Monday, April 2, 2018

Duncan Revises Again: Courage and Betsy DeVos

Lately, a wave of apostasy has swept through Reformsylvania, and reformsters have stepped up to say that ed reform kind of, well, failed. Yesterday, just in time for April Fools Day, former secretary of education Arne Duncan (and current thinky tank fixture) took to the pages of the Washington Post to try his hand at some non-reality-based history and argue that ed reform has been a resounding success.

How has he managed this feat? Well, there are several tricks.

This damn guy
First, move the goalposts. All the way back to 1971. Fourth grade math and reading scores on the NAEP are up since then!! Why focus on fourth grade scores? Maybe because 17-year-old scores haven't really moved much at all. And of course, reform hasn't been in place since 1971-- and most of that growth happened before modern ed reform ever took hold-- you know, prior to those days when Secretary Duncan was explaining that American schools actually sucked? And all of this assumes that a single standardized math a reading score is a good proxy for the quality of the entire educational system.

Duncan has an explanation for those flat 12th grade scores-- because the graduation rate is up, more weak students are taking the NAEP, and so keeping the scores flat is a win. Yay? Anyway, graduation rates are up, so that's more proof of ed reform success, except that, of course, whether those diplomas actually mean anything other than districts have learned how to game the system with credit recovery and other baloney-- well, never mind. There's probably some real gain there, and that's not a bad thing. The numbers are up, so woohoo.

Duncan asserts that progress happened because "we confronted hard truths, raised the bar and tried new things." I guess this depends on how one defines "we," as most of the "new things" attempted under Obama-Duncan were just leftovers from the Bush administration. Duncan has tried to blame the issues of ed reform on many things. This time, our key word is "courage."

Beginning in 2002, federal law required annual assessments tied to transparency. The law forced educators to acknowledge achievement gaps, even if they didn’t always have the courage or capacity to address them.

Ah, yes. One of the legacies of Obama-Duncan ed reform-- relentless blaming of teachers for everything. Now it turns out we weren't courageous enough.

But this notion that test-based accountability "revealed" achievement gaps is baloney. Educators knew where the gaps were. We've4 always known where the gaps were. We've screamed about the gaps. I don't believe any teacher in this country picked up test results and said, "I'll be damned! I had no idea these non-white, non-wealthy students were having trouble keeping up!" At best, test-based accountability was a tool to convince policy makers who would listen to data spreadsheets before they would listen to teachers. And even then, policy makers didn't look at the data and say, "Well, we'd better help these schools out." Instead, all the way up to Duncan's office, they responded with, "Well, let's target this school for closure or conversion or a growth opportunity for some charter operators."

This, it turns out, is another thing Arne "Katrina's Destruction of NOLA Public Ed Is a Great Thing" Duncan counts as success- three million students in charter school. He cites Boston as a win (again, debateable) but ignores the widespread fraud, corruption and failure that charters have been prone to nationally. (And he insists on talking about "years of learning" as a way to measure this.)

And then there's this, as Duncan discusses the "successes."

Again, it did not happen by standing still. It happened because of common-sense changes such as increased learning time, more early learning, a deeper focus on the quality of principals and teachers, and a bright light on the data. Whether you call it reform, improvement or plain old hard work, it is making a difference for kids.

This is like having someone make you go on a tofu and grease diet and then declaring that your health gains are the result of eating off clean plates. Duncan's list is notable for all the reform ideas it doesn't mention, like Common Core and charter schools and test-centered schooling. Of the three things it does mention, increased learning time and more early learning are not ideas reformsters get to take credit for. Deeper focus on quality of teachers and principals never happened-- we just started using test scores to try to threaten and punish folks. Bright light on the data? Also no-- just an unhealthy focus on test scores.

Duncan is sad that there aren't more charter schools. Hardly anybody is getting teacher evaluation right. And while studies say that the Obama-Duncan school turnaround programs failed, Duncan has one study (a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research) that says "the boldest interventions get the best results."*

So, you know, reform was awesome, and did some stuff that was, you know, swell. Why is everyone suddenly picking on it?

Duncan blames politics.

Both ends of the political spectrum resist accountability. Some blame poverty and demand more money while abdicating responsibility for results. Others seem more concerned with process and limiting the federal role than with actual student outcomes.

Nope. This old bullshit about how folks in education just want more money and use poverty as an excuse for poor results is still just bullshit. Nobody makes that argument. Duncan's argument that we can use the power of expectations to overcome everything is just not reality based. And while it is true that some on the right believe that we should offer choice for its own sake without regard for how it turns out, how exactly is that different from Obama-Duncan policy? Exactly when and where and how did Duncan come down hard in favor of charter oversight and accountability? Duncan can continue to pretend that Betsy DeVos represents some radical departure from his policy on charters and choice, but it's simply not so. Duncan helped create this mess, and making an innocent face while saying, "Hey, gee, somebody knocked over your public schools while you were out. I don't know how it happened" won't absolve him of blame.

Duncan has tried a variety of history rewrites for his administration (only politicians hated Common Core! charter school magic unleashed! ESSA was not a reaction against his work! CCSS should have been rolled out faster!) But all of his reflections stumble over the same problem-- Duncan simply refuses to acknowledge the damage that his policies have done to public education. Here he is acting puzzled again--

Some have taken the original idea of school choice — as laboratories of innovation that would help all schools improve — and used it to defund education, weaken unions and allow public dollars to fund private schools without accountability.

No, Arne! Not "some." Not some faceless mysterious group of folks. You. You and the people that you empowered and encouraged and cheered on and backed with your policies. You did that.

You further enabled that by rolling out Common Core, which was not a secret Commie plot to make everyone stupid and gay, but which was also not a well-crafted set of standards created by educators, but instead a half-assed bunch of baloney created by amateurs. And that all happened without even having an evidence-based discussion of whether or not national standards are even useful for creating better education.

Not only that, but you and yours used the standards to push the idea that America's teachers (and their unions) didn't know what the hell they were doing, and that they had no particular expertise. That, in fact, education is something above and beyond the ability to teachers to understand and implement, and that "experts" were needed to make the standards work. You treated teachers and their unions as an obstacle rather than the front line troops of education. You had the opportunity to listen to the experts in public education and talk about how the feds could help with very real problems and challenges; instead, you belittled public schools and dismissed the teachers who work there.

And you elevated test-centered accountability, one of the most destructive forces unleashed on public education. By tying threats and punishment to the Big Standardized Test, you encouraged schools to narrow curriculum, cut programs, and center the entire school around test results. Test-centered accountability has turned schools upside down-- now they do exist to serve students, but instead students exist to serve the school by generating data to make the school look good enough to avoid punishment. The stress on students and teachers, and the many educational experiences lost to this scourge are unfathomable.

You failed so spectacularly that you prompted a rare bi-partisan repudiation of your policies in the ESSA. And you set the stage for a Betsy DeVos, who could convincingly argue that the federal government has proven itself incompetent to involve itself in education. Your policies have made public education itself look bad. You and yours managed to diminish one of the most fundamental institutions of this country.

Ed Reformers who have called out the failures of reform mostly fall back on one simple observation-- these reforms have been the status quo for over a decade. If charters were going to revolutionize education, it would have happened by now. If the Common Core (or whatever a state is calling them) were going to make education greater, they would have done it by now. If test-centered accountability was going to vastly improve public education, we'd see it by now. If treating education professionals like cheap hired help was going to energize teaching, it would have happened by now.

But it hasn't happened. None of it has happened.

You're reduced to saying that some fourth grade scores are up, graduation rates may be up, and plenty of entrepreneurs are making money running charter schools.

Your suggestion is that people just lack the bravery: "Our efforts to improve school have worked well where people have led with courage." But the only place courage has helped is in those schools where leaders have had the courage to stand against ed reform policies, to reject the BS Test, to stand up for students.

I'm sitting here steaming, kind of surprised that Duncan can still make me angry in ways that Betsy DeVos cannot. But DeVos has never pretended to be anything but what she is-- a rich lady who believes that public education should be abolished and that people should stay in their proper place. Duncan maintains an infuriating tendency to douse the building in kerosene, light a match, and as the flames leap high, shout, "See how much better this is! I don't understand how people can complain about this." And while there's no question that DeVos wants to destroy public education, Duncan set the stage for her-- and he won't own it.

Here's my own version of current history. Many people are saying that ed reform policies failed because they are using their eyes and ears to see that ed reform policies failed. I get that Duncan would want to protect his legacy, particularly during this administration-- if Obama had discovered a cure for cancer, Trump would make burn it and bury the ashes. But his refusal to face reality was a liability when he was in office, and it's not serving him well now. If Arne Duncan wants to talk about courage, then he needs to start by confronting the truth about the damage caused by policies that he pursued. Until he can do that, he needs to just go sit in his think tank.

*Here's an excerpt from the abstract:

 Using data from California, this study leverages these two discontinuous eligibility rules to identify the effects of SIG-funded whole-school reforms. The results based on these “fuzzy” regression-discontinuity designs indicate that there were significant improvements in the test-based performance of schools on the “lowest-achieving” margin but not among schools on the “lack of progress” margin. Complementary panel-based estimates suggest that these improvements were largely concentrated among schools adopting the federal “turnaround” model, which compels more dramatic staff turnover.


  1. One of my favorites from the Duncan Era was when Chief of Staff and RTTT administrator Joanne Weiss delivers this wake up call:

    "The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale."

    In keeping with the Stimulus program of the early Obama years, let's force all states to adopt CCSS, SLDS, PARCC or SBAC and apply for RTTT, so that 'reformster' tech firms can take their products to national markets. At least the education entrepreneurs will enjoy it, while the rest of us in education, not so much.

    How did that all work out?

  2. Boston's charter schools are so "successful" that given the opportunity to lift their cap and provide for unlimited expansion, the 2016 ballot initiative, Question 2, went down to a stunning defeat by a 2 to 1 margin. Only 14 Boston precints voted in favor, and they were wealthy, mostly white districts, whose demographics show that many children residing within those boundaries attend private schools.

    This, despite massive infusions of money from the Waltons and Gov. Charlie Baker's friends and political appointees to the state board of education. UMass professor Maurice Cunningham has been lifting the curtain on the dark money invested in this cause. Here's the latest installment:

  3. Duncan manages to pull off a pretty nifty trick with his op-ed: he attributes all the gains in education to his reforms, and still manages to bash teachers for not having the “courage or capacity” to fully implement those reforms. Duncan's animus against teachers, and the boogeyman of teachers' unions, animated his entire tenure as Sec of Ed, and fuels all of his policy beliefs. Not any actual interest in children, schools, or learning.

    He also tries to point to charter schools as a sort of "shining city on the hill", when the truth is that the charter school experiment has been an abysmal failure. It has diverted billions in funding from neighborhood public schools that educate 90+% of our children, and don't do it as well on average--with many more scandals and financial shenanigans to boot.

    Most troubling is Duncan's "Johnny One Note" obsession with the silver bullet of "accountability"--he seems to believe that any problem with students, teachers, or schools can be solved by just holding them "more accountable." Not adequately funding them, providing smaller class sizes, better working conditions, more art and music classes, collaborative planning time, better salaries and benefits, more school counselors, psychologists, nurses, meal programs, stronger unions, or any actual pedagogical strategies (flipped classrooms). If Duncan was a chef, he'd stick more thermometers in a steak and think he was cooking it better. Maybe if he, like Betsy DeVos, had ever actually taught anyone anything he'd have a better perspective on the public education system, instead of simply dismantling what he didn't understood.

  4. "Your policies have made public education itself look bad. You and yours managed to diminish one of the most fundamental institutions of this country."

    I picture Duncan answering that with his typical half-dumb, half smug smirk on his face saying, "Yeah, I know. Cool, huh?"

  5. I'm sitting here steaming, too. I can't stand Duncan!

  6. The CCSS tests were intentionally developed to be academic death traps. Under NCLB, millions of young students could not pass the more reasonable tests based on state standards; Arne's solution was to make the tests ridiculously and unreasonably difficult, if not impossible for most to pass. So for the last five+ years, we have told majority of our youngest and most vulnerable students that they are failures. Failures at the only two things we deemed worthy: math and ELA. Failures at all that seemed to matter in their school lives. And we continued to beat them down, year after year after year. And we did this on purpose. And now we live with the consequences. Ask any middle or high school teacher how all this worked out for the Common Core generation.

  7. Dear Mr. Greene and Commentors,

    I know I’ve written about this before, but I feel I must post my sad theory, again, as to why we got Arnie as our Sec. of Ed. It’s very simple: Arnie loved playing basketball, and Barack loved playing basketball. Barack wanted to keep Arnie around in the area for quick pick-up games, so he decided to put him somewhere where he’d see him a lot. Of course Barack couldn’t put him at State, or Defense, or EPA. I mean, Good God... So, Education. That’s it!

    That’s why we got him. There was probably an ad hoc committee of people who were tasked with actually coming up with policy ideas and calling them in. And I’m sure there were some people appointed to assistant positions who understood how to do the stuff that was suggested.

    Was that appointment of Duncan to Sec of Ed. for that reason demeaning to educators? Why yes. What’s your point?