Amid the backdrop of marching bands, pep rallies, and photo ops, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s 2014 back-to-school bus tour crystallized the Education Department’s intention to recast its role from one of a disruptor that prods states to take on difficult education policy overhauls to one of supportive partner in implementation.
The theme of partnership was center stage in all of Mr. Duncan’s stops on his seven-city, three-day trip that crisscrossed Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.
That emphasis comes in the last years of the Obama administration’s White House tenure, when Secretary Duncan has far less money to persuade states to adopt education policies he prefers and far less political clout on Capitol Hill. The strategic emphasis on collaboration also comes at a moment when some governors and state chiefs are critical of Mr. Duncan and the Education Department for what they see as federal overreach.
Indeed, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who is widely seen as a 2016 presidential candidate, recently accused the Education Department in a federal lawsuit of forcing Louisiana to implement the Common Core State Standards. And state education chiefs in Kentucky and Washington state have been slamming the administration over the strings attached to its No Child Left Behind Act waivers.
To be sure, Mr. Duncan has always tried to paint the department as a partner for states and districts, and has more recently filled his staff with people like Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who was vocal about her dislike of the Education Department’s overreach when she was the state superintendent in Ohio from 2008 through 2011.
“We’ve tried to give, be thoughtful, listen, and go back and forth,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview with Education Week on the bus as it headed down the Alabama freeway from Birmingham to Huntsville. "[Our goal is] helping people implement their plans of how they’re going to improve student achievement. I think we have to try and be a good partner and listen.”
While Mr. Duncan still has some carrots and sticks in the form of NCLB waiver extensions, penalties, and a few hundred-million dollars left in competitive grants, he said his focus has shifted mostly to ways the department can help states now that many of them have laid the education policy groundwork he wanted.
“It’s great to have high standards, we’re thrilled people adopted them, and it’s great to have the next generation of assessments,” Mr. Duncan said. “It’s great to have people thinking differently about teacher evaluation and support. But how we help people implement those ideas is important.”
One of the tour’s first stops landed the education secretary in Carrollton, Ga., at the Southwire Co., the country’s leading manufacturer of wire and cable used in the transmission of electricity.
With funding through the administration’s Investing in Innovation program, the company partners with the Carroll County school system to place low-income students in jobs, allowing them to earn wages while working toward a diploma.
“This is an amazing public-private partnership where young people from very, very tough backgrounds and very challenging circumstances are doing extraordinarily well by working and going to school and gaining leadership skills,” Mr. Duncan said.
The Southwire program is a prime example, he said, of how the department can partner with communities with strategic education plans.
The theme of supporting communities continued the following day, in Birmingham, Ala., as Mr. Duncan told a group of African-American students that adults are letting them down and asked them what he and President Barack Obama can do to provide better support systems to help them achieve their goals.
The roundtable discussion took place at the John Herbert Phillips Academy, the site of major civil rights protests. Secretary Duncan highlighted My Brother’s Keeper, an administration initiative to boost opportunity for boys and men of color.
“Whether it’s here in Birmingham or Ferguson, Missouri, ... we have young men—black, Latino—who have extraordinary talents, extraordinary gifts, and somehow we as a society have not let those gifts flourish,” Mr. Duncan said to the students, alluding to the recent police killing of an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb. “Our job is to listen, and our job is to find ways to support you.”
My Brother’s Keeper, a $200 million program that the White House rolled out last spring, asks cities, businesses, nonprofit organizations, philanthropic foundations, faith leaders, and others to commit to helping students get a strong start in school and connect them to mentors and other support systems they might need to either find a good job or go to college.
“This is going to be a public-private partnership where we want to invest but will only invest where the local community is stepping in,” Mr. Duncan emphasized in his earlier Education Week interview.
Boosting Early Childhood
Later that day, at the Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Duncan talked to parents about how the department is preparing to support states eager to increase preschool opportunities through its newest federal early-learning grant competition.
“Our goal is to be a supportive partner and provide assistance as you need it,” he said at the unusual early-learning center that helps parents who are working or who are in school by staying open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.
Last year, President Obama called on states to offer universal preschool for all low- and middle-income families. The newest $250 million early-learning grant is part of that effort.
The last stop on Mr. Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour took him to Cornerstone Preparatory Academy, one of 23 schools in the Achievement school district, Tennessee’s turnaround-school effort that is located almost entirely in Memphis.
Like many of the schools in that district, Cornerstone partners with various nonprofits that provide support services. Though it still ranks academically at the bottom of the state’s schools, it has benefited for the past three years from an infusion of money and increased autonomy, thanks to the state’s Race to the Top grant, the Obama administration’s signature competition.
Mr. Duncan conceded that the $20 million of the state’s $500 million Race to the Top winnings helped, but he quickly pointed out that none of the improvements could have been made without partnerships with organizations that provide wraparound services.
Cornerstone, for instance, partners with Christ United Methodist Church, the local community center and business-development organization, a nonprofit that helps the city’s refugee population, and others that provide mentoring services.
Mr. Duncan also stressed in the interview that he’s ready to help states solve problems that arise in the implementation of such policies and practices as standards, assessments, and teacher evaluations.
The most recent example of that, he said, is his offer to allow waiver states to delay the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations.
“I think we have a tremendous ability over the next couple of years to really solidify the extraordinary progress and courage that we’re seeing,” Mr. Duncan said. “In a perfect world, I’d love to have another $100 million, but that’s not the world we’re in.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as Duncan Sounds Partnership Theme in Trip Through South