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With Time Running Out, Arne Duncan Discusses His Lengthy To-Do List

By Michele McNeil — April 14, 2014 6 min read
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In the waning years of the Obama administration, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees several important and difficult priorities ahead of him, he told Education Week in a wide-ranging 30-minute interview. Chief among them: The transition to new standards and tests, the debut of new teacher evaluations tied to test scores, and the costly drive to expand preschool.

That’s “a lot of change in a short amount of time—none of it easy,” he said in an April 11 interview in his Washington office. But if states and the federal government are able to navigate over a mountain of political and policy challenges, he said, then the result will “change education forever in some pretty extraordinary ways.”

And Duncan pledged to get one long-awaited initiative done that could also have a far-reaching impact: an overhaul of regulations that govern teacher-prep programs. “They will get done. [They are] very important.”

Duncan had no interest in talking about was his legacy, declaring: “I don’t spend any time thinking about that.” Yet he did express a sense of urgency about all that’s left to do—especially with just two and a half years left and a Congress that’s mired in partisan bickering.

The interview came a day after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced her resignation, and so Duncan wasn’t as forceful as he usually is about his intention to stay in the administration, if the president wants, til the end. Still, he gave every indication he plans to turn the lights out at 400 Maryland Avenue in January 2017.

“I’m here today. Hopefully I’ll be here tomorrow,” he said.

When Duncan ticked off his to-do list for the coming couple of years—from preschool to standards implementation to college affordability—he didn’t mention, specifically, any “equity” agenda. There are many civil rights and other education policy advocates who are getting frustrated at the administration’s perceived lack of attention to equity, especially as No Child Left Behind Act waivers have allowed big changes to subgroup accountability. (Not to mention a sweeping federal waiver to California that exempted them from testing students for a year, and holding schools accountable for up to two years.) Civil rights groups were especially annoyed when the administration backed off from using waiver renewals to force states to address the inequitable distribution of teachers. Now, the department is working on a “50-state strategy” on teacher equity that Duncan said is very much still in its early stages.

“I don’t think we’ve done enough,” said Duncan, who referenced that the department has proposed a new Race to the Top for equity contest.

Of course, the underlying theme of equity is often present in much of the department’s, and Duncan’s work. One example: the release of the Civil Rights Data Collection, which highlighted disparities in discipline rates, advanced course-taking, and grade retention rates. “As folks here understand, our deep concern for equity and closing opportunity gaps drives everything we do at the Department,” he said in a speech about the data’s release.

But given the civil rights’ groups concerns, I asked him: Were kids better off under President George W. Bush?

He quickly cited reasons that isn’t so. Increasing numbers of Pell Grant recipients. Dropout rates of Hispanic and black students that have been nearly cut in half. Federal efforts to expand pre-K “when the department had historically done nothing,” Duncan said. Still "[we have] a “long way to go.”

Interestingly (though perhaps not surprisingly) he talked of his priorities in these next couple of years in terms of supporting states as they transition to “higher” standards. This comes on the heels of his testimony to Congress, in which he said that high standards are most important; whether they are common or not is “secondary.” This continues to reflect the fine line Duncan is trying to walk between supporting states as they implement the common core, and not giving opponents any fuel to criticize him for overreaching into local decisions.

And, in his comments about the common core, he circled back to equity.

“For me, the travesty of No Child Left Behind was seeing 19 states dummy down standards. And anyone who thinks that was serving poor kids or that was part of an equity agenda...” Duncan said.

A lot of what Duncan wants to accomplish, such as expanding early education or creating a new Race to the Top contest, costs money and would require the cooperation of a typically uncooperative Congress. But Duncan, who says he and his department have been “absolutely nonpolitical,” said he’s not waiting around for Congress to act.

“If we want to want to do more early childhood we need more money to do that. If we want to do more Promise Neighborhoods, we need more money to do that. We’re not sitting down waiting on it,” said Duncan, who pointed to the newly released Civil Rights Data Collection and technology initiatives with the Federal Communications Commission. “We’re moving very, very fast.”

Notably, Duncan made no mention of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act being on his priority list. After all, 42 states plus the District of Columbia now have his administration’s waivers from the law, which have required states to promise to adopt college- and career-ready standards, turn around the lowest-performing schools, and tie teacher evaluations to test scores. It’s the teacher-evaluation piece that is tripping up a lot of states, and may cost at least one (Washington State) its waiver.

“We’ve tried to provide some real flexibility. I’m interested in finishing at the right point. The path to get there is going to be very different. Some states are two or three years ahead of others, and are in great shape. Some are in the middle and some are further behind,” he said. “We’ve been pretty agnostic on these things and tried to give people the flexibility to figure out what the right answer is in their local context. There’s no right or wrong answer.”

Except there is. The U.S. Department of Education is requiring states with NCLB waivers, by 2014-15, to fully implement their teacher-evaluation systems tied to student test scores. And now they have until 2016-17, generally, to use those evaluations in personnel decisions. States whose timelines don’t match those have been placed on “at-risk” status.

So could Washington state, which is in hot water because its timelines do not match those, save its waiver?

“Washington state made some commitments,” Duncan said. “In any agreement you agree to things on both sides in good faith. ... When we both make an agreement together we both have to live up to our commitments.”

Despite having a phone conversation with Washington state officials on their waiver just a few days ago, Duncan told me he didn’t know the specifics about their waiver predicament.

But, importantly, he also said: “It takes a little bit more time to get it right; we’re finding that. If you’re headed in the right direction, that’s something we absolutely want to have the conversation about. If the state decides they don’t want to do something, that’s different.”

(Though that has not worked for Illinois, which does not have a waiver because the state’s timeline is slightly later than the federal one.)

For some of the administration’s initiatives—such as Race to the Top—their success (and Duncan’s legacy) won’t likely be determined for years to come.

“Four years in, if you look across the country at which states are moving the fastest, disproportionately it’s Race to the Top states. The real test for me isn’t now, but four or five years from now. And if the progress stops when the money stops then we would have failed,” he said. “But if we’ve built something that’s sustainable and that has fundamentally transformed the opportunity structure in these states, then that’s a really, really big deal.”

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his office in Washington earlier this year.--Stephen Voss for Education Week

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