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Arne Duncan: The newest rhetoric vs. the reality

Arne Duncan (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post) Arne Duncan (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared at a Washington Post-sponsored conference on families today, and he sounded (mostly) highly reasonable:

Early childhood education is the absolute “best long-term investment” that the country can make for kids, families and the economy, he said. (Not, apparently, the billions of dollars he spent in the first term of the Obama administration pushing states to enact school reforms that linked standardized test scores to the evaluation of teachers and made these tests more high stakes than ever).

He said further that, of course, kids can’t focus in class if they are hungry or can’t see the blackboard. “Social and emotional needs have to be met  for students to do well in school,” he said.  In fact, there isn’t “one simple answer” to improving schools. You need “great principals” and “fantastic teachers,” and “all the wrap-around services” and food to feed hungry children and after-school activities and transformative school cultures. (Not, apparently, the emphasis on expanding charter schools and linking evaluation to test scores and closing down failing schools that the administration pushed in the first term.)

The secretary’s rhetoric sounds good but the reality of his policies has been somewhere very different. The administration’s new second-term emphasis on early childhood education can be seen as a positive step — it is much more extensive than the first term effort, which involved one Race to the Top round worth $500 million, a fraction of the money spent on other initiatives. But not if the new initiative looks anything like that Race to the Top competition, which emphasized the assessment of young kids to see whether they were ready for kindergarten.

Duncan may well have come around to believing that early childhood education is the best long-term investment for the country.

Still, he has given us reason to wonder what he really means. Just  yesterday, he acknowledged that he misspoke, sort of, when he said last week that teachers were getting pink slips in advance of the federal budget sequester.

My colleague Lyndsey Layton reported that he said this at a news conference:

When I said ‘pink slips’ that was probably the wrong word. Language matters, and I need to be very, very clear.


Yes, being very clear is important, though his concession wasn’t all that clear, given that he said he “probably” when in fact it is clear that teachers did not get pink slips as a result of the sequester. No “probably” about it.


*In 2011, Duncan said that 82 percent of America’s schools could fail to meet No Child Left Behind’s annual education goals that school year. Didn’t happen. What really happened: about 50 percent, which was bad enough without the exaggerated prediction.

*He was wrong when he said this about Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America:

I don’t think anyone in the country has done more over the past 15 to 20 years than Wendy Kopp to identify the talents and characteristics that lead to great teaching.


*When he said (over and over) that the federal government didn’t have much to do with states signing on to the Common Core State Standards, he was wrong not to mention that the federal dollars given out under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top were linked to adoption of the common standards. The same is true for the No Child Left Behind waivers the administration gave to states that promised to implement specific reforms.

*When he has said repeatedly (like in this speech called “Beyond the Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments) that he is against high-stakes tests that have kids simply fill in bubbles and assess only basic skills, he failed to mention that his policies have led to an explosion of these tests.

*In 2010, Duncan said in a speech at the National Press Club that the Obama administration was playing “a modest role” in sparking a “quiet” revolution in education. Modest? Quiet? His Race to the Top initiative — which dangled federal dollars in front of states and then districts in exchange for promises to implement Duncan-supported reforms — has driven corporate-based reform. The waivers that the Education Department gave to states from the most onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind — handed out, again, in exchange for reform promises — has had a big impact on how states reformed their schools.

*When Duncan says, as he does over and over, that teachers should be judged in part on student growth, as measured by the standardized test scores of their students, he is wrong. Assessment experts say the tests aren’t designed for that purpose and that formulas being used to make these evaluations are unreliable and too often label effective teachers as ineffective and vice-versa.

It’s a welcome change to hear the secretary talk about the importance of early childhood education and the importance of social and emotional and health needs of children. Let’s see how the reality matches the rhetoric.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · March 5, 2013

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