As we begin 2016 with a new federal public education policy in place (The Every Student Succeeds Act, which we’ll take a more detailed look at in the near future), it seems appropriate to review that which preceded it: recently retired Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s last seven years as Washington’s education leader.
It’s important to recognize and be transparent about one’s biases right from the start: As a retired junior high and high school English teacher of thirty-three years, I have been a supporter of Barak Obama from the time he was a relatively unknown Senator from Illinois. In many ways—health care, energy, economic directions, equal rights issues, gun control, tax code, and many other domestic policies—I believe he has done an excellent job, or at least (in the case of gun control, specifically) articulated a view with which I agree. His foreign policy has seemed much less successful to me; but my expertise there is minimal at best, and it’s debatable just how much one leader can influence the world in this day and age. His greatest failing during his two terms in office, however (from my vantage point at least), has been how federal education policy was managed by his appointee, Arne Duncan.
The problems with the previous administration’s key education initiative, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, were clearly understood and negatively impacting schools when Duncan took over in 2009. Basically, school districts were required to use standardized testing to determine how well they were doing, with schools considered “Failing,” if a single sub-group population of students (based on race, special needs, and/or economic status—often representing a very small percentage of all a school’s students) did not make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on those tests, with the standard for AYP being set by the federal government. By 2014, 100% of all students were to be achieving at the “meets or exceeds standards” level on these tests, regardless of the fact that each year a different set of students would be taking the tests. (One-twelfth of the students from the previous year would have graduated, for example, meaning that the overall group would be at least 8% changed from one year to the next.) Regardless of the specifics of NCLB, the law pushed schools in the direction of using standardized tests as created by for-profit companies as the single most important metric in evaluating how effective or “good” a school was. Again, my biases shine through, but I believe a school as excellent as Hinsdale South High School (where I worked for twenty-five years) being rated as “failing” several years in a row based on NCLB, shows just how misguided this policy was.
Enter Duncan in 2009 with a clear mandate to address NCLB’s problems. But, instead of attempting to rectify the obvious failures of NCLB’s direction, he increased the importance of outside influences on schools with his Race to the Top program which doled out federal money only to schools deemed deserving based on criteria such as tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests—making them even more important to school districts than they had been previously. More Duncan policies were pushing schools to adopt standards created by those with no understanding of or experience with specific schools (the Common Core), as well as encouraging for-profit corporations to take over public schools, greatly increasing the number of charters in the country. The term, “Corporate Reform,” basically describes Duncan’s philosophy: More centralized control of schools achieved through weakening teachers’ rights and local school boards’ power in order to give state and federal governments more say in how schools are run. The goal was to use data (standardized tests) to identify poor-performing teachers, principals, and schools so that those resources could be redirected to privately run charters. Vouchers and tax credits were also favored, in theory so that parents could have more choice in which school received their tax revenue. Under some proposals along these lines, public funds could even be spent on private or parochial schools.
In short, Duncan presided over a period of the federal government’s trying to make public schools more like private businesses. If a business provides a good product (by Duncan’s criteria for schools, high standardized test scores and low costs), then it will attract more customers (parents who want their children to attend that school). If the product is inferior (poor test scores or high costs), the company (school) should go out of business (close) to be replaced by those who will do a better job using a different business model (privately run charter schools funded with public funds) and fostering more competition for customers (parents shopping for schools among different charter and public school options).
Although there have been a few positives with this model—high school graduation rates have increased, and there have been modest improvements on some standardized test scores—overall, Duncan did not improve education in America. For every small gain, there have been much larger losses. Excessive standardized testing has led to a narrowing of schools’ curriculums, especially since only English and math tests counted when evaluating a school’s worth. Art, music, and physical education programs have suffered, with some schools dropping elective courses and even programs. Teachers now spend way too much time trying to prepare students for these tests, despite believing test prep to be a poor use of class time. And the results have shown little improvement in the test scores in comparison to other countries, many of whom do significantly less testing.
In the meantime, tests have stressed everyone, while enriching testing companies. Teacher dissatisfaction—difficult to measure accurately, I will concede—seems to have increased. My direct evidence is mostly anecdotal, but I do come from a teaching family and have had contact over the years with hundreds of teachers; and from what I’ve seen, teachers are significantly unhappier now than they were twenty years ago. And some evidence of this has cropped up in recent years as the baby-boom generation of teachers has retired. Many school districts are having difficulty in finding capable replacements as the profession of teaching has suffered the erosion of hard-earned rights and status in the public’s eyes with many outside “experts” attacking tenure as a refuge for incompetent, lazy slackers. The Common Core has also negatively influenced schools as teachers were compelled to change successful methods and programs in order to comply with what the experts had determined was “better.” One of the poorly understood aspects of Duncan’s granting schools waivers from meeting the aforementioned AYP targets of NCLB was his then being able to pressure schools into adopting the common core—the federal government’s “ransom” for not enforcing the unrealistic goals set for all schools by those completely unfamiliar with them.
Teachers’ feelings of powerlessness, lack of respect, and not being valued have increased to the point where many of my former colleagues are simply serving their time until retirement, encouraging students to stay away from the teaching profession, and/or leaving the field entirely for better working conditions and pay. The steady progress teachers made in the 1980s and 90s has given way to stagnation and regression. And despite all the time, effort, and billions of dollars spent on these federal initiatives, neither Race to the Top nor Common Core has improved public education for students, teachers, or parents.
In short, very few in the education field are sorry to see Arne Duncan go. That’s not to say that he was evil or bigoted or mean-spirited (unlike several of the current Republican Presidential candidates), but he pushed our schools in a negative direction. (And you really observant readers will notice how I’ve loosed my avalanche of criticism on Duncan, as though President Obama had nothing to do with this. He clearly has, and I do believe it has been his major shortcoming.) As mentioned earlier, we’ll take a look at the new federal law passed last month in the coming weeks, and it’s way too soon to evaluate the new Secretary of Education (who will probably be in office barely a year anyway); but Arne Duncan’s legacy (with Obama’s imprimatur) is not one that many will see in a positive way.
If you would like to see more analysis of Duncan’s seven years in office, you can check out the following sources, listed here by their publisher: The American Spectator, The Nation, Vox, Socialist Worker, The New York Times, this one from The Washington Post, and another one from The Washington Post. For more analysis of positive directions for public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools—you can find entire chapters here.