Talking tough

To the occasional consternation of colleagues and friends who are more interpersonally sensitive and politically correct, I've been known to define "consensus" as an agreement or state of affairs that leaves all parties equally unhappy.

That formulation has recurred in recent weeks as I've watched the speechmaking and some of the early priority-setting of Education Secretary Arne Duncan: It's almost as if they were calculated to rile and challenge all of his department's traditional constituents and stakeholders--and some reformers as well.

He's been telling state leaders that they need to amend their laws--lifting charter-school caps, for example--to qualify for federal "race to the top" funding. He's been admonishing the charter crowd that it has to purge its ranks of crummy schools and embrace a mission it has long eschewed, namely the use of chartering to reconstitute failed district schools. He's been telling district chieftains that they must get serious about closing such schools--lots of them. He's been insisting to Congress that it appropriate dollars for such unpopular-with-Democrats programs as the Teacher Incentive Fund, which--quelle horreur--supports innovations like performance-based pay.

Most recently, at the NEA's annual Fourth-of-July convention, he told union big-wigs that they need to get with the program when it comes to paying really good teachers more and--eek--ridding schools of chronically ineffective instructors.

If he were a Republican, he'd have been heartily booed and perhaps walked out on--that's if he were invited at all. As it was, Duncan's reception by the NEA could be termed mixed. He did draw boos and hisses during the tough parts, but that was after much warm applause for the parts they liked (such as more federal education funding than ever before).

One assumes this pattern will continue as the Secretary keeps making the rounds of the innumerable organizations, conventions, and conferences that look to him and his agency for money if not leadership and policy guidance. Indeed, if one is going to talk tough, it's smart to talk tough to everyone, lest one be accused of playing favorites.

Duncan isn't nasty or even particularly critical. All his pills--all that I've seen, anyway--have ample sugar coatings in which he praises, empathizes, illustrates from personal experience, oozes understanding, proffers billions, and positively drips with child-centeredness and compassion. They're good speeches and he delivers them well. (He'd be a formidable candidate for elective office if and when that day arrives.) Eventually, though, he softly pulls the trigger and shoots his audience a polite but stern message that isn't what they want to hear, isn't consistent with their present practices, and cannot be carried out without wrenching changes.

Duncan doesn't say "you're wrong." He says, in effect, times have changed, circumstances have changed, we're not getting the job done well enough, and to get it done better we have to do things differently in the future than we've done in the past. This approach resembles President Obama's own penchant for urging Americans to get beyond yesterday's "tired ideas."

So far, only one of the Secretary's messages--his willingness to deep-six the District of Columbia voucher program--has not been music to my ears and those of sundry other hardened, weary veterans of the education-reform wars. (Republican though I am, at least on alternate Thursdays during Leap Year, I could not have said that of his GOP predecessor.)

What remains to be seen, of course, is how he handles actual decision-making under tough circumstances: When he must spend or withhold money, fund one place or project or hungry mouth rather than another, issue or not issue a controversial regulation, send actual bill language to Congress for overhauling NCLB (a gnarly policy challenge that Messrs. Obama and Duncan have so far been nearly mute about), negotiate with strong-willed committee chairmen, establish budget priorities (especially when--and if--the stimulus-dollar surge ends) etc. Walking the walk is never as easy as talking the talk and, half a year into his new job, Duncan has done a great deal of the latter but not a heckuva lot of the former. (To be fair, he's already made a few tough calls on student loans and Title I regs.)

In Chicago, where he ran the school system for nine long years, it appears that his walking wasn't incompatible with his reformist talking--but a lot of time he was on tiptoes, not galumphing down Michigan Avenue. (Could that be why a new study by the Chicago Commercial Club's Civic Committee concludes that the Windy City's vaunted reforms have yielded distressingly little by way of improved student results?)

Chicago politics ain't beanbag, as Mr. Dooley would say--or would have said if he'd ever been west of the Hudson--but the Washington version of this is bound to prove more challenging. There are lots more "stakeholders." They really don't agree with each other (except about how more money would please them all). The two parties really don't agree about much these days. (Republicans weren't a major force in Chicago; of course, Al Franken's recent triumph may mean they won't be on Capitol Hill, either.) The Democratic Party really does harbor an education-policy schism that will eventually cause pain. (Watch Congressman Obey, for example, declare that the education-stimulus dollars are meant to fill state and local budget holes, not foster painful reforms beloved of Duncan.)

Besides politics, the capital's mounting proclivity to play "gotcha," scandal-monger, and conflict-of-interest-exposer has truly intimidated careerists and Schedule C appointees alike, creating a pattern of status-quo-maintaining, backside-protecting, and risk-aversion that is wholly incompatible with the sorts of changes that Duncan is urging and that will inevitably slow the pace of change.

One must therefore assume that the speeches he's been making represent the apogee of education reform in the Obama administration and that actual policy and practice will end up being something less than the rhetoric calls for.

If it's much less, Duncan will wind up not having made much difference, beyond the spending of all that additional money. If it's only a little less, I'll sing his praises--while education stakeholders grumpily reach "consensus" that they would prefer morphine but must tolerate the pain. Meanwhile, listen closely when he talks. He's saying almost (not quite) all of the right things.

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