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Waffle on Class Size

The United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, last week picked a few education bloggers, mostly on the basis of affinity and compatibility with his views, and invited them for breakfast to discuss a variety of topical issues such as class size.

Secretary Duncan observed that “Class size has been a sacred cow and I think we need to take it on.” He favors “selectively” raising class sizes instances when a teacher felt she could handle it. (An aside: a bit of gentle persuasion and a tacit quid pro quo from the administration to boot?)

Frederick Hess, a prominent blogger and anti-union zealot, in a March 3 post on Education Next categorized Duncan’s words on district-union collaboration as “reassuring.”  Hess is referring to Duncan’s admission “I’m not for collaboration for collaboration’s sake. Collaboration around the status quo is a real problem.”

As always, it depends on whose ox is being gored.

One person’s “status quo” is another person’s hallowed tradition.  The present or at least recent state of seniority, professional autonomy, shared-decision making, tenure, and due process protections are all part of the “status quo” as they define and discredit it. Duncan, and folks more extreme than he is, deliberately blot from their cognitive capacity even the potential awareness and embrace of the sacred relics of generations of evolutionary progress in the workplace.

I suspect that the Secretary could be persuaded to support a new “status quo”, just as abiding but this time meticulously crafted and vetted to the values of his own “vision.”  “Status quo”, like “reform” is a concept that can be fashioned with considerable intellectual elasticity.  Whoever confines the language defines the debate.

But contorted meanings lead to distorted conclusions. To folks like Hess and Finn, that’s the whole idea behind everything they say about public education. It’s fish wrap-worthy rhetoric.

To Duncan’s credit he did not sign on to the tactics and objectives of Wisconsin Governor Walker, who fancies himself the slayer of the dragon known as collective bargaining rights for workers, first public and then private.

But is his generally non-bullying tone substantive or just a stylistic quirk?  How sweet those croissants with strawberry jam would have tasted even to the ghosts of the uninvited experts on education (professional educators) if Duncan had demonstrated the gift of introspection and self-correction.

He’s a good host but a mixed bag.