Special Report

Duncan Aims to Make Incentives Key Element of ESEA

Education Secretary Weighs Priorities for Law’s Renewal
By Alyson Klein — December 01, 2009 7 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last week that he envisions a significant new emphasis on federal incentives for high-performing schools, districts, and states in the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, expected to be taken up by Congress as early as next year.

Mr. Duncan said the Department of Education is considering proposals that would offer increased autonomy, recognition, and resources for states that commit to adopting college- and career-readiness standards, and for schools and districts that make significant progress in student achievement.

“Under [the No Child Left Behind Act] there are basically no incentives. There was nothing. There are 50 ways to fail, and if you succeeded there was nothing there for you,” the secretary said in a wide-ranging interview with Education Week reporters at the newspaper’s offices here.

He said he’d like to change that when Congress and the administration move to revamp the ESEA, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind law. It was originally slated for reauthorization in 2007.

“Whether it’s additional resources, whether it’s greater flexibility on existing resources, whether it’s shining a spotlight on them, … there’s a whole package of things” the next version of the ESEA could include to reward excellence, Mr. Duncan said.

Through the coming reauthorization, the department aims to build on the emphasis on teacher quality, data, standards, and support of low-performing schools that is at the heart of the education portion of the economic-stimulus law enacted in February, Mr. Duncan said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discusses the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act during an interview with staff writers from Education Week on November 30, 2009, in Bethesda, Md.
—Video by Charlie Borst/Education Week
If you experience difficulty hearing this video properly, please try listening through a headset or external speakers.

That law—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—will provide up to $100 billion for education, and includes an expanded role for the federal government in using competitive grants to reward states and districts that make significant progress in those four areas. The main vehicles are $4 billion in grants under the Race to the Top Fund and $650 million through the Investing in Innovation Fund.

Mr. Duncan said those programs could help inform the department’s efforts to include incentives in the new version of the ESEA.

The idea drew praise from Janie Darr, the superintendent of the 13,800-student Rogers, Ark., school district. While she generally has a positive view of the NCLB law, she’d like to see schools given some incentive toward which to strive, not just “punitive” sanctions.

But Joanne Sternke, the superintendent of the 2,300-student Pewaukee district, in Wisconsin, said she wanted to see some more specifics before making up her mind.

“More detail is needed prior to concluding if incentives are worthwhile,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Further clarification is needed about how incentives would be implemented, what they might be, and how they would be funded.”

Policy ‘Lever’

Quotes from Arne Duncan

For more, read the transcript from Education Week‘s interview with Mr. Duncan.

On His Expectations:

“I continue to think that education is the one area that has to rise above politics. Everyone feels a sense of urgency ... Everyone sees this as an issue they can come together behind.”

On Transformation:

“The whole turnaround stuff is relatively new, but I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work. ... I’m looking at places where 70 to 75 percent of kids aren’t graduating, and somehow that’s been OK for the country. People don’t expect anything different.”

“Not surprisingly, dysfunction at the federal level is often replicated by dysfunction at the state level, at the local level. If we can lead by example, if we can walk the walk, then you start to change those dynamics a little bit.”

“We need a much higher bar. I do think the best answers for hitting that bar are going to come locally. And we’re going to give maximum flexibility. ... Where there’s creative or engaging or innovative curriculum, where folks are using technology, you’re going to see great results.”

“We’ve never said charter schools are the magic answer. I went to the charter school community and said third-rate charter schools are part of the problem. But successful charter schools are part of the answer.”

On Teaching and Learning:

“A child comes to you at 6th grade, two grade levels behind, and leaves a grade level behind, that child’s improved. That teacher’s done a hell of a job. That teacher is a superstar.”

“Teacher evaluation in this country is fundamentally broken. ... In a country where teacher evaluation is largely divorced from student progress, student success, how do you defend that?”

“If we can dramatically increase high school graduation rates, if we can dramatically increase the number of graduates who are college and career ready, that’s what this is about. Everything’s a means to that end. That’s the Holy Grail here. Are our students being prepared to be successful?”

“To me, technology should be infused in everything we’re doing. You talk to all of these great young teachers, and they love it, the ability to differentiate instruction. What they’re all furious about is none of them is learning this in their schools of education.”

On the Road Ahead:

“When times are tough, you often have the kind of fundamental breakthroughs you need. ... You’ve seen some folks, governors, districts, superintendents absolutely paralyzed. ... You’ve seen some folks do some unbelievably creative things and really [use] the crisis as an opportunity.”

The Education Department also would like to embed so-called growth models, in which schools get credit for improving the progress of individual students, into its new definition of performance targets for schools, said Carmel Martin, the department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, who is helping to lead the ESEA-renewal effort. She also took part in the interview last week.

And officials would like to use the ESEA as “a lever” to prod educators to use data to improve student outcomes, she said. Secretary Duncan specifically cited Louisiana’s model of using student data to improve teacher preparation as an example.

The department will also seek to retain the 8-year-old NCLB law’s practice of disaggregating student data to shine a spotlight on different student populations, such as students in special education, and keep in place the law’s focus on closing achievement gaps between racial minorities and students in poverty and their more advantaged peers, Ms. Martin said.

But the department would like to give states and districts greater flexibility on intervening in schools that struggle to meet the goals of the law, Ms. Martin said. The federal government has already begun to experiment with that concept through a differentiated-consequences pilot project, started during the tenure of Secretary Duncan’s predecessor, Margaret Spellings. (“States Get Flexibility on Targets,” March 26, 2008.)

She said the department would seek an emphasis on innovation and evaluation, building on the proposed guidance for the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program.

Mr. Duncan said he is already reaching out to members of Congress regardless of political affiliation to pave the way for a bipartisan reauthorization of the ESEA.

“Education is the one area where we have to rise above politics,” Mr. Duncan said. “Everyone sees this as an issue that we can come together behind. I think we have an opportunity to do that.”

The secretary made it clear that teacher quality is going to play a central role in the ESEA reauthorization, and he spoke emphatically about the importance of using teacher evaluations to improve student outcomes, particularly in the lowest-performing schools.

“Teacher evaluation in this country is fundamentally broken,” he said. “In a country where teacher evaluation is divorced largely from student progress, student success, how do you defend that?”

And he reiterated that the administration still places a major value on merit pay, saying that the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which gives grants to school districts for performance-pay programs, was “the best thing the previous administration” did.

Mr. Duncan added that the $3 billion state teacher-quality grant program authorized under Title II of the NCLB law should be tweaked to leverage greater improvements in student achievement. That funding stream currently subsidizes professional development and smaller class sizes, but it isn’t clear how effective the spending has been. (“Grants in NCLB to Aid Teaching Under Scrutiny,” Dec. 3, 2008.)

On the subject of charter schools, Mr. Duncan said that while he often extols the benefits of those independent public schools in his speeches, he doesn’t see them as a silver bullet for turning around schools that are struggling academically.

“We’ve never said charter schools are the magic answer,” Mr. Duncan said. “I went to the charter school community and said third-rate charter schools are part of the problem. But successful charter schools are part of the answer.”

The Education Department recently softened its stance on the role charters should play in school improvement when it released the final regulations for the Race to the Top program. (“Stimulus Rules on ‘Turnarounds’ Shift,” Dec. 2, 2009.)

High Competitive Bar

Mr. Duncan said the department will have high expectations for states seeking some of the Race to the Top Fund, which will reward them for embracing certain education redesign principles. He warned that some states will lose out.

“There’s going to be a very, very high bar,” he said. “People won’t believe it until we do it.” He said states that miss the mark on the first round of funding, to be distributed next spring, could retool their applications to have a shot at aid under phase two, to be given out sometime later next year.

Asked whether he would urge President Barack Obama to seek a second round of federal recovery aid for education beyond the current stimulus law, Mr. Duncan did not answer directly. But he cautioned that states and districts—many of which are still in dire financial straits, despite the infusion of federal cash—should not bank on getting a second helping.

“This is a really tough time around the country. It’s tough for states, it’s tough for districts, it’s tough for families,” Mr. Duncan said. “And so, can I sit here today and say we’re going to have a second round of this? No, I can’t. I can’t begin to say that. … [There’s] no guarantee whatsoever.”

At the same time, the secretary suggested that the economic crisis has created some opportunities.

“What I’ve also said is when times are tough ... painful as it is, you often have the kind of fundamental breakthroughs that you need, and they’re sometimes easier to get than when times are easier,” he said.

Assistant Editor Erik W. Robelen and Staff Writer Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2009 edition of Education Week as New ESEA May Sport Incentives


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