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Say what, Secretary Duncan?

Reader Comment: Chairman Mao didn't find anyone who would oppose him.

Reader Comment: The people in Chicago absolutely hated Arne Duncan. Now the country can learn to hate him as much as Chicago does.

Reader Comment: It was apparent long ago that Duncan has no capacity for self-critical reflection. Zero. None. . . .

by Valerie Strauss

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said something in an interview with the New York Times that was so scary wrong that it leaves me hoping he was kidding. The alternative--that he really means it-- is even scarier.

In an article about how activist an education secretary he is, Duncan said that his far-reaching efforts to change public schools are facing no opposition from the public.

"Zero," he was quoted as saying. "And as hard as we're pushing everybody else to change, we're pushing the department to change even more. There's just an outpouring of support for the common-sense changes and the unprecedented investments we're making."

Say what, Secretary Duncan?

The national education landscape is littered with efforts to oppose Duncan's vision of education reform.

Take his $4 billion Race to the Top contest, the one in which states are trying to beat each other (up) for a share of the funding. States win by showing that they are pursuing school reform in the way Duncan wants them to do better than the next state.

What does he want? Among the tenets of Duncan's philosophy are:

  • More charter schools, even though repeated studies show that charter schools are no better, at least in terms of test scores, than traditional public schools.

  • Linking scores on student standardized tests to teacher evaluations and pay, even though assessment experts say this isn't a valid use of the test, and even though everybody and their brother--except, apparently, Duncan and his allies-- knows that a lot of kids don't do well on standardized tests for reasons that go beyond the ability of their teacher. Kids know this, by the way.

  • One-fifth of the states chose not to participate in the first round of Race to the Top--in which Tennessee and Delaware won--and others have dropped out for the current second round.

    A refusal to try to win millions of dollars does not constitute opposition to Duncan? See why I say he's got to be kidding?

    A letter from 14 states to Duncan, posted by Jim Horn on the blog Schools Matter, makes plain some of the opposition to his grand plans. The letter says that some of the primary requirements to win Race to the Top money are impossible for rural school districts to implement. A push for charter schools is one of them.

    Here's some of the letter, and you can go to Schools Matter to see the rest.

    Our rural states, like all of America, have been hit hard by this recession. Our state agencies budgets were already small, but with recent further cuts, we have lost significant portions of our staffing, and school budgets continue to shrink. By forcing our already stretched agencies to participate in such a rigorous competitive grant application, Race to the Top is detracting from the very real issues that need our immediate attention, and actually takes away from the services our students and schools need and deserve.

    We want one thing to be perfectly clear. We rural states are NOT trying to shirk our responsibilities or avoid being held accountable. Quite the opposite: We know that if we do not fight for access and opportunities for our students at this critical time in our nation's history, no one else will. Therefore we will continue to press your administration to truly consider what is best for all students, across America, rural and urban, regardless of what competition their SEA [state education agency] wins.

    That sounds like opposition to me, but maybe Duncan view state officials as being part of the public.

    All Duncan has to do is read some of the latest books on education to understand the opposition to his proposals.

    Those would include Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and Linda Darling-Hammond's The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.

    Taken together, the books effectively skewer Duncan's vision of education reform with actual evidence.

    Of course, it can be hard to see things as they really are when you flip flop on your core beliefs.

    That's what Duncan appears to be doing with what he considers important in Race to the Top.

    Early on, Duncan said that it was important for states to win consensus from stakeholders, which would include teachers who are the adults most affected by his plans. In fact, Florida didn't win money in the first round because, the judges said, the state didn't have enough buy-in from teachers.

    But in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, he gave a different impression.

    "Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won't win," he said. "And proposals that drive real reform will win."

    Huh? Does "lots of consensus" inherently mean to Duncan that the proposal is watered-down?

    What is a proposal that drives real reform?

    It would not look like the education secretary's vision. It would involve the creation of a learning environment in which teachers and administrators were adequately supported and had real collaboration so they could do their best work for kids, where school officials worked with health care workers to make sure that students were healthy enough to learn, and where standardized tests did not drive work in the classroom.

    There are existing models. The James Comer's School Development Program, also known as the Comer Process, for example, has been helping poor minority youth in schools for years by concentrating on the things that really help achievement. (I'll be writing more about this soon.)

    Do you think that Duncan or Obama have spoken to Comer about his program?

    If you said yes, you would be wrong.

    So, is Duncan not actually seeing the opposition, or seeing it but ignoring it? What, do you think, is going on?

    — Valerie Strauss
    Washington Post Answer Sheet





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