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Arne Duncan: ‘If I Had to Do it All Over Again, I Would Push Even Harder’

By Alyson Klein — August 06, 2018 4 min read
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Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s longest-serving education secretary, made some communications mistakes as secretary of education—but when it comes to his signature policies, like the Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation through test scores, he wishes he had pushed even harder.

That’s according to Duncan’s new memoir How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success From One of the Nation’s Longest Serving Secretaries of Education, which officially drops August 7. Duncan rehashes the ups-and-downs of his early tenure at the department and his prior work as CEO of Chicago city schools. And in the 256-page book he explores impact of race and poverty on schools the current gun debate.

Want some quick highlights? Here’s a rundown:

On Race to the Top and Common Core: Duncan wrote that he loses sleep over some of the things that happened during his tenure in Washington, but not Race to the Top, or at least not anymore.

Race to the Top, which was created through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, rewarded 12 states with for adopting the common core standards, teacher evaluation through test scores, dramatic school turnarounds, and more.

Duncan said the program “changed the education landscape in America. ... Since Race to the Top, 46 states and the Washington, D.C., [school system].. have either adopted common core or developed their own high standards.”

It’s true that the common core is still on the books in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia. And plenty of states have kept teacher evaluations through student outcomes—although six states have ditched them since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which prohibited the federal government from monkeying with teacher performance reviews.

Duncan writes that he tried to stay out of the political fray when it came to the common core standards. But the secretary—and especially Obama, in his re-election campaign—took credit for the widespread adoption of the common core. That’s part of the reason the standards ended up facing such widespread opposition

On his mistakes: Duncan acknowledges some missteps in communicating his agenda. He notes that his administration didn’t do such a great job of explaining what, exactly Race to the Top was, and why it would help children succeed.

“In the midst of such rapid change we proved terrible at explaining the Race’s goals and methods to teachers, and even worse at explaining them to parents,” he wrote. “We could have done a much better job, and spent a little money, helping states explain and publicize what they were attempting and what the goals were.”

Duncan says his department made similar communications mistakes around teacher evaluation through student outcomes.

He also thinks he and his team didn’t do a great job of explaining a basic principle: why parents should be willing to test their kids. That, he said, helped fuel the opt-out movement.

On teacher evaluation. The Obama administration was criticized, big time, for rolling out teacher evaluation through test-scores at the same time states were adopting new, college-and-career ready standards. Duncan said some people in his administration wanted to move slower, giving the tests and standards time to take root before tying them to teacher evaluations.

Duncan isn’t sorry though, that his administration pushed for so much change, all at once.

“Each difficult change inevitably would have been punted further down the road, and in the end, nothing would improve,” he wrote. “Students would still be short-changed, the country would continue to fall behind its international peers, and there would still be plenty of pushback. For me then, it was all or nothing. (Actually, if I had it to do all over again, I would push even harder than we did; there’s never a ‘right’ time for fundamental change.)”

On gun control: This was, and is, a big issue for Duncan, who the National Rifle Association called the most anti-gun member of Obama’s cabinet. Particularly poignant is a section on attending the funeral of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of a mass shooting in 2012.

“The Sandy Hook Massacre took five minutes and three seconds,” Duncan wrote. “I wish I could say those five minutes and three seconds changed America, but we know, they didn’t. ... These were babies who had been executed in their classroom. When the dust settled, we choose to protect our guns, not our kids.”

Things left out: There’s not much in the book on ESSA, which passed in 2015, at the tail end of Duncan’s tenure. The law arguably took aim at Duncan’s legacy, with a list of restrictions on the education secretary’s power. Duncan doesn’t get into his feelings about that—or the way backlash to his agenda helped fuel a shift in the federal role.

Photo Credit: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

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