Arne Duncan is gone -– But U.S. DOE Nonsense Remains

December 2015 is gone, and so is US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who announced in October that he would be leaving DC in December.

In this January 02, 2016, NBC “Meet the Press” article, President Obama offers an unsubstantiated statement in an effort to portray Duncan’s tenure in Washington, DC, as successful:

“Arne has dedicated his life to the cause of education — and sometimes in the nicest possible way, he has gotten on people’s nerves because he has pushed them and prodded them,” Obama said at the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Had he not been, I believe, as tenacious as he was, I think that we would not have as good of a product as we do here today. And so I could not be prouder of Arne Duncan,” the president added.

I wonder exactly what that “as good of a product” is. Obama isn’t offering details.

The NBC article is generous in its assessment (funny word choice) of Duncan’s accomplishments. For example, NBC credits Duncan with “helping convince” states to adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS):

Duncan helped convince 42 states to adopt education goals based on the Common Core, and 21 of them to use tests that directly align with those standards, which were created by a bi-partisan group and attempt to both make U.S. schools more challenging and the curriculum more similar from state-to-state.

Recall that CCSS was supposedly “state led.” Too, the wording that CCSS was an “attempt” to make schools more challenging is wording polished to a glossy sheen given the rush to write and implement CCSS before America knew what had hit it.

And let me add a corrective finger wag to NBC– CCSS isn’t supposed to be a curriculum— even though taking hold of standards on one end and assessments on the other will indeed drive the curriculum in the middle.

Arne was just “helping” with all of this.

Note, however, that the CCSS push was in the works before Duncan arrived in 2009 (e.g., billionaire Bill Gates was asked to fund the venture in summer 2008), so what Duncan did in 2009 was attach money to CCSS via Race to the Top (RTTT), which was careful to not name CCSS, instead opting for the term “common standards” that were “consortium developed.”

In June 2009, Duncan attended the National Governors Association (NGA) symposium and announced that RTTT would be coming– and that the federal government would foot the bill for CCSS’s consortium-developed, common assessments. However, before Duncan officially announced RTTT, 46 states and three territories had already signed the CCSS memorandum of understanding (MOU).

Of course, it is possible that the governors were willing to sign onto a CCSS that did not yet exist because of the smell of federal money coming– and Duncan certainly could have helped them smell it.

(Note that the CCSS MOU also indicated that the federal government would have an extensive role in all to do with CCSS except specifically funding its writing.)

To NBC’s credit, it does note later in its Duncan piece that “conservatives accurately cast Duncan as effectively federalizing education policy.” However, the NBC article adds that Duncan views the CCSS backlash as “more about a failure to communicate his vision than his ideas themselves.”

Dream on, Arne.

Duncan was protective of CCSS to the extent that he told newspaper editors how to report on CCSS; he has even insulted parents for CCSS opposition. These details did not make it into the NBC article, and apparently, Duncan does not consider that his vision was indeed accurately communicated.

What did make it into the NBC piece was Duncan’s charter school affinity– so much so that he is credited with “presiding over” charter school growth in places that were charter-school friendly pre-Duncan, such as DC and New Orleans:

While some liberals dislike charter schools, Duncan has been a strong supporter of them and presided over a huge growth in students attending charters in cities like Washington, D.C. and New Orleans.

Yes, Duncan is friendly toward charter schools. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the latest Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) revision, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), both seek to expand the presence of “high quality charter schools” (should be a trademarked term by now) without addressing issues of charter school mismanagement and scandal. Indeed, on the day that he resigned, Duncan doled out a cool $249 million to charter schools despite the criticism that his Department of Ed failed to monitor its generous charter school payouts:

On that day, Duncan rattled the education policy world with news of a controversial grant of $249 million ($157 the first year) to the charter school industry. This announcement was controversial because, as The Washington Post reports, an audit by his department’s own inspector general found “that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charter schools.”

Post reporter Lynsey Layton notes, “The agency’s inspector general issued a scathing report in 2012 that found deficiencies in how the department handled federal grants to charter schools between 2008 and 2011″ – in other words, during Duncan’s watch.

Even more perplexing is that the largest grant of $71 million ($32.5 the first year) is going to Ohio, the state that has the worst reputation for allowing low-performing charter schools to divert tax money away from educational purposes and do little to raise the achievement of students.

Any Duncan legacy piece should account for this glaring Duncan lapse, and NBC’s piece on Duncan does not.

Is this part of Obama’s “good” educational “product”? Is he proud of Duncan for his failure to bring some of that so-called accountability over federal charter school cash?

He isn’t saying.

In giving $71 million to Ohio, which has been in the news for issues of charter corruption– including the Ohio Department of Education’s manipulating charter school stats– the USDOE offered the unbelievably weak explanation that it simply did not conduct a thorough review of the Ohio application before approving Ohio for that $71 million.

Another issue: NBC alludes to Duncan’s attempts to coerce states into his, uh, “vision” via his conditional NCLB waivers, which actually led to lots of detailed ESSA language attempting to limit the role of future US secretaries of education, especially as concerns Title I funding. I am in the process of writing a digest on the 1,061-page ESSA; below is an excerpt regarding the ESSA prohibitions on the US secretary of education.

They are undeniably inspired by the actions of former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

[Regarding ESSA state plans and Title I funding], there are a number of specifics that the secretary cannot do. …The secretary cannot create a hard-and-fast, exhaustive list of illustrations on how the Title I state plan should read, and the secretary cannot offer “new, non-regulatory guidance” that “purports to be legally binding” (page 104)– hinting at Duncan’s overreach with his No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers.

There is also the statement that the secretary cannot add to the data reporting requirements of Title I: “[the secretary cannot] require data collection under this part beyond data derived from existing Federal, State, and local reporting requirements” (page 104).

The secretary cannot redefine Title I terminology in an effort to bypass the limitations on the secretary’s role regarding Title I (pages 104-105).

The US secretary-limiting language in ESSA is attributed to Duncan, and NBC does get that right:

Earlier this month (December 2015), Congress passed the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” a replacement to the Bush-era “No Child Left Behind” law. Included in the ESSA, at the behest of congressional Republicans, are several provisions that explicitly bar the federal Department of Education from setting policy for all of America’s schools. Republicans wanted to ensure there are no more Arne Duncans.

If the Republicans wanted to ensure there were “no more Arne Duncans,” they likely missed their goal, at least in part. When it comes to the 95-percent participation requirement for English language arts (ELA) and math testing in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, ESSA tells states that they are not supposed to fashion state- and local-level opt out laws and regulations based on the federal testing requirement as a condition for Title I funding.

In other words, don’t blame the federal government for the federally-required Title I testing.

This will produce a showdown in which states that fail to make the federally-mandated 95 percent of students tested will be at the mercy of the next US secretary of education, who does have the authority to waive ESSA requirements. (For details, see pages 815 to 826 of the ESSA document.)

As it stands, spring 2016 testing still falls under NCLB. Note that the NCLB intention of the 95-percent of students tested was retained in ESSA, with tighter language in ESSA. NCLB language is looser in that it notes that states must administer tests (there was no parental opt-out in 2001 and therefore no inkling that state-administered tests would be resisted by parents and students), but it seems that Ann Whalen, whose temp title is “Delegated the authority to perform the functions and duties of Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education,” plans to put the squeeze on states to get that 95 percent of students to actually take the tests that the state is required by NCLB to “administer.” (It is one issue for states to administer the tests and quite another for parents to allow their children to take the tests that the state is in good NCLB faith offering to administer.)

Whalen advises states to put pressure on districts to get that 95 percent of students participating in the testing. Among her suggestions are lowering the less-than-95-percent-testing district rating in the state accountability system; requiring districts with fewer than 95 percent test takers to develop an “improvement plan”; designating such districts or schools as “high risk,” or a state’s withholding state or federal aid from such districts.

Finally, before her creepy “we look forward to working with you” closing, Whalen states that she is not beyond withholding Title I funding, especially for states with notable opt outs last year:

If a State with participation rates below 95% in the 2014−2015 school year fails to assess at least 95% of its students on the statewide assessment in the 2015−2016 school year, ED will take one or more of the following actions: (1) withhold Title I, Part A State administrative funds; (2) place the State’s Title I, Part A grant on high-risk status and direct the State to use a portion of its Title I State administrative funds to address low participation rates; or (3) withhold or redirect Title VI State assessment funds.

For all States, ED will consider the appropriate action to take for any State that does not assess at least 95 percent of its students in the 2015−2016 school year — overall and for each subgroup of students and among its LEAs. To determine what action is most appropriate, ED will consider SEA and LEA participation rate data for the 2015−2016 school year, as well as action the SEA has taken with respect to any LEA noncompliance with the assessment requirements of the ESEA.

We look forward to working with you to ensure that all students participate in statewide assessments during the 2015−2016 school year and each year thereafter, and in supporting implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes a new focus on auditing and reducing unnecessary State and local assessments and providing parents and families with better information about required testing….

Please do not hesitate to contact your State’s program officer in the Office of State Support if you need additional information or clarification. Thank you for your continued commitment to enhancing education for all of your State’s students.

Nice. If it seems that Whalen sounds like a Duncan, it is because she has ties to Duncan and Chicago. I know her from reading her pro-corporate-reform writing at Ed Post (which happens to be run by another Duncan-Chicago-USDOE crony, Peter Cunningham):

Ann Whalen is senior advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Prior to returning to the U.S. Department of Education, she served as the director of policy for Education Post.

Whalen has served more than five years in the Obama Administration with the U.S. Department of Education. At the department, Ann was director of the Implementation and Support Unit, providing technical assistance to states and school districts as they rolled out new reform programs to improve student results. In that role, she managed a 35-member team and a portfolio of over $50 billion in grant programs. She also served as a special assistant to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, helping shape administration policy across a range of issues. She also worked with Duncan at Chicago Public Schools for six years and served in the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development under the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

She has B.A. in political science from Stanford University.

You can read Whalen’s December 22, 2015, “I’m warning you” letter to state superintendents in its entirety here, compliments of Alyson Klein of EdWeek.

Duncan is gone, and the USDOE test worship continues.

We’ll see what spring brings for Whalen.

EDITORS NOTE: Schneider is the author of A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education. She has published a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. If you don’t wish to buy from Amazon you may purchase the books from Powell’s City of Books directly.

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