School & District Management

Arne Duncan Sketches Out ‘Long Haul’ Agenda

By Michele McNeil — December 04, 2012 6 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who says he plans to serve in the Obama Cabinet for the “long haul,” has begun sketching out his priorities for the next four years. They include using competitive levers to improve teacher and principal quality and holding the line on initiatives he started during the president’s first term.

The secretary is also making clear what he won’t do: devote a lot of energy to a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act if Congress doesn’t get serious about rewriting the current version, the No Child Left Behind Act.

“We will lead, we will help, we will push, but Congress has to want to do it,” Mr. Duncan said in remarks last month to the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Mr. Duncan sees a tough road ahead for many critical state efforts—all of which are encouraged and financed by his department—to put new common academic standards, common tests, and teacher evaluations in place.

“These next couple of years are years of huge challenge. Do we have the courage to stay the course?” he said during remarks last week at a Washington event held by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Secretary Duncan will face other significant challenges during the Obama administration’s second half. His team must implement flexibility waivers he’s granted under the NCLB law, which so far have gone to 34 states and the District of Columbia that are instituting highly complex accountability systems. The federal Department of Education also must keep tabs on the dozen states that shared $3.4 billion in original, state-based Race to the Top grants, the highest-profile competition Mr. Duncan’s agency has embarked on so far.

And then there are several other, smaller grant competitions to manage, including Investing in Innovation, or i3, and Promise Neighborhoods.

Many state education chiefs, meanwhile, will be looking for two things during the president’s second term: a new ESEA and clarity on federal funding levels for K-12.

“A reauthorization and a [federal] budget—those are the things that they really need to focus on,” Ronald Tomalis, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, said in a recent interview. “I was hoping to see much more energy expressed from [Mr. Duncan] on reauthorization especially.”

During a series of speeches after President Barack Obama’s re-election and in an interview with Education Week, Secretary Duncan has reaffirmed his commitment to using federal incentives to prod education policy changes. In the president’s first term, that leverage came in the form of $100 billion in education aid from the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package, and later, from the announcement that the administration would grant waivers giving states flexibility on compliance with key parts of the NCLB law.

Encouraging Competition

Given the tough budget climate in Washington, there is no doubt Mr. Duncan will have less money to work with in the coming years. But with whatever money he can find, he seems interested in new grant competitions that would improve principal- and teacher-preparation programs—and encourage districts and states to place the best-performing educators in the highest-need classrooms.

During his remarks Nov. 28 at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s gathering, Mr. Duncan said he was deeply troubled to know of no schools or districts that work “systemically” to identify the best teachers and principals, then place them with the children with the highest needs.

“We’re not even in the game. We’re not there yet,” he said.

A push by the secretary to overhaul teacher and principal preparation isn’t new, as his department has proposed several initiatives that haven’t gotten much traction. And he counts that as one of the weaknesses in his service so far.

In his two postelection speeches, Mr. Duncan has said that teacher education programs are “part of the problem” and that the Education Department is looking at a competitive initiative to foster innovation in schools of education, though he didn’t get specific.

In a phone interview Nov. 16, he said money to improve teacher- or principal-preparation programs could come through Title II grants, which are used for professional-development kinds of activities, from federal School Improvement Grants, and from other programs.

Mr. Duncan said that improving early-childhood education and making college more affordable and attainable also would have a prominent place in his agenda for the coming years.

And, to the dismay of many state schools chiefs, Mr. Duncan is still considering NCLB waivers for school districts in states that, for whatever reason, do not themselves get waivers.

During his Nov. 16 remarks to a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Savannah, Ga., Mr. Duncan said that while the majority of his department’s time and money is spent with states, he did not want states to have “veto power” over districts that have their own improvement ideas.

That’s one reason the federal department launched the $400 million Race to the Top competition for districts to help them develop personalized teaching and learning strategies—a contest that’s ongoing now.

“We do want to see innovation at the district level,” Mr. Duncan said. “I think it’s important we play there.”

Pressure Mounts

Education policy advocates say the pressure will be on Mr. Duncan to use his next four years to deliver another big bang along the lines of Race to the Top, which dangled $3.4 billion in front of states to devise bold education-improvement plans and change policies that would expand charter schools, adopt common standards, and revamp teacher evaluations.

“He needs to come up with a significant initiative that’s new and address things that have not been addressed in the first term,” said Charlie Barone, the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. Topping Mr. Barone’s list would be to spend more time on policies that benefit the most disadvantaged students.

“It’s incumbent on the administration to come up with an equity agenda for a second term,” Mr. Barone said.

Many see Mr. Duncan’s reluctance to prioritize reauthorization of the ESEA as a glaring omission on his agenda for the next four years. The No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

“For any administration to have a lasting legacy, they have to work with Congress to pass a few laws,” said Vic Klatt, a longtime aide to Republicans on the House education committee who now serves as a principal at the Penn Hill Group, a government-relations firm in Washington. “You can’t just take your marbles and go home.”

Many state education chiefs agree.

Tom Luna, the superintendent of public instruction in Idaho, said many of his colleagues worry that, because the administration has handed out the NCLB waivers, rewriting the law is no longer a top priority.

“Waivers are a poor substitute,” Mr. Luna, a Republican, said in an interview at the CCSSO gathering in Savannah, Ga.

The chiefs acknowledge that they were some of the loudest cheerleaders for those waivers—but with a caveat.

“We asked for waivers, not permanent waivers,” said Peter Zamora, the director of federal relations for the Washington-based chiefs’ organization.

Mr. Duncan, however, has made clear that his agenda is still evolving, and that in the coming weeks, he will sharpen his focus.

“This is really a time to listen to folks and get their advice and input,” he said in the interview last month. “This is a chance to think big.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2012 edition of Education Week as Duncan Sketches Out ‘Long Haul’ Agenda

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