Did Arne Duncan bring American education, ‘kicking and screaming,’ into the 21st century?

Will John King, Jr. have a different view or approach? Not likely

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John King Jr., right, applauds Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, where President Barack Obama announced that Duncan will be stepping down in December after 7 years in the Obama administration. Duncan will be returning to Chicago and Obama has appointed senior Education Department official King to oversee the Education Department.

“Everybody’s complicated,” I like to say, not least because it’s true. Complete jerks are capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion. Tolerant people can have blind spots. Politicians can endorse seemingly contradictory policies, or say one thing but do another. Individuals can admit they are wrong about some things, but stubbornly refuse to do so about others.

So too with Arne Duncan, who announced on Friday that he will be stepping down as Secretary of Education in December. Duncan, one of the final two original Cabinet-level appointments in President Barack Obama’s administration, is returning to Chicago, the city where he and his family had built a life before traveling to Washington, D.C. In a press conference, President Obama stated that “Arne’s done more to bring our education system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century than anybody else.”

I’m sure that the president meant this as a compliment. But is it?

We associate kicking and screaming with the behavior of a petulant, immature child who doesn’t wish to comply with the reasonable requests of a knowing parent. In this view, states, school districts and schools—and the educators and students who inhabit them—are irrational and out of control, and must be disciplined. That was not the federal government’s historic role in education, but No Child Left Behind gave the executive branch, in the form of the U.S. Department of Education, more oversight responsibility than ever before. The Obama administration, with Duncan leading the way, solidified the federal government’s claims to authority over not just school outcomes, but also school practices, such as setting curricular standards and evaluating teachers and other educators.

Related: What Arne Duncan did to American education and whether it will last

It’s long been a parlor game—at least in my own head—to try to figure out whose agenda we are seeing enacted, Barack Obama’s, or Arne Duncan’s. Obama’s speeches on education are largely hortatory, encouraging young people to graduate from high school and pursue postsecondary education or training, and not especially memorable. Duncan, in turn, is not a good public speaker, and has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth in memorable ways. Few doubt his earnest concern for children, though, and that has pulled him out of more than one scrape.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, two coalitions concerned with education policy emerged: the Education Equality Project, aligned with the lobbying organization Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and endorsed by big-city superintendents such as Joel Klein of New York City and Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, whose signatories included many prominent education scholars. The big issues for the Education Equality Project were school and teacher accountability, school choice, and merit pay, whereas the Broader, Bolder Approach emphasized linking what happens in schools to the broader environment within which children are raised, including their family and community economic standing, health and nutrition. In the summer of 2008, Arne Duncan was the only signatory to both calls to action.

When he assumed office, however, Duncan shed most of the Broader, Bolder agenda, surrounding himself with subordinates and thought-partners drawn from the DFER playbook—including leaders of philanthropic groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Note: The Gates Foundation is among The Hechinger Report’s funders.) If Duncan heard other voices, he did not seem to adjust his policymaking in response. I and many others were surprised that Duncan did not alter the policy trajectory established by George W. Bush and Margaret Spellings in the previous Republican administration.

Related: The soft bigotry of no expectations

Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits with young student Nadia Garcia, age 9, in a third grade classroom at McGlone Elementary School, in the Montbello section of Denver, Thursday May 14, 2015. The Secretary visited classrooms and met with students, teachers, school leaders, and community members about McGlone’s dramatic academic transformation.

Arne Duncan’s signature initiative was Race to the Top, arguably the most effective piece of federal education policy in the nation’s history in its success at changing the behavior of the 50 states that were its target. Effective policy is not necessarily good policy, however, because good policy depends on a well-developed and plausible theory of action. The competitive priorities in Race to the Top—improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on student performance, the adoption of common (core?) curricular standards, turning around failing schools, and creating a climate for the expansion of high-quality charter schools—were based on a wish and a prayer, not a body of evidence demonstrating that these strategies could fundamentally alter the equity and excellence equations in American education.

Duncan had the good fortune to launch Race to the Top with federal stimulus money authorized in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Starved for resources, states fell all over themselves changing laws and policies to compete for the resources that could plug some of the holes created by revenue shortfalls. This was the genius of Race to the Top: it even changed the behavior of states that weren’t successful in winning a piece of the multibillion-dollar pie.

Related: Why are so many states replacing Common Core with carbon copies?

Teddy Roosevelt once wrote, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Arne Duncan’s version was “Speak softly and carry a suitcase stuffed with $4.4 billion; you will go far.”

Did Race to the Top “work”? Based on his support for the initiative, and recent U.S. Department of Education criteria for granting NCLB waivers to states that pledge higher standards for student performance, greater accountability, and improved teacher effectiveness, Secretary Duncan clearly believes that it did. Children’s standardized test scores remain the linchpin of federal education policy.

Viewing the education policy landscape from 30,000 feet—a Secretary’s-eye view—may suggest that the implementation of Race to the Top and related reforms has gone smoothly. The problem is compounded when the administration seems not to hear opposing views, which may explain why Duncan will leave office without having secured Congressional support for a reauthorization and rewrite of No Child Left Behind. Deafness and tone-deafness are a dangerous combination.

The view is quite different closer to the ground. From five feet, the uneven and thoughtless implementation of statewide teacher evaluation systems and Common Core standards in many states has—however unintentionally—undermined the legitimacy of our public school system. In my home state of New York this past year, for example, approximately 20 percent of parents statewide opted to not have their children take the statewide math and English tests mandated by NCLB and Race to the Top. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared that Common Core is “not working” in New York, and educators across the state—teachers, to be sure, but also principals, superintendents and school boards—have criticized New York’s teacher evaluation system (as have I).

Related: New York was Common Core’s stronghold. What happens if the state backs down?

Duncan’s successor in performing the functions of the Secretary of Education will be John B. King, Jr., who previously served as New York’s Commissioner of Education. And, like Duncan, King is complicated. But will he have a different view, having served in a role situated between the federal government and local schools and districts?

I don’t think so. In contemporary math curricula, 29,900 rounds up to 30,000.

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and… See Archive

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