More on Arne Duncan’s Legacy

In her new book about Newark, New Jersey and the school reform paid for by Facebook CEO-philanthropist Mark Zuckerberg, Dale Russakoff captures the language of what we can call “corporatized” school reform.  Newark school reform was paid for by Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant, but the style couldn’t have happened without the movement promoted by Arne Duncan through I3 “innovation” money, School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top grants—a movement that has filled the public schools with consultants, many of them from the business schools and Eli Broad’s academy for superintendents, not from schools of education.  (This blog also posted an earlier piece on Arne Duncan’s legacy.)

Here is how Russakoff describes Cami Anderson’s “corporate reform,” leadership training sessions for school principals: “‘Every good and high performing coach and CEO has a game plan—a lean, focused, clear plan,’ she said… As part of this process, she said, principals should articulate something she called a BHAG (‘Bee-hag’). When no one appeared familiar with the term, Anderson explained that it stood for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.  This, she said, was a clear and seemingly impossible objective around which everyone in a school could organize to achieve previously unthinkable progress. She credited the term to best-selling business author Jim Collins,whose many analyses of successful companies were treated as scripture across the school reform movement.  Several staff members said they felt that the district had been overtaken by a cadre of technocrats, most of them white and commuting from New York, whose vocabulary was rich in education reform buzz-words.  Besides ‘transformational’—never incremental—change, they also made it a priority to ‘move the needle,’ which meant to achieve measurable progress, usually in test scores.  To do this, they had to ‘pull the right levers,’ like allowing principals to choose their teachers.  They would ‘drill deep’ or ‘take a deep dive’ into complex issues.  They divided strategies into ‘buckets,’ such as the accountability bucket, the teacher-evaluation bucket.  They took liberties with parts of speech, changing nouns into verbs—as in, ‘Bucket those two ideas together’… Data had to be ‘robust.’  They worried about ‘optics,’ or how things would look to the public… Anderson shared the reform movement’s faith in business-style management and accountability.  The goal, she said, was to mobilize the bureaucracy around high performance rather than mere compliance with rules.” (The Prize, pp. 124-125)

The problem, of course, when it comes to the federal Department of Education is that one of the “levers” federal officials can push is compliance with rules, but Duncan’s department didn’t emphasize that, especially in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. Thanks to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, we know that the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General blasted the Department for failure to oversee more than $3 billion in federal grants intended to start charter schools and expand the charter school sector.  And we discovered last week that the Department of Education, in its most recent batch of charter grants, just awarded $71 million to Ohio, the largest grant to any state, to expand charter schools, even though Ohio’s legislature was locked at the time in a well publicized struggle to pass what most people in the state—Republican and Democrat—have deemed minimal and long-needed charter regulation.

Sherman Dorn and Amanda Potterton have described Arne Duncan’s legacy as shaped by the “growing influence of a network of private actors on public education.”  “These reformers have largely consisted of private actors, including leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders, and other nontraditional school leaders whose essential resources for reform come from the private wealth of major foundations….”

Reminding us of the power of Jim Shelton, brought straight to the Department of Education from the Gates Foundation to run the Department’s Office of Innovation, and Joanne Weiss, the COO at the NewSchools Venture Fund who became Arne Duncan’s chief of staff, Dorn and Potterton direct us to Sarah Reckhow’s book, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, for a definition of the “Boardroom Progressives” who were welcomed to Arne Duncan’s policy table:  “The policy agenda of the Boardroom Progressives has largely been drawn from the two dominant streams of policy ideas in education reform since the 1990s: accountability and markets… Boardroom Progressives are impatient with public bureaucracies and have focused their efforts on creating a broad network of private and nonprofit alternatives for developing and running schools… The Boardroom Progressive movement involves a diverse set of actors—charter school leaders, urban superintendents, and nonprofit founders. Yet private wealth has been an essential resource for supporting many of these leaders and their initiatives…. including charter schools, advocacy organizations, education consulting and research organizations, and countless nonprofits.” (pp.2-3)

Dorn and Potterton define Duncan’s pivotal policy as Race to the Top: “Members of Duncan’s reform network were partly the genesis and potentially the beneficiary of a grant program, Race to the Top, that required applicants to expand opportunities for charter school creation, eliminate firewalls between student test scores and teacher evaluation, and commit to so-called ‘college and career-ready standards.’… Once Duncan’s department announced the Race to the Top program, the (Department of Education staff’s) network connections were critical to promoting it… (T)he network was critical to directly or indirectly building state capacity in the Race to the Top years… The Gates Foundation provided US$250.000 worth of application consulting services to states that agreed with the foundation’s eight-point set of criteria.”  Duncan “acted as a ‘gatekeeper’ by bringing a private network to the fore in education, and further opening public education to privatized influences.”

Aaron Pallas, the Teachers College education sociologist, comments on the significance of Race to the Top as the centerpiece of Arne Duncan’s legacy:  “Arne Duncan’s signature initiative was Race to the Top arguably the most effective piece of federal education policy in the nation’s history in its success at changing the behavior of the 50 states that were its target. Effective policy is not necessarily good policy, however, because good policy depends on a well-developed and plausible theory of action.  The competitive priorities in Race to the Top—improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on student performance, the adoption of common… curricular standards, turning around failing schools, and creating a climate for the expansion of high-quality charter schools—were based on a wish and a prayer, not a body of evidence demonstrating that these strategies could fundamentally alter the equity and excellence equations in American education.”

Pallas concludes: “Viewing the education policy landscape from 30,000 feet—a Secretary’s-eye view—may suggest that the implementation of Race to the Top and related reforms has gone smoothly.  The problem is compounded when the administration seems not to hear opposing views…. The view is quite different closer to the ground.  From five feet, the uneven and thoughtless implementation of statewide teacher evaluation systems and Common Core standards in many states has—however unintentionally—undermined the legitimacy of our public school system.”

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, credits Duncan’s policies with widespread scapegoating of teachers and demonizing colleges of education:  “Teachers have been at ground zero of Secretary Duncan’s education reform movement, and the teaching profession has suffered extraordinary criticism, curtailment and even contempt from Duncan and some of his acolytes in school reform.  Now there is evidence of teacher shortages all across the nation.  Is it any wonder?… At the same time, the administration has proposed an extraordinary array of complicated rules for teacher education programs that would have the effect of further limiting enrollment in schools of education while imposing significant new costs for data tracking.  Ironically, for an administration that claims to care about teacher quality, the reform movement has also encouraged abandoning formal graduate education for teacher licensure in favor of short-term job training by storefront providers. Go figure.”

Diane Ravitch pulls together several of these strands of criticism in her reflection on Arne Duncan’s legacy: “This era has not been good for students; nearly a quarter live in poverty, and fully 51% live in low-income families. This era has not been good for teachers, who feel disrespected and demeaned by governors, legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Education.  This era has not been good for parents, who see their local public schools lose resources to charter schools and see their children subjected to endless, intensive testing.  It will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan’s policies have inflicted on public education.”

Here is an alternative way to think and talk about education, from a professor in one of those graduate schools of education—Mike Rose at UCLA.  His language is so old-fashioned, so real, and so very refreshing: “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?”