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Arne Duncan’s Legacies

November 19, 2013

Three recent blog posts capture Arne Duncan’s legacies… and it isn’t a pretty picture.

A few days ago, as reported in Valerie Strauss’ blog, Secretary Duncan spoke to a group of state superintendents and made an incredible statement regarding the implementation of the Common Core State Standards testing regimen. He expressed fascination that opposition to the common core is 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.

Not satisfied that many mainstream teachers are disenchanted with the rapid implementation of tests that are linked to the common core, Arne seems eager to pick a fight with the core supporters of his boss and seems eager to overlook facts doing so. As Diane Ravitch and a host of bloggers and writers have repeatedly pointed out, US suburban schools are performing as well if not better than the other countries in the world on the godforsaken standardized tests that he and his colleagues seem to believe are the be all and end all of performance measurement… So if anything, IF the tests he is rolling out show anything different than that reality, then they ARE specifically designed to show schools are failing in hopes that the privatization movement can gain traction in the suburbs where parents are supposedly overlooking their schools’ shortcomings.  Oh, and as Strauss’ post points out, the “game-changing tests” are not likely to be as effective as anticipated. Why? Read on:

As it turns out, neither the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium nor the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers have had enough time or money to develop truly “game-changing” exams in terms of how they can really measure the broad range of student abilities, according to a report by Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a panel of educational leaders, which said:

The progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.

Those old bugaboos: time and money! Like all of his predecessors of late, Duncan seems to think that there is a cheap, fast solution to the problems facing classroom teachers… and his cheap, fast implementation of the testing is likely to backfire.

As for his notion that “…white suburban moms” will be upset with test results… he’s absolutely right, they WILL be upset, but not for the reasons he believes. Cameron Blazer, a self-proclaimed “white suburban mom” wrote an insightful blog post on her opposition to the common core, which was based on the fact that it was NOT developed democratically from the bottom up but rather dictated from the top down by a group that was predominantly non-educators. Her concluding paragraphs:

In our era of sharp polarization and in a country of such cultural, social, regional, ethnic, and religious diversity, it may seem that there can be no hope of a broad-based agreement on what matters, on what our kids need to know, or on how best to measure what they do know. Perhaps that is true. But where there is no widespread buy-in from parents–many of whom oppose the Common Core and even more of whom simply do not know or understand the standards it proposes–the failure of an effort like the Common Core seems destined.

So, let’s pretend this never happened. Let’s bring parents and politicians and teachers back together to start working on the really tough issues. And let’s leave the ad hominem, straw men attacks out of the debate. After all, according to Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing #1, we should have all learned to do that in school.

So two elements of Duncan’s legacy, the Common Core and the tests that accompany the Common Core, are under fire. Ah, but there is one element that folks in Washington (and Wall Street): he’s leaving thousands of post-secondary students saddled with debt as he fattens the coffers of USDOE. As reported in Huffington Post and elaborated on in this Common Dreams post, the USDOE “…raked in $42.5 billion in profit from federal student loans—marking its second highest profit margin ever.” 

In a sign of just how important student loan profits have become for the Education Department’s bottom line, its reported gains off lending to students and their families over the last year comprised nearly half of the agency’s total outlays, the biggest share since at least 1997.

So… Arne Duncan’s legacy will be discredited public schools, federally imposed curriculum standards, and indebted college graduates. What’s disheartening for me was the hope that President Obama would do something different than NCLB, something different than the Clintons wanted, something that would change the public’s thinking about education. Instead, we’re getting more of the same… only worse.

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