Arne Duncan: quite possibly the dopiest Secretary of Education we’ve ever seen

Yesterday, Arne Duncan announced that he wants all schoolchildren to switch to electronic textbooks as fast as possible.  Because:  South Korea!  Or something.

Apparently (and unsurprisingly!) he hasn’t talked to any teachers or student teachers recently, many of whom don’t even have enough of the boring, old codex technology to send books home with their students so they can read and do homework at home, or anywhere outside of class.  A grad student of mine told me that when she did her student teaching in the Big Thompson school district last spring in Loveland, Colorado, this was the reality she was expected to cope with.  Oh, yeah:  she also said that half the students didn’t have internet access at home, so she and her cooperating teacher couldn’t assign them any online reading or schoolwork outside of class, and they had no budget for photocopies either.

Now, Loveland is not a fancy town, but it’s solidly middle-class (and parts of it are quite prosperous.)  I was shocked by what this student told me, and when I heard yesterday afternoon about Duncan’s dopey scheme, I wondered how teachers and student-teachers in districts like this one would hear the news that they really must switch to online textbooks.  I wonder what kind of influence-peddling is responsible for yesterday’s announcement, which if implemented promises to divert billions of dollars into technology (e-readers, iPads, textbook subscriptions) rather than into training and retaining human teachers.  Awesome!!!

30 thoughts on “Arne Duncan: quite possibly the dopiest Secretary of Education we’ve ever seen

  1. The Internet divide is a terrible problem and one serious way that so-called school reforms exacerbate the problems poverty imposes. My younger relatives receive all their homework via email, which makes sense on a certain level, but they do go to public high school. When I asked what kids who don’t have a computer or internet at home do, the oldest said “They go to the public library.”

    But the public library hours in that Northeastern city have been cut drastically. The library is only open from 10-6 and it isn’t open on the weekends. There are fewer than 20 terminals even in the main branch. Even a very well organized and diligent teenager would have a hard time keeping up under those circumstances, much less be able to get a parent to help with homework.


  2. I also wonder: even *if* poorer students have some kind of internet access, is it likely to be on their (or their parents’) smart phones? How useful is that medium for doing serious reading and analysis?

    *IF* the switch to digital textbooks is done properly, towns and school districts will have to make sufficient bandwidth available at no cost to individual subscribers. That seems to me the key to levelling access to digital books. This could end up benefiting all of us–but I’m highly dubious that this will happen, and believe that the digital divide you note will only continue to exacerbate class divisions. After all, this looks like an initiative being driven by for-profit corporations, not by consumer or educational activists who advocate free wifi access for everyone.


  3. I was waiting for your comments on this, and my thoughts were more or less yours when I heard this new brilliant idea.

    The other deep dark secret is that many students actually LIKE reading boring old codex books. And I’m a little anxious about creating a model where education competes with video games. I try to entertain my students while teaching them, but it’s not entertainment, if that makes any sense.


  4. Yes. There is a difference between education that’s engaging and what I call edu-tainment.

    Maybe all of those fancy school districts who will switch to digital textbooks and iPads for everyone can hold a book drive, in which they then donate all of their old codex technology to the poorly supported schools who don’t have enough books for their students? That would be a win-win for everyone.

    But the fun would only last until those books fell apart and/or were superannuated.


  5. @Historiann,
    That’s pretty much what we do, although in the Upper School, students bought their textbooks so they kept them. Not a lot to donate there. Science and math have moved to e-texts but we haven’t in history or English because of the crummy annotation features. If they get that fixed, we’ll probably switch because of the weight issues. We are one to one school with each student provided a laptop and those on heavy financial aid can get a subsidy for internet at home through our school ISP. We are looking at moving towards “byod” (bring your own device), in the future because so far our pilots with tablets have been mixed. They work really well for some, others find they are better off with a laptop.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “Dopey” is a very polite term for this idea. First we replace the books, then we replace the teachers. And, oh yes, we hire multinational concerns to make up and administer the standardized tests to see if this plan is working.


  7. My older son is in 6th grade, and he goes to a private school that has instituted a laptop requirement for all students 6th grade and above. All of his textbooks are electronic. And it sucks! There is no upside that we’ve been able to discern yet; the school seems to have instituted this policy just to be able to advertise “look how techy and up to date we are!” And the downsides are numerous. The textbook sites crash (generally the night before a test), are often slow and balky, and answering assigned study questions is frustrating because it is difficult to toggle between windows. I have managed to scrounge up print copies of most of his textbooks that I bought to keep at home so he can get his homework done with less hair-pulling and tears.

    My view as a medievalist: I can read books that are many hundreds of years old, and the technology works just fine! Now, I’m all about the internet. Heck, that’s how I bought all those textbook copies. But I’m not at all impressed with the online textbooks.


  8. The only good thing that can be said about this is that it hasn’t been traced through the Caymans yet, but that could happen. I pay plenty enough for dsl/broadband in a pretty privileged part of the country, and my service can be maddeningly inconsistent, with slow download times, stuttering transitions from item to item, etc. Just what we need to be inculcating: more “device” dependence. The hapless manager of the Boston Red Sox almost plowed over two French tourists in Central Park yesterday riding his *other* device, a bicycle, while checking a text (one that amazingly enough didn’t come from Cengage with a palette of optional features and interactive gizmos) from his second baseman concerning his readiness to play that night. He ended up in a gulch beside the Reservoir. Please. I’ve regarded the anti-codex mob with derision since that California Republican state senator some years back wondered out loud why, if they could make tennis rackets out of titanium, they couldn’t print textbooks on titanium, to spare his K-12 constituents future chiropractic woes. Double please.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Much as I love my ereader, I see electronic texts mostly as a supplement. That’s a great way to provide ancillary readings or to get scholarly articles. It’s not a sure-fire way to provide textbooks or school-focused reading material to students!

    Plus, supporting the technology is costly in labour as well as in effort. Every hour that I have to spend troubleshooting our CMS is one less hour I have available to focus on important elements such as, you know, improving how I teach or giving my students more helpful feedback on their work. And, boy, do I spend a lot of hours in unofficial tech troubleshooting. . . .

    Finally, that ‘digital divide’ is a serious issue. Yes, my family’s fortunate in that we have a computer for everybody but many families don’t even have one at home or, if they do, don’t have high-speed internet! Smart phones rarely interface well with this proprietary sites or so I’ve seen. So if that’s a family’s only option (that or the limited hours at the public library), guess whose kids will not be able to keep up with the coursework: not because they don’t get it academically but because they don’t get it as a technology offering.



  10. On the link, Duncan looks like a complete Bain Capital guy, a gleaming-eyed techno-evangelist, and I think the questions about “influence-peddling” or outside interest involvements and revolving-door issues are not inapt. Wouldn’t it be amazing, though, to have a Secretary of Education whose first big talk to an influential group in September was about how ze had re-read the works of Edith Wharton last summer, or finally got an opportunity to really, systematically, watch the interaction of frogs and crickets in the old pond up at the summer place, or who in the late hours wrote up a proposal to reorganize and update the historical marker program in hir home state, or something that actually had something to do with, like, education. As opposed to how can we make our metrics competitive with their metrics? There is definitely an “End of Empire” feel about departmental ministers gazing across wide waters and fretting aloud about whose children are going to be hiring our children. Or not.


  11. The main problem is not E or not-E textbooks and never was. Reading of the Internet, directly or indirectly, does change anything in the education of children. Speed of dissemination is not translated into speed and capacity of absorption.

    But I have an idea. Since Arne Duncan, the head of the failing Chicago school system (according to Rahm), was Obama’s basketball buddy, how about play e-basketball instead of being secretary of e-Education.


  12. “There is definitely an “End of Empire” feel about departmental ministers gazing across wide waters and fretting aloud about whose children are going to be hiring our children. Or not.”


    And, yes: as jgolden08 points out, “dopey” is a polite term for these crazzy schemes. But since every time I write a post about Arne Duncan I use the term “dopey,” mostly because that’s the word that always comes to mind when I see his dopey mug, I will persist.

    He’d inflict a lot less damage if he were just Hoops Friend in Chief, but I guess it’s good for us that he’s mostly a pretty ineffective dope. If he truly were a Machiavel, he’d inflict a lot more damage. (IOW, maybe it’s a good thing that the Obama admin clearly doesn’t think the Sec’y of Ed needs to be any kind of intellectual powerhouse. Can you imagine how thoroughly this guy is disregarded in cabinet meetings? Ugh.)


  13. Duncan’s department of education is kind of like the department of energy or commerce, devoted to nurturing the bottom line of for-profit American business uber alles. (More than State and HHS and Labor and even Defense and Treasury, I mean: those departments can be wrongheaded but they seem to have some vague awareness of the public, not just private entrepreneurial gain.)


  14. I heard this story this morning and thought immediately of you, H! The part I find most hilarious is that the Secretary of Education thinks e-readers are the most substantial difference between our educational system and an actually functioning one. Buy tablets and presto! we lead the world again. It’s like Americans love the stupidest application of technology, always, whether in education or medicine or what have you.


  15. @ntbw They went to electronic texts because it’s cheaper than buying them not to seem all techie. Truly techie schools have a fair number of technoskeptics on board to help weed out the bad ideas, unworkable solutions, and top-down directives that are stupid (like: we are all going to use electronic textbooks to justify the 1:1 laptop program and we have to pay for it somehow). Truly techie schools let individual teachers innovate and the technology spread organically as much as possible.


  16. Serious question here: how would this affect learning-disabled kids? What if there are kids that are both learning-disabled and part of a cash-strapped family, and so don’t have the luxury of at-home internet access or even a PC (as others here have mentioned in the comments)? Indyanna’s End of Empire reference reminds us of the continuing drift towards a utilitarian vis-a-vis the market view of education, and an underlying premise of that view–that education is really only meant for certain (able) segments of our population. This saddens me a lot.


  17. Those are great questions, elle marie. I must admit that I don’t know anything about special ed or about any research on children with different educational needs. I would think that perhaps screens are good for some of them, but also that books might be the better way to go for others, depending on the subject being taught.

    In that respect then, they’re just like neurotypical/physically able children: what works for some may not work for others! This is why I think Western Dave’s school has the right approach: let the actual educators make decisions about the appropriate and productive use of technology, rather than school boards or administrators.

    I should add that I’m not against the use of digital textbooks. I’m just stunned by the presumption that they’re better somehow than codex, and I’m also more than a little appalled that Duncan appears to be unaware that some schools are still waiting to get their hands on sufficient numbers of that 500-year old technology and so probably can’t afford to buy iPads for their students.


  18. At my son’s school, they are not saving money by going all electronic, because parents had to buy the books previously. The school did not provide them. Now parents buy the laptops. Or in my case, the laptop AND the books, since the e-books are so frustrating. Most of my son’s teachers hate the e-books too. I have a feeling this may be a short lived experiment, since one good thing about private is that the school admin has a vested interest in paying attention to parents’ concerns.


  19. Amen, historiann. And what everybody else said.

    One note on passing on used textbooks to poorer school districts: though well-meant, I’m sure, and probably a genuine improvement (at least temporarily) on the current situation at many schools, it strikes me as horribly reminiscent of the segregationist era, when the standard way that schools for African-Americans received textbooks was as cast-offs from the white schools.

    One of the underlying issues here is how we fund schools in the U.S. While there are some upsides to local, usually real estate-tax-based, funding, there are also some major downsides, chief among them the perpetuation of inequality. I’d like to see motr funding at, at the very least, the state, if not the federal, level. I’m sure that would have some downsides, too (and I worry about who decides on curriculum, though that’s far from perfect now), but the current model definitely isn’t working.

    Access to appropriate devices and internet access (at a speed that makes the materials used in schools genuinely accessible) are also key issues, especially as public libraries are increasingly hour-restricted, overrun by the unemployed who also need access to computers, and/or so decrepit that they barely have reliable electricity and/or plumbing, let alone internet access (or, if they’re lucky, are closed for years for renovations). If schools are going to move in the direction of using more internet resources (as they already are), then *they* need to provide onsite after-hours access in a safe environment with at least basic help (IT and academic) available. Some charter schools accomplish this by having much longer school days and, in many cases, Saturday sessions as well (and paying staff to work the longer hours involved). In many locations, especially those where parents work equally long hours but can’t afford child care, that makes a lot of sense.

    And yes, Duncan is a dope. A Harvard-educated dope, but a dope nonetheless.


  20. Duncan went to Harvard on a hoops scholarship. His mommy and daddy were proffies at UC, so I guess everyone assumes that their expertise qualifies him, somehow, for every job he’s had outside of his bball work.


  21. Two things most people don’t talk about:

    (1) the corporate interests driving these techno-utopian ideas (think of the profits to be made selling computers, tablets, e-books, cable bandwidth, etc.). Think of all the jobs! The growth! One can see the dollar signs going ka-ching in their eyeballs.

    (2) The tremendous waste of power from all these electronic devices having to be on all the time, not to mention the tremendous power it takes to keep the dataservers/clouds/whatever running 24/7. The NYT and various other outlets have recently begun writing about this (with predictably defensive responses from industry).

    I find it depressingly ironic that the proponents of these technologies keep talking about their efficiency, and the comparative inefficiencies of mere humans –yet there is no technology for conveying ideas that has ever been more “efficient” than a book. It uses no power after its initial creation, can be reused almost endlessly (with care), one can hold onto one page while checking back and forth in other parts of the text; there is no “digital eye fatigue” (a new problem confronting techies and their ophthalmologists), etc., etc. The problem seems to be that most of the business people pushing these newer technologies so hard actually don’t read that much. If all they’re exposed to is light summer novels, no wonder they don’t see the big deal in shrinking libraries, making all texts on-line, etc.


  22. Pingback: It’s the lack of shared governance, stupid. « More or Less Bunk

  23. Duncan went to Harvard on a hoops scholarship. His mommy and daddy were proffies at UC, so I guess everyone assumes that their expertise qualifies him, somehow, for every job he’s had outside of his bball work.

    That explains a lot. There is one group that’s really excited that he’s Secretary of Ed: Harvard classmates who run for-profit universities (and genuinely seem to think they’re providing a public service: “access” to education for the underserved). So that makes two people (that I know of).


  24. I can think of so many times when electronic textbooks would not work. Up north they call them snow days (you know the kind where the power goes out) down south we call them hurricane weeks, when school is out for a week cause no one has power but the kids still have to try to keep up outside of school. And I can say that in the last four months our house has lost power 3 times (not including the week for a hurricane). And we manage to pay our electric bill, what about the folks who can’t? I regularly see problems with over reliance on electricity in our society.


  25. We’re just at the beginning of this technology shift.
    –price of e-readers will continue to fall, to the point of “free”…as is already beginning to happen in the phone and tablet markets.
    –e-books can be preloaded onto devices, so ongoing access to internet isn’t necessary.
    –one preloaded e-reader will be a lot easier to carry than a backpack full of textbooks.
    –e-readers are arguably more ecologically sustainable. China was an early backer of e-ink because they knew they didn’t have enough trees to make enough paper to print enough codex for their educational needs.
    –example of small, light e-reader…runs on 2 AAA batteries for a year:

    Innovation anticipates high technology turnover and moderate failure rates…so what? How are you getting your music these days: wax cylinders? LPs? 8-track tapes?


  26. Sheet music?!? So they finally invented “paper?!?” In our ancient tribe, someone (in perpetual turn) was assigned to be singing each of about ten very long songs on an around-the-clock basis, so none of the notes or words would ever depart from the collective memory. It *did* get a little tedious at times, until the overnight “singing watch-masters” agreed to move far enough beyond the cave and campfire periphery so as not to disturb our sleep. Also, some of the youngsters did complain that we were “stifling innovation” with our neurotic fixation on what they called “an obsolete culture of perpetual performance.”


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