Federal Chat

New Education Secretary’s Impact on Schools

Frederick M. Hess and Richard D. Kahlenberg spoke about what Arne Duncan would and could do as President-elect Obama's Secretary of Education.

December 17, 2008

New Education Secretary’s Impact on Schools

  • Frederick M. Hess, a former public high school social studies teacher, is a scholar and director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, and a faculty associate at the Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance.
  • Richard D. Kahlenberg, the author of several books on education, is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation, where he writes about education, equal opportunity, and civil rights, and is a senior fellow at Education Sector, also based in Washington.

Michele McNeil (Moderator):

Hi everyone. Welcome to today’s chat on Arne Duncan, the Chicago Public Schools leader who is President-elect Obama’s choice as education secretary. My name is Michele McNeil, and I cover state policy for EdWeek and blog about politics at Campaign K-12. We have two great guests joining us today: Frederick M. Hess, a former public high school social studies teacher and the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, and Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation and at Education Sector. We have lots of great questions, so let’s get started.

Question from Walt Gardner, education writer:

Mr. Kahlenberg: Based on “Tough Liberal,” your biography of Albert Shanker, what do you think Arne Duncan will mean for the future of teachers unions?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Great question.

I think Arne Duncan’s appointment will significantly strengthen those union leaders who stand in Albert Shanker’s tradition as teacher union education reformers. Many members of the media, accustomed to a narrative of “might” vs. “right” has fallen into the trap of assuming that all teacher unionists are defenders of the status quo, while all those who oppose teacher unions are “reformers.” Al Shanker was both: a strong unionist and a strong education reformer. And all evidence suggests the new AFT president, Randi Weingarten, will carry on that tradition. She negotiated a school-wide pay for performance plan in New York City, and rather than opposing all charter schools, she founded two UFT charter schools that allow for innovation and teacher voice. More recently, she gave a stirring speech at the National Press Club indicating that all reforms – other than private school vouchers – should be on the table.

The choice of Arne Duncan – who is a reformer who works with teacher unions rather than demonizing them – strengthens the hand of teacher union reformers in two ways.

First, because he’s not out to destroy teacher unions, he allows progressive teacher union leaders to come out of their bunkers and engage in reform. Had Barack Obama picked someone like DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, unions would have been in a very different position. Rhee, who has some interesting ideas on education reform, has gone about it in the wrong way, suggesting that she may be interesting in taking the extremist step of essentially killing off the local teachers union. The Washington Post reported that Rhee was considering seeking a Congressional authorization to declare a “state of emergency,” which would allow her to end collective bargaining with teachers. Why would teachers want to meet half way with someone who wants to essentially end their union’s very existence? Duncan, by contrast, has worked with the local teachers union and doesn’t seek anything like their elimination. He signed not only the Education Equality Project manifesto (which pushes for reforms not popular with teacher unions) but also the Broader Bolder manifesto, which identifies poverty, not teachers unions, as the central impediment to progress. He strongly supports pre-K programs and fully funding NCLB, which teacher unions like.

Having said that, Duncan’s embrace of controversial education reforms – like charter schools and pay for performance – will serve as a spur to teacher union reformers. Al Shanker was able to push the AFT to embrace controversial reforms – such as standards, testing and accountability; peer review to weed out bad teachers; and a form of merit pay through creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards – only because he could point to an external threat. If teacher unions don’t show an openness to reform, we’ll get rolled, he argued. Better to demonstrate a willingness to engage in reform in order to have a seat at the table.

In both senses, it seems to me, Duncan’s appointment should be good for teacher union reformers – pulling them out of the bunker by not threatening their very existence, but keeping the pressure on to come up with reasonable solutions to pressing questions.

Question from Angelia Greiner, Distance Learning Teacher, Arkansas School of Math, Science and the Arts:

Will the new Secretary of Ed. be more likely to revise the No Child Left Behind Act? How likely is distance education to expand under the Secretary’s leadership in the k-12 sector?

Frederick Hess:

Will certainly be more likely to revise NCLB than was the Bush team. First, Duncan’s not nearly as invested in the design and crafting of the law as was Spellings. Second, the administration does not have the political capital invested in the law that the Bush administration did. It’s hard to know what any of this would mean for distance education until the proposals start to take shape, though the Obama stimulus package might very well include infrastructure dollars that may impact distance ed.

Question from Jeffrey Houck, Teacher, Kittitas Secondary School:

What changes to No Child Left Behind do you anticipate?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Obama and Duncan are both supporters of standards, testing and accountability. Chicago, in fact, adopted a system of data-driven accountability even before the federal No Child Left Behind Act was adopted.

But I think we’re likely to see some significant changes as well. Duncan will be the first education secretary who has had to work under NCLB at the local level, and he knows first hand the problems with the law. I think we’re likely to see several changes:

1. Both Obama and Duncan have called for full funding of NCLB. The goals of NCLB are ambitious, and the two men recognize that achieving those objectives will require substantial investment.

2. Both have called for better quality tests. This isn’t just a technical issue. Standards and assessments are the linchpins to the entire system and most states haven’t gotten them right.

3. Both have supported efforts to recruit and develop better teachers. Teacher pay for performance may work its way into NCLB.

4. Significantly, both have argued that we have to also go beyond NCLB to provide better health care and pre-K programs. Obama’s $10 billion pre-K initiative, discussed in this morning’s New York Times, is an extraordinary proposal. It is a key recognition that NCLB’s “schools only” approach to reform is grossly inadequate.

5. One key question is what Obama and Duncan will do about the student transfer provisions of NCLB. As Amy Stuart Wells and Jennifer Jellison Holme point out in a new book published by The Century Foundation (Improving on No Child Left Behind), most students in failing urban schools in places like Chicago have few good transfer options. It may be time to allow students to cross school district boundaries for better public school options. To make this feasible, receiving suburban schools will need to be provided financial incentives under NCLB.

Question from Kirstin Waller, Teacher Baltimore City Public Schools:

Is there any chance that we could move towards national standards/tests, but local control of means to achieve those common standards?

Frederick Hess:

It’s immensely unlikely that any mandate for national standards or testing will emerge from Congress or that the administration would propose it. However, there’s an excellent chance that funding and support will be put forward to support states collaborating on multi-state standards. That will likely provide a gradual ramp-up towards something more national in scope.

Michele McNeil (Moderator):

We had several questions about what Mr. Duncan’s thoughts and policies might be on English-language learners. If we don’t get to that question during the chat, my colleague Mary Ann Zehr, at her Learning the Language blog, explored that in a recent post, which you can read here.

Question from joe morton, state superintendent of education, alabama:

What effect will the selection of Arne Duncan have on getting education more prominently included in a Congressional Economic Stimulus bill?

Richard Kahlenberg:

My guess is that Duncan’s selection is likely to have a positive impact because he’s close with the president-elect. Obama has come under some heat for picking a basketball buddy as Education Secretary. But Duncan’s stong rapport with Obama, on and off the basketball court, will only help education, including on the first big issue - the stimulus bill.

Question from Jeff Hinman Director of Afterschool Programs Westhills Youth Organization:

What effect do you believe this appointment will have on the after school SES private company implementations?

Frederick Hess:

I think it’s safe to assume that SES is going to be substantially revisited during reauthorization, whether than proves to be 2009, 2010, or what have you. Certainly, Chicago’s complicated experience with SES would be expected to inform Duncan’s approach. More generally, the fact that the new administration has no investment in the design or implementation of SES means that there will be much uncertainty for private providers.

Question from Angela Trapp, Parent, Fulton County (GA) Public Schools:

Chicago moved from having a school system superintendent to having a CEO directly reporting to the Mayor. Will this structure and Arne Duncan’s lack of experience in education have a positive or negative influence of the push to advance our children into the 21st century of education with the resources such as 21st century technology in our nation’s schools?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Arne Duncan does not have a degree in education, as is true of an increasing number of education leaders. What’s more important to my mind is having someone who can articulate a clear vision for the future of education; who has the political and managerial skills to accomplish those goals; and who knows what he doesn’t know -- and will surround himself with those who understand what it’s like to be in the classroom.

Question from Meg Sullivan:

I’m an ardent supporter of President-elect Barack Obama but I must say I’m disappointed with his selection of Duncan. I worked in a charter school in Chicago, one that Duncan supported and allowed to grow, and I found gross misconduct: an illegal strip search, indiscriminate grade changes and attendance changes to name a few. All of my allegations were proved through an internal investigation. My question is: With the explosive growth of privatized schools, how can we ensure enough oversight that gross misconduct like doesn’t occur, and if it does, these schools are closed or their charters revoked?

Frederick Hess:

Well, charter schools, of course, aren’t really “privatized” schools. Under state laws, they’re regarded as public schools-- though a small number are managed by for-profit entities. Not sure how appropriate it is to link a superintendent of a district the size of Chicago to specific occurrences in an isolated school, especially one that’s not managed by the district. As you point out, there is a need for appropriate oversight of all publicly-funded schools, and for quality control that stretches beyond reading and math scores. There is hope that the new administration will prove to be interested in these challenges.

Question from Mike Johanek, Senior Fellow, Univ of Penn’s Graduate School of Education:

Given Chicago’s history of experimentation with community partnerships and community schooling, do either of you see any broadening of the typically school-centric federal education policies toward more comprehensive accountability for youth development, particularly in light of other Obama initiatives such as Promise Neighborhoods?

{second submission, after web page froze - thanks) Richard Kahlenberg:

I think we are likely to see more of a “community schooling” approach to education under the Obama Administration. Obama has spoken favorably about the Harlem Children’s Zone and wants that replicated. AFT president Randi Weingarten has made community schools a centerpiece of her approach. And Arne Duncan clearly sees the connection between what goes on inside and outside of schools.

We may finally be comeing back to the view of those who opposed creating a new Department of Education during the Carter administration. Some argued against a separate department because education is so deeply intertwined with health and human services.

Question from Virginia McHugh, Executive Director, Association Montessori International/USA:

In President-Elect Obama’s statement announcing Arne Duncan as his secretary for the department of education, he says Duncan will bring innovative ways to measuring schools’ effectiveness. “[R]esults just aren’t about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job.” Some forms of alternative education, such as Montessori, have long implemented alternatives to testing to uncover the real development and education taking place inside a classroom. What role do you see such alternative models play in the Department of Education’s transition into the Obama-Biden administration?

Frederick Hess:

Linda Darling-Hammond, for instance, is a prominent proponent of moving away from NCLB’s firm emphasis on grade 3-8 reading and math scores. Her position on the transition team, along with Obama comments during the campaign, is strong evidence that the administration is interested in moving this direction. Whether such moves represent more nuanced thinking on quality control or a retreat from accountability is an open question-- but will become clearer as the administration names its full education team and starts to put proposals on the table.

Question from Frank Lyman educational consultant:

What will the Secretary’s stance be on higher pay for higher test scores? Is he aware of the incongruity of that policy with the multiple variables that influence student achievement and the stark differences between one classroom and another?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Arne Duncan supports higher pay for test scores -- both for teachers who raise student achievement and for students who earn higher scores.

As you point out, pay for performance is highly controversial, in part because the measurements employed may inaccurately reflect the “value added” by an individual teacher. Others object to plans that reward individual teachers because they fear that it will discourage cooperation. One of the reasons Japanese schools have been successful is that teachers collaborate on lesson plans, and share strategies on what works best with students. If teachers are fighting over a limited pie of bonuses, it may discourage cooperation.

It’s heartening, therefore, that in Chicago, Duncan has employed the Teacher Advacement Program, a well thought out version of performance pay. TAP, which is adopted with input from teachers, tries to address some of the concerns about merit pay.

For one thing, it uses multiple measures of teacher performance. It looks not only at test score gains but also the evaluations of master teachers who are trained in the subject area of the teachers they are evaluating. In addition, TAP incorporates school-wide gains into the evaluation to provide an incentive for teachers to collaborate.

Duncan also supports Roland Fryer’s plan to pay low income students for high performance, which is controversial in its own right. But providing teacher and student incentives simultaneously has a certain logic. Al Shanker pointed out that plans that hold teachers accountable, but not students, are unfair. (NCLB, of course, does just that by failing to hold students accountable.) Shanker asked, do we really want to tell students that if they fail a test, they won’t be punished, but their teacher will be? Michele McNeil (Moderator):

There were also several questions about Mr. Duncan’s experience with special education students. Our reporter on the special education beat, Christina Samuels, is looking into those issues and will be writing about what she finds out on her blog, On Special Education.

Question from Gary Latman, CPS teacher, reassignment pool:

Recently, several CPS schools were reconstituted, the entire staff fired, and the schools reopened after several months of interviewing applicants for the vacant positions. How does such a drastic measure change the climate and low standardized test scores if the student body reamains unchanged, and doesn’t this appear to assign blame for the failure on the staff? Is this how you are going to address the failure of many of our public schools nationwide?

Frederick Hess:

How it affects the climate and student performance is an open question. Research on “turnarounds” in a variety of contexts suggests that how such efforts play out depends on the institutional environment, the resources, the available human capital, the incentives, and so forth. There certainly appears to be some evidnece that it can make a difference-- and Duncan has made clear that he is less concerned about the unjust assignation of blame in such situations than he is about school quality. Duncan’s approach does not suggest that he sees this as the primary way to approach persistently low-performing schools. His emphasis on Ren2010 in Chicago, for instance, suggests that he sees the creation of a supply of high-quality schools as one way to minimize the need to reconstitute troubled schools.

Question from James Migliorini, Technology Teacher, Barnstable Horace Mann Charter School, Barnstable, MA:

With many states, cities, and towns feeling the effects of a downward economy,school budgets have been negatively impacted causing cutbacks, layoffs, etc. Will the federal government have any programs to ail budget-weak school districts in the next couple of years?

Frederick Hess:

It’s highly likely that the Obama stimulus package will include aid for education, as part of its funding for state governments. Exactly how much money that entails, and how it might be distributed, is far from clear. At the same time, it’s worth recalling that district budgets have been steadily increasing-- at faster and somewhat more moderate clips-- for about a quarter-century. I’d argue there’s real value in hard times, as they provide the opportunity to rethink how dollars are spent and and the political cover to make unpleasant decisions. I hope that state chiefs, superintendents, and school boards seize the moment in this fashion.

Question from Doug Wood, Director, Orchard View Community Education:

Community schools have been an essential component of the Chicago rebound. Will efforts to create community and school partnerships as part of a national policy? How can national practitioner groups like the National Community Education Association and the Coalition for Community Schools be involved in shaping policy?

Frederick Hess:

There’s no way to know how central the administration may think community and school partnerships to be. Certainly, there’s a tendency to pay lip service to such efforts. Whether there’s much the feds can do beyond that is unclear. The budget will be telling on this count; it is possible that Duncan may push for new dollars, especially as part of the tidal wave of stimulus funds, to support such activities. If the administration were to propose such spending, it’s very likely that the new Congress would readily support it.

Question from Jack Nigro, Education Officer, Ontario Ministry of Education:

I have heard that Arne Duncan is a strong advocate for Charter Schools. Will he be a champion of a strong public education system?

Richard Kahlenberg:

You are correct that Arne Duncan has been a strong advocate of charter schools in Chicago, which is consistent with Barack Obama’s strong support during the campaign. This suggests to me that they understand the need to give students stuck in bad schools the chance to transfer out. To his credit, Obama strongly opposes private school vouchers and prefers that choice take place within the public/charter sphere.

As we move forward, it will be interesting to see, what will be the role of magnet schools – public schools with special themes that are meant to attract economically and racially diverse student bodies?

This question is raised in a fascinating new report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. In the foreword, Gary Orfield notes that twice as many students (2 million) attend magnet schools as charter schools (1 million) and yet the federal government currently provides $200 million to charter schools and just $100 million to magnet schools. Obama wants to double charter school funding to $400 million. Will he also substantially increase magnet school funding, as Sen. John Edwards suggested during the primaries?

To some, magnet schools and school integration may seem old-fashioned. Back in the heady days of the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. called for the appointment of a cabinet level Secretary of Integration. But today, some believe, the issue is achievement, not integration, which is why charters are in vogue.

Not so fast, say the authors of the UCLA report, Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley. Magnet schools, they note, have a strong record of increasing academic achievement, far stronger than the mixed record for charter schools.

Magnet schools might seem a lost cause following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2007 decision curtailing racial integration plans in Seattle and Louisville, but some 60 U.S. school districts are now using family income rather than race as the primary factor in student assignment. This focus on economic status of classmates is even more closely linked to achievement than race, according to numerous studies.

One alternative would be to merge the magnet and charter school concepts so that charter schools become an engine for economic and racial integration rather than an impediment.

Question from Dr. Charles Cole, teacher, Loyola University:

Mr. Obama has expressed support for charter schools. Inasmuch as such schools draw concentratons of higher quality teachers from existing schools, how does he expect to counter the effects of that on the non-charter schools?

Frederick Hess:

Actually, the evidence as to from where charters draw their teachers or the impact on local teaching forces is not well established. That said, Obama repeatedly pledged during the campaign to help provide schools with an “army” of new teachers. His program included calls for lending/scholarship progarms that would encourage high-achieving college grads to enter hard-to-staff schools and tackle high-needs subjects. Obama has also called for new training programs, and generally supported nontradtional recruitment efforts like Teach for America (though he has prominent education advisors who have been much more skeptical of programs like TFA). How much of this may ultimately make it into the administration budget, of course, is an open question.

Question from Scott Shuler, Arts Specialist, CT Dept. of Education; President-Elect, MENC: The National Association for Music Education:

Do Arne Duncan’s track record and public statements suggest that he will work to ensure that all children -- not just children in suburban schools -- receieve a balanced education that includes sequential instruction in art and music, physical education, and other core non-tested subjects, rather than a narrow test-preparation curriculum?

Frederick Hess:

If anything, Duncan’s entire career in public education has been focused on helping improving schooling for students in the urban core. Whether one reads those efforts as focused on ensuring mastery of essential skills or as advancing a “balanced education” is a judgment call. But most observers, whatever else they might think of this or that particular of Duncan’s tenure, would agree that he is an ardent champion of providing quality schools for inner-city children.

Question from April Brenden-Locke, Teacher, Boones Ferry Primary, Wilsonville, Oregon:

What is Mr. Duncan’s stance on the role of standardized testing in K-12 education?

Frederick Hess:

His public comments suggest that he is broadly supportive of the use of standardized testing and of NCLB-style assessments. That said, he has also voiced concerns about the way the measures are used and the design and particulars of the NCLB accountability system. He has particularly suggested the need to give state and local officials more flexibility.

Question from Michael Dillon, Nekoosa Schoolboard:

Then new SecEd has plenty of experience with large city, large district issues. How will he handle the problems facing smaller more rural districts?

Richard Kahlenberg:

One of the disadvantages of appointing a schools superintendent rather than a governor as education secretary is that he is less familiar with the broad range of issues a state-wide officer holder addresses. I don’t think there is much in Duncan’s Chicago record to tell us how he will handle the issues faced by small rural districts but some of his larger themes -- addressing pre-K as a part of a larger package of education reforms; supporting experimentation in cooperation with uions; and holding schools accountable -- apply to districts across the country. It will, I think, be important for Duncan to include on his staff people intimately familiar with the particular challenges that rural districts face.

Question from George Grant, Superintendent Vallivue School District 139:

Will NCLB as we know it today mean the same thing to states that implement the law under Mr. Duncan?

Frederick Hess:

Until NCLB is reauthorized, the current law will stand as written. That said, the Department of Education will have much leeway to modify the meaning of the statute through guidance, directives, and interpretation. How much Duncan would seek to modify the law in this fashion is not yet clear, though his testimony to Congress earlier this year suggested that he sees much value in added flexibility for states and districts.

Question from Donna Sundre, Executive Director and Professor, Center for Assessment and Research Studies, James Madison University:

What will be the most likely ramifications for higher education with the appointment of Arne Duncan to the Secretary of Education post?

Frederick Hess:

Of all the many ambiguities that remain even after the Duncan announcement, this is the most ambiguous. I’m not aware that Duncan has ever had cause to say much publicly about higher education writ large. He’s obvious concerned with students transitioning to higher ed, access, and teacher preparation, and he’s worked in Chicago to partner with the Univesity of Illinois-Chicago to reform teacher training, but his educational focus has been very much on K-12. His early remarks on higher ed will therefore be highly significant, as will the fuller slate of appointments-- especially those for the ED positions whose primary focus is higher ed.

Question from Joan Blair, Teacher, Tredyffrin-Easttown School District:

In our very legitimate effort to improve education in urban areas, how can we be sure that innovative programs in high-achieving surburban school districts receive support? NCLB constrains innovation.

Richard Kahlenberg:

I’d say two things: 1. I think NCLB is right to recognize that the disgraceful gap in achievement between low income and higher income students is our fundamental challenge.

2. Having said that, one idea that’s been talked about is to move away from accountability based on a single standard of proficiency to one that rewards schools for raising achievement across the academic distribution. As Lauren Resnick points out in her chapter in “Improving on No Child Left Behind,” we now focus so much on the “bubble kids,” those on the cusp of becoming proficient. If schools instead were judged based on raising achievement across the board, we might see more focus on ensuring that high achieving students are pushed to their potential.

Question from Brian Burnette, teacher, Hillgrove High School:

If president-elect Obama has his own kids in private schools, how does he expect to have a positive impact on public education? Isn’t he somewhat out of touch? What are his plans for NCLB? How does he plan on funding his educational programs? He plans on raising the expectations of the students. What will be his standard for measuring those expectations? What model school or system will he be using to compare all others against? Is he planning on getting input from current classroom teachers?

Frederick Hess:

Brian, you pose a lot of questions here. The question of whether it’s appropriate for a President to enroll their child in DC’s private schools is a sometimes heated one, notwithstanding that it has been the norm. I don’t think the decision necessarily has any impact on a President’s ability to impact public education or to be in touch with the issues-- I think that such considerations as to what he reads, with whom he speaks, where his travels take him, and how he allocates his time will matter far more than the school that his daughters attend. The administration will fund its education program the same way we’re funding everything else at the moment-- by borrowing the money and sticking our children and grandchildren with the bill. As for the issues of expectations and model school systems, I think we’ll just have to wait and see as to what Obama and Duncan say once they’ve assumed their duties.

Question from Safiyah Jackson, Assistant Director of Education, John G. Shedd Aquarium:

What is your opinion about the impact of school ‘support systems’ such as after-school programming and museums/zoo/aquariums?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Arne Duncan is a supporter of after-school programs and has questioned the traditional length of the school day and the school year. I agree. The work of the Center for American Progress has highlighted the difference between more effective and less effective programs in this area.

Question from Monise L. Seward, Ed.S. CEO & Founder of Millennium Scholars Academy (www.msak12.org):

What, if any, impact will Duncan’s appointment have on the charter school movement? I am familiar with the Renaissance project in Chicago, as well as the number of charter schools currently in operation. do you think that Duncan will use the motivation behind Renaissance to enact better legislation and funding for charter schools?

Frederick Hess:

As I mentioned a moment ago, Duncan has been friendly to charter schooling and broadly supportive of charter schooling in Chicago but is not seen as a diehard charter school advocate. (This is one reason why he emerged so early on as a consensus pick-- both the pro-charter, pro-merit pay “New” Democrats and the teacher unions regard him as reasonable and sympathetic. In that, he is much like Obama himself). Consistent with Obama’s campaign pledge, I’d expect Duncan to push for additional charter funding, to be broadly supportive of charter efforts, and to support statutory changes that may remove some impediments that frustrate charter schooling, but I would also expect him to balance any such efforts with substantial attention to district schools and with efforts to support enhanced quality control in charter schooling.

Question from Allen McBride - Taxpayer, Alabama:

Will Secretary Duncan coninue the effort made in recent months by Sec. Spellings to make sure parents are properly informed about school choice options far enough enough in advance of the new school year to actually be able to exercise the right to school choice or supplemental educational services promised them under the law?

Frederick Hess:

There’s no way to know, obviously, but Duncan has long championed “public choice” and has been an advocate for parents and families in Chicago. Efforts to provide accurate and timely information to parents is an idea that enjoys strong bipartisan support, and I’d be surprised if Duncan had cause to weaken anything that the Spellings team has done on this count.

Question from Wes Pruitt, K-12 Policy Analyst, Washington State Workforce Board:

What is the Secretary-designee’s record on the high school dropout issue?

Frederick Hess:

In Chicago, he has made tackling high school dropouts a priority. On this measure, as on an array of other indicators, Chicago has made steady progress during Duncan’s tenure. How much of his approach to issues like this will translate to Washington is an open question, as the tools available for a superintendent to tackle an issue like this are profoundly different from those available to the Secretary of Education.

Question from Susan Crawford, Founder, The Right to Read Project:

Will Mr. Duncan be trying to turn schools into charter schools all over the country, or only in large cities? Also, does he support the school board-form of school governance, or does he agree with Lou Gerstner that it should be changed?

Frederick Hess:

I don’t think Duncan has any particular plan to promote charters willy-nilly. This was a concern voiced also about the Bush team’s designs in 2000, and it’s hard to argue that the administration had a big impact-- one way or the other-- on the steady growth in charter schooling. Obama has suggested that his administration will focus on providing new teachers and additional funds, and on relaxing some of the NCLB strictures. He has called for doubling funding for charter schools (from $200 million to $400 million a year). While both Obama and Duncan are viewed as generally supportive of charter schooling, neither has given any sign that they “prefer” charter schools to traditional district schools. On governance, Duncan has benefited from Chicago’s mayoral control and has repeatedly said that his reform efforts have benefited from Mayor Daley’s strong backing. But Chicago does have a (mayor-appointed) school board, so he’s technically worked under a school board during his tenure. I am not aware of him offering any absolutist declarations on the desirability of school boards more generally.

Question from John Gutowski, Professor Education & Psychology, Middlesex County College:

What types of standardized testing will be used by the new administration? True use of standardized tests results in 50% of children below the norm, while using older norms (when the tests were normed) eventually causes the Lake Wobegon effect (all children are above average). Please help me understand what we will do to solve the dilemma of measuring progress in ways that will legitimately benefit our children.

Richard Kahlenberg:

Most educators have come to believe that students should be judged against absolute standards of what they should know and be able to do, rather than being judged against one another.

Obama has gone further and talked about improving the assessments used under No Child Left Behind -- a critical issue. Reports going back many years have shown that the countries that beat us year in and year out on international tests use much more sophisticated assessments than we do. Adequate federal funding could help states, or consortia of states, develop far better tests than we have today. That, in turn, would make “teaching the to test” a desired outcome rather than something to be avoided.

Question from Alex Jackl, CIO, ESP Solutions Group:

What impact do you think the new Secretary will have on funding of the State Longitudinal Data Grants and over all funding of State initiatives designed to impact schools?

Frederick Hess:

I don’t think there will be any disruptions. Duncan is known as an urban superintendent with a strong interest in data, and the Obama education team includes a number of individuals who have been strong champions of enhanced data collection. Especially given that budget constraints are likely to be thrown to the wind for the next year or two, and the likelihood that this will enable the administration to pad the education budget, I’d expect funding for this kind of activity to fare relatively well. What will happen in the out years past 2010, once we’re past this crisis and are facing the fiscal wreckage, will be another question.

Question from Dona Matthews, adjunct professor, U of Toronto:

Gifted education is one of the areas that has been left behind in the tailwind of NCLB. Do you have any thoughts on Duncan’s position on supporting and fostering giftedness and talent?

Frederick Hess:

As an urban superitnendent, Duncan has been most focused on raising the floor-- on tackling persistently low-performing schools and trying to lift many more of Chicago’s students over the state adquacy bar in reading and math. However, there is certainly much sympathy among Democratic officeholders for the frustrations engendered by NCLB on this count. While Duncan is likely to push to retain the Department’s focus on students who are being left behind (hence Secretary Spellings’ very supportive remarks over the past few days), the reality is that his Department and the Democratic caucus in Congress will probably be substntially more interested than has been the case in finding dollars for G&T-type programs and for worrying about unintended consequences of NCLB-style accountability.

Question from Nasue Nishida, Policy Director, Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession:

To what degree do you feel Duncan/Obama support alternative teacher certification programs, such as Teach for America?

Frederick Hess:

Duncan is quite supportive and Obama appears relatively so. This is one of the interesting tensions that surrounded the SecEd choice-- given Linda Darling-Hammond’s prominent role in the Obama transition and her well-known doubts about Teach for America, there was a question as to where the administration would come down. Duncan’s tenure in Chicago, however, has involved substantial use of nontradtional teacher preparation and he has given every signal that he is broadly in favor of such efforts (especially given his own status as a nontraditional superintendent).

Michele McNeil (Moderator):

For our last question, Mr. Kahlenberg wanted to take a crack at a question Mr. Hess answered about the impact of Duncan’s appointment on higher education. Here’s Mr. Kahlenberg’s take:

Arne Duncan’s views on higher education are a bit of a mystery, extending mostly to his role as a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers. But higher education will be a major issue in the next administration. Obama has a plan to provide a $4,000 refundable tax credit to those attending college -- a major expansion on current programs. In addition, the hot button issue of affirmative action will likely resurface around 2010, if the U.S. Supreme Court takes a case challenging the use of racial preferences at the University of Texas. Obama has said that his own daughters do not deserve a preference in college admissions, given their privileged upbringing, and that low income whites do. It will be fascinating to see how Obama and Duncan handle this question, which has bedeviled American liberalism for a generation. Michele McNeil (Moderator):

That’s all the time we have for questions today. I want to thank all of our readers for the great questions. We would have loved to have gotten to all of them. And, I would also like to thank our guests for all of the great insights. You can continue to follow Duncan’s nomination process and what his plans might be for federal education policy at our Campaign K-12 blog.

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