Education Secretary Arne Duncan is getting bashed by critics and even supporters for telling Congress that 82 percent of public schools could be at risk of failing to meet education goals this year, up from 37 percent last year.

People are coming out of the woodwork accusing him of making up the figure in a bid to persuade Congress to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the law that carries student achievement requirements and penalties for schools that fail to meet them.

Here’s what Duncan said, according to testimony prepared for his appearance this week before the House Education and the Workforce Committee:

“Current law also sets annual targets for proficiency and mandates that every student meet those goals by 2014. Today, almost 40 percent of America’s schools are not meeting their goals, and as we approach the 2014 deadline, that number will rise steeply.

“In fact, we did an analysis which shows that — next year — the number of schools not meeting their goals under NCLB could double to over 80 percent — even if we assume that all schools will gain as much as the top quartile in the state.”

My colleague Nick Anderson quoted Charles Barone, a frequent ally of the Obama administration who helped draft No Child Left Behind and who tracks federal policy for the pro-administration group Democrats for Education Reform, as saying:

“He’s creating a bogeyman that doesn’t exist. Our fear is that they are taking it to a new level of actually manufacturing a new statistic — a ‘Chicken Little’ statistic that is not true — just to get a law passed. It severely threatens their credibility.”


For years, critics of No Child Left Behind have been warning that the adequate yearly progress requirements of the law — which insist that most students achieve “proficiency” in math and reading by 2014 — are so unrealistic that almost all public schools in the country will fail, even with individual states setting their own definition of “proficiency.”

Duncan said that this year, 40 percent aren’t meeting their AYP requirements. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this number could jump significantly, considering the fact that some states pushed back improvement goals as late as possible, perhaps in hopes that the 2014 goal would be scrapped and they would never be forced to bring nearly all of their students to “proficiency.”

The Center on Education Policy just released a study noting that 23 states had set easy goals in the early days of No Child Left Behind, but had set for themselves the task of bigger proficient jumps starting now. That essentially makes it impossible for them to meet the 2014 goal.

It should be noted that the center’s president, Jack Jennings, told Anderson that Duncan’s 82 percent figure was a huge exaggeration, “for dramatic effect.”

Still, the American Association of School Administrators is in a quiet panic about the number of schools failing to make AYP; in a piece this month on ESchool News, Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the association, wrote that if No Child Left Behind is not fixed this year, “then we beg the administration to use its regulatory power to grant significant relief from the punishments bestowed upon schools that fail to make AYP.”

“Choice and Supplementary Educational Services are costly and have not proven to be workable solutions, but more and more schools will be forced to adopt them as the number of schools not making AYP increases,” he wrote.

The larger point, of course, is that the numbers are increasing and putting untenable strains on school systems.

Meanwhile, it’s a little striking that this is the line that some of Duncan’s supporters have drawn in challenging his credibility.

It never bothered them, apparently, that Duncan talked about equal opportunity to all children for a good education but set up a multibillion-dollar contest for states to compete for federal funds that guaranteed unequal resources. Or that Duncan talked about the importance of parent involvement but didn’t include it in his Race to the Top contest as a priority. Or that Duncan talks about the importance of teachers but has pursued policies that teachers believe have done more to harm the profession than help it.

Duncan may well have been exaggerating when he said 82 percent of schools may not meet AYP this year. But maybe he wasn’t.

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