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Duncan Sketches Out Second-Term Agenda

By Michele McNeil — November 16, 2012 4 min read
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Savannah, Ga.

In his first major postelection remarks, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that he will use his second term to continue to leverage education improvement at the state and local levels, with a new emphasis on principal preparation and evaluation. And, he made clear that if Congress isn’t serious about reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the No Chid Left Behind Act is the current version, then his department won’t devote a lot of energy to it.

Duncan used his remarks today to the Council of Chief State School Officers to emphasize that his second term as President Barack Obama’s education chief will focus on fine-tuning the work started during the first term.

“We came out of the gates flying” in the first term, he said, and he plans to “replicate that as much as we can.”

Reauthorization is a top priority for the state chiefs. And during a Q-and-A session, they questioned his commitment to rewriting the law, especially now that the federal department can shape the accountability landscape through waivers.

Duncan said, repeatedly, that he did not want reauthorization to happen through a bad bill.

“We will lead, we will help, we will push, but Congress has to want to do it,” said Duncan, who says he plans on staying in the Obama cabinet for the “long haul.”

This is only the second public speech for Duncan since his boss was reelected to a second term. (The first one was a speech light on substance, and not on his public schedule.) The secretary, who has said he would remain for a second term if the president wished him to, has been mum—until now—about his own plans for education policy over the next four years.

Duncan reaffirmed his committment to using federal incentives as a lever for education policy changes. In his first term, that leverage came in the form of $100 billion in education aid from the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package, and later, from the announceement that the administration would grant waivers and flexibility from key parts of the NCLB law.

What leverage he will have for a second term, beyond overseeing implementation of existing efforts, is unclear.

Duncan said there would continue to be a focus on revamping the teaching profession, including improving principal preparation programs—an area he didn’t think got enough attention during his first term. Later, in an interview, he said that renewed focus could come via Title II grants, which are used for professional-development-type activities, federal School Improvement Grant dollars, and other programs.

He offered more details in his remarks into what gains, and losses, are being seen in schools using the four turnaround models as part of SIG program, which he said will remain a focus in his second term. Though federal officials still aren’t releasing the data to the public, Duncan said that two-thirds of schools are seeing gains in reading and math, with slightly better performance in elementary schools. But one third of all SIG schools showed no improvement, he noted.

And, he stressed that improving early-childhood education and making college more affordable and attainable would have a prominent place in his second term.

Some state chiefs, clearly concerned about just how much more involved Duncan would get in school improvement in their states, questioned his reach—from the recent Race to the Top for district competition to talk that he might pursue NCLB waivers for districts in states that, for whatever reason, do not get a waiver.

Duncan said during his remarks that while the majority of his department’s time and money is spent with states, he did not want states to have “veto power” over districts that have their own improvement ideas.

“We do want to see innovation at the district level,” he said. “I think it’s important we play there.”

And even though during his formal remarks Duncan indicated district-level waivers are off the table, he clarified in the later interview that even though the department’s focus is on state-level flexibility, district waivers are very much still on the table.

There are obvious issues he will face in his second term—especially around (state) waiver implementation.

Already, Virginia and the department had to agree to a waiver do-over after the state’s methodology—approved by the department—resulted in little closing of achievement gaps. Other states endured criticism for setting different school performance goals for different subgroups of students, something the department allows as long as the groups farthest behind academically make faster progress.

And, states and the department have come under fire for what some see as weak accountability for graduation in the approved waivers.

Waivers were made available as Congress stalled on rewriting the ESEA. So far, more than 30 states have earned flexibility from many of the core provisions of the NCLB law.

“We have 32, 33 different systems. Is that optimal? Probably not,” he said to the chiefs.

Duncan’s speech was to a group going through some transitions of its own. Gene Wilhoit, the CCSSO’s executive director, is retiring—passing the torch to Chris Minnich, the group’s longtime membership director. And one of the group’s board members, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who helped create a separate group of “Chiefs for Change,” was not re-elected. He did not attend the meeting, but his successor and the victor in that race, Glenda Ritz, did.

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