Duncan was highly effective in pushing — critics say coercing — states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, open more charter schools and evaluate teachers by student standardized test scores. But, as time has shown, his reforms were hardly as effective as his ability get them adopted.
He leaves, in fact, with a troubled legacy.
When he first took office in 2009, many had hoped that his Education Department would focus federal education policy on issues such as inequitable school funding and support services for children who live in poverty. Duncan clearly cared about children and wanted to help improve educational opportunities for all, but his narrow policies sparked a revolt by parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, students and others who blamed him for putting unprecedented — and unfair — emphasis on standardized test scores as the chief accountability measure for schools, students and educators.
Duncan’s micromanaging of education issues that had traditionally been left to the states finally propelled Congress to rewrite No Child Left Behind — seven years after the job was supposed to have been done — and to shift some federal power over education back to the states and schools districts.
In his last speech as education secretary, given on Wednesday in Chicago, Duncan said that his “greatest frustration” while he was in office was the failure by Congress to pass gun control legislation. (Not failure to close the achievement gap or failure to ensure equitable funding for all children). My colleague Emma Brown wrote in this story about his speech:
The country could save lives with a new “new deal” for kids, he said, that would provide broad access to preschool and meaningful incentives for great teachers to work in high-poverty schools, as well as mentorship and support for job creation in poor neighborhoods.
He’s not wrong but, again, these aren’t efforts he put at the centerpiece of his reform agenda. While the administration did push universal preschool, it wasn’t until the second term, after billions of dollars had been spent on teacher evaluation and other reforms.
Last October, I ran a post that explained Duncan’s tenure through his own words over the years. Today, on his last day, here it is again:
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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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?
“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.
“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.
“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.