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Arne Duncan, John King Talk Higher Graduation Rates, ESEA, and Testing

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — October 19, 2015 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is stepping down in December, but he had a piece of good news to announce on his way out the door: High school graduation rates, which most recently stood at 81 percent nationally, appear to be on track to rise for the third year in a row.

The department won’t know for sure that graduation rates ticked up again until early next year. But preliminary data for the 2013-14 school year is encouraging. Thirty-six states saw increases in graduation rates between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years. Only six states saw dips and eight didn’t see a change. (The department doesn’t have data for Idaho.)

What’s more, gaps between traditionally disadvantaged groups of students (think English-language learners) and their peers appear to be closing. Twenty-eight states saw the gap between black and white students close between those years, and a whopping 32 states saw it close between white and Hispanic students.

“It looks like the nation will take another step in the right direction,” Duncan said at a roundtable for reporters Monday. Duncan was joined by John King, who has been tapped to replace him after he steps down, and Ted Mitchell, the undersecretary, who’s essentially the department’s higher ed guy.

As he has in the past, Duncan cited the graduation rate gains as a reason that Congress needs to keep the pedal to the metal when it comes to accountability in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is still pending on Capitol Hill. (More on ESEA and accountability, including how the administration’s own actions seem to have watered down the federal role in looking out for poor and minority kids here.)

ESEA Prospects

Duncan declined to say just how likely it would be that an NCLB rewrite makes it over the finish line this year. (His chief of staff, Emma Vadehra, put the odds at about 51 percent.) Some background: Congress is closer than it ever has been: A bipartisan bill made it through the Senate this summer, and a Republican-only bill made it out of the House.

Congressional aides to all four of the key lawmakers responsible for writing the bill —Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va.,—are said to be burning the midnight oil, in the hopes of having legislation ready to go by the time Rep. John A. Boehner, the speaker of the House, resigns. (That was supposed to be at the end of the month, but the race to succeed Boehner has basically become a circus, so it’s unclear when he’ll leave.)

If they are able to complete their work, the leadership turmoil could actually be a boon to ESEA’s prospects, Duncan said.

The administration’s major priorities for the bill haven’t changed in the past year: They want an emphasis on low-performing schools, a new preschool program, and some sort of language encouraging states to cap the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests, plus stronger language on accountability.

Duncan’s Legacy

Duncan’s exit means it’s time for reporters to start whipping up their legacy pieces. One likely theme of those stories: Duncan and company have been criticized for trying to push through too much change way too fast. The biggest misstep, experts say? Asking states to tackle new teacher evaluations at the same time they were putting in place new standards and tests under waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act.

So does Duncan think he went too fast?

Actually, Duncan said that he mostly regretted not moving more quickly on various policy initiatives, especially expanding early childhood education. But he did admit that the shift to new standards, tests, and evaluations in the last few years has been a big load for states to handle.

“That’s a lot of change in a short amount of time,” he said.

John King Vs. Arne Duncan

So how will King be different from Duncan in leading the department? It sounds like, generally speaking, he won’t be.

King said he’s excited to pick up the ball from the administration, including when it comes to expanding early childhood education, and closing the achievement gap.

“It’s not about different,” King said. “It’s about building on the work. We’ve made a lot of progress. We still have too large an achievement gap for students of color and low-income students.” He also listed expanding access to early learning as one area he wants to get right to in January.

Duncan, though, put his finger on one potential difference: While Duncan’s background as the superintendent of an urban district (and the son of an educator) instilled in him a passion for helping traditionally disadvantaged kids, King actually was one of those kids. King, who is half African-American and half Puerto Rican, lost his parents while he was still in grade school.

“That wasn’t my background,” Duncan said. “I was lucky to have two educated parents ... John can look at kids who aren’t living with mom and aren’t living with dad” and identify with them. “There’s a power in that can be helpful. ... That’s a set of experiences I simply didn’t have.”

Bonus: In case you were wondering about testing opt-outs

If you were wondering about how the department might cope with states with high-opt rates, good question. The administration isn’t sure just how many states (or schools) didn’t meet a requirement in the No Child Left Behind that calls for 95 percent of students to take standardized tests. Some states, including Nevada and Montana, had technical problems administering the tests. Others, including New York and New Jersey, had a lot of parents that just didn’t want their kids to take them.

And although the administration has suggested it will take action in states that don’t meet the law’s testing requirement, Duncan and company didn’t say specifically Monday just what the form that action would take.