Education Secretary Duncan may have hurt education reform by trying to help

Following Mr. Duncan’s surprise announcement that he would be stepping down as the U.S. Education Secretary in December there has been an outpouring of compliments regarding his tenure by the education reform community.  Here are a few:

“We applaud Secretary Duncan for his leadership on behalf of all the nation’s students and schools. Duncan placed a priority on working to ensure equity for all students, advanced innovation in education, and has been committed to ensuring students from all backgrounds have access to high quality public schools.”  Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools

“Arne Duncan is the most consequential Education Secretary in our nation’s history.  He has consistently and courageously stood for students, especially those least advantaged.  Arne has been a true partner in our efforts to improve public education in Washington, DC, and we’ll be forever indebted to his efforts.”  Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board

“@ArneDuncan has been the most important Secretary of Ed in history.  Thank you for your work over the past 7 years.”  Tweet by Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO Success Academy Charter Schools.

But here is the problem.  Mr. Duncan primarily utilized two tools at his disposal to drive change in public education.  The Education Secretary gave points toward his $4.3 billion Race to the Top Competition and waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act by having states implement certain policies.  Among these included the creation of charter schools; the tying of teacher evaluations partially to test scores; and the improvement of academically low performing schools, which often led to the ending of teacher tenure.  The favored reforms also included adoption of the Common Core Standards. 42 states and the District of Columbia have signed up for the Common Core.

The Common Core Standards are the hope of many that it will lead to gains by American students on the international PISA examination; a test in which pupils of this country have traditionally scored well below those of most other countries.  Common Core is also a solution to a major weakness of NCLB.  When it came to accessing proficiency in math and reading, states ended up using a variety of measures and in many instances students were judged proficient in these subjects when this was not the finding of the NAEP examination, a tool often referred to at the nation’s report card.

But because Mr. Duncan strongly encouraged states to convert to the Common Core, republicans and libertarians often view it as part of a government takeover of public education, a policy area most often left up to local communities.  The backlash against the Standards has been particularly strong.  For example, there is only one candidate for the Republican nomination for President that currently supports use of this tool.  There are also plenty of Democrats that dislike it for the same reason.

It could be that the opposition to the Common Core results in states turning away from these standards, just as Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Louisiana have already done.  This move may gain momentum as student test scores begin to come out which, if the most current experience holds true, will be lower than results in previous years.  Rejection of the Common Core Standards would be a tremendous loss.  This may also be the final legacy of the Duncan Administration.

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