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Arne Duncan’s Dilemma: What About States Who Don’t Apply For Waivers?

December 17, 2011

I have made it no secret to readers of this blog that I am not a fan of Arne Duncan, and that I felt and still feel that Linda Darling-Hammond would have been a much better pick for the US Secretary of Education.  The problem with Mrs. Darling-Hammond was that she is not a business-educator.  She is pro-teacher, anti high-stakes testing, and she is not in the pocket of the “reform” movement.

Duncan to me is like a Trojan Horse who is eroding public education from the inside, he has been an absolute disaster for everything that teachers have worked hard for over many years, and judging from Obama’s recent interview on 60Minutes where he spoke about going against Democrats on education like it was some kind of proud badge, I think we can expect more of Duncan if Obama is reelected.  The sad part about this is that if a Republican were to be elected President, I am certain the environment for teachers would get even worse.  So we, as educators are stuck with dealing with the devil that we know vs. the devil which might be much worse when we get to the voting booth.

This brings me to a good piece by Anthony Cody (always excellent) on Education Week.  Cody asks about the states who don’t apply for Duncan’s onerous and many strings attached waivers to NCLB.  This is a really good question, let’s look into this article:

As No Child Left Behind becomes an ever bigger disaster, Secretary Duncan faces a major dilemma. How can he continue to enforce this law he has declared a train wreck?

Last spring, in an attempt to goad Congress into accepting his formula for revising No Child Left Behind, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made some dire predictions.

In his testimony, he said:

…we did an analysis which shows that — next year — the number of schools not meeting their goals under NCLB could double to over 80 percent — even if we assume that all schools will gain as much as the top quartile in the state.

So let me repeat that: four out of five schools in America many not meet their goals under NCLB by next year. The consequences under the current law are very clear: states and districts all across American may have to intervene in more and more schools each year, implementing the exact same interventions regardless of the schools’ individual needs.

The latest news indicates that Secretary Duncan was a bit off in his prediction. According to ananalysis by the Center on Education Policy, “only” 48% of the nation’s schools will be failures according to the NCLB yardstick. There are indications that some states may have softened up their requirements, and clearly we have different measurement systems in place, when we see that 81% of the schools in Massachusetts will fail, while only 22% of those in Louisiana will do so. It is unlikely the schools in Louisiana are that much better than those in Massachusetts. Test scores and proficiency rates are subject to manipulation for political and financial purposes – and that is what NCLB has been all about from the start.

Secretary Duncan’s visit to Congress was similarly a use of test scores for political purposes. But his efforts to intimidate Congress did not get anywhere, and a revised NCLB does not appear to be likely to happen any time soon. That left him scrambling for Plan B, which was the NCLB waiver process. States were invited to apply for waivers, which required the submission of reform plans aligned with the Departments vision for reform.

Let’s look at this deal a bit more closely. We have a law that Duncan himself described as a train wreck. In his testimony last Spring, Duncan said:

This law is fundamentally broken and we need to fix it this year. It has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We want to get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair, flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk.

We need a common-sense law that strikes the right balance between accountability and flexibility — and the basic problem is that NCLB got it backwards. Instead of being tight on the goals and loose on the means of achieving them, the law is loose on the goals but tight on the means. We need to flip that and states are already leading the way.

Here is where educators have been crying foul for the past two years. Duncan claims he wishes to grant flexibility. In fact, the requirements for Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers are even MORE prescriptive than NCLB ever was. In order to be granted a waiver from the onerous effects of the law, states were required to submit plans for teacher and principal evaluations that include student test scores, the embrace of the Common Core standards, and new standards for College and Career Readiness. Secretary Duncan has repeatedly defended the Common Core Standards from the charge that they are stealth national standards by claiming that they are an initiative of the states that are involved. But does not this become a federal project when essential federal aid is made contingent on implementation of these standards?

There is a term for what Duncan has proposed with his waiver applications.  The term is Blackmail, plain and simple.  You make the reforms that the deep-pocketed backers are demanding or you won’t get a waiver from an impossible mandate. Duncan is completely shallow and unscrupulous, this is what you get when you don’t have a true educator in this critical post.  Shame on Obama for this nomination.

But now we have hit a major bump in the road, and Duncan faces a real dilemma. While eleven states have applied for NCLB waivers, another 39 have not. And that 39 includes some of the biggest and most influential states in the nation. The state of California has rejected the waiver process completely, and Governor Jerry Brown has made it clear he is not on board with the ever-expanding testing craze.

I am so damn glad that California, and California teachers have Jerry Brown as Governor.

So how can Duncan respond? He has effectively coerced eleven states into applying for waivers, and implementing the changes he wanted, and in exchange they will get relief from NCLB. But can he possibly justify enforcing this unpopular law he has declared “broken” on the other 39 states? 

The chances are that in the short term we will get some compromise, where the states that get waivers will be rewarded with the “flexibility” to do exactly what Duncan has required them to do. The rest will get some compromise. Just enough relief from NCLB to prevent outright rebellion, but not enough to allow states to shift away from the relentless pressure to raise test scores that has been the hallmark of the law. 

But in the bigger picture, Duncan’s dilemma is an indication of the way the federal government has made itself irrelevant to real school reform.
 No Child Left Behind was a do or die gambit on the part of “reformers.” The year 2014 was supposed to find every child in the nation proficient. All the rhetoric was about civil rights and equal opportunities. But the reality of the past decade has been a systematic shift towards greater economic and racial segregation, and the Department of Education lacks credibility in the minds of teachers and parents.

The Department of Education certainly lacks credibility with me, but it doesn’t have to, it needs a new, and fair leader.

As the year 2014 approaches, and the schools have been unable to flip a switch and fix the nation’s social problems, we need to take a hard look at how schools go about serving their students. Slogans, standards, and tests have not and will not uplift our communities. We should shift our focus away from sweeping reforms intended to “force” schools to improve, using penalties for low test scores as the motivator. Our teachers, parents and students working together, school by school, on meaningful projects – that is how we will resurrect the spirit of American education. 

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One Comment
  1. Andrew M permalink

    Arne Duncan is a bloody idiot! He’s never been a teacher and has no idea how to improve k-12 education. I’m really disappointed in Obama for picking him, and if elected to a second term Duncan will most likely stay. Romney’s policies would be much worse, but both of their education agendas won’t do any good for our country. EDUCATION IS NOT MEAN TO BE RUN LIKE A BUSINESS! Education is for the people and we should be focusing on equity in schools, early intervention for children at risk, and teaching our students how to think critically instead of this data-driven corporate education reform BS.

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