Published Online:
Published in Print: December 9, 2015, as On Horizon: NCLB's End, Duncan Exit

Duncan's Legacy Undercut as ESEA Rewrite Advances

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who steps down later this month after almost seven years, visits with student Mario Corona, age 6, in a kindergarten class at McGlone Elementary School last May in Denver.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who steps down later this month after almost seven years, visits with student Mario Corona, age 6, in a kindergarten class at McGlone Elementary School last May in Denver.
—Brennan Linsley/AP-File

Bill to overhaul ESEA undercuts some aspects of secretary's legacy

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At several points during the past year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is stepping down Dec. 31 after nearly seven years in office, has said his biggest regret in the job is the amount of time he spent lobbying Congress early in his tenure to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“This law’s been broken for seven to eight years,” Duncan said last month, at a forum hosted by The Wall Street Journal as a bill to overhaul the law was finally approaching the finish line. “Folks are trying to work now in a bipartisan way.”

That bipartisan process, though, has produced legislation—the Every Student Succeeds Act—that marks a big departure from what Duncan has championed, in particular from major elements of the Obama administration’s approach to K-12 accountability.

See Also
For more on Arne Duncan’s high-profile tenure as U.S. secretary of education, see "Arne Duncan Stepping Down as Education Secretary."

Case in point: The bill—which the House of Representatives passed on Tuesday by a 359-64 vote—would restrict or outright prohibit attempts by the secretary to dictate or influence states’ decisions about their content standards, assessments, and teacher-evaluation requirements.

Those are three areas where Duncan has been especially active, most controversially by waiving provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, in return for states’ adoption of certain policy measures. Such conditional waivers originating from the education secretary would be barred by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Two other high-profile initiatives that began on Duncan’s watch—the Race to the Top education redesign effort and a supercharged School Improvement Grant program—also failed to make the final version of the ESEA reauthorization bill.

But the legislation doesn’t represent a total washout for Duncan and his supporters: His legacy appears to fare better on less-contested policies not directly linked to accountability, such as early education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan prepares to testify before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing in March, 2011.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan prepares to testify before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing in March, 2011.
—Tom Williams/Roll Call/AP-File

Much of the discussion about Duncan’s long-term impact, as one of the longest-serving and most influential U.S. education secretaries, may ultimately focus on the extent to which states maintain the course they agreed to in exchange for the federal money and legal flexibility Duncan has put on the table since 2009.

“I think the well has been so poisoned by his name and by a lot of these programs that they had to go away. They just had to,” said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy, which studies federal education programs. “The big message with this bill is that states have more power.”

Who’s Accountable for What

The durability of Duncan’s influence on approaches to accountability is put to the test in various parts of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the outlook is somewhat dim.

For example, the legislation would require states to intervene in some fashion in schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent on academic performance. That’s a vestige of the No Child Left Behind Act waivers Duncan granted. And the School Improvement Grants the federal Department of Education distributed were designed to bolster turnaround efforts in that bottom 5 percent.

But unlike with the waivers, the Every Student Succeeds Act wouldn’t allow the secretary to dictate exactly how states intervene in those schools.

There’s a similar dynamic in the reauthorization bill’s approach to accountability in general, both for schools and for teachers. And the improvement grants would be gone—instead, the share of states’ Title I aid they could use for school turnarounds would rise from 4 percent to 7 percent.

As for student assessments, annual tests in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high schools would remain, a holdover from both No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s list of priorities.

Under the bill, states would also have to intervene in some fashion in schools with relatively low graduation rates and large achievement gaps. And states would still have to submit accountability plans to the federal department for approval, starting for the 2017-18 school year.

But the next secretary’s authority over those plans wouldn’t have nearly the breadth and depth that Duncan exercised over waivers. States could set their own academic goals for schools. Specific elements of accountability under the waivers, such as permission for states to use “super-subgroups” that combine various student demographics for school and district ratings, will also fade away.

Different Vision

Arguably the two most prominent fights over Duncan’s policies are dealt with decisively in the Every Student Succeeds Act—and not in his favor.

The federal Education Department would have no ability to influence states’ adoption of standards, such as requiring a sign-off from their institutions of higher education, as Duncan has done. That provision comes after years of political backlash to the Common Core State Standards, an opposition that Duncan, however unintentionally, helped stoke. The bill would require, however, states to adopt "challenging" academic standards that align with entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in states' higher education systems.

That’s one of several ways in which the Every Student Succeeds Act differs markedly from the vision for ESEA reauthorization the Obama administration released in 2010 in “A Blueprint for Reform.”

And unlike the NCLB waivers, which have triggered protracted fights between states and Duncan’s Education Department, the reauthorization plan would not allow Washington to require anything (including the much-debated use of test scores) in states’ teacher-evaluation plans.

“You see an attempt not just to [reject] some of the specific policies that the Obama administration pursued through executive actions, but to rein in the ability of future secretaries to engage in similar actions going forward,” said Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who also advised Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, on reauthorizing ESEA. “That may make the job less attractive to someone who wants to use the leverage of the federal government in aggressive ways.”

The overall picture for Duncan and the Obama administration in the pending bill looks particularly negative, West added, when the Every Student Succeeds Act is compared with previous efforts by Congress in recent years to reauthorize the ESEA. Bills in 2011 and 2013, for instance, would have continued the Race to the Top competitive grants.

Beyond the Beltway

Supporters of Duncan, however, say that to consider the secretary’s legacy only in the context of the ESEA reauthorization misses the point.

The dozens of states that, during Duncan’s tenure, have switched to new teacher evaluations and have stuck with the common core, among other policies, show that his impact isn’t really covered by the federal legislation, said Peter Cunningham, a former top adviser to the secretary.

“I think that Duncan’s legacy will be best seen at the state and local levels, where a lot of the policies that we supported and advocated are being implemented,” said Cunningham, who is now the executive director of Education Post, a K-12 communications group.

He also argued it’s inevitable that after Duncan’s energetic tenure, the political pendulum is about to swing away from allowing an education secretary a lot of room to roam, and toward a more diffuse distribution of power.

And when issues not directly related to accountability are considered, several Duncan-backed initiatives appear to have a long life.

Those efforts include $250 million in new preschool-development grants, which are included in the reauthorization bill and match Duncan’s vocal backing of early-education initiatives. The Investing in Innovation (known as i3) grants would also continue, as would programs intended to help replicate high-quality charter schools. And the Promise Neighborhoods program, which gives financial support to communities to provide wraparound services for schools, would remain.

In a statement released Thursday after the House passed the bill, Duncan said the Every Student Succeeds Act will "cement the progress" taking place in states in recent years, such as an all-time high national graduation rate.

"It is a compromise that builds on the work already underway in states to raise expectations for students and to help them graduate college and career-ready," Duncan said. "The bill reflects many of the priorities we’ve put forward over the last six and a half years."

Playing Defense

The Obama administration also successfully played defense in a few instances during the crafting of the legislation.

For example, Title I portability, which would have allowed federal aid for low-income students to follow them to the schools of their choice, was included in the House bill to reauthorize the ESEA, but was left out of the final version after public opposition from the administration.

Although Duncan has become deeply unpopular among many educators, Ferguson of the Center on Education Policy says, that dislike shouldn’t be conflated with ineffectiveness on his part.

“You’ve got to give the guy credit. He was very bold. We see some states doing some very dynamic things,” Ferguson said.

And those with differing views on how the Every Student Succeeds Act adds to or subtracts from Duncan’s legacy agree that the bill on its own won’t tell the whole story.

If states continue on the path that the NCLB waivers and the Race to the Top competition helped set for them, it won’t matter that federal officials might soon have less say over their policies, West said. “A repudiation doesn’t mean necessarily that the secretary got it wrong,” he said.

By the same token, although Cunningham is willing to defend Duncan’s long-term impact separate from the ESEA, he stressed that doesn’t mean states are now on a glide path and don’t need to be pushed by the federal department any longer.

If testing had been made optional, “someone would have come along and said, ‘We have a budget problem, so let’s cancel the test,’ ” he said. “So some people would have talked themselves out of it.”

Vol. 35, Issue 14, Pages 1,19

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