Arne Duncan’s Misguided Policies

Last Friday after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan submitted his resignation as of the end of 2015, I heard President Barack Obama describe Duncan: “Arne’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anybody else.”  It is worth considering carefully what the president’s words mean in the context of the priorities, programs, and operation of Duncan’s Department of Education.

In a recent and very moving New Yorker piece about the significance of the closure of New York’s storied Jamaica High School, his alma mater, Jelani Cobb considers education reform in the context of history: “Like ‘busing’ and ‘integration,’ the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education.  Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates.  But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure.  In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward.  It’s not society that has failed in this perspective.  It’s the schools…  The onus shifted, and public policy followed.  The current language of education reform emphasizes racial ‘achievement gaps’ and ‘underperforming schools’ but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened.  Integration was a flawed strategy, but it recognized the ties between racial history and educational outcomes.”

School policy ripped out of time and history: in many ways that is Arne Duncan’s gift to us — school policy focused on disparities in test scores instead of disparities in opportunity — a Department of Education obsessed with data-driven accountability for teachers, but for itself an obsession with “game-changing” innovation and inadequate attention to oversight — the substitution of the consultant-driven, win-lose methodology of philanthropy for formula-driven government policy — school policy that favors social innovation, one charter at a time.  Such policies are definitely a break from the past. Whether they promise better opportunity for the mass of our nation’s children, and especially our poorest children, is a very different question.

School policy focused on disparities in test scores instead of disparities in opportunity:  Here is what a Congressional Equity and Excellence Commission charged in 2013, five years into Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary:  “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities… This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty. Our poverty rate for school-age children—currently more than 22 percent—is twice the OECD average and nearly four times that of leading countries such as Finland.”  Arne Duncan’s signature policies ignore these realities.  While many of Duncan’s programs have conditioned receipt of federal dollars on states’ complying with Duncan’s favored policies, none of Duncan’s conditions involved closing opportunity gaps.  To qualify for a Race to the Top grant, a state had to remove any statutory cap on the authorization of new charter schools, and to win a No Child Left Behind waiver, a state had to agree to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, but Duncan’s policies never conditioned receipt of federal dollars on states’ remedying school funding inequity.  Even programs like School Improvement Grants for the lowest scoring 5 percent of American schools have emphasized school closure and privatization but have not addressed the root problem of poverty in the communities where children’s scores are low.

A Department of Education obsessed with data-driven accountability for teachers, but for itself an obsession with “game-changing” innovation and inadequate attention to oversight:  The nation faces an epidemic of teacher shortages and despair among professionals who feel devalued as states rush to implement the teacher-rating policies they adopted to win their No Child Left Behind waivers from the federal government.  Even as evidence continues to demonstrate that students’ test scores correlate more closely with family income than any other factor, and as scholars declare that students’ test scores are unreliable for evaluating teachers, Duncan’s policies have unrelentingly driven state governments to create policy that has contributed to widespread blaming of the teachers who serve in our nation’s poorest communities.

However, Duncan’s Department of Education has been far less attentive to accountability for its own programs.  In June, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of national organizations made up of  the American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Educational Justice, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Service Employees International Union, asked Secretary Duncan to establish a moratorium on federal support for new charter schools until the Department improves its own oversight of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which is responsible for the federal Charter School Program.  The Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cites formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG’s 2012 audit, the members of the Alliance explain, discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.

Most recently, just last week, the Department of Education awarded $249 million to seven states and the District of Columbia for expanding charter schools, with the largest of those grants, $71 million, awarded to Ohio, despite that protracted Ohio legislative debate all year has failed to produce regulations for an out-of-control, for-profit group of online charter schools or to improve Ohio’s oversight of what are too often unethical or incompetent charter school sponsors.  The U.S. Department of Education made its grant last week despite that Ohio’s legislature is known to have been influenced by political  contributions from the owners of for-profit charter schools.

The substitution of the consultant-driven, win-lose methodology of philanthropy for formula-driven government policy:  Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children.  The Title I formula has been a primary tool for equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child.  In 2009, however, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education began spending some Title I funds outside the formula program for competitions like Race to the Top.  Because one-time grants cannot cover ongoing operations, school districts have used the money for technology or staff development but have hesitated to reduce class size or hire teachers.  For example, an evaluation determined that consultants and grant writers collected 35 percent of School Improvement Grant Funds spent in Colorado between 2010 and 2012.  Another serious problem with the federal competitive grant programs is that races with winners always have losers.  Redirecting funds away from the Title I Formula and into competitive grants under Arne Duncan’s leadership drove federal funds to a few winning states and created a host of losing states—and millions of children who lost out.

School policy that favors social innovation, one charter at a time:  Public education in the United States has historically been driven by a philosophy of expanding systemic inclusion. Over time public policy has been devised to require that schools address the needs of all children as a civil right. The policies that followed the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, for example, were designed to address past injustices that derived from racial segregation and poverty.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act protected the rights of children with special needs.  The policies of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education have instead favored a strategy of social innovation through the establishment of charter schools.  The idea is that committed individuals, with grants from the government, design schools that will serve a few children, with the innovation injected back into the public schools.  There is considerable evidence that many charters—especially the huge for-profit charter chains—have not innovated, that a philosophy if social innovation through charters (that serve about 6 percent of our nation’s 50 million children today) fails to consider the scale of our education challenges, that whatever innovation there has been has not spread widely, that charters have served primarily the children of parents who know how to play the school choice game, that considerable money from charter schools has flowed into private profits, and that the growth of charters in many city school districts has sucked out money and promising children and left students with serious disabilities, English language learners, and the very poorest children including homeless children behind in what are becoming public school districts of last resort.


At the very end of the 19th century, John Dewey wrote: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

A hundred years later, Senator Paul Wellstone told the students at Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

In December of 2010, already two years into Arne Duncan’s tenure as Secretary of Education, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson indict Duncan’s education policies for abandoning the very idea of American public education that Dewey and Wellstone had described so eloquently:  “There are those who would make the case for ‘a race to the top’ for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

If, as President Obama says, Arne Duncan has “brought our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century,” I hope we will stop to reconsider.  Has our society decided to strive for innovation and to abandon universal provision of services and equality of opportunity as overarching goals?  And have we become satisfied to blame the teachers in our poorest communities instead of ourselves for the vast injustices that appear at school in the guise of the achievement gaps?

Poverty, Inequality, Blocked Opportunity, and the No Child Left Behind Reauthorization

In a recent analysis at the California website Capital & Main, Bill Raden reflects: “It’s been just over 30 years since war was declared on America’s public schools.  The opening salvo came with 1983’s A Nation at Risk, the Reagan-era Department of Education report that alleged that lax schools and ineffective teachers constituted a dire threat to national security.  Yet three decades later, and in spite of the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening.  But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?  That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.”

“What if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?”  It is the essential question, especially this year as Congress once again considers the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Act, whose most recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a version that folded teacher bashing, punishing struggling schools instead of helping them, and privatizing schools into the law of the land.  But the news is not new to researchers, who have for some time been reporting evidence that refutes such an assumption. Test-and-punish school reform, long supported by politicians, has been exhaustively questioned over the years by academic research.

Raden interviews Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara, the husband and wife directors of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Orfield tells Raden, “I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts, and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school.  The schools actually made as much progress each year as the (wealthier) kids did, but the gap never closed at all.  So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”  Gandara adds, “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development.  We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.'”

Orfield has been confronting the strategies embedded in NCLB for many years, as have other researchers at the Civil Rights Project, whose April 2009 study by Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman came to the same conclusion.  In the forward to that report, Orfield wrote: “Now, as the country thinks about what to do next, it is important to focus on some fundamental design problems with the NCLB that undermine its very important goal of increasing the equity and success of American schools.  The first is that it was not designed around real educational experience, nor does it utilize what research has shown about the sources of educational inequality or the possibilities and conditions necessary for reform work.  Instead, NLCB is based on the dual assumptions that children are falling behind very largely because educators don’t care enough and that deadlines and strong sanctions imposed by the federal government can cure the problem so that all subgroups of children will become proficient by 2014.  The second problem is that it often punishes schools that are making a positive difference for students, discouraging the staff and undermining future prospects for the school.  The third is that it has a very narrow definition of education that not only diverts attention from other vital goals but also produces a strong focus on tactics that create a semblance rather than reality of success in those limited areas.  The fourth is that all schools are being required to attain goals that are impossible to attain on any broad level…. At the same time, the law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back  The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools… Blaming schools and their teachers takes the pressure off political leaders (and privileged communities) to play a serious role in solving the problems in a society that tolerates a level of child poverty higher than any other nation of similar stature.”

Academic research has continued to document the trends that have been known since James Coleman conducted research in the 1960s that identified students’ poverty and segregation as challenges to academic achievement.

In Public Education Under Siege, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe the greatest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228)  In 2013, the Southern Education Foundation documented the poverty concentration across America’s cities:  “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011. In 38 of the 50 states, no less than half of all children attending public schools in cities… were low income.” Low-income children make up 83 percent of all children in Mississippi’s cities, 78 percent in New Jersey’s cities, 75 percent in Pennsylvania’s cities, and 73 percent in New York’s cities.  In Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, according to the report, poor children also make up more than 70 percent of the public school enrollment in cities.  In Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times (Harvard Education Press, 2012) Thomas Timar, a professor at the University of California at Davis explains: “While manifestations of the achievement gap are to be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas, the evidence is rather compelling that the achievement gap is largely a problem of urban education:  Black children are more likely to live in conditions of concentrated poverty…. Child poverty rose in nearly every city from 1970-1990…. Urban students are more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools…. In 1990, the child poverty rate for the United States as a whole was 18 percent. For the ten worst cities it was between 40 and 58 percent.” (p. 232)  In America’s large cities many children live in extreme poverty, that is half the federal poverty line, which is around $11,925 for a family of four. Children in such circumstances are very likely to struggle at school. The census tells us that although 12 percent of white children in the United States are poor, 39 percent of Black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty—more than a third in both of those groups.

Standardized test scores have always served in large part as a wealth indicator. According to a chapter by Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao in Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance (Oxford University Press, 2013): “as a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112) And from long-time education researcher David Berliner:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”

Our society continues to become increasingly segregated not only by race but also by income—with the rich living near each other in wealthy enclaves and the poor concentrated in intergenerational ghettos.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documented in 2011 research that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

There is one exhaustive new book that connects the dots between poverty, inequality and school achievement.  In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015) Robert Putnam asks: “Do K-12 schools make the opportunity gap better or make it worse?  The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them.  The American public school today is as a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.”  (p. 182)

In Reign of Error (Knopf, 2013), Diane Ravitch’s indictment of the education “reform” movement, she wonders why, with the enormous mountain of evidence that we must help poor children with poverty and segregation, we persist in assuming the problem can be fixed by punishing teachers: “Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix’ schools first? It is a false choice.  I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools.  Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying.  Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty… The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence.  It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children.  And at the same time, it castigates and demoralizes teachers for conditions they did not cause and do not control. ” (pp. 92-98)

Once again, the Congressional debate about reauthorizing NCLB seems to be falling apart.  I think this is probably a good thing.  There is no agreement about reducing test-and-punish. The civil rights community, alarmed by the continuing racial achievement gap, is understandingly demanding that someone be held accountable—-through continued annual testing and disaggregated reporting, and Congress seems ready to accept that test-and-punish must continue.  Congress seems at the same time poised to push for a continuation of austerity budgeting by extending the sequester that would cripple our federal government’s capacity to do anything at all about addressing poverty.  While the data about what’s wrong isn’t new, there is a massive consensus among the experts about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?