Standards Opinion

Arne Duncan’s Take on School Reform: Read It!

By Marc Tucker — August 30, 2018 11 min read
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How can you not like this man and admire him? He comes across on every page as smart, honest, decent, articulate, knowledgeable, humble and deeply caring. Who could wish for a better advocate for the children many of our schools are failing every day or for a country whose schools are falling further and further behind those in other industrialized countries? The contrast between this man and the callous, ignorant ideologue who is now the U.S. Secretary of Education could not be more stunning.

And yet...and yet....just as the title of his book says, Duncan was one of the longest serving Secretaries on record, serving under a President who was a personal friend and backed him to the hilt. When President Obama took office, the American economy was in free fall. President Obama gave Duncan a once-in-a-lifetime chance to use that emergency to reform American education. The Great Recession had savaged state and local school budgets. Duncan’s Race to the Top program offered them a lifeline and they were willing to do almost anything to get the new federal money. Duncan was able to set the terms with breathtaking freedom to do as he wished. It was a unique moment in American education history.

When Duncan’s successor took office, the Congress, with rare bipartisan leadership from the Senate, wrote a bill that, in effect, accused Arne Duncan of executive “overreach” and gave back to the states much of the authority the federal government had seized under Duncan.

Teachers who had at first embraced the Common Core standards that Duncan had so fervently promoted turned against them. Parents in state after state were rebelling against the testing regimes that schools were putting in place in response to federal law, refusing to let their children take the tests, and even pulling them out of school. Applications to schools of education from young people who wanted to be teachers were tanking and many of our best teachers were leaving teaching early, saying that the Race to the Top reforms were responsible.

So this book is fascinating. On page after page, I was cheering Duncan on, agreeing with him on the issues and wishing him success. And, on page after page, I was asking myself, if I agree with him on so many issues and admire him as a leader, what in blazes went so wrong? You need to read this book because this turns out to be an important question for the United States.

Duncan is unapologetic about his program. If anything, he says, he is sorry that he did not press even harder on certain pieces of it. His big regret is that he did not do a better job of helping the public understand what he was doing and why he was doing it. I don’t think that was the problem. This book is beautifully written in highly accessible language. Arne Duncan is a great communicator. Communication is not his problem. The problem, I think, lies elsewhere.

Arne Duncan is his mother’s son. Ann Duncan spent her life running an after-school children’s center in Chicago, serving mostly very poor Black children who the Chicago schools were failing badly, "...making up for what the local schools couldn’t or wouldn’t teach...” Arne and his brother grew up in that school, in the company of these children from the projects. That was his world. After his junior year at Harvard, Duncan took a year off to work in the school and do his sociology thesis, which was, of course, on the school. Again and again, in his book, Duncan tells stories about the kids he met in his mom’s center. What comes through is his admiration for the grit and determination he found in kids living in desperate circumstances and his anger at the failure of the schools to do what his mom was doing for them, to give them a fighting chance.

He tells a story about a high schooler named Calvin who he is tutoring. Calvin has had good grades, has worked hard in school and expects to go to a good college. Then Duncan discovers that Calvin cannot read simple material or put a simple sentence together. His grades have been lies. Over and over again in the book, Duncan’s outrage against lies like these fills the pages. What makes this book so compelling is that these lies are not presented in the abstract, as a policy analyst would write about them. They come with live people like Calvin attached. They have a real cost in human lives stunted. They develop in the reader a growing anger at the system. That is what they are intended to do.

When he left Harvard, Duncan made a living playing basketball, but it was not where his heart was. His heart was back in his mom’s center, with the kids he had grown up with there. He came back to Chicago and went to work for the Ariel Foundation, helping to run a program inspired by Eugene Lang’s “I Have a Dream Foundation” in a school across the street from his mom’s center. They wanted to show that , "...with love, support and high expectations, any kid could succeed.” They had 40 kids to work with. It was a wild success.

He went right from 40 to 400,000 kids. The state legislature had given responsibility for the Chicago schools to the Mayor, Richard Daley Jr. The Mayor took the bit in his teeth and ran with it, appointing his budget director, Paul Vallas, to the new title of CEO of Chicago Public Schools. When Vallas left, the Mayor’s wife whispered in her husband’s ear that she had idea for a successor: Arne Duncan. Duncan and the Mayor’s wife had been working together on education issues for a while and she had gotten a chance to size him up. Duncan got a call from the Mayor and became CEO of CPS.

Duncan continued to play basketball, but now it was just for fun on courts at the University of Chicago. One of his basketball buddies was Barack Obama. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have always believed the adage that says, in effect, that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. When Duncan came to Washington, he reached out to two people for whom I have enormous respect, Joanne Weiss and Jon Schnur, both of whom played big roles in shaping his administration.

None of these people were school people, in the sense that they did not come up through the system. They were deeply caring, smart people who, in some sense, had spent their lives in education fighting the system. Duncan, when describing his tenure as CEO of CPS describes the Chicago school system as “the enemy.”

This posture toward the system describes a giant fault line in the politics of American education. For people who care to look, it is clear as crystal that our schools are failing—often miserably failing—millions of American school children. To many observers, that is the fault of time-servers, bureaucrats, union leaders and self-serving legislators who do not really care about the children who they are failing, as long as they can hang on to their pay check and their job. That is the engine driving reformers whose outrage is barely contained. Presented with an opportunity to right these obvious wrongs, they will go for it tooth and nail. In this case, at the beginning of the Obama administration, they had an unprecedented opportunity and they were going to make the most of it, come what may. The reformers, for once, were in the driver’s seat and what former Education Secretary William Bennett called “the Blob” was the enemy.

But I have a different view of these issues. My world is not full of black hats and white hats. From my perspective, all of these actors are the prisoners of a system that outgrew its usefulness many decades ago. If you want to find out who is responsible for the failures, look around you. It is all of us. Which is to say that we all hang on to a system that works for only some of us, afraid that if major changes are made we or someone we love will be the loser. If that is right, if we are all responsible for holding on to a system that has failed most of us, then we all need to be involved in a discussion of what we want for our kids and what kind of system will work for all of us.

If there is no discussion, if a handful of well-motivated, very smart, angry people take advantage of the moment to ram through a set of changes in a system they believe is profoundly corrupt, you can be sure that it will run off the rails. It will not be implemented as conceived and the errors made as they try to redesign the whole system overnight will be exposed.

Gene Wilhoit, the then-head of the Council of Chief State School Officers, who was managing the development of the Common Core by the governors and heads of the state education systems, did not want the federal government to get involved in championing the new standards because he saw the danger. He knew that, if Duncan did that, opponents would call the Common Core standards federal standards and a bid for federal control of school curriculum all over the United States. But Duncan, seizing the moment, did it anyway. His claim that he never actually required the states to adopt the Common Core as a condition of getting federal funding is disingenuous. He knew that was what he was doing and so did the states. That had exactly the result that Wilhoit feared.

When the Common Core came out, surveys showed that teachers and their unions really liked it. They knew it would take a lot more work, but they said that it represented the kind of knowledge and skills they thought their students really needed.

But Duncan required fast track implementation of the Common Core, before a new curriculum matching the standards could be put in place and new aligned assessments could be developed and implemented. Further, and critically important, Duncan demanded that the states evaluate teachers based on the performance of their own students. And not just evaluate them, but use those evaluations to get rid of teachers who did not measure up. In his book, Duncan cites the research of Raj Chetty to justify this stance. But he says nothing about the overwhelming advice he got from many eminent scholars warning him that it was not possible to reliably attribute student performance to individual teachers. He ignored the fact that the standards related only to mathematics and English and then, only to literacy in those subjects. So teachers of history and physics were evaluated based on the scores of their students on mathematics and English literacy assessments. Worst of all, the teachers were being evaluated based on the discredited old basic skills tests, not on tests set to the Common Core standards.

Little wonder that the teachers went ballistic. But it did not end there. Because Duncan had loaded his new system with so much accountability for teachers, principals and superintendents, school systems all over the country decided to test the students every month or even more often, using progress assessments based on the basic skills that would be used at the end of the year to determine their fates. All of a sudden, the teachers discovered that all they were doing was test-prep and teaching to the same old tests they had always hated. And they were livid. But their anger was nothing to that of the parents, who simply rebelled by either refusing to allow their children to take the tests or keeping them out of school on test days.

Little wonder that the Congress decided that Duncan’s program was a case of federal overreach. America’s teachers and parents had already decided that. The Congress just ratified their decision.

How could Duncan have miscalculated so badly? The answer, I think, lies in the following quote from his book:

Some on our team advocated for a more incremental approach. They argued that the first states could adopt and wait a few years while the curriculum caught up and teachers developed new skills; then the states could start testing students, but not let these scores count for anything for a few more years while the kinks got ironed out; then, a few years later, they could finally fold in the teacher evaluation component. While the people who favored this approach knew it would take ten years or more and span multiple administrations, they believed this was the best way. I heard them and understood their viewpoint, but I simply didn't agree. Each difficult change would have been punted down the road and, in the end, nothing would improve....There would still be plenty of political pushback. For me, then it was all or nothing.

Leave aside, for the moment, the merits of Duncan’s emphasis on teacher evaluation, which I believe was a great mistake. In retrospect, I think, the unnamed “Some on our team” had it right. But did they? Was Duncan also right? Would the whole thing have just petered out if he had not gone full steam ahead? What if they were both right? If they were both right, then the underlying problem is the American system of education governance. It may not be possible to undertake national education reforms that go this deep. Maybe it is the Congress that did not go far enough. Maybe the states should have even more freedom to once again be the “laboratories of democracy” they once were. But then we would have to deal with the manifest failure of the states to deal with the issues of race and class that Duncan writes so eloquently about.

In my view, Duncan’s most important error came from his anger at teachers who fail their students, which fueled his drive to get rid of them. This scared the blazes out of good teachers who were all too familiar with all the ways that the system manages to drive out good educators who don’t play the game. The good teachers know how the system really works. As I have said many times in this blog, the top-performing nations don’t focus on getting rid of bad teachers. They concentrate instead on creating an over-supply of great teachers. Duncan did very little on that front.

Read this eloquent book by an insightful and dedicated public servant who has paid his dues. And then think about what happened and what you would have done differently. The whole country should be doing that.

How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education | Simon and Schuster, 2018, ISBN #978-1-5011-7305-9, $26.99

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.