Monday, January 26, 2015

Duncan's Legless Duck

I opened my eyes while you were kissing me once more than once
And you looked as sincere as a dog
Just as sincere as a dog does when it’s the food on your lips with which it's in love

                                                      --Fiona Apple "Parting Gift"

When you have to bribe or threaten people to be your friend, you can be sure that your friendship will be short-lived.

Over at EdWeek, Alyson Klein is asking one of the big questions of the moment-- how much political juice does the ED department have in NCLB waiver renewals? The related question is how much juice does the department have in the NCLB reauthorization itself?

The possible and imminent rewrite of ESEA/NCLB makes more obvious what some of us have been saying all long-- the tale of "voluntary" adoption of Common Core, high-stakes testing, test-based teacher evaluations, and the rest of the reformster package was a fiction. States complied with the federal mandates because the feds had everyone's violation of the NCLB ridiculously unattainable goals to threaten the states with, and because they could score some cash doing it.

Reauthorizing ESEA has always been the quick way to short-circuit reformster plans. NCLB has been the gun that the feds held to every state's head. Now Congress is threatening to take out the bullets. Without any bullets, and with the big piles of money running out, the administration is finding it's out of friends.

Arne Duncan can make impassioned speeches about the value of testing and then rerun the text in various publications. It doesn't really matter. Arne Duncan has had six years to prove that he has a vision of how to make US public education strong and vital. He has had six years to convince people that he knows what he's doing,that he knows where he wants to go and how to get there. He has failed. His only hope at this stage would have been a cadre of people saying, "Well, I wasn't sure, but I know I've seen the good his policies can do and the way they've really energized the school district, so I back this guy." There are no such people now. He may have some small input with the Senate committee (Sen. Patty Murray seemed to be parroting many of his talking points), but I don't hear anybody saying, "And of course we want to work closely with the Secretary as we consider this important legislation."

Duncan hasn't made friends in Congress. He hasn't made friends among teachers, which is in some ways his biggest failure; if you think back to the beginning of his time in office, you'll recall that he said many things that teachers thought were great, but then he followed those good statements with terrible policies. And he hasn't made friends among the states. He may have thought he was making friends, but all he was gaining was compliance for as long as held the gun in one hand and the purse strings in the other.

So now, as waiver renewal comes due, Duncan finds himself in the difficult position of negotiating the price of a condo in a development that may never be built and which he doesn't actually own. Someone else (someone who's not even listening to him) is designing the building, and he has to negotiate a deal with future tenants. The administration perhaps thought they were strengthening their hand by making new waiver deals good through 2018, but it's looking like a mistake-- why lock yourself into a long term deal you may not need to make in the first place.

And you'll notice that none of the states are piping up to say, "We would like you to rewrite ESEA so it looks exactly like the waiver requirements, because we think they are swell." Instead, Klein quotes Kentucky ed commissioner Terry Holiday saying that once waivers are dead and gone, "I think we'd all quickly abandon all the work on tying teacher evaluation to test scores."

The waivers exist to free states from the mandates of ESEA, but nobody knows what those mandates will look like after Congress gets through with them. Duncan's position? Make a deal for a waiver or else something might happen, somehow, maybe? 

Klein quotes Anne Hyslop at Bellwether:

"I don't see the department doing much more to really put the hammer down on states to get their evaluation systems in place," she said. "I don't think [renewal] means states are going to change what they're doing or get in trouble if they don't do what the department says. The secretary is saying pretty please do this, and states are saying thanks for your input, but we're going another direction."

Maybe if his programs had possessed some actual merit they would have developed support of their own, but here we are looking at VAMs and test-based accountability and increased charterization and turn-around schools and the feds telling every school in the country what success looks like and none of it-- none of it-- has produced anything resembling successful results. The only real success can be found in the same places as Duncan's remaining friends-- boardrooms and offices of edubiz corporations where the money has been pouring in.

Congress created NCLB in a flurry of bipartisan jolliness, but it was so closely tied to the Bush administration that it is still seen as a Bush law. Whatever comes out of the current move to rewrite, I don't think anyone is going to call it the Obama/Duncan ESEA.

Don't worry about Duncan. His connections have kept him sell-employed for most of his adult life, and I doubt that they'll fail him after he leaves USED. But for the moment he's just a guy trapped on a legless duck without enough food left on his lips to make the dog fake affection.

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