Tim Peterson, Associate Editor
Ideology: Left-Independent | Writing from: New York

Dear Secretary Duncan,

Where are your clothes? It’s admirable the attention you’re drawing to the nation’s education crisis, and that $4.35 billion purse of yours is nice. But you need to stop making it rain like Adam “Pacman” Jones at the Spearmint Rhino and start putting that money to work.

I know you’re a basketball guy, so let’s hit some analogies. You’re acting like Jerry Buss trying to buy his Lakers a championship in 2004 by breaking the bank for over-the-hill Hall of Famers like Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Doesn’t work that way. Ask LeBron.

You need focus and hunger fueled by desperation.

Case in point: It took a few years in the desert—and the eventual additions of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol—for Kobe to return to the Promised Land. Dude was up at 3:30 to get in his game-day workouts, and even after getting his fourth ring—less than a year after his gold medal—was back in the gym working on his post game in hopes of repeating (Reverse jinx: Paul Pierce makes me happy).

Mr. Duncan, these are desperate times; we’re hungry for reform.

But the right kind of reform. A meritocracy based on standardized test scores and a push toward charter schools is smoke-and-mirrors. It looks good on the surface (polls love union-busting bombast), but what are you really effecting?

Education isn’t the numbers game you’d like it to be. As you well know, people will fudge the results to get the reward. But we’ve already covered that.

Problem is, now the cracks are showing on charter schools as well. It’s like Vanna White after HD hit. Even the original charter-school champion Diane Ravitch has pulled her support (emphasis mine):

There are some 5,000 charter schools enrolling nearly 1.5 million students, or about 3 percent of U.S. public school students, and they have attracted the support of many politicians, philanthropists, and foundations. But charter schools vary widely in quality. Some are excellent, some are abysmal, and most are in-between. On average, they have not produced better results than regular public schools. Charter schools have been compared to regular public schools on the national assessments since 2003, and they have never outperformed regular public schools. Charters in Boston and New York City have gotten positive evaluations, but they typically have smaller proportions of the students who are hardest to educate–those with limited English and those with disabilities–than regular public schools.

Now, I won’t totally knock the effort, for now just the energy. It’s unfocused. Like a hyped-up Nate Robinson banging threes then drawing a technical foul because he can’t settle himself. That’s why he’s good for a mid-game burst but gets yanked in the crunch. Same with charter schools.

There’s a big push in metropolitan school districts to close down public schools and replace them with charters. Sounds good, sure. But it’s a short-term solution that creates a long-term problem that you either don’t foresee or don’t want to deal with: Eventually the charters will simply be public schools under a different name.

Ravitch writes at the New York Review of Books (emphasis mine):

As their numbers grow under pressure from the Obama administration, their quality is not likely to improve; the history of American education is replete with small-scale demonstrations that became less effective when rapidly expanded to a mass scale. So, if history is a useful guide, charters, which are by definition very thinly regulated, will go from being no better or worse to being a very problematic sector riddled with extreme variability in performance and not infrequent cases of financial mismanagement.

Think on this, who’s going to teach in these charters? Closing down public schools is going to leave a lot of teachers in search of work. And to keep down class sizes, charters are going to be hungry and desperate for help. They’ll also need administrators, so much so that who’s to say they won’t hire principals and deans from poor-performance schools.

But let’s say the charters bank on their ability to more easily eliminate poor educators and hire the freshly fired, reasoning that if it doesn’t work it, they can just replace them. This might work for a while, but eventually you’re the Clippers burning through draft picks. Eventually with whom do you replace these busts? Being a teacher doesn’t have the job security it once did. California alone is in the midst of laying off over 23,000 teachers this year. Not the most effective recruitment tool.

Despite reports of the increase of applications for programs like Teach for America, more prospective teachers are being discouraged from following through. And hiring freezes have forced programs like New York City Teaching Fellows to reduce admissions (Disclosure: My girlfriend is a NYC Teaching Fellow alumni).

Mr. Secretary, we need some fresh legs in the game, and these teacher-training programs are like drafting from a Calipari-coached team. On your dime, why not convert them to a farm system of sorts? For one, charters pay better than public schools, which will help rope in the science-and-math crowd from the clutches of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Two, there’s a retirement bubble about to burst within the next decade, which will leave young teachers with even a few years experience in high demand. According to a recent report on the future of California’s educational landscape issued by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning (emphasis mine):

over the next seven to ten years we will have to replace nearly 100,000 teachers — or about one-third of the workforce — due to retirement alone. But there’s more: after years of flat or declining enrollment at the elementary level, schools across the state can expect to see 170,000 new elementary students come through their doors in the next five years.

In the meantime, that decade-long window could serve as on-the-job training with outgoing teachers serving as mentors, like Steve Nash apprenticing Goran Dragic. A farm system would also keep with the hungry and desperate angle: We starry-eyed Millennials are hurting for work and primed to perform. Will some among us lose our idealism and bail? Yeah. But the loan forgiveness part of the program means you’ll get a few years out of us, and as situations improve so will our stamina.

It’s not a perfect system, but it’s one that looks to solve the problem rather than repackage it as a solution like you’re currently doing. Why not look into the matter, Mr. Duncan? Consider it your summer homework.