Arne Duncan Urges Leadership From State Chiefs on Common Core, Equity, Testing

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 23, 2015 5 min read
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In remarks at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual legislative conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday exhorted state schools chiefs to lead by example and find a “common-sense” middle to vexing K-12 policy issues.

During comments that touched on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Common Core State Standards, equity, and teacher preparation, Duncan lamented some shortfalls in his own department’s work, but praised states for record-high graduation rates as well as their job boosting support for early education, a top priority for President Barack Obama.

“What we don’t do enough in education is scale what works,” Duncan told the state chiefs.

He also pitched an expansive view of what future federal work in education should look like, saying it should go beyond narrow views of elementary and secondary education and extend to both the youngest children as well as higher education.

‘Pretty Darn Good Job’

West Virginia Superintendent Michael Martirano asked for Duncan’s thoughts about political pushback to the common core. As with his comments about federal education law (more on that below), the secretary hit on two themes in his remarks that didn’t necessarily complement each other.

First, he said that in the face of strong opposition to the standards in many states, and after “all the scars you have, all the blood you have shed” on the issue, the chiefs are doing “a pretty darn good job” holding the line on what he said were efforts to stick to higher standards. No state has approved legislation to repeal the common core so far in 2015, although at least a few states could approve lawmakers’ proposals to review the standards.

At the same time, Duncan also said that the move to the common core was not strictly a policy issue, and stressed the importance of having public perceptions in mind when discussing it.

“If you’re 100 percent right intellectually and you’re losing the PR battle, it doesn’t matter how smart you are intellectually. You are going to get run over,” Duncan said.

Remember, back in late 2013 Duncan himself drew heat for his remarks about parents’ reaction to the common core.

Check out my article last week on states’ efforts to win over public support with respect to the upcoming release of common-core test scores.

Optimism and Criticism

The bulk of Duncan’s remarks were related to the pending proposals in Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He started off by telling chiefs that, “I’m a little more optimistic than most folks” about the prospect of reauthorization. But many of his subsequent remarks didn’t clearly reflect that optimism.

He stressed that the administration’s goal to have an ESEA bill that stresses equity and social justice isn’t reflected in the NCLB rewrite drafted by Republicans in the House of Representatives. (That legislation was due to be considered by the full House at the end of last month, but the GOP leadership pulled it off the floor before it could be voted on—President Barack Obama, in turn, has said he would veto the bill.)

Duncan said he was discouraged by several aspects of both the House bill as well as what he has seen so far from Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee overseeing ESEA rewrite efforts in his chamber. The secretary claimed that the House bill, for example, would actually restrict states’ ability to implement innovative solutions to K-12 problems, and wouldn’t provide the necessary level of resources.

Any ESEA reauthorization proposal that simply passed on a party-line vote, Duncan said, is “not policy, that’s politics,” and he worried that progress on reauthorization will continue to stall. At the same time, Duncan stressed that he did not want to obsess about lines in the sand: “All this stuff is a negotiation.”

The chiefs, in turn, could lead schools on a smart, moderate path on issues related to ESEA, such as over-testing. He said that while states should respect parents’ concerns about testing, they should also look for opportunities to cut back on assessment without depriving the public of key information about school performance. For example, Duncan said many districts mistakenly continue to add new student tests without scrapping the tests they’ve been giving for five, 10, or 20 years.

“We’re not great at stopping things,” Duncan said of the K-12 community.

And while ESEA reauthorization remains in limbo, the secretary stressed that his department wanted to be a better “partner” to states on the issue of waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, the current iteration of the ESEA. (As my colleague Lauren Camera wrote earlier in the day, chiefs would vastly prefer an ESEA reauthorization to continued life under waivers.)

Resources and Teachers

Duncan also took the time to talk about funding and other support for K-12; in fact, he said that in general there is an “extraordinary appetite for more resources.”

He told the state chiefs that he continues to be concerned that a lack of financial support being directed to students in need of help would allow the “opportunity gaps” (such as the major differences in graduation rates between students of different demographic groups) to continue.

Despite a few districts trying innovative and effective approaches to allocating K-12 resources, Duncan told the chiefs, “If we have 15,000 school districts in 50 states, we’re not in the game.”

He did go on to praise Indiana and Minnesota for how they have distributed state aid to needy students, despite their different political environments.

The secretary also discussed resources as they relate to teacher preparation, an area where Duncan said he would give himself a “low grade” in terms of progress made in improving the teacher pipelines. While he said more resources should be dedicated to teacher preparation, he also indicated that too much of the focus in teacher-preparation programs has been on historical or relatively esoteric knowledge, and not on how to actually prepare people to teach in classrooms.

“We’re not close,” Duncan said, referring to reaching teacher-preparation goals.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.