It shouldn’t really be surprising that the delegates at the National Education Association’s recent convention passed a resolution calling on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign.
- Arne Duncan, through regulations of the U.S. Department of Education, has made the granting of federal waivers from the most onerous penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act contingent on states’ evaluating school teachers based on econometric formulas derived from students’ scores on the state standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind. This despite a warning from the American Statistical Association that such formulas are likely to be unreliable.
- Arne Duncan called what happened in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of the city and paved the way for the firing of all of the city’s public school teachers and the subsequent charterization of the entire school district a great opportunity. Duncan said: “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster.”
- Back in 2010, Arne Duncan lauded the so-called “turnaround” of the high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a restructure based on firing the principal and all the teachers.
- The U.S. Department of Education makes grants to Teach for America, a program that provides—through five-week summer training—a crash-course, alternate route to teacher certification for college graduates who are otherwise untrained as teachers. TFA teachers commit for 2 years, not for an entire career.
- Last month, Arne Duncan celebrated the California decision in Vergara, in which a local judge found due-process protections for teachers unconstitutional. (The case has been stayed while on appeal.)
- Arne Duncan once announced at a meeting I attended: “Good charters are part of the solution; bad charters are part of the problem.” Yet, despite that his Race to the Top program created huge incentives for states to eliminate any caps their legislatures had imposed on the number of new charters, and despite that the Department of Education makes grants to support the expansion of charter schools, Arne Duncan has never suggested any regulations to prevent academic failure or financial fraud in the bad charter schools he has himself named as “part of the problem.” What is almost always left unsaid in the conversation about charter schools that are so heavily supported by the Department of Education is that the vast majority of teachers in charter schools are non-unionized; their lower salaries undermine the teaching profession.
This week Jeff Bryant, in his column for the Educational Opportunity Network, points out: “For quite some time, close observers of the nation’s education policy have been calling attention to the fault lines between education progressives in the Democratic Party and Third Way-style centrists, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Democrats for Education Reform, who lean toward a market-based, econometric philosophy for public education governance. As Furman University education professor Paul Thomas recently wrote for Alternet, ‘While the Obama administration has cultivated the appearance of hope and change, its education policies are essentially slightly revised or greatly intensified versions of accountability reform begun under Ronald Reagan.'”
Duncan’s Department of Education has been unwilling to invest in well-researched strategies to address the deep issues of poverty and the accompanying challenges for teachers in the schools that serve children in communities where poverty is concentrated. As an example of the policies Duncan has ignored, Bryant points to a resource from the Opportunity to Learn Campaign that names strategies to improve the recruitment and ongoing support for teachers in impoverished communities and to fund the reforms necessary to compensate for the disparities in taxing capacity across school districts.
There is also a significant body of academic literature about reforms that would support teachers in struggling schools, while Duncan has emphasized punitive policies. A well-known book about what will be required to address the needs in schools overwhelmed by the conditions of their students’ lives, Organizing Schools for Improvement, a project of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, concludes: “Community social capital is a critical resource for advancing school improvement… We have documented that the density of children living under extraordinary circumstances within a school community can create a significant barrier for improvement… Taken together, a weakness in community social capital combined with a high density of student needs marks the social context of truly disadvantaged schools.” Not surprisingly the Consortium describes budgetary investments that improved learning in one such school by supporting the teachers and their students: “On the academic front, (the school) sustained its focus on aligning curriculum with standards schoolwide, building common instructionally-embedded assessments… and coupling this with extensive supports for professional development and attention to recruiting and nurturing capable new staff who were committed to teaching in this school community. Complementing this and equally important was an unrelenting focus on garnering community resources to respond to the extraordinary needs present in this school. Establishing a sense of safety and organizational order was an essential first concern to address. Assembling a first rate social services support team and accessing external program services that extended well beyond the meager ones offered by the school system was a key sustaining piece in the school’s reform agenda… Reconnecting to families and supporting them in the education of their children was another interrelated element.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 194-195)
It is an important development that the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has by its recent action demanded that the public scrutinize Arne Duncan’s education policies. Conor P. Williams, of the New America Foundation, notes: “education is rarely a determinative political issue at the federal level — and it’s only marginally more so at the state level. It’s rare that voters will allow a candidate’s education platform to sway their vote if they disagree on other, more provocative issues. Politicians know this, which leaves them relatively free to govern education—and set its budgets—without attending too carefully to public opinion.”
Duncan’s Department of Education has sought to blame and scapegoat school teachers for test score achievement gaps at the same time the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the federal government, with leadership by Duncan, has cut spending since 2010 for Title I by 12 percent and for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by 11 percent, at the same time 35 states are spending less on public education than they did prior to the 2008 recession. According to Five Thirty-Eight, overall federal per-pupil spending for public education fell by more than 20 percent between 2010 and 2012. The real question is how to make the schools that serve our poorest children places where the learning climate and the salary schedule attract our very best teachers. Arne Duncan’s education policies have condoned our mass denial of what ought to be obvious: raising school achievement will require an investment of money and political capital; it cannot be accomplished by punishing teachers.