Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Says Washington Gridlock Hinders Students

It is so difficult to get things done in Washington that one has to wonder why we wanted to get here in the first place, uttered a pensive U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week. It was a tragically sad but candid comment about where we are in this fractured system of democratic government. With the divisiveness of today’s two legislative houses of Congress, and their work—or lack thereof—with the executive branch, not only does our country lose, but our children bear the major brunt of gridlock.

Duncan was in Silicon Valley last week at a packed gathering at the Shannon Theatre at Fremont High School. During his comments, he embraced the recommendations in U.S. Rep. Mike Honda’s initiative, a U.S. Department of Education report titled, “Equity and Excellence For Each and Every Child.” Thank you to Congressman Honda and Secretary Duncan for launching the national dialogue here. It’s a critical conversation America needs to have.

A few hours later the Secretary arrived as a lunchtime keynote in conversation with a very nimble and thoughtful interviewer, Laurene Powell Jobs, at the New Venture School Fund/Aspen Institute Summit in Burlingame. Powell Jobs most recently gave her first public interview since the death of her late husband, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, to ABC’s Brian Williams while advocating for immigration reform.

As I sat at this plenary session of the summit I was awestruck by the honest and forthright conversation she and Duncan had in front of 700 conference attendees.
I am always enormously impressed at the annual summit with the stories I hear and people I meet who are on a mission to alter the status quo in public education. But as I listened to Duncan,  realized it’s easier to talk about getting something meaningfully done, as there are so many intractable problems in our broken system.

I was not a strong supporter of Duncan’s nomination in the beginning of Obama’s first term, but I have grown to respect his considered perspective. There was no doubt Powell Jobs felt the same. She urged the secretary to use the bully pulpit more than he did in his first term. After Duncan leaves office in three-plus years, he will have hundreds of entrepreneurial partners, most in this room, wishing to work with him, Powell Jobs said.

Duncan continued a theme I have heard him opine about before. The teacher pipeline from the university to the classroom is broken and must be fixed. Two-thirds of America’s teachers say they are unprepared to teach after their university teacher preparation programs, Duncan said.

He also lamented the fact that education is not really a voting issue. He commented that in the Presidential debates last year it was rarely brought up by journalists asking the debate questions. I would hope that in next year’s mid-term election we will have debates focused solely around cradle to career issues and the nexus with our public education system.

Secretary Duncan said one of his main areas of focus would be improving student readiness for formal schooling, an issue many of us in Santa Clara County agreeing with. The “Equity and Excellence for Each and Every Child” report makes ensuring access to high quality early childhood education a priority.

Another major goal for our county is moving closer to the goal of the eliminating the achievement gap by 2020. To do this, we need to make individual district and school data transparent. Whose getting the best results and why? How do traditional public and charter school results compare?

A press event being planned by Innovate Public Schools at the headquarters of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group is scheduled for May 29. On this day, a report on student achievement data by school and district for both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties will be highlighted and distributed.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Joe, once again, your commentary illustrates why it is that our education system is in such a poor state and so often, so predictably, fails to educate our children. I don’t know why it is that I read your articles all the way through; they are so predictable, I suspect I could probably ghost write for you having done no further research on education, and no one would know the difference.

    First you assert that we live in a democracy (or allude), an assertion that is demonstrably, historically false. Yet, you repeat it over and over again, so often, that it’s clear you wish this were true.

    Then you make some broad proclamation about some problem within the education system. Sometimes the problem is an actual problem, sometimes – as with your comments about vouchers – it is an imagined or anticipated problem or threat to the education system. More often than not, though, you talk about a problem with the education system that’s actually a symptom of the deeper set of problems which pervades the education system.

    You then, typically, make some broad proclamation about how the problem you identify ‘must’ be resolved. Your attitude is clearly fairly absolutist: that the real problems are strictly those you identify, that the solutions are those you suggest or identify, and the allusion that those who disagree with you are obstructionists or don’t care about children and/or education. Based on your flagrantly leftist proclivities, part of your subtext is that pretty much only conservatives could possibly disagree with you and that they are a part of the problem.

    The funny thing is that you often correctly identify a problem, however indirectly. Last week, you suggested that vouchers would be a threat to the education system. In reality, though, the threat is not the vouchers, but the resistance to genuine competition for tax dollars and the near monopoly that public schools have on education.

    This week, you actually, directly, and correctly identify the problem, whether you realize it or not: that the public education system is so sytemically broken that it can’t even adequately prepare a majority of teachers. If the education system can’t do that, how can we expect that it can prepare elementary students for middle school, middle school students for high school, high school students for college, etc. The fact of the matter is that it can’t and that, all too often, it fails to adequately educate and prepare students for a higher academics.

    Unfortunately, it is here that your narrative breaks down. You suggest that, as a solution for this systemic failure, the public needs more transparency in the collection of performance data… which is only one half of the equation.

    You can blather on and on about transparency in education, but without accountability(!) transparency is worthless. Transparency, on its own, does absolutely nothing to fix the education system, is worthless without accountability, and it is precisely that accountability which is so sorely lacking. Students are not held accountable for their performance and are advanced from a grade in which they have failed to perform adequately to the next grade in which they have no hope of keeping up. It is entirely too hard to hold bad teachers accountable: unions and tenure obstruct meaningful progress there and the same story holds true for school administrators. Politics exist at every level – left wing politics, almost exclusively – and they contribute to protecting educators who are failures, protecting a broken system while demanding that the primary solution to these failures is more money

    Finally, the two-fold issue of children being educated by recent college grads and facing the prospect of having to spend 30 -40 years doing the same demanding (often exhausting) job in the same broken dysfunctional system are the last two nails in the coffin. Frankly, I think there’s something wrong with the fact that the education system embraces – and even encourages – people who have absolutely no real world experience holding down a non-education job as adults – educating students. Frankly the education system seems more interested in indoctrinating students than in actually educating them.

    This is the same kind of indoctrination which allows you to perpetuate the lie that America is a democracy, rather than a constitutional republic.

    It’s the same kind of indoctrination which permits liberals/democrats to completely ignore the historical fact that democrats – particularly democrat leaders – fought tooth and nail against civil rights in the 20th century, that it was particularly Christians and Republicans who made the Civil Rights Movement possible, that the KKK was the militant wing if the Democrat party from the late 19th century to as recently as the 1980’s.

    It’s the same kind of indoctrination which permits educators to ignore the fact that the 2nd Amendment was written PRECISELY to allow citizens to overthrow tyranny, as was done during the American Revolution.

    It’s the same kind of indoctrination which permits sex education in school as a ‘public health’ issue rather than insisting parents educate their children on the topic as both a health and a moral issue.

    I could go on and on, but, frankly, I wonder if I’m about to exceed the word limit permitted by SJI and so, I’ll close with this:

    Rather than propagate a narrative under the guise of advocating for students, why don’t you put some effort into learning the facts and disseminating same, to encouraging accountability in the education system along with efficiency. SJI permits YOU your own ‘bully pulpit’ and you’re doing nothing but squander it.

  2. Did Ms. Jobs explain to the audience why children in her neighborhood are entitled to a $13,406 public education while students in Gilroy get by on $7,575? 

    You can blame Washington but we have serious problems right in our own backyard.  Unfortunately our local leaders are too cowardly to address this inequity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *