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Duncan Gets a Failing Grade This Time

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

One of the few bright spots in the Obama Administration has been its efforts regarding public education, an arena in which the federal government has become far too invasive. Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have taken on ever so slightly some of the education bureaucracy – a startling development, considering that the education unions threw $50 million or more at Obama’s campaign and those of other Democrats. Obama had made some statements about challenging the educational establishment in The Audacity of Hope, but somehow it seemed like empty campaign rhetoric. So amidst this glint of optimism, it was profoundly disappointing to hear that Duncan laid a giant egg in his recent statements about the length of the school year.


At first glance, Duncan’s comments to the National Press Club were appealing. The Secretary spoke candidly about how the country has to get serious about education. He joked about kids going to school 13 months a year, but also thoughtfully observed that we must introduce significant reforms into a public education system that, after all, originated over a century ago when America had an agrarian economy. He said “In all seriousness, I think schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and 11-12 months of the year.” Continuing this theme, he added “This is not just more of the same. There would be a whole variety of after-school programs. Obviously academics would be at the heart of that, but you top it off with dancing, art, drama, music, yearbook, and robotics, activities for older siblings and parents, and ESL classes.” He also pointed that, where students attend school for 25-30 days more than we do, the countries are beating us. Considering the source, this tough talk was unexpected.

Then reality set in, and it should be obvious that there are two very compelling reasons that this proposal is so far off base. Yes, there are other countries whose children attend school for longer periods, and this needs to be considered as part of our educational reforms. We must also keep in mind that curriculums are more complicated today. The most sophisticated math taught in the high schools of forty years ago is now taught in 7th or 8th grade, and this increased complexity is reflected in the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry.


Mr. Duncan’s proposal does not confront the crux of the problem with today’s system. For many generations, Americans were taught in this “agrarian economy” system and actually received an education. They could read, write, add, and subtract. They read classic literature, could speak a foreign language, and knew history, especially American history. The students graduating today can do almost none of this, and adding 25-30 days to the school calendar will not change that fact.

Last year, a friend of mine told me about one of his new employees, a recent graduate of a major university. He was appalled by how poorly the young man wrote a simple business letter. A year later, my friend still reviews all of his outgoing correspondence. This may seem like one person in a large society, but that would not be the case. This corroborates the observations of almost everyone in my generation, who are horrified by the inability of so many young Americans to write and communicate -- not to mention their near non-existent knowledge of history or geography.

Contrast this with a recent viewing of a video of the Rat Pack. In 1966, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. performed for a charity event in St. Louis. Near the end of the show, Sammy pleads “Can we just do this song?” Immediately – and obviously unrehearsed – Frank and Dino jump in from different sides of the stage, turn to Davis, and say “It’s ‘May we?’ Sammy, ‘May we?’” These two palookas, neither of whom completed a full year of high school, knew proper English 45 years ago. Today, many high school graduates can barely form a sentence, let alone know whether it is proper English.


It isn’t for lack of resources. We have been pouring billions into the school system with very disappointing results, and we are repeatedly being misled as to how much money is spent. Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute analyzed the expenditures of school districts across the country and found they routinely omitted health and pension costs for teachers, capital budgets for the schools, and a myriad of other necessary expenditures. In fact, the real costs per pupil are 50% to 150% higher than the average cost claimed by the districts. For example, the stated per-pupil cost for L. A. Unified is $10,053 when it is really $25,208. In Beverly Hills, they say that they spend $11,205 per student, but actually pay out $20,751.

More money and more time will not cure the problem that has been created by a system not aimed to serve the customer – the child and the parents of the child. Until Mr. Duncan reforms the system to serve the need of the customers – not those of the employees or bureaucrats – he could have the kids sleeping at the school and their education will not improve.

The other flaw with Mr. Duncan’s suggestion is that it smells of the nanny state. Let’s have the kids at school 12 hours a day, 12 months a year, under the supervision of government/union employees – so they can be further indoctrinated by the state and barely see their parents. The parents can watch them in plays and wrestling matches, but will only see them at home in their beds. Why don’t we dispense with parents and just have breeders, and then have the state care for the children?


In the past, Mr. Duncan has seemed like someone willing to confront the true problems of our school systems – systems that have been administered by Democrats for over fifty years in every major metropolitan area, and consistently run into the ground with the help of their union buddies. Until he assaults the real villains in this debacle, he should not start romanticizing about a utopian future where the state controls our children from nursery school.

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