University president: Can anyone differ with Arne Duncan ‘without being dismissed as silly’?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (By Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
Arne Duncan (By Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been in the news lately for his fervent defense of the Common Core State Standards and simultaneous criticism of those who oppose it and some of his other education initiatives, including a proposal for the Education Department to create a collegiate rating system. Here is a look at Duncan’s approach to critics and school reform from Trinity Washington University president Patricia McGuire, who has led the school since 1989 and who writes and speaks widely about higher education. This first appeared on The Huffington Post.

By Patricia McGuire

“Silly” is a dismissive word, an adjective that calls to mind clown wigs and red bulbous noses

. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan must hold a big stake in a clown wig factory. He uses the word “silly” a lot these days to describe people who have points of view that differ from his on the topic of education reform, both K-12 as well as higher education.

In late September, Secretary Duncan said that criticism of the Common Core standards amounted to “political silliness.” In that same week, Secretary Duncan also said that criticism of the proposals for new regulations for higher education was “more than a little silly.”

Can anybody have a serious difference of opinion with the secretary without being dismissed as silly? Not at all silly is the fact that the same education leader has now dismissed “white suburban moms” as the source of concern for the Common Core. I wonder where that leaves a rather large group of Catholic scholars who have expressed concerns as well, or significant numbers of principals and school leaders who have also concerns.

And, in higher education, it’s certainly not silly that plenty of people who actually do know what they’re talking about have raised numerous legitimate issues about the ability of this government to implement a collegiate rating system based on some pretty dubious data. (We do have a hard time ignoring the plain fact that this government that wants to remake higher education with “Datapalooza” is the same government that’s trying to figure out how to create a working website for healthcare over at HHS.)

This arrogant view that most critics are silly has led the U.S. Department of Education to devalue any challenging input on the higher education proposals.

On very short notice, the Department announced that it would hold just four one-day hearings at public university campuses around the country where people who wanted to make comments would get five minutes to do so. This is a cynical way to block thoughtful participation in the regulatory process. The proposals are serious and complicated, requiring far more than a cursory five minutes of analysis. This administration has a huge credibility problem these days; saying it wants input but then providing only the most superficial input method adds to the perception that there’s no real interest in sincere dialogue and exploration of any ideas other than those the administration already proposes. Consider just these several issues with the White House higher ed proposal:

*The proposal claims that its purpose is to make higher education “affordable.” That’s a word that the current administration really likes (see: Affordable Care Act). The mechanism is a rating system that USDE will create through a lot of number crunching using data in the federal government’s higher ed data system (IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). But a lot of the data is flawed and it was never collected for this purpose. Most important, it’s not at all clear how a rating system will make college “affordable.” More likely, the additional staffing and computer software required to implement the new regulations will force colleges to spend more money, driving up costs, making college, actually, less affordable.

*The proposal promotes more access for low income students. That’s a great goal, but access for very needy low income students is not compatible with controlling costs for the Middle Class, which is the headline on the White House Fact Sheet about the proposed regulations. Educating low income students who have largely attended marginal K-12 schools often means more money must go into support for developmental education, tutoring, academic support and other services needed to ensure success for low income students. These are all worthy and important goals, but it’s misleading to state that the access goal is going to cost less.

*While promoting access, the proposal also claims that it will somehow tie graduation rates and graduates’ salary data to participation in federal student aid programs. Really? This suggests that nobody in the administration has read a single report about the relationship between student economic capacity and graduation rates. They don’t have to look far, the best reports have been produced by their own people. Institutions that do a great job providing access for low income students take the risk of lower graduation rates since the students do not progress through the system in the same way as the more privileged traditional students who are the basis for the data, which is badly constructed anyway. As for salary data, USDE does not collect such data at present, so constructing a system to do so will surely cost money. But more to the point, salaries of graduates are biased in favor of a few highly compensated career fields and against the very kind of public service our political leadership should encourage.

Women students stand to lose a lot in this new regulatory scheme. Women are the majority of students in higher education, but millions of them are those who used to sport the label “non-traditional” — now the vast majority, these are students who share characteristics like working nearly full-time, raising children as single parents, are self-supporting, attend school part-time in some semesters, being the first generation in college, commuting to campus, often attending multiple institutions or “swirling” as one new term defines their attendance pattern.

No part of the federal data system collects meaningful information on such students, and these women will be most at risk in a regulatory scheme based on outmoded traditional forms of data like the IPEDS graduation rate that ignores all transfer students.

I harbor a weird fantasy that the problems the administration is experiencing with the Affordable Care Act implementation will actually lead to a more rational, less arrogant, indeed, more humble government, one that might actually be willing to listen to people who know something about the industries, institutions and people they are trying to re-engineer.

I have this dream that those of us who have worked in the trenches of institutional reform might actually be asked how we make reform work, how we achieved results that stick.

I keep hoping that our leaders will not drive out the good in their quest to create some kind of perfect world according to their own vision — a vision often informed only by other elites like themselves, or major philanthropists, unenlightened by the real lived experience of us lesser lights who are mere practitioners of the educational arts. Silly me.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 21, 2013