The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The tenure of Education Secretary Arne Duncan — in his own sometimes startling words

Education Secretary Arne Duncan takes reporters’ questions after his visit with inmates enrolled in an education program at a prison on July, 31, 2015, in Jessup, Md. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who took office in 2009, is stepping down in December as the most powerful federal education chief in the department’s history. He involved the federal government in areas that traditionally had been left to states — such as teacher evaluation systems and standards — in a controversial tenure that has prompted Congress to consider legislation that would reduce the federal role in public education.

Here are a few of the sometimes startling things that he has said over the years that, when looked at together, reveal his reform mind-set — and something about his reaction to his critics, many of whom had hoped that the Obama administration would focus federal education policy on issues such as inequitable school funding and support services for children who live in poverty.

May 2009

And so we have to stop lying to children. We have to tell them the truth. We have to be transparent about our data. We have to raise the bar so that every child knows on every step of their educational trajectory what they’re going to do.

In this May 29, 2009, speech at the National Press Club, Duncan sets himself and his Education Department as the truth-tellers in education. Here he is is talking about how states have set low bars for students to pass, and he is encouraging them to adopt — or congratulating them for adopting — the Common Core State Standards. These are standards in math and English Language Arts that were, by 2013, approved in full by 45 states and the District of Columbia in what Duncan said was an effort to raise standards and allow legitimate comparisons of student test scores across states. The initial bipartisan support of the Core was a big triumph for Duncan, but as questions were raised about who wrote and funded them, as well as the content of some of the standards, Duncan found himself on the defensive, with some states dropping them or re-branding them.

Duncan’s “we have to stop lying” phrase became something of a mantra. He repeated it, or some version of it, frequently:

February 2010 to the National Governors Association: “We have to stop lying to children. We have to look them in the eye and tell them the truth at every stage of their educational trajectory.”

March 2010 to the National League of Cities’ Congressional City Conference: “We simply have to stop dummying-down standards due to political pressures. We have to stop lying to children and families by giving them a low bar and telling them that they will be okay, when we know they are not adequately prepared to go on to college or a job.”

August 2010 in Little Rock:  “I congratulate your state, Arkansas, on taking this bold step for your students last month. These higher standards are an absolute game-changer — as a country we will finally stop dummying-down standards, and stop lying to our children and their families.”

October 2010 at a Council on Foreign Relations event: “We have to stop lying to children and stop lying to parents about our educational progress, and start telling them the truth. The Common Core Standards are an absolute game-changer in a system which, until now, set 50 different goal posts for success.”

October 2010 in Richmond, Virginia: “And for the first time, children in Mississippi and children in Massachusetts will be held to the same standard and measured by the same yardstick. We will stop lying to children.”

April 2011 to Parenting magazine’s Mom Congress: “You guys have got to be truth-tellers. You have to ask the really hard questions.”

Etc., etc.

January 2010:

“I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.”

Duncan has been a strong supporter of charter schools and has frequently hailed the charters in New Orleans’ Recovery School District. This statement showed his strong belief that charter schools are key to improving public education, even though research strongly suggests that overall, they don’t do any better in terms of student performance than traditional public schools and that the charters in New Orleans are not the “miracle” schools that they are sometimes proclaimed to be. At the time he made this statement, Duncan was backed by charter supporters in New Orleans, but many others thought he was out of bounds by saying that New Orleans needed a deadly hurricane to wake up.

August 2010

But looking at student progress over time, in combination with other factors like peer review and principal observation, can lead to a culture shift in our schools where we finally take good teaching as seriously as the profession deserves. This is a complicated and emotional issue for teachers, and it just got more emotional in the past 10 days with a series of articles on teacher quality published by the Los Angeles Times. Essentially, the Times took seven years of student test data and developed what is called a “value-added” analysis to show which third- through fifth-grade teachers are making the biggest gains…The results may be soon posted on the newspaper’s website in a searchable data base by teacher name — taking transparency to a whole new level… I am a strong advocate for transparency. This is one thing that NCLB got right.

This was part of an op-ed in the New York Daily News authored by Duncan. It reveals his unadulterated belief in the value of big data — even though the “value-added” scores to which he refers are not considered by assessment experts to be valid or reliable for the purposes of individual teacher evaluation. VAM purports to be able to take student standardized test scores and measure the “value” a teacher adds to student learning through complicated formulas that can supposedly factor out all of the other influences and emerge with a valid assessment of how effective a particular teacher has been. The American Statistical Association is just one of the organizations that has slammed the high-stakes “value-added method” (VAM) of evaluating teachers. Such was Duncan’s view of “transparency.”

[Controversial teacher evaluation method is on trial — and the judge is not amused]

September 2010

“I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education. For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers — and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction. Yet that fundamental shift re-orienting K-12 education to extend beyond high school graduation to college and career-readiness will not be the only first here”

On Sept. 2, 2010, Duncan gave a speech called “Beyond the Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments,” referring to the standardized tests that were being developed to align to the Common Core State standards. The tests to which Duncan referred were developed by two multi-state consortia with $360 million in federal funds, whose aim was to make them go beyond the familiar multiple-choice standardized tests long foisted on students. The two consortia were the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC.

He repeated this “game-changer” statement over several years, even after it was clear that the tests weren’t going to live up to that billing because of design constraints, timing and money problems, and other issues. A 2013 report from the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a panel of educational leaders, said, “The progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.” In the past few years, a number of states have stopped using these tests.

[What the new Common Core tests are – and aren’t]

September 2011

“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.”

Duncan said this to Wendy Kopp while standing on the same stage with veteran teacher Dennis Van Roekel, who at the time was president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. Kopp is the founder of Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that has for years recruited new college graduates, given them five weeks of training in a summer institute and placed them in schools that are among America’s neediest. It has been a prime mover in the “no excuses” movement, which promotes the notion that the conditions in which children live can’t be blamed for poor academic performance. In other words, teachers should be able to overcome a child’s hunger, sickness or trauma.

Popular with the Obama administration, which awarded it tens of millions of dollars, TFA has increasingly generated criticism about its limited training program and its requirement that corps members stay only two years in a school. Once so popular that Duncan himself said at the 20th anniversary convention of TFA early in 2011 that the organization had made “teaching cool again,” the group has run into trouble meeting recruiting targets.

[‘Good Intentions Gone Bad’ — TFA]

January 2011

“If we had 95,000 good principals, we’d be done.”

Duncan was quoted as saying this by columnist George Will in Newsweek. The reason it is worth noting is that Duncan made teachers, not principals, the focus of his education reform efforts and alienated the Democrat Party’s traditional supporters, the teachers unions. If he believed that principals were the key to improving schools, why were teachers the focus of his reforms?

June 2013

“The Common Core has become a rallying cry for fringe groups that claim it is a scheme for the federal government to usurp state and local control of what students learn. An op-ed in The New York Times called the Common Core ‘a radical curriculum.’ It is neither radical nor a curriculum. … When the critics can’t persuade you that the Common Core is a curriculum, they make even more outlandish claims. They say that the Common Core calls for federal collection of student data. For the record, it doesn’t, we’re not allowed to, and we won’t. And let’s not even get into the really wacky stuff: mind control, robots, and biometric brain mapping.”

Duncan said this at a meeting of newspaper editors, during which he also gave them some reporting tips. He said the federal government didn’t start or write the standards, which is true. He said it wasn’t mandated, either, though critics argue that it was coerced because adoption of the standards was one of the ways to win Race to the Top money. He was also right when he said the Core is not a curriculum (even though the Core authors released a book of criteria to education publishers about what should be in Core curriculum). But he didn’t mention his frequent cheerleading for the standards or the $360 million that his department gave to PARCC and SBAC to develop new Core-aligned standardized tests. What he does do in this statement is try to characterize Core critics as being members of fringe groups. Some of them certainly were and are, but back then and today, the Core pushback has come from across the political spectrum, including mainstream parents, teachers and superintendents.

[Duncan tells newspaper editors how to report the Common Core]

April 2013

“We need you, the researchers, to answer the question, ‘Which approach works better — this one or that one’ and then we need to move forward by your answer.”

Duncan said this in a speech to the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco. What makes this interesting is that the reforms Duncan has pushed have largely ignored the preponderance of quality research. He has ignored assessment experts who have said VAM is not ready for prime time when it comes to evaluating teachers; he has said that districts can improve efficiency by raising class size despite strong research that shows class size matters in student achievement; he has encouraged longer school days even though there is no evidence that shows that by itself it improves student achievement, etc., etc.

October 2013

“The vast majority who drop out of high school drop out not because it’s too hard but because it’s too easy.”

No comment necessary.

November 2013

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”

As noted above, Duncan was a loud cheerleader for the Common Core, repeatedly noting that the standards and the aligned standardized tests are more difficult than students in most states have confronted in the past. The Common Core was intended to elevate teaching and learning; supporters say it does that while critics say it doesn’t and that some of the standards, especially for young children, are not developmentally appropriate. Predictably, a lot of people, including white suburban moms, were annoyed by his comments. In this statement, he seemed to again be attempting to marginalize his critics.

[Duncan: ‘White suburban moms’ upset that Common Core shows their kids aren’t ‘brilliant’]


April 2014

Duncan went to New York for a function at New York University and introduced state John King, then the state’s education commissioner and now Obama’s chosen successor to Duncan at the U.S. Education Department. During that introduction, he deemed the growing criticism of King’s education reforms — which mirrored Duncan’s — as “lots of drama, lots of noise”  on which the media likes to focus.

Again Duncan is dismissing the growing revolt against his reform efforts and that of King’s. In New York, the opposition to King grew so loud that not only did the nearly 3,000-delegate body of the New York State United Teachers call on him to resign, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed his disapproval of King’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards. King announced he was resigning December 2014 to become Duncan’s No. 2. And now, King will be No. 1 at the U.S. Education Department.

[If you thought Arne Duncan was controversial, meet his successor]

[What Arne Duncan’s new advisor did to New York schools]

March 2015

Rosa DeLauro: Are you prepared to rethink the federal requirement that VAM data be included in teacher evaluation scores for those states receiving a waiver from NCLB?
Arne Duncan: Your question is actually incorrect. We never say that you have to use Value Added — we say that student learning and student growth needs to be a part of that. … When we first came to Washington, I was stunned to learn that there were some states where it against the law to link student learning to evaluating teachers. … The goal of great teaching is never just to teach, but to have students learn. ….  So to be clear, we always say “multiple measures,” there are a whole host of thing that need to be there, we want to elevate and strengthen the teaching profession.
deLauro: So there is no emphasis on testing or test scores?
Duncan: There is no requirement on value added. … What we are saying is that student learning, growth, needs to be a part of teacher evaluation. People are taking this to the extreme and saying either complete reliance on testing or zero accountability. …  I’m interested in student growth and gain, how much are students progressing each year. We want to look at how much students are improving each year.

On March 4, 2015, Duncan appeared before the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education, and related agencies to discuss the administration’s 2016 budget request for the Education Department. After giving testimony, he answered questions from panel members, one of them being Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee.

At one point, the conversation turned to teacher evaluation, and that’s when Duncan said something that was odd given his department’s policies. Duncan said that there is no federal requirement for value-added modeling. Well, any state that won Race to the Top money, and any state that applied for and won a federal No Child Left Behind — and that’s most of the states — was required to measure student “growth” as part of teacher evaluation. And assessment experts say that the only way to get such a growth score is with value-added modeling.

While it is true that states did not have to apply for Race to the Top money nor did they have to seek a waiver from the most onerous parts of the flawed No Child Left Behind law, budget problems and the impossible demands of NCLB made it hard for states not to do so.

Meanwhile, VAM has become more complicated over the years in various states as officials have tried to figure out formulas that they think will work. Because high-stakes tests are given only in math and English Language Arts, and because all teachers are supposed to be evaluated by VAM scores, many teachers wind up being evaluated in part on the test scores of students they don’t have and/or subjects they don’t teach (by, for example, using school-wide averages for some teachers, or linking one non-tested subject area, such as science, with a tested area, such as math, and evaluating science teachers on math scores. (You can read here about an art teacher evaluated on English Language Arts scores.)

[How students with top test scores actually hurt a teacher’s evaluation]

With VAM, teachers are actually evaluated by scores that have been “predicted” for each student based on past performance on state-mandated tests of that student and other students. If the student exceeds the predicted score, the teacher is credited with “adding value,” but if the student does not do as well as the predicted score, the teacher is held responsible and that score counts negatively toward his/her evaluation. A worse-case scenario in this regard just happened to a Florida teacher.

June 2015

“I want to describe a set of educational rights that I firmly believe must belong to every family in America — and I hope you’ll demand that your leaders in elected and appointed offices deliver on them. They come together as a set of rights that students must have at three pivotal stages of their life, to prepare them for success in college and careers and as engaged, productive citizens. First, every child should have the right to attend a free, high-quality preschool…. Second, I believe all children have the right to high, challenging standards and engaging teaching and leadership in a safe, supportive, well-resourced school….[And]  I believe we must see an affordable, high-quality college degree as every child’s right.”

Duncan used the occasion of a speech to the National Parent Teacher Association Convention and Expo in Charlotte to talk about a new set of educational rights for parents. The question for Duncan is what he has done to ensure those rights for parents.

As I wrote at the time he made the speech: Were his policies geared to achieving educational equity for each student? (No.) Or was his chief policy initiative something called Race to the Top, which forced states to compete for federal funds by promising to implement specific reforms Duncan favored, such as expanding charter schools and requiring that teachers be evaluated in part by student test scores. (Yes.) Did he take any important steps to bring about a change in the way public schools are funded so that the poorest schools don’t wind up with the fewest resources? (No.) Did his department talk about the need for high-quality teachers but then support with many millions of dollars a program called Teach for America, which recruits new college graduates, gives them five weeks of training and then sends them into the neediest public schools? (Yes.) Did he make a major push on early childhood education and quality preschool in the first term of the Obama administration, given that it is the No. 1 right of parents? (No.)  Etc., etc.