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We Need More Than Charm

What Has Arne Done For Us?
by Fawn Johnson
National Journal
October 29, 2012

If nothing else, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made waves. In the last four years, he has brought about incredible changes in education policy, no thanks to Congress. That’s a point that education writer Richard Colvin (a contributor to this blog) makes in a recent column in Kappan magazine. “The breakdown of the legislative process hasn’t prevented the U.S. Department of Education from pursuing what may well be one of the most far-reaching education reform agendas ever,” Colvin writes. Duncan shepherded $4 billion for Race to the Top competitive grants and created No Child Left Behind waiver program for states. Let’s not forget also that the Common Core State standards are now…well…common.

This has not made everyone happy, particularly conservatives who don’t want to see new education policies put in place by fiat. Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli (whose boss Chester Finn is also a contributor on this blog) argued in reaction to Colvin’s article that the White House could have pushed for legislation instead of the NCLB waivers, even if it didn’t like where Congress was going. “Both the Senate and House passed reauthorization bills out of their respective committees, and had the administration wanted to get them across the finish line, it could have pushed for it, and I think achieved it,” Petrelli said in an e-mail. Had that happened, NCLB would have been more or less dead. But it would have been a sound legislative process.

It is debatable whether Congress would have been able to pass any bill reauthorizing the complex elementary and secondary education system. It is also worth asking whether the administration did the responsible thing in responding to the gridlock, which had real consequences for states, with its “We Can’t Wait” waiver program. But it is beyond question that everyone involved in the debate has been shocked at how difficult it is to accomplish anything. Everyone involved in the talks agrees with 90 percent of the changes that are on the table. Colvin quotes one Capitol Hill aide who quit out of frustration. I have met staffers who say that Congress has regressed more than 10 years in its thinking on education.

In spite of all this, Duncan broke through these barriers and instituted programs that education researchers will be studying for the next decade. If President Obama wins reelection, Duncan will stick around, but his impact probably won’t be as large as he continues the programs he started. He won’t have $48.6 billion in economic stimulus money to play with, and he will instead have to focus on where he can cut to meet budget constraints.

It doesn’t matter because Duncan has already made his mark.

What lessons can we learn from the Education Department under Arne Duncan? What is his legacy? How important is the waiver program in considering next steps for NCLB–i.e., assessments, testing, disaggregation? How important is Race to the Top in encouraging state innovations? Are there other, better ways that an agency can deal with an intransigent Congress? What did Arne do for us in Obama’s first term?

Response: We Need More Than Charm
by Jeanne Allen
National Journal
November 1, 2012

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is engaging personally and professionally. As a superintendent, he honed his communication skills, so whether he was talking to a teacher, the union president or a parent, they all equally think he’s on their side and committed to doing the right thing. He can shoot hoops with anyone, on or off the court. And he’s received praise far and wide for being so, well, so good and so reform-minded. But having listened and watched him carefully now for four years, I’m seeing a pattern. It’s the pattern of a disciplined player that knows how to get in the game, stay competitive, and never look like he’s going to miss.

Duncan’s basic formula is this: Speak to a group and mention all the things you know they are interested in; quality, charters, collaboration, we have to fix our schools, we can make them better, investment, accountability, choice, parents, engagement…. And in the process, we confuse activity with action, and policymaking with reform.

Duncan scores lots of points for reminding the nation that we have a problem and that there are many ways to solve the problem. A+ on that. And he’s tenacious in going places, meeting with people, speaking to people — keeping the issue alive. Great moves, all of it. But when it comes to his efforts resulting in substantive change that impacts student achievement, I’m not seeing any. In fact, Duncan has created a perverse incentive system where states and districts now know that in order to get money, all they have to do is promise to play ball for whatever policy prescription is on the table. Common core, teacher evaluation, turn-arounds/turn-overs/collaborative-reinvestment-engagement schemes, charter schools (though it need not matter what kind of policy one is recommending and whether it works)… The average state or local grant writer knows that once the money comes, they can have the meetings, convene stakeholders, make plans and try to do what they said they’d do, and whether or how quickly new processes and plans and goals and outcomes are sketched, they’ll keep getting paid for students based on archaic formulas that have little to do with whether children are learning.

Meanwhile, the states that have accomplished the most with reform are those where teacher tenure was significantly reformed or removed, where educators have more flexibility, where schools are turned over without account for union collaboration and where schools are scored and parents have choices. Our top ten states for Parent Power provide a key to why some states are doing better than others, if you need more context. It’s no secret why Indiana comes out number 1.

To be fair, Education Secretary Duncan’s positive, affable rhetoric and embrace of change has helped keep education hot amidst a sea of other important issues, and has allowed more Democrats to embrace changes they may have never have endorsed if it were only the Rs who were in power. He’s used the Bully Pulpit well, and that’s a clear score. But inside and outside the Ed Department, Duncan has indeed confused caused many to think they’ve already achieved significant gains because of the policies they’ve embraced. It all sounds the same, and whether or not one did performance evaluations right doesn’t matter as long as they did them, period. That means they’ll probably not push more on that, or closing failing schools, or taking on the unions, or charters or tenure, or adopt new innovations like widespread online learning or real school choice! They can claim credit and move on to another issue, which tends to be the attitude of a lawmaker not particularly engaged in education reform once they’ve done something, anything others praise. And that, I’m afraid, may be the extent of the legacy Arne Duncan leaves.