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?