Arne Duncan Vows Push on Range of Education Priorities

By Michele McNeil — April 22, 2014 6 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is feeling a sense of urgency as the Obama administration moves deeper into its second term. As for his own legacy: "I don't spend any time thinking about that."
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In the waning years of the Obama administration, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees several important and difficult priorities ahead of him, he said in a wide-ranging 30-minute interview this month. Chief among them: the transition to new standards and tests, the debut of new teacher evaluations tied to test scores, and the costly drive to expand preschool.

That’s “a lot of change in a short amount of time—none of it easy,” he told Education Week in the April 11 interview in his Washington office. But if states and the federal government are able to navigate a mountain of political and policy challenges, Mr. Duncan said, the result will “change education forever in some pretty extraordinary ways.”

And he pledged to get one long-awaited initiative done that could also have a far-reaching impact: an overhaul of regulations that govern teacher-preparation programs. “They will get done,” he said. "[They are] very important.”

Sense of Urgency

Mr. Duncan had no interest in talking about what might be his legacy, declaring: “I don’t spend any time thinking about that.” Yet he did express a sense of urgency about all that’s left to do—especially with just 2½ years remaining and a Congress that’s mired in partisan bickering.

The interview came a day after U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced her resignation, and Mr. Duncan wasn’t as forceful as he usually is about his intention to stay in the administration, if the president wants, till the end. Still, he gave every indication he plans to turn out the lights at 400 Maryland Ave. in January 2017.

“I’m here today. Hopefully, I’ll be here tomorrow,” he said.

When Secretary Duncan ticked off his to-do list for the coming couple of years—from preschool to standards implementation to college afford ability—he didn’t mention any “equity” agenda. Many civil rights and education policy advocates are getting frustrated at what they perceive as the administration’s lack of attention to equity, especially as No Child Left Behind Act waivers have allowed big changes to rules on accountability for the performance of racial, ethnic, and other student subgroups.

Civil rights groups were especially annoyed when the administration backed off from using waiver renewals to force states to address the inequitable distribution of teachers. Now, the Education Department is working on a “50-state strategy” on teacher equity that Mr. Duncan said is very much still in its early stages.

“I don’t think we’ve done enough,” said Mr. Duncan, who pointed out that the department has proposed a new Race to the Top grant competition for equity, which is part of the federal fiscal 2015 budget.

To be sure, the underlying theme of equity is often present in much of the department’s and Mr. Duncan’s work.

One example: the release in March of the Civil Rights Data Collection, which highlighted racial disparities in discipline rates, advanced coursetaking, and grade retention. “As folks here understand, our deep concern for equity and closing opportunity gaps drives everything we do at the department,” the secretary said in a speech about the data’s release.

In the interview, Mr. Duncan cited the progress he says has been made since President George W. Bush left office: an increase in the number of Pell Grant recipients, and a cut by nearly one-half in the dropout rates of black and Hispanic students. He also pointed to federal efforts to expand pre-K, “when the department had historically done nothing.” Still, he said, "[we have] a long way to go.”

Supporting States

When he talked of his priorities in the next couple of years, he did so in terms of supporting states as they transition to “higher” standards. His remarks came on the heels of his April 8 testimony to Congress, in which he said that high standards are most important, and that whether they are common or not is “secondary.”

The secretary continues to walk a fine line between supporting implementation of the Common Core State Standards and not giving opponents any fuel to criticize him for overreaching into local decisions.

“I was in Massachusetts recently, which has helped lead that effort. I was in New York and Delaware, [which] are driving this hard,” he said. “We get none of the credit. All of the leadership and all of the push and the courage is coming from the state and local level.”

And, in his comments about the common core, he circled back to equity.

“For me, the travesty of No Child Left Behind was seeing 19 states dummy down standards. And anyone who thinks that was serving poor kids or that was part of an equity agenda ...” he said, leaving the thought unfinished.

A lot of what he wants to accomplish, such as expanding early education or creating a new Race to the Top contest, costs money and would require the cooperation of a typically uncooperative Congress. But Mr. Duncan, who says he and his department have been “absolutely nonpolitical,” said he’s not waiting for Congress to act.

“If we want to want to do more early childhood, we need more money to do that. If we want to do more Promise Neighborhoods, we need more money to do that.

“We’re not sitting down waiting on it,” continued Mr. Duncan, who pointed to the newly released Civil Rights Data Collection and technology initiatives with the Federal Communications Commission. “We’re moving very, very fast.”

Notably, the secretary made no mention of reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently the No Child Left Behind law, as being on his priority list. At this point, 42 states and the District of Columbia have his department’s NCLB waivers.

It’s the teacher-evaluation piece of those waivers—tying evaluations to student test scores—that is tripping up a lot of states, and may cost at least one (Washington state) its waiver.

“We’ve tried to provide some real flexibility,” Mr. Duncan said. “I’m interested in finishing at the right point. The path to get there is going to be very different. Some states are two or three years ahead of others, and are in great shape. Some are in the middle and some are further behind.

“We’ve been pretty agnostic on these things,” he said, “and tried to give people the flexibility to figure out what the right answer is in their local context. There’s no right or wrong answer.”

At the same time, the Education Department has established firm deadlines for states. The department is requiring states with NCLB waivers, by 2014-15, to fully implement their teacher-evaluation systems tied to student test scores. And now they have until 2016-17, generally, to use those evaluations in personnel decisions. States in which the timelines don’t match those deadlines have been placed on “at risk” status.

Change Takes Time

Mr. Duncan was asked whether Washington state, which is in hot water because its timelines do not match those set by the department, can save its waiver.

“Washington state made some commitments,” Mr. Duncan said. “In any agreement, you agree to things on both sides in good faith. ... When we both make an agreement together we both have to live up to our commitments.”

Despite having had a phone call with Washington state officials on its waiver just days before the interview, Mr. Duncan said he didn’t know the specifics about their waiver predicament.

But he also said: “It takes a little bit more time to get it right; we’re finding that. If you’re headed in the right direction, that’s something we absolutely want to have the conversation about. If the state decides they don’t want to do something, that’s different.”

For some of the Obama administration’s initiatives, such as Race to the Top, the success—and Mr. Duncan’s legacy—won’t likely be determined for some years to come.

“Four years in, if you look across the country at which states are moving the fastest, disproportionately it’s Race to the Top states,” the secretary said. “The real test for me isn’t now, but four or five years from now. And if the progress stops when the money stops, then we would have failed.

“But if we’ve built something that’s sustainable and that has fundamentally transformed the opportunity structure in these states, then that’s a really, really big deal.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Duncan Vows Active Push on Range of Education Priorities

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