Duncan on ESEA: Still Relentlessly Wrong

Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, right, listens as U.S. President Barack Obama, not pictured, speaks before signing
Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, right, listens as U.S. President Barack Obama, not pictured, speaks before signing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) bill in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. The ESSA bill cements the progress made in elementary and secondary education over the last seven years and fixes the No Child Left Behind Act to reduce over-testing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this week, almost-former Education Secretary Arne Duncan was at the Learning Forward conference to fall on his sword deliver some comments that include his spirited endorsement of the Every Student Succeeds Act. A portion of his remarks have been released, and they reveal Duncan in fine form as he cheerily supports the bill devoted to repudiating his work, sort of.

The excerpt picks up where Duncan answers the question, "What does this new law mean for your classrooms, schools, and districts?"

He starts by saying there's a lot to be figured out, and that's about the last thing he gets right.

The new law will mean that "you can continue challenging your kids to live up to new, higher standards that you have been working so hard to implement." Which is true. Under ESSA, states are still free to embrace the Common Core, either in original form or under one of its many aliases.

"You will still measure students' progress every year, typically with new and much better tests that offer actionable information about students' learning." Oh, Arne. We've been hearing the promise of new tests that aren't the same old standardized bubble test crap for over a decade. They haven't come. They aren't coming. They are never going to come. No large scale standardized test will ever measure critical thinking any more than you can measure hurt with a bathroom scale. He repeats the idea that the feds are really pushing for fewer redundant tests. He is full of it. Not only are all the old federal tests being kept, but ESSA opens the door for Performance Based Education, a system that can be used to bombard students with standardized assessments daily.

"The action from Congress will increase investments in preschool, so that it's more likely that the kids you teach are better prepared for school." This despite the research showing repeatedly that all early gains in learning have vanished within a few years. Ok, pre-school could be a swell thing, but not if folks insist on testing and academics.

"This bill says what we all know to be true: you can't have a great school without great teachers and principals." Sounds pretty, but he goes on to laud the new support for alternative certification routes aka five weeks of TFA summer camp. And this is kind of cute -- he still talks as if the master plan to move the best teachers to the neediest schools, as if that isn't a thing that has been in the law and yet never, ever happened for years and years now.

"Whereas No Child Left Behind prescribed a top-down, one-size fits all approach to struggling schools, this law offers the flexibility to find the best local solutions -- while also ensuring that students are making progress." Now it's just getting surreal, given that the Obama-Duncan education plan was to supplant the top-down reform of NCLB with even MORE top down reform. The President's own reflection on testing noted that the problem was that the administration hadn't top-down managed enough!

"When those key decisions are made, states will rely on multiple measures of success -- because as I have always said, no school and no educator should ever be judged by one test score alone." And now we have slid into another dimension entirely. It's not this world, but it is a familiar world -- the world where Duncan is completely clueless about how the Big Standardized Tests ever ended up being the entire focus of schools. Is it worth pointing out to him, yet again, in the December of his time in the job, that tests became the focus of American schools because his policies made it so? Probably not.

Then the speech jumps to the section entitled "How the new ESEA is totally what I wanted and not at all a big raspberry for me and my work."

And here's your proof that ESSA is not exactly a huge leap forward -- he's not entirely wrong. He has a laundry list of things he wanted made into law -- college and career ready standards, punishment for schools with low-achieving students, more pre-school, bunches of data collected and tossed around as if they mean something. He got all of those.

He also has a list of things that -- what! Really? These were among your policy goals? Catalyzing new ideas and innovations from local educators? Cutbacks on excessive testing? I would challenge Duncan to point at anything he's done in seven years that would have advanced any of these goals.

But this will be Duncan's ESSA position -- he got what he wanted, so he doesn't care about the politics and power distribution of it.

I'm not saying this is the bill I'd have written myself. No compromise ever is. But fundamentally, the idea of America as a country that expects more of our kids, and holds ourselves responsible for their progress - that vision is alive and well. And it's a vision proven by the hard work of educators like you.

So Duncan leaves as he came -- making word-noises that actually sound pretty good, but are attached to policies and a reality that does not reflect them at all. Duncan never held himself responsible for the progress of students, choosing instead to blame bad, lazy teachers and low-information parents (so long, white suburban moms) and a Congress that wouldn't behave as he wanted it to. He never held himself responsible by bothering to see if there was a lick of real research and support for any of his favored policies, from "high standards" to VAM-sauce teacher evaluations to the fundamental question of how schools could be held responsible for erasing the effects of poverty and special needs while states could not be held responsible for getting those schools the resources and support they needed. Duncan leaves as he arrived -- eyes fixed on some alternate reality while in the real world, he hacks public education to bits and sells off the pieces.

And he's perfectly okay with ESSA. That is not a good sign.

Originally posted at Curmudgucation