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Duncan Seeks Cheap Conversions

June 21, 2011

Major Barbara seeking converts in the 1941 film.

In George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara, a munitions factory owner chides his daughter regarding her work in the Salvation Army, telling her, “It is cheap work converting starving men with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other.”  Federal education policies that offer money or flexibility, coming in times of deep budget cuts at the state level, strike me as an attempt at cheap conversions.  That they also seem to disregard teacher voice adds insult to injury.

Obviously it’s a more complex situation than the one presented in Shaw’s play, and there are many stakeholders at the state level who embraced the cornerstones of current federal policy even before the current administration took office.  However, the current environment is one where the federal government has been using Race to the Top dollars and throwing money at starving states if they choose to “convert” to the administration’s favored education policies.  It seems like an effort to maintain plausible deniability; Secretary Arne Duncan can say, and often does, that the Common Core standards are not federal standards, though the U.S. Department of Education has been using its power (i.e., money) to press states into Common Core adoption.

In recent news, we learn that Duncan may be willing to waive NCLB provisions and penalties, in return for states’ compliance with his favored policies.  I thought Race to the Top was an overreach, but this time, Duncan’s move brought quick criticism from wider quarters.  It’s not the idea of the waivers that seems to bother people, as I think most sensible observers have finally concluded what so-called “defenders of the status quo” knew from the start: one-hundred precent proficiency is a poorly conceived goal and a policy liability if “proficiency” is to be defined as anything worth attaining.  So while many of us think waivers make sense, we are troubled that the administration would withhold this sensible relief measure as a lever to force states into changes they haven’t seen fit to adopt up until now.

I find myself in agreement with a couple of observers with whom I often disagree.   Rick Hess labeled this move as example of “the administration’s patented disinterest in the niceties of the U.S. Constitution…” and went on to ask  “is [Duncan]  intent on unilaterally pushing his same pet priorities through the back door… planning to offer regulatory relief only if states adopt reforms that are utterly absent in the relevant legislation?”  Then, Michael Petrilli dubbed the Secretary “Arnius Duncanus” and compared him to a Roman emperor, (though more sympathetically than you might expect).  Petrilli writes, “Yes, under NCLB’s waiver authority, the Secretary has a lot of room to maneuver in terms of letting states and districts escape from onerous parts of the law. But what provision gives the Department of Education the power to make its supplicants agree to Race to the Top-like mandates in return?”

Sherman Dorn offers his usual sharp analysis, and observes that this waiver would amount to “a swap of unfunded mandates.”  NCLB mandated every student had to be proficient by a deadline, which was an impossible goal to meet, but one that at least sounded noble, worthy.  This move is worse, because instead of mandating a goal that people to some extent would agree with, Duncan is mandating more specific and more expensive means with regard for the ends.  I say “without regard” because Duncan’s preferred systemic reforms have a flimsy chance of success: charter school expansion will not improve the odds of student success, the flawed strategies for school turnarounds undermine local control and flexibility without much semblance of logic, and using student test scores (even “value-added”) for teacher evaluation is an approach rejected not only by numerous studies and experts, but also contraindicated in the joint position of three leading educational research organizations.

Taking heat from all sides, Duncan carries on as if he has all the answers.  Yesterday, apparently in a generous mood, Duncan did acknowledge that teachers and unions are a small part of the education picture.  In reference to recent developments in Detroit, Duncan served up this comment on Twitter:

What I noticed right away about Duncan’s tweet was the verb “give”.  I replied on Twitter, somewhat sharply, that teachers and unions already possess a voice that Duncan has no power to give us.  In poker, they call this a “tell” – a minor slip that reveals something to your opponent.  Duncan has never been a teacher, never worked in a school, and this “tell” reveals (again) his misunderstanding: he imagines that by virtue of his position, he can give us a voice, or can suggest to other politically powerful people that they should recognize it’s important to “give” us a voice.  When it comes to respect for teachers, Duncan is all bluff.  He has previously revealed his cards by endorsing mass firings and the publication of flawed teacher rankings, and by seeming almost pleased about Hurricaine Katrina’s impact on New Orleans schools (apology noted).  If Duncan meant to say it’s important for teachers and unions to participate in reform, then he has to decide if the price of our participation is our voice (which would be the appearance he’s given in the past), or if he actually believes in collaborative approaches grounded in research and a solid track record.

Considering that yesterday’s event was a press conference with a Republican governor engaged in a startling power grab that is now legal in the state of Michigan, perhaps Duncan was trying to distance himself, however slightly, from the hostile policies going into effect.  One little detail worth noting is that all teachers in the new Detroit system will be forced to reapply for their jobs.  A columnist in Ann Arbor, Nathan Bomey, called up the Department of Education after Duncan’s tweet:

I asked [Daren Briscoe, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education] whether Duncan — which, by extension, means the president of the United States — supports forcing teachers in failing public schools to reapply for their jobs as part of a broader reform initiative.

In situations where schools are “persistently failing,” the Department of Education sometimes supports “all of the teachers being fired and principals being fired.”

I don’t know much about Detroit, but I don’t think the teachers and principals brought down that system.

We’ve been around and around about Duncan’s inability to connect with or relate to teachers during most of his tenure, and I don’t think teachers are waiting for Duncan to give us anything anymore.  I don’t imagine any teacher who’s been paying attention for a while really expects Duncan to do what he could do in terms of teacher voice: listen.  Evidence of listening would take the form of actions more consistent with the needs of teachers and students, and less focused on a wielding political power to advance a flawed agenda.

The Department of Education has the bread that might force some starving states to proclaim their conversion.  However, it is not in the politicians’ power to bestow our own voices upon us – voices that many teachers, and parents, will put to good use next month in Washington, D.C., in the Save Our Schools March.

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