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Arne Duncan on NCLB, Race to the Top, and a Second Stimulus

By Michele McNeil — November 30, 2009 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan paid a visit to Education Week today, and spent an hour fielding questions from reporters about everything from No Child Left Behind Act reauthorization to the possibility of a second economic-stimulus package.

Duncan, who was accompanied by assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development Carmel Martin, laid out his clearest vision yet for NCLB reauthorization.

First, he made it clear that he envisions a significant new emphasis on incentives for high-performing schools, districts, and states, noting that there are “50 ways to fail” under NCLB, but nothing in it for schools that succeed.

Second, the competition that has spurred education reform movements in states hoping to nail down some of the Race to the Top Fund stimulus money (think removal of data firewalls and charter school caps) would be embedded in a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Not all of the federal funding would be awarded through competition, but a lot of it would, he said. Look for more on ESEA reauthorization from my colleague Alyson Klein at later today.

In the interview, Duncan also placed a good deal of focus on Race to the Top. He wanted to make clear (perhaps he’s been reading these two recent pieces in the Wall Street Journal) that he is truly serious that there will be a high bar to win a piece of this $4 billion education reform competition. He said he finds it interesting that there are folks out there who assume he will water down the competition because of political or state pressure. “I can’t be more clear or explicit” about the high bar that will be set for these awards, he said. And, he also seemed to want to make clear that there will be plenty of losers in the first round of competition, leaving a lot of money up for grabs in the second round.

Duncan seems to be taking a hard look at $3 billion in Title II funding, which is given out via formula grants to states for teacher quality. Title II is of particular interest to Teacher Beat’s Stephen Sawchuk. He’ll have more on this tomorrow, but Duncan did say that if there is “anybody who thinks we’re getting great value [for this money], I’d like to see that analysis.”

Reporters did manage to get some push-back from Duncan on a couple of questions. First, Duncan took issue with my colleague Lesli Maxwell’s question about turnarounds, in which she asked about charter schools being given a “major role” in that effort. Not a major role, he insisted, but “a role.” Yet in June, he did indeed call on charter schools to play a key role in turning around low-performing schools. Now, in his remarks today and in subtle changes to Race to the Top, he wants people to know charters are just one strategy, and not the administration’s silver-bullet reform idea. (By the way, Duncan says that the focus for turnarounds needs to be on quality over quantity, so that his original goal of turning around 5,000 schools in five years, or 1,000 in the first year, may be almost “impossible to do well.”)

He also took issue with my colleague Debbie Viadero’s question about whether there’s enough scientifically based evidence to back up the administration’s reform strategies (such as charters and teacher performance pay). “I would challenge your assumption,” he told her. It’s not just her assumption, though, as a lot of folks are wondering where the evidence is.

“I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work,” he said.

As for a second stimulus, don’t start counting the money yet. Duncan said he could provide “no guarantee whatsoever.”

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan fields a question during an interview on Nov. 30 at Education Week in Bethesda, Md. Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development is at left. Charlie Borst/Education Week