Congress Is Likely to Reauthorize Education Law. How Will We Undo Arne Duncan’s Damage?

Seven years ago today—on November 30, 2008—I picked up my Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer to see a story above the fold on the front page, a story whose headline screamed: Good Teachers Are Key to Student Achievement, but Bad Ones Are Hard to Fire.  The story itself purported to be a news analysis, part of a series, “a Plain Dealer project reporting on the state of teaching.”  But then there was the photo, of a truck parked in front of the National Education Association’s building in Washington, D.C.  It was one of those trucks that pulls nothing but a sign, and this one—with a picture of a wormy apple—said: “Vote for the Worst Unionized Teachers Who Can’t Be Fired.”  Whatever the content of the article, the message that Sunday morning came from the sign the truck was pulling along—“worst unionized teachers who can’t be fired.”

Then a few days later came David Brooks’ NY Times column about newly elected President Barack Obama’s pending decision about a Secretary of Education.  The new president had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor of education to head his education transition team, but there was enormous pressure from New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg for Obama to choose Joel Klein, who was at that time serving as Bloomberg’s appointed chancellor of the NYC public schools.

On December 5, 2008, Brooks, a school “reformer” through and through, framed what had already become a polarized battle—“reformers” vs. teachers’ unions: “On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards.  On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.  During the presidential race, Barack Obama straddled the two camps.  One campaign adviser, John Schnur, represented the reform view in the internal discussions.  Another, Linda Darling-Hammond, was more likely to represent the establishment view… Each camp was secretly convinced that at the end of the day, Obama would come down on their side… Obama never had to pick a side.  That is, until now.  There is only one education secretary, and if you hang around these circles, the air is thick with speculation…   (O)ne morning a few weeks ago, I got a flurry of phone calls from reform leaders nervous that Obama was about to side against them…  (T)he union lobbying efforts are relentless and in the past week prospects for a reforming education secretary are thought to have dimmed… The candidates before Obama apparently include: Joel Klein, the highly successful New York chancellor who has, nonetheless, been blackballed by the unions; Arne Duncan, the reforming Chicago head who is less controversial; Darling-Hammond herself; and some former governor to be named later, with Darling-Hammond as the deputy secretary.  In some sense the final option would be the biggest setback for reform.  Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.  The stakes are huge.  For the first time in decades, there is real momentum for reform.”

The wave of articles that surfaced that week was noticeable, and in my office in the United Church of Christ’s justice ministries, I felt compelled to trade turns with someone else in the rota of staff who wrote the little Witness for Justice columns each week.  On December 15 that year, I described my fear: “(A)s I write, there is an attack on public school teachers by advocates who seek a Secretary who would base pay on test scores, deny tenure, intensify the test-and-punish mechanisms of No Child Left Behind, and rely far more on charter schools.  These critics deride public school improvement as mere ‘weak, status-quo’ reform.”

Fast-forward seven years, and here we are at the end of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure. Duncan’s policies have been so widely disliked in their implementation that there seems to be bipartisan Congressional consensus, unheard of these days, to undo the damage everybody has come to believe happened due to Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama and Duncan’s Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants and No Child Left Behind waivers.  Duncan has resigned as of the end of 2015, and will be replaced by John King, an acting secretary as a placeholder for the last year of President Obama’s term.

And if Congress acts this week finally (after several previous tries) to reauthorize the federal education law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we may find ourselves without the version we’ve been living with now for 14 years—No Child Left Behind.

While some of the “punishments” promoted by Duncan for so-called failing schools were originally outlined in 2002 in the original test-and-punish No Child Left Behind Act, Duncan and his Department were the ones who worked out how the “turnaround” plans that fired teachers and principals and closed or charterized schools would be imposed on our nation’s poorest schools.  While the problems in the economy were evident by December of 2008, nobody could have imagined the competitive grant programs that Duncan’s Department of Education created as part of the 2009 federal stimulus package.  These were the programs by which states applied for federal grants and eventually waivers from No Child Left Behind’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” system that had begun to attach the label of “failing” to far too many public schools in every state.  Duncan’s Department developed hoops states had to jump through even to apply for these federal grants—remove any state statutory caps on the number of charter schools that can be launched in any one year—intensify Value Added, econometric evaluations of school teachers based on their students’ test scores—embrace college-and-career-ready standards for all students.  Because the Department of Education cannot by federal law prescribe curricula, the Department merely incentivized states to adopt “more rigorous” standards, which in practical terms meant joining one of the two Common Core Curriculum consortia—PARCC or Smarter Balanced.

David Brooks’ words from December 2008 were prophetic: “Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.”  As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan was never one for grand pronouncements, but his Department’s actions have utterly transformed education policy across the fifty states.  State legislatures changed state laws to try for Race to the Top grants and to secure their waivers.  States removed caps on the launch of new charters, and then vastly expanded the number of charters with help from billions of dollars in federal Charter School Program grants. But nobody in the federal government imposed any oversight and only in the most careful states has there been regulation to protect children and taxpayers from unscrupulous profiteers.  Schools have been closed as a “turnaround” policy in many cities as children have been forced to relocate via public transportation in many cases, with some crossing dangerous gang boundaries. The American Statistical Association and now the American Educational Research Association have condemned the use of Value Added Measure algorithms for evaluating teachers because the formulas are unstable and fail to measure many of the qualities of a good teacher.

There is wide agreement that the bipartisan Congressional consensus that seems to have been reached on a plan to reauthorize No Child Left Behind is primarily a repudiation of Arne Duncan’s tenure and policies.

In a profound article, School Reform Fails the Test: How Can Our Schools Get Better When We’ve Made Our Teachers the Problem and Not the Solution?, Mike Rose the writer and UCLA professor of education wonders: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?  Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high states testing… had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development.  I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project…. Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have a direct link to local health and service agencies… Extra tutoring would be provided… Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students.”

Assuming that in the next week or so both houses of Congress affirm the agreement, passed the week before Thanksgiving by a Senate/House conference committee, to reauthorize the federal education law, the question will be where do we go from here?  Mike Rose’s vision describes where many of us would like education policy to go.  But Arne Duncan has ensured that Congress cannot just undo the explosive growth of charters or quickly take back the unworkable schemes for evaluating teachers that state legislatures have passed to qualify for federal No Child Left Behind waivers (even though the waivers themselves will be rendered unnecessary once No Child Left Behind is gone), or help states improve their curricula and avoid the ugly politics around the Common Core for which they have already signed up and invested millions of dollars. These policies have now been enacted into the laws of the fifty states. Amending or eliminating these policies will have to be accomplished one state legislature at a time and will require concerted state-by-state advocacy.

Cliches come to mind. The cats are out of the bag. Pandora’s box has been opened. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

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