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Arne Duncan Wants to Hold States Ransom

August 11, 2011

So, your state is having trouble meeting the 100% proficiency standards mandate outlined in No Child Left Behind, you are worried about this irrational directive but 2014 is approaching and you are not sure what to do.

Well, Arne Duncan has a solution for you:  He will grant you a waiver, but it will come with a price tag attached.  One of the price tags will be to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, as if teachers have complete control over how their students will perform on any one given day.  This is just another in a long string of disappointments with regard to Obama’s pick of Arne Duncan as education secretary.

How is this any different than the right wingers in Congress holding the debt ceiling hostage to get what they wanted?  This Washington Post piece dissects this latest maneuver by Duncan and thinks it might be illegal.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, backed by the White House, just confirmed that he will grant waivers from some “No Child Left Behind” test score requirements to states which agree to adopt policies that he favors. This rewriting of federal law by the administration, not Congress may well be illegal. If Duncan gets away with it, states will be tempted to replace one set of bad policies (sanctions on most schools) with another (sanctions on teachers). The alternative is for states, districts, teachers, administrators, students, unions, civic groups and others to stand up and say, “No more.”

Federal education law most certainly needs a complete overhaul. Ending escalating, test-based sanctions on most schools is a good first step. But, based on his track-record with “Race to the Top” and School Improvement Grants, Duncan probably will replace these sanctions with a requirement to use student test scores to judge teachers.

Meanwhile, the lowest scoring schools most likely will be forced to adopt RTTT-style changes, such as firing the staff or privatizing control over the schools, actions for which there is no evidence that they will improve education.  Many of the changes, such as closing schools, badly disrupt communities, as a coalition of civil rights groups pointed out lastsummer.

The most logical response to the cheating scandals in Atlanta, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and elsewhere is to dial back the emphasis on testing.  Unfortunately, Duncan will almost certainly not do so. Rather, the department will back heavier (and costly) policing of classrooms in an effort to stop cheating. But policing will not stop the most harmful forms of cheating: teaching to the test and narrowing curriculum, which cheat kids out of a meaningful education.

If they accept the deal, states will lock in ever more counter-productive educational practices based on the misuse of test scores, including linking teacher evaluation to student scores. Those policies could be hard to dislodge should Congress decide not to endorse Duncan’s “Blueprint” when it eventually does reauthorize the federal law. States that refuse to sign on to Duncan’s reform program, however, will be denied waivers, Duncan said, and will then continue to be subject to the continue the NCLB charade of seeking “100% proficiency” of students in reading and math by 2014. Neither choice will help children or schools.

Mass resistance is likely the only course remaining. States should stop imposing additional sanctions on schools, as some states have said they will do. They should simultaneously refuse Duncan’s deal. This would be a good time to call Obama and Duncan’s bluff.

To really win fundamental changes in federal and state policies, teachers, parents and students must visibly and effectively stand together to tell Congress that test-and-punish can no longer be the law of the land.  Last month’s Save Our Schools march, coupled with widespread anger across the nation, was a good start. But it will take a lot more.

Organizing town meetings to clearly express opposition and build effective resistance is one valuable tool. (For others, see Boycotts have brought down testing regimes in Japan and England. Unions also will have to step up to support more effective forms of resistance, forms that can lead to cutting back on testing, helping instead of punishing schools, and installing educationally beneficial forms of accountability (see

Getting active, even if it is by talking to fellow staff about what is happening in education right now is very important.  It is why I write this blog.


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