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Posted at 2:20 PM ET, 09/24/2009

Why So Many People are So Angry At Arne Duncan

By Valerie Strauss

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s speech today about the future of No Child Left Behind explains why people who had hoped that President Obama's education team would make a clean break with "No Child Left Behind" are angry.

Duncan called today for changes in the NCLB law that sparked an era in which high-stakes standardized tests drove K-12 education.

But he sounded less like he had seen the real folly in NCLB and more like someone who thinks “tougher” standards will solve what ails many public schools. He said:

“Until states develop better assessments.... we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress – but this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have.

“I also agree with some NCLB critics: it unfairly labeled many schools as failures even when they were making progress -- it places too much emphasis on raw test scores rather than student growth -- and it is overly prescriptive in some ways while it is too blunt an instrument of reform in others.

“But the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not.”

Duncan should know better than to declare that the biggest problem with NCLB is that standards weren’t high enough. We can have the highest standards in the universe, and they can have no affect on achievement if the school environment around them is unhealthy--and if kids being taught the standards don't eat properly, can't see well and don't get enough sleep.

NCLB did not improve student achievement because its prescription for reform--high-stakes standardized tests and a sanctions regime that penalized schools for failing to raise test scores--has nothing to do with the way students learn or real academic achievement.

Standardized test scores alone are not valid indicators of how well anybody does their job--not a teacher and not a student. Researchers have shown this over and over, yet policymakers continue to ignore the evidence.

So far, Duncan has made clear that he plans, at least for now, to continue the use of standardized tests that we know are driving teachers to narrow curriculum, to continue NCLB’s sanctions regime, and to pay and evaluate teachers based on student test scores.

Duncan now presides over a $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund that is giving out grants to school districts that propose reforms that the education department approves.

Among the things the department has said it will be looking for are plans that tie teacher evaluations to standardized test scores and a push for more charter schools--even though there is no evidence that charter schools are by and large any better than the traditional public schools in their neighborhoods. (Yes, some are, but many aren’t, and it is unclear why Duncan would want to base any policy on such an uneven record of success.)

Andrew Coulson, director of the non-profit Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, wrote today:

“In light of the abject and expensive failure of federal intrusion in America’s classrooms, it is irresponsible for the Secretary of Education to assume without debate that this intrusion should continue. Cutting all federal k-12 education programs would result in a permanent $70 billion annual tax cut."

The sorry state of education affairs has persuaded some educators to change their minds about key education issues. Author Diane Ravitch, a former education official in the administration of President George H.W. Bush and a research professor at New York University, wrote this week in the blog that she writes with progressive educator Deborah Meier, Bridging Differences:

“I have only recently recognized the ways in which pressure to raise scores, mainly prompted by NCLB, has corrupted testing and accountability.

Our policymakers have fallen in love with the idea that incentives and sanctions can "drive" educational improvement. They believe that if we promise rewards when test scores go up, we will see test scores go up. So they commit hundreds of millions of dollars to give "merit pay" or "performance pay" to teachers and principals, even to students—if the scores rise. Simultaneously, they threaten to inflict serious sanctions on those schools, principals, and teachers if their students’ test scores do not go up. They don’t dock their pay, but do something worse: They threaten to close their schools, fire the staff, and tarnish the reputation of anyone who taught there.....

“I fear that American education has now entered into a twilight zone, where nothing is what it appears to be, where numbers are meaningless, where public relations and spin take the place of honest reporting, where fraud is called progress."

Many people were hoping that Duncan would lead K-12 education out of this twilight zone. So far there aren’t many signs that he will.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 24, 2009; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  National Standards, No Child Left Behind, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  no child left behind, president obama, race to the top,  
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I love your blog!!

I am surprised that Diane Ravitch is just know acknowledging how bad all the standardized testing is...private schools -- good ones do not do this. They use the PSAT starting in 8th grade and ERBs before that. The scores are never posted and the results are used to help the students...

A group in my city has been complaining for years of low standards, lower cut scores and a very narrow curriculum. If we (mostly lay people) could see this why were educators so scared to admit it.

Do you think Duncan's mission might be to bust the union? Just curious --

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | September 24, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

What is the purpose of testing if the test is made so easy that everyone passes? More emphasis should be on the quality of instruction rather than fret over the end result.

Posted by: ericpollock | September 24, 2009 10:27 PM | Report abuse

DC has failed at education for years and years and years. But what made them finally start doing something was hard, cold, difficult, numbers. We need to quit crying over being held accountable to numbers. They are essential to make corrections in failing systems. I feel like these complaints about standardized tests are the equivelent of complaining that your gas gage tells you that your tank is empty. It doesn't matter how nice a car you have, if it is empty it is empty. I am a DC parent that is going to walk out of the system with my feet if teachers don't quit fighting the sytem and decide to embrace change.

Posted by: Brooklander | September 28, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

NCLB includes 111 times the term "scientifically based evidence," and yet almost nothing about the law itself is grounded in sound research. End-of-year assessments do not result in improved teaching and learning. The horribly expensive and cumbersome after-school tutoring has proven to be worthless. The consequences for lack of improved scores are not grounded in anything except a belief in paperwork, punishment, and humiliation. Insisting on standards-based instruction when students don't have prerequisite knowledge and skills is ridiculous. Mandating "highly qualified" teachers without doing anything to produce them is, well, silly. Almost every paragraph of this law is flawed. Arne Duncan needs to read what Candidate Obama promised and do that. Enough of NCLB! We need the federal government to support improving public schools, not try to destroy public education, as the Cato Institute would like it to do.

Posted by: balesley | September 28, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

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