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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Bam! Pow! Whomp! Sec. Duncan Knocks It Out of the Park

By Rick Hess — November 18, 2010 6 min read
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Now that was a four-bagger.

Lord knows, I’ve been pretty critical of the Secretary of Education on various counts (see here, here, here... you get the idea). So, let me give him his due. Yesterday, the Secretary weighed in on the pressing need to start spending school dollars smarter in one humdinger of a speech. Duncan touched on every important issue, pulled no punches, and modeled the kind of responsible tough-mindedness that we need from our leaders (full disclosure: the speech was delivered at AEI and I hosted--you can view the speech and subsequent Q&A here).

Department wordsmith David Whitman crafted a masterful speech, which the Secretary delivered without batting an eye. Duncan opened by saying flat out, “I am here to talk today about what has been called the New Normal. For the next several years, preschool, K-12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less... [This] can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements... It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.”

Straight up, this was a speech unlike any I’ve ever heard a Secretary deliver. Duncan said resources are limited, embraced the need to make tough choices, urged states and districts to contemplate boosting some class sizes and consolidating schools, and didn’t spend much time trying to throw bones to the status quo. He laid out the bleak revenue picture ahead and then waded into ways that states and districts can save bucks without taking stupid steps like “reducing the number of days in the school year, slashing instructional time spent on task, eliminating the arts and foreign languages, abandoning promising reforms, and laying off talented, young teachers.”

The Secretary also finally struck a useful note regarding the stimulus and Edujobs—one that, whatever one thinks of these bills, many of us have been urging him to say for quite a while. Duncan said that the bailouts, while he thought them necessary, were a finished chapter, and that states and districts now need to focus on getting their houses in order. In other words, states shouldn’t count on coming back to the D.C. bailout drawer. A little late for him to say this, to my mind, but better late than never.

Duncan made clear the financial drag of the status quo, saying, “The factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers—and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology. Teachers cannot be interchangeable widgets. Yet the legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.”

And his to-do list was spot on. He said, “Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education—almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.”

And, in a pleasant surprise, Duncan didn’t shy from specifics. In blunt but measured prose, he tackled topics that are often verboten. He said, “Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers—with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.”

He continued, “Or consider the debate around reducing class size. Up through third grade, research shows a small class size of 13 to 17 students can boost achievement. Parents, like myself, understandably like smaller classes...and it is good news that the size of classes in the U.S. has steadily shrunk for decades. But in secondary schools, districts may be able to save money without hurting students, while allowing modest but smartly targeted increases in class size.” Duncan laudably argued against gutting arts, music, and sports in a mindless effort to protect small classes, and pointed out that schools in South Korea and Japan excel with class sizes much larger than ours.

In the Q&A, Duncan didn’t let up a lick. In my favorite remark, he said that unions “absolutely” have “to change and reform,” but he then let boards, supes, and the U.S. Department of Ed have it with both barrels. He said, “We don’t talk enough about dysfunctional school boards. Ultimately, unions don’t set school budgets, school boards do. And school boards have often shown a tremendous lack of courage, having nothing to do with union challenges. Superintendents often care about their political longevity more than doing the right thing...I’m talking about our [U.S.] Department of Education, [which] I think, in many cases has been a huge part of the problem... I promise you, we’re looking in the mirror every day to say how do we stop being this compliance-driven bureaucracy and how do we support innovation.” As my friend Mike Petrilli would say: Boom!

The Secretary of Education cannot “solve” these problems. And it’s not his job to do so. As Duncan said, “I want to be clear. I am not recommending a specific course of action today to any state or district. I am urging state and districts [to] start to think more boldly about ways to improve educational productivity.” But the Secretary can play a crucial role here, as he did yesterday. He can set down powerful markers.

He can make it safer for superintendents and state chiefs to talk about productivity and efficiency alongside student learning. He can make it safe to talk about labor-saving technologies, new staffing approaches, and school closures as part and parcel of reform—and not just the unpleasant medicine of the green-eyeshade crowd. He can put seemingly controversial ideas, like the “gold star teacher initiative,” on the table for district consideration—as he essentially did yesterday.

And the U.S. Department of Education can play a huge part. It can scour its regulations to make it easier for states and districts to spend dollars smart. It can reduce paperwork and compliance burdens. It can fund and disseminate research and tools that help state and local officials gauge cost-effective programs and services. It can help push an often hostile education establishment to embrace notions of “productivity” and “cost-effectiveness.”

I’ve previously criticized Duncan and the administration for taking the easy path when it came to the stimulus or Edujobs. Yesterday seemed to signal an inspiring change in course. Now the only question is follow-through—will this prove to have been a one-time speech, or something more than that? I think I can safely say that, if it’s the latter, the Secretary has found a propitious time to deliver the message and a winning window for bipartisan collaboration.

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