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Federal Opinion

Breakfast at Arne’s

By Rick Hess — March 04, 2011 4 min read
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As Michele McNeil reported, a few of us wandered over to 400 Maryland yesterday morning for croissants and chit-chat with the Secretary of Education. Michele, being the stellar reporter she is, gives a fair rundown of the news of the day. If you’re interested in a full account, go read her post. Below, I thought I’d just briefly offer a few Duncan comments that might be of particular interest to RHSU readers.

(And, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. While I have real disagreements with some of the Department’s efforts and concerns about some of what Duncan has said and done, our earnest Secretary is a remarkably kind, down-to-earth, and decent guy. Substantive questions aside for a moment, it is always cheering to be reminded that we’re a nation fortunate to attract folks with that kind of character to a position of public trust.)

Duncan firmly pushed back against reflexive small-class mania. He suggested that it doesn’t make sense to insist that a great teacher can only teach 22 kids--even if she feels like she can handle 29 and would gladly carry the larger load if she’d be compensated accordingly. He said, “Class size has been a sacred cow and I think we need to take it on. Give me and my wife a choice of putting our kids with a great teacher of 28 or a mediocre teacher of 23, and I know what I’d choose every time.”

When pressed on the “don’t parents prefer smaller classes?” question, Duncan said, “I don’t think parents have been given the choice I just put on the table...There’s no right choice there... [but] selectively raising class size” is different from simple-minded calls for bigger classes. Astute readers will note that Duncan, like Bill Gates in his WaPo op-ed from the other day or David Brooks in his recent NYT column, is embracing a version of the “gold star initiative” that Olivia Meeks and I floated last summer and that I’ve discussed in RHSU. (It’s always kind of cool when these things start to get traction.)

Duncan also had some reassuring words on district-union collaboration, especially in light of the Department’s Denver “collaboration” summit. He said, “I’m not for collaboration for collaboration’s sake. Collaboration around the status quo is a real problem...This is not about kumbaya.”

Duncan and I went back and forth a bit on the whole Wisconsin situation, and whether Governor Scott Walker’s plan to curtail collective bargaining was destructive (Duncan) or a sensible way to rein in school boards and superintendents (me). I worried that, once we’re out the other side of the current squeeze, absent broader changes, policymakers and unions would revert to irresponsible habits of agreeing on benefits that someone else would have to pay. Duncan was more optimistic.

He said, “Sometimes when you cross the Rubicon on these issues, you keep moving. I don’t anticipate that people who are starting to work smarter...are going to go back to old behaviors when the pressure is off.” He said, “The urgency is the pressure to improve student achievement.” I found his take cheery but unpersuasive.

Duncan argued that the administration will be able to cut an NCLB/ESEA reauth deal with the House Republicans. I argued that Republicans elected in 2010 have little interest in cutting a deal that results in a big new federal education bill, especially one that increases the federal footprint in 5,000 schools and on measuring teachers, even if wonks are convinced this is a reasonable effort to dial back NCLB overreach. Duncan argued there’s lots of ground for a deal.

He said, “None of those members have allegiance to the current bill, which is soon going to label 95 to 98 percent of their schools as failures. We’re all in leadership now; you can’t blame the previous administration. So I think we’ll get a deal done.”

Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Carmel Martin chimed in, “From a conservative frame, if you have chronically failing schools that keep getting money, it doesn’t seem like such a hard sell to say there should be aggressive change in terms of governance. That seems like it’d be a good trade-off. It means they have to do more than just putting in a new curriculum, they have to put in new people and leadership--I think that’s sellable.”

When asked about the Common Core challenges I flagged a couple weeks ago, Duncan acknowledged that there are real challenges ahead. He said, “Raising those sooner rather than later is extraordinarily helpful. There are new issues on the table that we haven’t had before, and we need to have a thoughtful conversation about them.” He indicated he was prepared to encourage the various parties to be proactive, saying, “We are going to convene them together.”

He also said that keeping the Common Core effort from blowing up will require teacher support and buy-in. He said, “Having the teacher voice is critical. If [standards and assessments] are from on-high, there’s a very real risk...Buy-in, ownership of the process as it moves forward is essential.”

Anyway, such is the word over at 400 Maryland. Make of that what you will.

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