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Arne answers your questions

I had a good chat with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan this morning at his office. He had other important duties, but I would not let him go until he addressed each and every one of the questions sent in by readers last night and this morning. (Sorry, I missed questions that came in after 8:30 a.m. I had to get going. You know what D.C. traffic is like in the rain.) Here is what he said. I think most of his answers can be summed up as "we're handing out $4.35 billion in stimulus funds for innovation, and if we do it properly we will help solve a lot of problems."

From mhallet1: Ask him how he is coming on national Algebra I standards.

Duncan said that was the job of the group of 48 states and the Districts working to produce common standards. He said he is following their progress with great interest, but at the moment it is a state, not a federal, project.

From nicheVC: Disclosure: I spent the first 15 years of my career as an education practitioner, the last 10 investing in and discerning how the private sector might bring innovation and efficacy to the same.

With respect to technological/pedagogical evolution and macroeconomic/political inflection point, there has not been a better time in recent decades to invest in education. This assumes the money and efforts are spent wisely, efficiently.

How will you ensure that the declared ARRA/RTTT monies and corresponding decision making is decentralized into the hands of the battle worn administrators, teachers/professors who run our countries schools, colleges and universities and who might benefit from novel, heretofore unimplemented solutions to their problems?

In decentralizing the above stimulus monies, what line item stipulations will the DOE make in recognizing the need for novel approaches from those service and technology providers outside the public sector who have the best chance of creating near term positive disruption?

He said the "local buy-in" will be a very important part of the department's review of Race To The Top proposals. The whole idea is to encourage novel approaches by the people who deal directly with students.

From aceproffitt: Ask him how any future NCLB will account for student attendance and mobility rates. One of the nasty secrets of NCLB is that teachers cannot help students who aren't enrolled most of the year or are always out of school or who are suspended for assault. When I taught in the inner city, that was a huge problem. I was statistically responsible for students who could not be found. Likewise, ask if any future proposal will force states to assess a school over its whole population. One of the current problems in Tennessee is that high schools are really only assessed on four exams: Algebra I, English II, Biology, and a writing exam given in the middle of the 11th grade. The other courses/teachers have less "buy-in."

All those issues, he said, are an important part of the work his staff, and congressional staffs, are doing now on the replacement for No Child Left Behind. The department's assistant secretary for communications and outreach, Peter Cunningham, had an interesting idea for a way Class Struggle readers could participate in the labeling of the new act. I will put up a post on this Saturday morning, or next week if I forget.

From rexxNYC: Ask him where he thinks the most succesful 'accountabilty systems' are?

Ask him if he thinks NYCs 'accountability system' is creating measurable progress? Ask if he has reviewed TUDA (NAEP) for math and reading in NYC since Bloomberg took office? Math only up 2% since 2002 and reading up 0% since then.

Is he aware that in the 6 years before Bloomberg took office, NYS improved 4 times as much on NAEP as it has since?

Does he think NYC should be giving out performance based bonuses based on NYS tests that are curved lower each year and when no measurable improvement is being shown in the system-as-a-whole?

He said he has seen the data you mentioned and is interested in this issue. Massachusetts' state test results seem to track well with NAEP, he said. He said he was also impressed to see Florida showing both increases in achievement and narrowing of the achievement gap.

From deealpert: Ask Arne what USDOE is doing, and intends to do in the future, especially via the USDOE's OIG, to insure that states' data is accurate, legitimately verified and reliable. 'Cause right now, it isn't, and most of what USDOE publishes is guestimate, at best.

Big, sophisticated IT systems don't mean a thing when the data inputted is fiction. Or, as our computer friends, say, "GIGO" - Garbage In: Garbage Out. There's no sense encouraging them, or using federal funds to pay for them, when the output is often simply laughable.

All such flaws will figure in who gets the RTTT money and who doesn't, he said.

From MannyThinks: Kids need fundamentals to start their education. However, they need critical thinking skills to get ready for college, a real job, & life beyond high school.

Teachers seems to often be left behind when understanding & using technology to teach and engage students.

Ask the EdSec how we can keep K-12 education innovative?

The more creative the lessons, the harder they are to evaluate with old testing methods.

How do we measure the success of lessons that promote innovative critical thinking in K-12 education?

"We want to reward success," he said. That means that state proposals that have a good chance of encouraging the kind of creativity you mention will have an advantage.

From philipnobile: Secretary Duncan: You cooperated with Steven Levitt's investigation of teacher and principal cheating on high stakes tests when you ran Chicago Public Schools. Levitt's dismaying findings were reported in "Freakonomics." As a NYC high school teacher I have blown the whistle on test tampering which is not only rampant in our schools, but also covered up by the DOE and UFT which exploits rising counterfeit scores for their own ends. Since RttT rates
schools and teachers on test scores, what will you do to stop the fakery which only
cheats our students? Blind grading is the answer.

He said this too is one of the issues that will affect who gets what from the Race To The Top fund.

By Jay Mathews  | November 12, 2009; 3:05 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Next: Bracey's last report--trashing our educational assumptions


Actually, I am writing about that statistic on the other side of the page about teacher student ratio being 12:1. Never, ever, in the best of times have I ever been in a classroom with 12 students. Perhaps there are some but WHERE ARE THESE GHOST CLASSROOMS? I have had as many as 40 students in a Geometry class once - this year is light 28-32 students per class. Now that would some good investigative reporting - an analysis of fact versus fiction and the 12:1 ratio? Perhaps an episode of Urban Legend or Myth Busters might be in order

Posted by: petercat926 | November 12, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Oh, how I wish I could get an opinion from him on this one....

Any reasonable effort to increase student academic performance must address the principals' and assistant pricipals' time presently devoted to attendance of after-school sporting events, both home and away games. Why is the chief academic leader (and assistants) of the school expected to also be the "head cheerleader" for sports as well? So many hours - often over 20 in a week, just for sports. Surely, a better use of time, say, analyzing school data, preparing teacher mini-workshops, reading journals, etc. will result in improved student achievement. This is not an anti-sports view, but rather a realistic view at the primary puprpose of education and educational dollars in America. Just ask principals if they are expected to show up to science fairs, nope, but many games, yeap. Something is very, very, wrong!

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 12, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

I'm feeling kind of prescient. The USDOE OIG came out with its audit today of NYSED's systems, programs and procedures to insure that ARRA funds are spent properly and accurately reported. Basically, the audit report stated that NYSED does not audit or verify districts' reports re Title I and IDEA expenditures and has no idea as to whether funds are spent properly, stolen or misused. USDOE's own audits have shown this same thing to be true for years. To date, USDOE has done absolutely nothing about this deplorable situation.

I'm not encouraged by Duncan's response to my question - thank you for asking it, Jay! - re what USDOE will be doing to insure that the data it receives is accurate, verified and reliable. "All such flaws will figure in who gets the RTTT money and who doesn't, he said."

Why just figure this into RttT grants, when it's now thoroughly documented that all major federal grant program funds to NYSED are at serious, current risk of fraud or waste? And why hasn't Duncan done something about this already? Does it mean that only RttT money depends on a state ed. dept. being clean and handling federal funds appropriately?

Dee Alpert, Publisher

Posted by: deealpert | November 13, 2009 2:20 AM | Report abuse

Regrettably, Secretary Duncan dodged my question about principal and teacher cheating on high stakes tests. When teachers grade these tests on which their careers rest, the temptation to fudge scores is almost irresistible. Tampering is the dirty big secret of our profession, and nobody cares because everybody seems to benefit in the short run.

I asked the Secretary what he was going to do to stop it. His answer was gobbledygook. As quoted by Jay: "He said this too is one of the issues that will affect who gets what from the Race To The Top fund."

Steven Levitt's report in "Freakonomics" on cheating in Duncan's Chicago Public Schools
noted: “Schoolchildren, of course, have had the incentive to cheat for as long as there have been tests. But high stakes testing has so radically changed the incentives for teachers that they too now have added incentive to cheat. … And if a teacher were to survey this newly incentivized landscape and consider somehow inflating her students’ scores, she just might be persuaded by one final incentive: teacher cheating is rarely looked for, hardly ever detected, and just about never punished.”

Duncan's response to my question confirms
Levitt's sad observation.

Posted by: philipnobile | November 13, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse


Thanks for taking the time to squeeze at least a drop of blood here and there out of the turnip that is our Secretary of Education. My takeaway: RttT will somehow solve everything by making some good things happen somewhere -- maybe.

My favorite non-answer answer was his not-very-artful dodge on the very good question about New York test scores. Maybe you should pose that one again, via e-mail, so a member of his staff can cook up yet another non-answer answer. And so on, and so on, until you can collect all the non-answer answers on the NY testing scam -- and the NYC bonus scam -- into a column called "Secretary Duncan's Non-Answer Answers About Testing in Wonderland."

Posted by: StevePeha | November 13, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

With respect, I can't imagine a more patronizing activity than "the naming" of the "new act". Most of us are aware that the "act" is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It already has a name and was permanently authorized by the Congress in 1965 when first enacted. This means that the folks at the US Department of Education and the White House aren't "replacing" anything at all -- they are recommending amendments to legislation that already exists. Part of the problem with achieving good outcomes in education policy has been the spin put on the process - using words to obscure meaning rather than clarify and enlighten. Elementary and Secondary Education Act is clear and has the added advantage of being "transparent" as to it's purpose.

Posted by: jamieadvocates | November 13, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

for jamieadvocates---I am on your side, but that leaves us out of the mainstream of our culture. Brands matter, they have been telling me at the Post the last couple of years as we struggle to adjust to this new and perilous environment for newspapers. Labels matter. People made fun of the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind," but the Obama people know that they might have lost the election if they had not come up with slogans that gave voters a positive view of what they were doing. So I think I will go ahead with posting the rules for our little experiment in seeing which words are most popular with readers in naming--okay, branding---the next version of ESEA. Watch for it Wed. morning.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 13, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for asking my question, Jay. It's a shame the answer seems a little shallow, but I'm honored that you did nonetheless!

Posted by: aceproffitt | November 13, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

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