Arne Duncan put in an appearance at the Education Writers' Association conference and allowed himself to be interviewed by Motoko Rich of the New York Times. Alyson Klein of EdWeek was there (because she's a real education writer and not some lousy blogger), and she reported some of the highlights of that interview. I'm going to look at some highlights of the highlights because, as usual, Duncan has some moments that make one question who, exactly, is this man who has been put in charge of a nation's education system.
Duncan regrets waiting so long to implement waivers. In hindsight, he thinks they wasted time waiting for Congress to get to rewriting the ESEA, and you know, I can almost sympathize with him on this-- until I remember that Congress is composed of people democratically elected to handle the writing of laws in this country, and Arne Duncan is neither 1) elected or 2) charged with writing the laws of this country.
But it is interesting that, contrary to the usual lines about ed reform being rolled out too fast, Duncan thinks it wasn't rolled out fast enough.
He underlines this when asked if maybe the simultaneous rollout of new testing and systems linking teacher evaluation to that same new testing-- well, maybe that was all a bit much. Klein quotes Arne:
It's been a lot of change, it's been a lot of change fast, it's absolutely been rocky and bumpy in some places. ... But for me the question is, how do you get better, faster?
I think I know the answer to that last question and, in brief, the answer is "Not like this." And maybe I'd also suggest that faster is not always better. But then I'd probably illustrate it with some sophomoric example, so I'll just not make that point.
A question brings up that whole testing and opt-out and people hating the testing thing. Duncan tries to once again suggest that he totally gets it and totally called for folks to back off on excess and unnecessary testing, by which he means state and local testing, which is another way of asserting that the Big Standardized Tests are the most important tests being given in schools, which I'd say is exactly backwards, and the BS Tests are the least necessary and useful and if we are going to throw a test over the side of the lifeboat for being fat and useless and repeatedly eating the supply of biscuits when it doesn't think anyone is looking, well, that test that had better start swimming is the Big Fat Standardized PARCC/SBA/WTF test.
He also makes his equity point, that folks in the civil rights and disability community want their kids tested, and I've heard this from enough places that I believe it, but I still believe those folks are being hoodwinked, because 1) we don't need a test to tell us that poor urban schools need help and 2) in ten years of this testing regimen, we haven't lifted a dollar to actually help the schools that have been identified as being in trouble.
Asked why he likes the Congress ESEA rewrite and not the House one, Arne says that seeing Congressional bipartisanship gives him goosebumps, and the Title I portability idea sucks. On this particular point, I think he's actually correct. Portability is one more way to take money away from poor schools (and help charter operators get rich). That is not good for anybody (except charter operators).
Asked about his plan to rate colleges, Duncan said, "Necessary colleges expensive argle bargle blerg."
Someone asked Arne when he would take funding away from a college that failed to satisfy Title IX. Duncan replied, "We'll take away federal funding when we need to." Klein called this non-specific, but I would call it awesomely non-responsive. It's rare when Arne just goes ahead and says, "Screw you. I'll do it the way I wanna" and I find those moments bracing in their honesty.
Asked about the digital divide, Arne fell back on a more standard Duncanswer, which is a wordy version of "That is a true thing that you have said, and I certainly heard you say it." It mimics reflexive listening and agreement, even if he has no idea what to answer. In fact, the Duncanswer format is exactly like the proper response to a writing prompt on a Big Standardized Test-- even if you don't understand the question, you can still recycle enough words from it to create a topic sentence and maybe even the first few paragraphs. You can see it in his dyslexia grilling, too. The Duncanswer. Remember, you heard it here first.
Asked about his biggest regret, Duncan models the non-apology apology. He doesn't regret anything he did including the white suburban moms crack (gosh, he's just a straight-shooter who speaks from his heart), but he does regret that Congress sucks and can't get its job done.
He also regrets that all of America sucks in its inability to think that education is really important, proof once again that Arne needs to get out and speak to regular non-government non-screened carbon-based life forms. It's a question that begs a follow-up-- who exactly is it that does not consider education a national priority? Your boss the CIC? Congress? All the parents? All the teachers? All the Americans pre-occupied with keeping their families fed and sheltered? Boy, I would really like to hear the rest of the explanation behind that idea, if he didn't try to dodge it completely. Which would be the Duncancover. You're welcome.