them into boarding schools
perhaps. Just an idea -- other ships?

I'm thinking of Disney's bold vision of an Experimental
Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). What
would the school be like, in said community? Jet
packs? Probably not. More use of GIS / GPS,
better spatial geometry? Probably.

The Japanese likely have ideas and talents to contribute.
This idea that we're all divided up into nation-states who
viciously compete, like in some Olympics, is itself a bit
dated (a lot dated). The business community does a lot
of problem solving trans-nationally, out of necessity.

Maybe that's a next step for teachers too? Again, some
creative use of our shared media (not just the Internet)
could start moving us in a more positive direction.

In the meantime, I remain thoroughly persuaded we're
in something of a crisis. Lots of homeless, lots of tents,
lots of FEMA trailers... you don't need me to spell it out
for ya do ya? Oh yeah, lots of wars, lots of preventable
deaths by starvation... I'd say *by definition* the curriculum
is broken, or we wouldn't be so messed up.

Perhaps it sounds "idealistic" or "utopian" to want to
address serious economic problems (which all fall under
the category of health care, broadly interpreted) but from
a business point of view there's pressure to find life
supportive investments, stuff to do with time/energy
that isn't just empty squandering.

An educated population is more likely to self-organize
around such projects, whereas an ignorant one will
just sit on its duff and blame the King, falling into
some prehistoric pattern, of treating presidents
like monarchs, then as scape goats -- not what the
USA's founders had in mind (too immature).

Basically, it's complacency which has no appropriate
role in this picture. If you think the status quo is OK,
you're on the fringe, out to lunch. Change is needed.
Risk taking is needed.

The only questions involve what, when, where and how,
not whether, and many of these questions may be
closer to answered than we'd like to admit sometimes
i.e. it's convenient to always postpone doing the right
thing, but at some point impractical.

So I'll end with an appeal to pragmatism, and a question:
what shall we do now?

Maybe you don't like my TV-related proposals. So what
are your better ideas. "More funding and smaller class
sizes" should go without saying.

Be more specific. Talk about real changes to what's
being taught, and how. Talk about how you might teach
American History for example, up to the present day.

What if you couldn't rely on that textbook you teach
from, what would you teach instead? What full length
documentaries might you assign? What YouTubes
might you project? What, you don't have a clue?

Yes, I'm walking this talk, as are many teachers
I respect. I enjoy comparing notes with peers.

Remember, take risks.