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Arne Duncan Never Learns

Duncan still thinks, apparently, his biggest mistake involved poor communication rather than the substance of the policies

In July, Arne Duncan, the Obama administration education secretary, visited Parkland, Fla., to pitch parents on his idea for a national school boycott designed to force Congress to take action on gun legislation. (Tonya Alanez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP)

In July, Arne Duncan, the Obama administration education secretary, visited Parkland, Fla., to pitch parents on his idea for a national school boycott designed to force Congress to take action on gun legislation. (Tonya Alanez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP)

Arne Duncan never seems to learn.

Duncan, who served as President Barack Obama’s education secretary for seven years and was more powerful than any of his predecessors, is hitting the interview and lecture circuit to promote his new book, “How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.” It starts with this sentence: “Education runs on lies.

Really?

Education doesn’t run on lies (the sentence begs the services of a good editor), and Duncan makes clear several pages later that he means the “education system” runs on lies, which isn’t accurate, either.

There is not a monolithic “education system” in the country that spews lies. There are, rather, more than 13,000 school districts in the United States, locally operated. Some of the people who run them may indeed tell lies about student achievement — though, to be fair to them, Duncan said a lot of things during his tenure that critics said were sheer fiction.

Given the unprecedented era of political lying we are witnessing in the Trump administration (with The Washington Post’s Fact Checker finding that President Trump made 4,229 untrue claims in his first 558 days), you might think a former member of a Democratic administration would be careful about accusing too many people of lying. Not Duncan.

He has been calling people liars for a long time, starting just after he became education secretary in a May 29, 2009, speech at the National Press Club: “And so we have to stop lying to children. We have to tell them the truth. We have to be transparent about our data. We have to raise the bar so that every child knows on every step of their educational trajectory what they’re going to do.”

And he didn’t stop:

February 2010 to the National Governors Association: “We have to stop lying to children. We have to look them in the eye and tell them the truth at every stage of their educational trajectory.”

March 2010 to the National League of Cities’ Congressional City Conference: “We simply have to stop dummying-down standards due to political pressures. We have to stop lying to children and families by giving them a low bar and telling them that they will be okay, when we know they are not adequately prepared to go on to college or a job.”

August 2010 in Little Rock: “I congratulate your state, Arkansas, on taking this bold step for your students last month. These higher standards are an absolute game-changer — as a country we will finally stop dummying-down standards and stop lying to our children and their families.”

Etc. Etc. Etc.

Now, he’s is back at it, essentially painting wide swaths of American society “liar” with this excerpt from a conversation on Sunday with journalist Margaret Brennan on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” who asked him about his book:

BRENNAN: So, some colors and personal anecdotes but you also really, it’s not so much about how schools work but really an indictment of how schools aren’t working. It’s a very critical take in this book about the education system, and you say, “the education system runs on lies.” What do you mean by that?

DUNCAN: That’s a tough statement to make. But let me just give you a couple of notes. We say we value education, but we never vote on education. We never hold politicians accountable, local, state, or national level, for getting better results, higher graduation rates, more people graduate from college. We say we value teachers, but we don’t pay teachers. We don’t support them. We don’t mentor them the way they need to do their incredibly important, tough, complex work. And then maybe the toughest lie, for me, Margaret, is that we say we value kids and we’ve raised a generation of young people, teens who have been raised on mass shootings and gun violence. And that simply doesn’t happen in other nations. So I don’t look at what people say. I look at their actions. I’d look at their policies. I’d look at their budgets. And our values don’t reflect that we care about education, we care about teachers or that we truly care about keeping our children safe and free and free of fear.

Well, yes, there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around on some of these scores (though some people do actually win and lose elections on education issues). No, we don’t pay teachers enough or support them or mentor them enough. But Duncan didn’t talk much about that when he had seven years as education secretary to make that a priority.

No, we don’t pay teachers enough or support them or mentor them enough. But Duncan didn’t talk much about that when he had seven years as education secretary to make that a priority.

What he did focus on was pushing teacher evaluation systems that relied in large part on standardized test scores — a method of assessment that experts warned was unreliable. He also emphasized expanding charter schools and adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards, spending $360 million to create Core-aligned standardized tests that he said would be “an absolute game-changer” for public education. They weren’t. (Was he lying?)

He embraced Teach for America, which spent just five weeks training new college graduates to teach in some of the country’s neediest schools. He extolled the virtues of big data alongside his ally in school reform, Bill Gates, who funded the creation and implementation of the Common Core. He did talk about the importance of early-childhood education but not until Obama’s second term, when no money was left for big federal education initiatives. He spent $7 billion between 2010 and 2015 — exceeding the $4 billion spent on Race to the Top — on School Improvement Grants, but a major department report found no positive effect on student achievement.

Many teachers found his policies to be so abhorrent and detrimental to education and their profession that the National Education Association, the largest teacher union and the biggest labor union in the country, called for him to step down in 2014. The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teacher union, came close to doing the same thing in the same year. The unions were big Obama supporters, incidentally. Even some teachers who supported some of his efforts, such as the Common Core, thought the federal government was pressuring states to implement the standards before there was enough training and material design.

In his new book, Duncan can’t seem to wrap his brain around the truth of his own policies and behavior. For example, on Page 144, he writes:

Because Race to the Top was a federal program that encouraged shared higher standards among the states, and because the Common Core State Standards were available as the Race was happening, critics of the Common Core conflated them with federal overreach.

Critics conflated them with federal overreach?

Critics weren’t the ones doing the conflating. It was the administration that did that.

While the Obama administration did not mandate that states adopt the Common Core, it coerced them by dangling federal dollars in front of them during the Great Recession. Federal involvement in local education policy during the Obama administration was so extreme that Congress, in late 2015, finally rewrote the No Child Left Behind law — eight years late — with the express purpose of ending federal micromanaging. And it was done with bipartisan support.

Duncan’s simple belief in test scores as the key measure of effectiveness and even goodness remains unchanged, as he writes so definitively on Page 102:

On the subject of tests, it’s also important to note the distinction between proficiency and growth. Not everyone understands this, including the current secretary of education. Raw scores are important, but what we’re really after is growth. A teacher who starts with a class that’s on average three years behind, and who teaches these kids so well that, by the end of the year, they are only one year behind is better than a teacher who starts the year with a class at grade level and ends with that class at grade level.

Really?

It is true that Betsy DeVos, the current education secretary, stumbled at her Senate confirmation hearing in January 2017, seeming not to understand a question about whether test scores should measure student proficiency or student growth.

[Six astonishing things Betsy DeVos said — and refused to say — at her confirmation hearing]

But can we really call one teacher better than another based on a set of test scores, regardless of how well the tests are designed or what the students have gone through? Let’s say the kids who started the year performing at grade level and ended the year performing at grade level had been affected by a mass shooting (an event Duncan talks a great deal about in his book and on his tour)? Is their teacher really not as good as the first teacher?

That’s just one of the holes that can be punched through his definitive statement of teacher effectiveness.

There is also his continued belief that standardized testing is important and good. On Page 147, he writes:

We absolutely made some mistakes here. Our Department of Education could have done more to help the states communicate why annual testing was important for students and teachers.

He writes about a moment in November 2013 when “I infamously jammed my foot in my mouth.” That’s when he said he found it “fascinating” that some of the opposition to Common Core was coming from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” (We will ignore that Duncan just denied in an Atlantic interview that he “ever” felt that parents were an obstacle to his reforms.)

In Duncan’s analysis of that episode, he again puts the problem down to poor communication, on Page 150:

This is where we really failed. These folks should have been our natural allies. But because we were miserable at communicating how and why these things were happening, and why they were important, it made things worse. For whatever it’s worth, I’m sorry that we contributed to that.

Duncan still thinks, apparently, his biggest mistake involved poor communication rather than the substance of the policies. If only the Education Department had better communicators, the states could have convinced everyone that standardized testing is valuable in holding schools and teachers accountable — even though there’s no evidence of that in the testing era that began with the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

Let’s be clear: Ample evidence exists that Duncan’s push for annual standardized testing for high-stakes decisions on teachers, students and schools was destructive and in some cases nonsensical. In some places, teachers were evaluated on students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach simply because test scores had to be used as an evaluation metric.

He still insists the problem was lousy communication.

Duncan is now focused on gun control and says he has long been concerned about the subject, but he didn’t make it a priority when he was education secretary.

Back then, he talked about the importance of kids being in class every weekday and supported expanding the school day, but now he is trying to build support for a nationwide strike of public schools until Congress passes comprehensive gun-control legislation. (Given the importance of education to him, it is unclear why he didn’t call for a general strike of workers, while kids and teachers continued to show up at school, but never mind.) He’s been to Parkland, Fla., where 17 people died in a high school shooting, seeking the community’s help with the boycott idea.

In his book, he wrote that if he could do the education-secretary stint over again, he would push even harder for his policies. It is reminiscent of the insistence by Margaret Spellings, the education secretary under President George W. Bush when No Child Left Behind was passed, that the federal law was great long after its fatal flaws had been revealed to most everyone else.

Arne Duncan never seems to learn.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss writes the Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post.

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