Commentary: Reform, left behind
SAN DIEGO -- Arne Duncan needs a recess. Once a bright star in the Cabinet, the secretary of education has lost his message and his mojo. Now he could lose his reputation as an education reformer.
And for what? The chance to score a few political points with teachers unions and other defenders of the status quo?
That relationship got off to a rocky start. As the chief administrator of the Race to the Top initiative, which dangles $4.35 billion in federal grants, Duncan provides financial rewards to encourage states and districts that have devised new ways to teach students. But New York bowed out of the competition after teachers unions objected to tearing down legislative "firewalls" that prevent student performance from dictating teachers' pay.
Duncan supports closing failing schools and holding educators accountable for low student performance. He publicly praised Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, which had dismissed the entire faculty to turn around the school with a graduation rate of less than 50 percent. (Most of those teachers have since been hired back under new terms.)
In October 2009, Duncan used a speech at Columbia University's Teachers College to call for better teacher training. Many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a "mediocre" job of training teachers, he said. In the same speech, Duncan also praised Louisiana for experimenting a "trace back" where the state takes student test scores in grades 4-9 and traces them back to their teachers, who are then traced back to whatever institution gave them their certification.
That was the old Duncan, who was respected by education reformers. The new Duncan seems to be trying to save his job in a second term -- if there is one -- by placating his critics.
And what better way than to engage in one of their favorite pastimes -- bashing the education reform law that teachers unions love to hate: No Child Left Behind. The measure is due for reauthorization this year. And so, recently, The Hill newspaper asked Duncan what he'd like to see fixed in the law.
"There are a number of things that I think are broken with the current law," Duncan said. "I think the law is too punitive, too prescriptive. It's led to a dumbing down of standards, and it's led to a narrowing of curriculum. We need to fix all of those things."
None of this sits well with Sandy Kress, the Austin-based attorney and former president of the Dallas School Board who helped write No Child Left Behind while serving in the White House. Kress maintains that the law holds schools accountable for the academic progress of children typically underserved by the public schools, i.e. Hispanics, African-Americans, English learners, and the disadvantaged.
Kress seems to be disappointed in the new Duncan, but he's not entirely surprised.
"The president and his team have always thought that they could make political hay out of bashing NCLB," he told me. "It's kind of a sport. The unions have beat it up, sued over it, put out tons of misinformation about it."
I asked Kress why he thinks the law remains so unpopular with the educational establishment.
"It pinches," he said. "It's unpopular because it says to schools and those who run them: 'You don't get to make excuses for why poor kids or minority kids aren't doing as well as others.' It's a hard business fighting for poor kids when that means fighting the system that doesn't serve them well."
Kress took specific exception to the charge that No Child Left Behind is "dumbing down" students.
"There is no evidence of this," he said. "In fact, the standards have gone up overall under the law."
So what's behind the harder stance against accountability and the softer approach to teachers? It's the two pillars of Washington: money and politics.
"The problem this administration has politically is that they don't have the money to spread around anymore," Kress said. "And, in politics, when you can't offer money, you sometimes offer to soften up the rhetoric. That seems to be what is happening here and it's pretty shameful."
If this is the case, that would be shameful. It would also be a big disappointment for those of us who expected better of Arne Duncan.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.