Published Online: January 30, 2009
Published in Print: February 4, 2009, as To Duncan, Incentives a Priority

To Duncan, Incentives a Priority

New Secretary of Education Eyes Use of Proposed Fund

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he is eager to use a proposed $15 billion federal incentive-grant fund in part to reward states, districts, and even nonprofit organizations that have set high standards for the students they serve.

“With this fund, we really have a chance to drive dramatic changes, to take to scale what works, invest in what works,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview last week, his first full week at the helm of the Department of Education. He said he would aim to “reward those states that are pushing very, very hard to get dramatically better.”

Mr. Duncan’s comments came in a wide-ranging interview with Education Week in which he named as priorities reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, expansion of prekindergarten programs, and improvements in teacher quality, recruitment, and retention.

The education incentive-grant money would be available to Mr. Duncan under both versions of a huge economic-stimulus package working its way through Congress. The House approved a broad, $819 billion measure Jan. 28. The Senate is expected to consider such legislation this week. ("Bill Clears House With School Aid Intact," this issue.)

Push for Standards

While language in the House and Senate bills outlines how the incentive fund should be used, both bills appear to give some latitude to the secretary of education in allocating the money.

Secretary Duncan said the Education Department would want to use the money in part to reward states—as well as districts and nonprofit groups—that have set rigorous standards linked to strong assessments and monitored by student-data systems.

“There’s a series of things we’re looking for,” he said. “This is absolutely a historic opportunity to reward excellence, to ‘incent’ excellence.”

When asked, Mr. Duncan indicated he may consider using the incentive money as part of a push for national or other more-uniform standards.

“Sure, absolutely,” he answered. “We want to reward rigor and challenge the status quo.”

The $15 billion fund is a relatively small slice of the more than $120 billion slated for education programs under the pending stimulus legislation—the most immediate domestic priority for the Obama administration—but it presents an unusual opportunity for the new secretary. It would represent more than was appropriated in fiscal 2008 for the Title I program for disadvantaged students, the main federal program in K-12 education.

Suggested Direction

Observers from all parts of the political spectrum say Secretary Duncan’s vision for allocating the funds, if they’re approved as part of a final bill, will provide an important early sign of the direction the new administration will take in education policy.

Typically, Congress sets specific guidelines for such large pots of money, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. But the stimulus plan is moving too quickly through the legislative process for that detailed attention to be practicable, he said.

“The action is going to be with the Department of Education,” said Mr. Jennings, who was an aide on education issues to House Democrats for nearly three decades.

Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, another Washington research and advocacy group, said he wasn’t surprised by Mr. Duncan’s thoughts on using the money in part to encourage states to raise their standards and to better track student achievement.

“Everything we know about Arne Duncan said he is a big believer in national standards and national tests, and understands the games that states have been playing around No Child Left Behind” by setting low standards for proficiency, said Mr. Petrilli, a leading advocate for national academic standards who served in the Education Department during President George W. Bush’s first term.

Mr. Duncan wasn’t specific in the interview about which items the new administration had pushed to include in the $120 billion in education funding being considered by Congress.

Teacher Funds Supported

But, when asked, he said he supported the House’s decision to include an additional $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund that gives grants to districts for alternative pay programs, $25 million for charter school facilities, and $250 million for state data systems.

“Obviously, the reform piece is hugely important,” Mr. Duncan said of those proposals.

Those items are not part of the Senate stimulus measure.

Mr. Duncan, 44, served as the chief executive officer of the 408,000-student Chicago school district before being named by President Barack Obama to head the federal department.

He was viewed as a compromise choice who could bring together what are widely perceived to be two disparate groups on education issues whose differences complicate policymaking for Democrats and their allies.

One faction, seen as being dominated by the teachers’ unions and other major education groups, is said by critics to be too protective of the current school system. Its members generally stress the need for outside social supports to help schools raise the performance of disadvantaged students.

The other camp, associated with some civil rights groups, prominent urban superintendents, and mayors, is said to take a “no excuses” approach that holds schools accountable for educating children regardless of their socioeconomic needs.

But Mr. Duncan dismissed the idea that such a division exists.

“The press likes controversy, pitting folks against each other,” he said. “We need great teachers; we need real reform; we have to push to get dramatically better.”

He also talked about addressing children’s health and other needs as a part of boosting achievement.

“If they’re hungry, we need to feed them; if they don’t have clothes, you need to give them clothes. … And so, yes, you have to look at their social and emotional needs as well,” he said.

“We need to absolutely push as hard as we can on both of these agendas,” the secretary said. “These are not in competition with each other. They are absolutely complementary.”

Reworking NCLB

Secretary Duncan wasn’t specific about where he would take the NCLB law, the landmark—and controversial—school improvement measure that was due for reauthorization in 2007. But he outlined some general principles during the interview, reiterating much of what President Obama said on the 2008 campaign trail.

“The philosophy behind [the law], the premise, I would wholeheartedly support,” Mr. Duncan said. “It’s important to have absolutely high expectations. I would actually argue we need to raise the bar. We need to do better.”

And he made it clear that teacher quality will be a key part of his education redesign plan.

“We want the best and brightest young people around the country coming into education,” he said. “We need to develop real career ladders—and if folks aren’t great teachers, if it’s simply not going to work, then we need to be honest about that as well.”

He also indicated that he may take a look at the outcome measures for students envisioned in the NCLB law, putting greater focus on college readiness and high school graduation rates.

Mr. Duncan wasn’t willing to specify whom he will be bringing into the department as appointees to other high-level jobs, although he said he was looking for “folks who are absolute innovators, who are visionaries.” He said the personnel picture would “get a whole lot clearer over the next two weeks.”

Vol. 28, Issue 20, Pages 1,18-19

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