Arne Duncan's signature achievement as secretary of education was getting a divided Congress to come together in order to finally pass a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Previously known as No Child Left Behind, the new version of the act (Every Student Succeeds Act) was notable for how it spanked the secretary and his department and focused on returning authority to the states.
Duncan used NCLB as leverage to enforce his own education policies. By 2014, every school in the country had to have 100% of its students scoring above average on the big standardized test (PARCC, SBA, etc) or they were in violation. Duncan offered waivers to the law-- if states agreed to his other policy ideas. Those included the implementation of standards that didn't have to be Common Core, but states that chose Common Core were guaranteed approval.
Duncan's heavy use of the federal hand set the stage for the anti-federal portions of ESSA and, arguably, the advent of someone like Betsy DeVos. Duncan is, by all accounts, a nice guy, but it would be hard to characterize his tenure in office as a success.
Duncan has remained adamant--some children can succeed despite coming from a background of poverty, therefor all children of poverty should be able to succeed. And if they're not succeeding, it's because teachers aren't expecting enough from them. He admits that a child who lives in poverty "has a lot to wrestle with," but Duncan has never been willing to discuss how those problems might be mitigated to help the child succeed. For him, poverty remains an excuse that teachers use.
Equal is not equitable.
Duncan says we should not give all students the same resources, but the resources that they need. The problem here has always been who will decide what students need. When Hurricane Katrina leveled the New Orleans school system, Duncan thought that was a great thing, because the city had not been "serious" about its schools. The implication was that what New Orleans needed was some gifted outsiders to come to town and straighten the locals out, including telling them what they needed. This has not worked. But the myth of rescue by outsiders was a dominant tale of the Duncan administration, from Teach for America, with its trained-for-five-week teacher temps, to charter takeovers and makeovers that imposed strict no-excuses on poor black students that rich white families would never have tolerated.
Duncan cites Raj Chetty, an economist whose work often referenced as proof that one good teacher "can increase the lifetime earning of an entire class by $250,000." You can follow links to many scholarly debunkings of Chetty, or you can just look at the visible-to-laypersons holes in his findings.
To simplify. Look at what students are making at age 28. Chart the test-based VAM scores of their early teachers (another debunked measure). Assume that the difference in earnings (about $250) will continue in perpetuity. Assume that twenty-eight classmates of the high earner have enjoyed a similar effect. Multiply. Voila.
Duncan is also fond of the notion that class size doesn't matter as much as teacher quality, as if teacher quality isn't affected by class size. A paragraph later Duncan reasserts the importance of the "building meaningful relationships" with students, but he has never seemed to consider how much harder that is to do in a classroom full of thirty or forty or fifty students.
The "job" of our children's generation will be learning.
Another central myth of the Duncan years was that if every student went to college and got a great education, every student would be wealthy, or at least middle class. Poverty would disappear because everyone had a great education. For the many twenty-somethings who are working at minimum wage jobs while their degree gathers dust, this seems like an odd assertion.
But Duncan claims that "the next generation of learners won't go looking for 'jobs'--they will create jobs." Duncan is sure that skills will matter, and that we no longer need rote memorization of facts. I would challenge Duncan to show me a school where rote memorization of facts is still the norm, but I would also challenge him to explain how "habits of mind" and "critical thinking" can be exercised by someone who doesn't have a strong foundation of content knowledge.
He's not wrong that "joy in learning" and being "motivated by the challenge of solving problems" are good and important things. But he's a bit fuzzy on how, exactly, these will cause jobs to appear.
We get to choose when to compete--and when to collaborate.
He never explains who "we" are in this idea. He thinks it was good as USED secretary to cooperate with other countries (he says he learned things that were "invaluable," though he doesn't say what). But as USED secretary he made states compete for support from the feds. He supported charter schools and the notion that competition improved education. The backbone of his major policies was to make everyone compete. And yet here he says "education is something we must collaborate on."
Walking and talking.
Arne Duncan always has talked a good game. He tied the fate of schools and teachers to test results, then complained that schools were putting too much emphasis on tests. He trumpeted the importance of teachers, then promoted policies and standards that robbed teachers of autonomy in the classroom. And although he returns repeatedly to education and his years in office, he never indicates that he now realizes he made policy mistakes. If Arne Duncan is going to keep writing books and think pieces about education, he needs to offer something beyond, "I was right all along."