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On the Bus With Arne Duncan: Wheelchair Basketball and Tough Questions

By Alyson Klein — September 17, 2015 5 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used his bus tour through a swath of the Midwest and South this week to prod Congress to invest in early education, shine a spotlight on a rural school that’s making the most of open educational resources, and tout the administration’s latest fix to the notoriously mindboggling federal financial aid process. (The theme of this tour, after all, is cradle-to-career.)

But along the way, Duncan’s been dogged by questions about some of his administration’s controversial moves on K-12: the Common Core State Standards, expanding charter schools, and of course, standardized testing.

I joined him on the bus on Day Three of the trip—Sept. 16, which featured stops in Illinois and Indiana. Here’s a quick glimpse of what we saw and did:

First Stop: University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (Spotlight on Higher Education and Students With Disabilities)

This big state university is a pioneer in helping students with disabilities of all sorts transition to and succeed in higher education. In fact, students from all over the country enroll to take advantage of the school’s services.

The program started in 1948, with barely any budget, its founder, Tim Nugent told me. And from early on, sports were a big part of the picture, because athletics give students with special needs a chance to showcase what they can do. (Nugent helped found the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, and the sport is still big at U of I.)

These days, the university offers a one-stop shop for everyone from disabled veterans to students who have difficulty concentrating on their exams and need to take tests in a cubicle. And it likes to pair students who need help with those who want to go onto become special education teachers and health professionals.

“The university is a model, it is an absolute model,” Duncan said.

The stop wasn’t just a higher-ed show, though. Local reporters pressed Duncan on the state’s sluggish preliminary performance on a brand-new test aligned to the Common Core State Standards, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

“It actually doesn’t concern me at all. What Illinois and many other states are doing is finally telling the truth. For far too long, [in] far too many states including Illinois, standards were dummied down,” Duncan said. “This is going to be a hard, rocky, bumpy couple of years, and that’s just the way things are.”

Duncan was also asked about Illinois’ budget situation. Last year, the state legislature considered, but ultimately tabled, a big shift in its funding formula that would have put a premium on ensuring that low-income students get their fair share of resources. Duncan reminded folks that, as superintendent of the state’s largest school district, Chicago, he sued the state over funding.

“So many children who need the most get the least in Illinois,” he said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Second Stop: Purdue University in West Lafeyette, Ind. (Ask Arne Anything!)

As a kid in Chicago, did Duncan dream of running the U.S. Department of Education someday? What’s his advice to a student with “odd passion” for education policy who wants his job some day? What’s up with teacher evaluation through test scores? And, with so-called competency-based education on the rise, when can we finally get rid of standardized tests?

Those were just a few of the questions that Duncan fielded from an audience of students, educators, and educators-to-be at Purdue University, as well as from Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and the president of the university.

Duncan’s career advice: He suggests that folks who want to work in the policy world spend at least some time working hands-on with kids. “If you are a policy whiz, but don’t understand the impact in the classroom” you won’t be as effective as you could be, he said.

On testing: He thinks that even when students are working to master certain skills—as they do in competency-based programs—there need to be assessments in place to keep everyone on track.

On evaluations: He clarified that the Education Department has pushed to make test scores a piece of evaluations—not the whole enchilada. And he said he doesn’t think that performance reviews should be “divorced from outcomes. ... The goal of great teaching is not to teach, the goal is having students learn,”

On how he got his gig: No, Duncan did not aspire to helm the department. He wanted to serve as the Chicago schools chief for a decade, since a lot of turnover can hurt big city districts. But after Duncan was in the job more than seven years, his friend Barack Obama got elected president. “What made it so unique was that someone who was a close friend, someone I deeply respected ... became president. There’s not too many times in life a friend becomes president. ... I came because I really, really believed in him, and to have a chance to be part of his team was a life-transforming opportunity.”

Third Stop: Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis (Duncan, Interrupted)

“Why don’t we stop privatizing schools?” “Opt-Out!”

Arne Duncan was listening to a group of Indianapolis students from across the district talk about how community service has helped shape their educations when he was suddenly interrupted by a pair of protesting parents. Both women were ushered out of the event.

Delena Ivey, one of the mothers said she has two kids in the district, and that she’s angry about greater reliance on charter schools. Charters have exploded in Indianapolis in recent years, largely thanks to the current mayor, Greg Ballard, a Republican, and the previous one, Bart Peterson, a Democrat. But Duncan has been a big booster of charters nationally. (In an earlier version of this post, I identified Peterson as a Republican. A big thanks to the eagle eyed reader who pointed out the error!)

And Ivey is upset that her children, “spend so much time in test prep” at the expense of art and physical education.

Duncan said his events are occasionally interrupted by critics.

“Sometimes it happens,” he said. “It’s totally fine. I’d be happy have that conversation.”

He’s bummed though, that the protestors came in just as students were speaking. “The students are beautiful here. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to interrupt teens."

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