On the day before several Knox County Schools students will travel to the White House and plant a garden with Michelle Obama, the head of the United States Department of Education, Sec. Arne Duncan, flew into Knoxville to hang out. The ostensible purpose of Duncan's visit is to give the Baker Distinguished Lecture at the University of Tennessee this afternoon, but Duncan has also found time in his schedule to visit two KCS schools, West High School this morning, and, later today, Ritta Elementary.
At West, Duncan was joined by Gov. Bill Haslam and KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre as they visited a classroom and then held a roundtable discussion in the library with selected staff and students from the school. There was much praise for Tennessee schools and Haslam's educational reforms like teacher evaluations, and West came in for a lot of plaudits. In short, it was, as these things generally are, entirely self-congratulatory.
Duncan took questions from the press afterwards. He said Race to the Top isn't overly focused on test scores and he thinks balanced educational reform needs testing, but only as one of a range of measures. He called the recent test cheating scandal in Atlanta "immoral," "heartbreaking," and "a tragedy" that "cheated children," but said the federal Department of Education's testing measures wouldn't lead to more situations like Atlanta. (He did not, of course, mention that he had hosted former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall at the White House during the years she won national praise for the falsified scores.)
And then a reporter asked Duncan about school vouchers. As Haslam stood beside him, lips firmly pressed together in a thin smile, Duncan said that his focus is on educating the 90 percent of American children who attend public school. "I want to make sure every public school is good," Duncan said. Haslam, currently pushing his own voucher plan, said nothing.
Duncan left the school to head over to UT, while Haslam stayed and took more questions from reporters. But on his way to campus, the Secretary of Education tweeted the following:
It's kind of a shame we weren't around to see Haslam's reaction to that, too.