This mix of memoir and political think piece offers insight into the personal history of the Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama as well as his ideas for improving the nation's stagnant schools.
The book offers a readable recounting of the personal and professional back story that led to Duncan’s priorities as education secretary. It is not, however, likely to change many hearts or minds, let alone transform political foes into friends. Duncan cedes no political ground ... Some of the book’s shortest detours are among the most interesting. For instance, there’s Duncan’s visit to Columbus Elementary in New Mexico, many of whose students live in a nearby Mexican village with their parents ... I would have appreciated more such scenes: taking us inside schools and families confronting ordinary and extraordinary challenges in thoughtful, creative ways. I also wanted more context on the role of education secretary and whether Duncan conceived of the position differently from his predecessors or sought to transform it in a lasting way ... Duncan’s concern for children’s welfare comes through in his writing ... We have too little information about the longer-term effects of K-12 school reforms, at the local or national level, including their track record when it comes to getting kids not only to, but through, college ... There’s a persistent disconnect in How Schools Work between Duncan’s insistence on the importance of data-based reforms in education and his reliance on anecdote to illustrate many of his points.
The flaw...is that Duncan has written a book titled How Schools Work, and this is not how schools work at all. What Duncan describes is how the education machine in America works ... How schools work is a different storyline. Duncan spends hardly any pages embedded in schools or talking to teachers, principals or students ... We don't learn how the surgical decisions being made at high altitudes end up impacting classrooms in cities like Chicago, Baltimore or Detroit ... we don't learn much about the outcomes of pushing for options beyond traditional schools, such as charters, which Duncan championed when he ran Chicago's school system. And we don't learn how some schools in high-poverty neighborhoods beat such odds...stories that really illustrate how good public schools work in the era of limited resources and vast income inequality ... Duncan, however, does offer a valuable window into Washington education politics.
Political memoirs are rarely tear-jerkers, but Arne Duncan’s look back at his time as secretary of education under Barack Obama may make school reformers want to cry ... As Mr. Duncan’s account makes clear, it would be hard to devise an educational system that is more harmful to racial minorities if we tried. Mr. Duncan offers a lot of trivial solutions at the end of the book that he says could also improve things—universal pre-K programs, more after-school programs, more counselors to prevent gun violence ... For the most part, though, Mr. Duncan does understand 'how schools work.' The tragedy is that he and his boss didn’t have what it takes to make them work better.