Federal Opinion

Arne Duncan’s Twitter Town Hall: Orwell Would Be Proud

By Anthony Cody — August 25, 2011 2 min read
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George Orwell might well be proud to see how Arne Duncan has risen to the challenge of using language to disguise government actions. Watching the Twitter Town Hall yesterday was an exercise in frustration. Unfortunately, the Department of Education has released only tweets that digest his responses down into little nuggets, so to hear what he really said requires careful listening. I took some time to take down some of what was said in the first five minutes, when interviewer John Merrow focused on No Child Left Behind and the process Duncan is setting up to grant waivers.

Merrow: Why is (NCLB) still the law of the land? It expired in 2007!

It should have been reauthorized a while ago. I desperately hoped Congress would reauthorize and fix it in a bipartisan way.
It is too punitive, too prescriptive, dummied down standards, narrowed the curriculum. Congress hasn't acted. So as we move into September we are going to go out with a waiver package, work directly with states, and provide a lot more flexibility for states and districts and teachers to give them the room to hit a high bar.

Merrow: How (will states) get a waiver?

We will have a high bar, but where states have college and career ready standards, and 45 states have adopted there, where states are being creative around teacher support and principal support and evaluation, and taking on low performing schools. For me the grand tradeoff is where they're really showing courage and setting a high bar, we need to give them more flexibility and a lot more room to move.

Merrow: You are, from another perspective, actually going to exercise even more control over public education than is allowed under No Child Left Behind, if you’re deciding who gets those waivers.

Well, it's not more control over education. It IS saying where states are raising standards, we want to give them room to hit those higher standards. Right now under the current law, they get penalized for doing the right thing. And I just think we have to give a lot more flexibility, a lot more autonomy, so I would argue it's a narrower, a smaller federal footprint, a lot more autonomy, a lot more flexibility at the local level. I am frankly trying to get Washington out of the way.

Merrow: But they don’t get waivers unless they agree to do what you want’em to do.

If they're doing the right thing. We could debate that. If they have low standards, if they are dummying down standards, lying to parents and children, that's not someone I want to partner with. We've seen this huge amount of courage around the country. Forty-five states have raised standards. Where they're not taking on achievement gaps and low performing schools, where they're accepting the status quo, that's not someone I want to partner with. But we're seeing huge courage there. We'll see what happens.

Merrow: Some people are saying the real lesson of NCLB is that Washington cannot run education.

Washington can never run public education. We want to be a good partner. We want to reward courage, excellence and creativity. We want to hold folks accountable to a high bar. But education has always been and should be at the local level, and the best ideas in education are never going to come from me or anyone else in Washington. They're always going to come from great teachers, great principals at the local level. We want to hold them accountable but give them lots more room to move and to do the right thing for the children in their community, where they know best what those children and that community needs.

My own thoughts:
No Child Left Behind was a very clumsy machine which created arbitrary proficiency goals that were clearly unreachable. As the clock winds down towards the 2014 date when all students must be proficient, the law has become manifestly unworkable. If the Department of Education truly wanted to “get out of the way,” they could simply grant waivers to states based on the fact that the law is broken, as Secretary Duncan states. But Duncan has instead declared that waivers will only be granted to states he determines are meeting a whole list of new criteria that his department has come up with. They must “raise standards,” they must adopt plans to include test scores in how teachers are paid and evaluated, they must expand opportunities for charter schools, they must close schools with low test scores.

These unwise policies are the definition of “courage” in Secretary Duncan’s dictionary. And these policies greatly enlarge the federal footprint in education, because they dictate even more pressure to raise test scores down to every single classroom in the nation. This gives us “room to move” only in the same test-driven direction that NCLB has led us in from the beginning. As in Orwell’s classic novel, we are told war is peace, and ever-more prescriptive policies “give us more room to move.”

What do you think?

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