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Arne Duncan to State Chiefs: Prove Critics Wrong by Setting the Bar Higher

By Evie Blad — November 15, 2013 3 min read
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This week’s rollback of requirements for renewal of waivers from No Child Left Behind should not be interpreted as a softening of federal expectations for high standards and creative approaches among states, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Council of Chief State School Officers meeting in Richmond, Va. Friday.

Those changes included the elimination of a requirement for waiver states to use teacher-evaluation data to ensure that poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective teachers at a higher rate than their peers. Since the department announced the changes, there’s been “push back” from some groups who fear states will now be less aggressive about putting great teachers in classrooms with disadvantaged students, Duncan said.

“There is a huge lack of trust here,” he said. “There are folks who think some states talk the talk but don’t walk the walk in some of these things. Some of that historical skepticism is valid in my mind, quite frankly.”

He said he couldn’t point to “a single district” that is doing enough to address teacher placement issues and said more work will need to be done in that area.

And some states are not doing enough to meet the terms of their existing waivers, Duncan said.

“I’m sure someone will say that what we did means that we won’t pull a waiver,” he said. “I want to be really clear that the odds are that we will revoke a waiver or two or three, and that could happen as early as this summer... I just want to be really up front and honest about that.”

Despite the intense tone of some of Duncan’s statements, the question-and-answer session had an upbeat tone as state leaders stopped several times to applaud (literally applaud) the changes in renewal requirements.

But the chiefs were also eager to discuss the push and pull they’ve gotten from constituents who are concerned about several key changes going on around the country—the adoption of Common Core State Standards and the creation of new tests aligned to them. They mentioned protests from groups like the tea party and anti-testing activists.

Duncan urged leaders to build alliances with “reasonable people in the middle” by communicating frequently and effectively about the changes they are making in their state, which will be necessary if the U.S. economy wants to keep pace with its global peers.

“We’re living in the past,” he said. “We’re living on an economic structure from 25 or 30 years ago that no longer exists ...The world has changed much faster than people’s perception of the world.”

On district waivers

Washington State Superintendent Randy Dorn asked, if his state loses its waiver, what’s to stop a group of districts from seeking a waiver similar to the one the feds granted to eight California school districts? (Washington is one of three states on high-risk status over teacher-evaluation woes.)

“It’s a valid question,” Dorn said a to room of laughing school chiefs. State leaders have urged Duncan to keep waivers at the state level.

“Our goal is not to have COREs all over the country,” Duncan said. “Fifty relationships we can more than manage..50,000 relationships sort of stretches us.”

On ESEA reauthorization

“While we love working with you guys, we would also love a permanent solution to some of this,” CCSSO Executive Director Chris Minnich told Duncan.

Duncan agreed that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would be optimal.

“Waivers always have been and always will be Plan B, and we’d much prefer to get to Plan A sooner rather than later.”

He said he was working hard to build bridges “across the partisan divide,” citing a meeting he had later that afternoon with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to discuss college affordability. Duncan said the cost of college is “the thing I hear about most on airplanes, in grocery stores, and in the laundromat.”

Does Duncan go to a laundromat?

On the bipartisan early-childhood education bill

“Introducing legislation is relatively easy,” Duncan said. “Getting it passed is a little more difficult.”