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Administration Doubling Down on K-12 Priorities, Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan Declares

By Alyson Klein — January 12, 2015 8 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is using a speech here Monday to assert that the Obama administration is not backing off on K-12 policies it has pushed for the past six years, even as Republicans in Congress are poised to release proposals to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would significantly scale back the federal footprint in education.

Instead, according to prepared remarks circulated before the speech, Duncan is calling for an additional $2.7 billion for education. He also wants any ESEA rewrite to continue teacher evaluations through student outcomes, the targeting of resources to the lowest-performing schools, and—most relevant to the current debate over updating the law—the law’s current regime of annual, statewide assessments.

Duncan is making it clear he doesn’t think that Republicans in Congress—who could introduce draft proposals that make significant changes to federal testing mandates as early as this week—are on the right track.

“I’m concerned about where a Republican-only ESEA reauthorization might be headed,” Duncan was to say at Seaton Elementary School in the nation’s capital. “I believe that we may have fundamental differences with some congressional Republicans about whether or not the quality of education for every child, regardless of where they live, is an essential interest of this nation—or whether it is optional.”

And Duncan launched a spirited defense of the importance of annual tests. Parents, he said, have a right to know how their children are progressing. And kids, particularly poor and minority kids, should be in schools that work to actively close the achievement gap.

“What about schools where, year after year, huge numbers of students drop out or never learn to read?,” he asked. “Do families have the right to expect that leaders will put in place meaningful supports and a real plan for improvement? Or is that optional? ... This country can’t afford to replace ‘the fierce urgency of now’ with the soft bigotry of ‘It’s optional.’”

Duncan said the administration would ask Congress for $2.7 billion in extra money for K-12 education in its fiscal year 2016 budget request, due out later this winter. That request would include $1 billion in additional funding for the popular Title I program, which is currently financed at nearly $15 billion and helps school districts educate disadvantaged students.

And he stressed that the administration will respond to the anti-testing crowd by asking Congress to include language in the proposal that would call on states to set limits on how much time can be spent on state and local testing—and let parents know if they are exceeding those limits. (Some states, including Maryland, Ohio, and North Carolina, are already taking steps to cut down testing time.)

And Duncan said the president would ask for more money in his budget to help states do a close review of their assessment systems, with an eye toward weeding out redundant or low-quality tests, an idea that’s already been introduced in Congress by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and endorsed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools.

“I believe all teachers deserve fair, genuinely helpful systems for evaluation and professional growth that identify excellence and take into account student learning growth,” he said. “Assessments—and they have to be good ones—are one indicator, but they should be only one part of the picture. I believe parents, teachers, and students have both the right and the need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. That means all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned with their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3-8, and once in high school.”

Teacher performance reviews that incorporate student outcomes have been one of the administration’s most prominent—and arguably, least-successful—policy prescriptions. Duncan made it clear he’d like to continue with the requirement for teacher reviews in the ESEA, but would like to couple the evaluations with additional resources for teacher quality. But he didn’t give specifics, saying that there would be more details in the budget. He also called for early childhood education to take a more prominent role in ESEA.

The speech was pegged to the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “educational message” to Congress, which formed the basis of the ESEA, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act. Duncan told the crowd that the law was at its inception, and remains at its heart, a civil rights law, aimed at ensuring that poor and minority children get access to additional resources to help them succeed at the same rate as their more advantaged peers.

“I believe we can work together—Democrats and Republicans—to move beyond the tired, prescriptive No Child Left Behind law,” Duncan said. “I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more support—more money—than they receive today.”

It’s hard to imagine, however, that this particular history lesson, and the Obama administration’s decision to hew close to the policy proposals it’s been pushing for years will be very appealing to a GOP-controlled Congress that wants to give states more authority over education policy, not to mention rein in federal spending. Instead, it seems that the speech was pitched to appeal to Capitol Hill Democrats and their allies, since the GOP will need at least some Democratic support if they want to get an NCLB-rewrite bill through the Senate.

It’s an open question, however, how many Democrats will side with the Obama administration—and civil rights groups—on these principles when a forthcoming Republican bill may also scale back the federal role in testing, a long-held priority for teachers’ unions. More background on the debate here.

And in fact, the National Education Association released a statement shortly after the speech was given, saying that they are not backing off their push for grade-span assessments.

“We must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the union’s president. “Parents and educators know that the one-size-fits-all annual federal testing structure has not worked.”

But last week, an aide for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, told The Washington Post she would fight to keep annual tests. (Duncan must’ve have been one happy education secretary when he read that quote.)

The speech is a sign that the Obama administration is taking the latest attempt at ESEA reauthorization seriously. When President Barack Obama initially took office, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education pushed hard for reauthorization, even going as far as to say it would approve an extra $1 billion for education if Congress passed a bill in line with the administration’s blueprint for reauthorization.

But, after it became clear that lawmakers weren’t likely to pass a bill that aligned closely with the administration’s blueprint, Duncan turned his attention to offering states leeway from the law through waivers. And the administration quietly worked with Democratic leaders in the Senate to keep legislation renewing the law from advancing to the floor of the chamber.

Now the ESEA train is finally leaving the station, but the administration may not have a ton of political juice left to get many of its highest priorities into the final legislation. Those priorities include language requiring states to craft teacher evaluations based in part on test scores, dramatic school turnarounds, and maybe even language calling for states to set standards that prepare students for higher education and the workforce. The administration’s favorite competitive-grant programs, including Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation program, which helps scale up promising practices at the district level, are almost certainly toast.

But the administration still has one trump card in its hand: the veto.

A White House official said in advance of the speech that it’s way too early to say whether the administration would veto an ESEA bill that didn’t include its principles. And the aide signaled that the administration is ready to work with Congress, and will consider any bipartisan ideas that gain traction. (Of course, moving toward testing only in particular grades is an idea that’s gotten bipartisan support.)

So why was the speech given here? The District of Columbia Public Schools is particularly proud of Seaton Elementary, which has a diverse population, and a cadre of teachers that have been named among the best in the district. Teacher effectiveness has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s agenda, and the District of Columbia has been ahead of the curve in designing an evaluation system that takes student outcomes into account. What’s more, the District of Columbia has embraced universal prekindergarten and early-childhood education more generally, another administration priority.

So what’s the congressional reaction? Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate education committee, welcomed Duncan’s input.

'No Child Left Behind' has become unworkable. Fixing it will be the first item on the agenda for the Senate's education committee. Secretary Duncan's recommendations are welcome. During the last six years our committee has held many hearings and reported two bills to the Senate floor in an effort to fix the law's problems. We should be able to finish our work within the first few weeks of 2015 so the full Senate can act. My goal is to keep the best portions of the original law and restore to states and communities the responsibility for deciding whether teachers and schools are succeeding or failing."

And on the question of testing, Alexander said:

Of course we should be asking the question: are there too many tests? Every teacher and parent is asking that question, and if there's going to be a requirement for 17 tests in reading, math, and science, we need to make sure that's justified."

Meanwhile, the top two Democrats in Congress gave the speech a thumbs-up but neither of them mentioned annual testing in their statements—though both of them support annual testing.

Murray said, “I am very glad that Secretary Duncan is so focused on reforming this broken law in a way that works for our students and makes sure no child falls through the cracks, and I am looking forward to working with him, [Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.] and all our colleagues on a truly bipartisan bill to get this done.”

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the ranking member of the House education committee, said:

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act remains one of the most significant civil rights achievements of our era. To overcome the achievement gap that still exists between poor and minority children and their more affluent peers, we must stay true to the law's core tenet—that all students, regardless of income, race, ethnicity, or disability should have access to a quality education that prepares them for success in college and a career. Having accurate information about student performance, maintaining high standards, supporting teachers and school leaders, preventing students from dropping out, and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline must be our top priorities. Any reauthorization of ESEA must support the needs of all children. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress and the president on behalf of students nationwide."

Lauren Camera contributed to this story.

Photo: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks at Seaton Elementary School on Jan. 12 in Washington. Swikar Patel/Education Week

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