Ed Secretary Duncan Wants To 'Flip' NCLB, Vows To Scale Up What Works

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NCLB got it "backwards," according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan in his first Congressional testimony since his confirmation in January. He told legislators it's time to consider reversing the role of the federal government and provide "clear guidance" to districts on how student achievement should be defined moving forward and offer support for efforts that are clearly having a positive impact on students.

Duncan addressed the House Budget Committee March 12, elaborating on the Obama administration's education policy and tackling questions about education funding in the 2010 budget blueprint, the newly enacted omnibus spending legislation, and the stimulus package.

Among other things, he declared education to be "the civil rights issue of our generation," saying that, essentially, if there was one good thing to come out of No Child Left Behind, it was the revelation of just how deep the achievement gap is in this country between socioeconomic groups. But that was about all he offered by way of recommendation for NCLB.

"We look to come back later in the year for reauthorization and want to really think through how we continue to improve upon [NCLB]," Duncan said. "... [W]hat No Child Left Behind I think will always get credit for is shining an absolute spotlight on the achievement gap, and by that I mean the differences in educational outcomes between white children and children from the Latino and African American community. This tough reality--this harsh reality--is something none of us can be proud of, but it's also something that can no longer be swept under the rug. And we want to continue looking at data and doing everything in our power to challenge that achievement gap and see it shrink. What didn't happen before is the program wasn't funded. And with the present support and [Congressional] leadership, we are putting ... literally billions of dollars into Title I funding to help poor children, into IDEA funding to help children with disabilities, and really putting our resources where our mouth is, and helping schools and school districts and states have the opportunity to be successful."

Flipping NCLB Around
Duncan argued that the overall approach of NCLB was wrong from the start, overly prescriptive in defining how schools had to meet achievement goals while being overly deferential to the states in allowing them to define their own achievement goals.

He said that rather than allowing all 50 states to come up with their own standards, the federal government should define the standards and then let states figure out how they want to achieve those goals. And, furthermore, he said that for those schools and districts that are doing things right, funding should be provided to help expand those efforts.

Duncan said: "... [T]he No Child Left Behind law, I think, got backwards the idea of what needs to be tight in this country and what needs to be loose. The federal role is always going to be a very limited one. Education is always going to be a local issue. What we need to do is provide clear guidance and clear goal posts. Under No Child Left Behind, 50 different states set their own benchmarks, set their own goal posts, and what that led to, I think--maybe unintentionally--but what I think it led to was what I call the "race to the bottom"--states dumbing down their standards to hit some political goal. And so while No Child Left Behind was very loose about the goal, it was very tight, very prescriptive--I would argue overly prescriptive--about how you get there. I want to try and flip that. I want to be much tighter on what the goal is; I want our states thinking about college-ready, career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards. Our students today aren't competing against children down the block or in the district or in the state; they're competing with children in India and China. We need to be very cognizant of what that takes to be successful in the new global economy."

He continued: "So I want to be much clearer about the goal. I want to have much higher expectations. I want to eliminate the race to the bottom and create a race to the top. And then I want to have clear ways to measure states' progress against that but give states flexibility and the chance to innovate to achieve those loftier goals."

Federal Assistance Versus Interference
Duncan expanded on these concepts when he addressed the role of the federal government in schools. He implied its role is not to dictate the way schools are run but said the role is, instead, to spur innovation--to identify what's working and fuel it with funding.

This led to a telling exchange between the secretary and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), transcribed here.

Duncan: Let me be very clear: When I was in my other job a couple months ago, I didn't want Washington running my business. Now that I'm in Washington, I'm ... even less interested in having Washington run at a local level. What I see our role as is very simple: I want to spur innovation; I want to reward creativity; and I want to scale up what works. And it's easy for me to say this, and ... you know culture change is very, very hard, but [when] the Department of Education used to call me, that wasn't a call I always welcomed. It wasn't always a call saying, "How can I help you get better?" And what I want to do--again, easier to say than to do--but can we be the department that drives best practices, that shines a spotlight on what's working, and takes that to scale? And one of the reasons I'm so optimistic about where we can go as a country is there have never been more examples of great schools, great districts, great non-profits, great charter organizations making a Herculean difference in students' lives in some of the toughest communities, most oppressed areas you've ever seen. Many of these examples frankly didn't exist 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. And what I want to do is take to scale what works. And so my job is not so much to come up with great ideas; I'm not that smart anyway. My job is to do a great job of listening. All of the really good ideas are already out there, and, if we can share those best practices, if we can figure out what's working, reward excellence, and frankly stop doing what's not working, get out of things we shouldn't be in, I think we have a chance to make a dramatic impact on our students' lives.

Ryan: That's encouraging. I think we all agree with everything you just said. The question is on implementation, of driving best practices. Does implementation and driving best practices mean telling local districts how to do it, or does it mean encouraging laboratories of innovation, of different ideas, and encouraging that differentiation, and not sort of heavy-handed from the federal perspective? Look, the last administration, I have complaints with the way they did this too. That's a concern here.

Duncan: Let me be very, very clear. I'm simply interested in dramatically improving student achievement. I'm the most non-political, non-ideological guy you can ever meet. I want to look at the data very closely. And if groups can show us, if districts, schools, non-profits, charter groups can show us they're making a demonstrable difference--really dramatically accelerating student achievement--I want to do everything we can to support them.

Ryan: You want to get out of their way and let them do that and not....

Duncan: I want to go further: not only get out of their way. I want to fund them and invest in them to do more of what they're doing.

Ryan: The issue then becomes with money comes strings, and that's just something I would encourage you to think about.

Duncan: I absolutely hear. But let me just tell you: Where you have groups that are doing a great job with a school or a handful of schools, if we can help them work with more children and more communities, that's the right thing to do. And you're starting to see, again, best practices in a wide variety of communities that are doing an extraordinary job. Let me tell you how I want to do it. We have in the stimulus package ... $5 billion for what we call the Race to the Top fund, $4.35 billion of that [to] incent states--not mandate, not dictate--reward those states that voluntarily--let me be very clear about that, voluntarily--choose to think about a number of reforms that we think are critical, think about college-ready, career-ready, internally benchmarked standards, think about great data systems so we can track students' progress throughout their educational career. I want to be able to look a sixth-grader [or] an eighth-grader in the eye and say you're on the track to go to college to be successful or you're not. I'm very concerned honestly that in many states today, because standards have been dummied down [and] we've had this race to the bottom, we're actually lying to children. We're telling them they're on track because they're meeting a low bar. When a child or a parent hears I'm meeting state standards, they probably think that they're in good shape, and in many cases, unfortunately, that's not the case, that they are barely prepared to graduate from high school and are absolutely under-prepared, woefully under-prepared, to go on to college. So we want to incent states to think about common high standards; we want to incent states to think about great data systems that track students' progress, that track teachers against students, and track teachers back to their schools of education so we can see where there's added value. We want to think very differently about how we reward excellence among teachers and principals and again shine a spotlight on those that are making a great difference on our students' lives. And we want to think about how we turn around struggling schools. I really worry about those schools at the bottom where schools are, I would argue, perpetuating poverty, perpetuating [systems] of failure. So, on a voluntary basis, we want to work with a set of states that want to come forward and lead what we're calling a Race to the Top and really drive the country where I think we need to go.

Ryan: And they lead and they define and they choose the methodology. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Early Education
Duncan also tackled the question of early education, focusing on children ages 2 to 5 and half-jokingly lamenting that he has no way to get at the "zeros and ones." He said preK education is arguably the best investment that can be made to help ensure the academic success of students.

"If our children hit kindergarten ready to learn and ready to read and with their literacy skills in tact and their socialization skills in tact," he said, "they have a world of opportunity before them. There's nothing more important we can do."

The stimulus package provided some $5 billion in funding for early childhood education within the Department of Education. Duncan pointed to two facets of early childhood education that need special focus: access and quality.

"[If] this is glorified babysitting, if children are at a child care center watching TV all day, we're really not changing their life circumstances," he said.

He pointed to a number of areas that need further investigation to begin implementing effective early education, including teacher professional development, accreditation, and interdepartmental relations between Education and Health and Human Services.

Teacher Incentives and Generational Shift
When questioned about teacher incentives (or merit-based pay), Duncan emphasized the importance of quality teachers and administrators and said it was time to get creative with how they are rewarded for performance.

"You can have all the resources; you can have a great building; you can have great technology," he said. "If you don't have great teachers, great principals, you're still really putting a limit on what those students can learn."

One of the critical opportunities in improving teacher quality, he explained, will come with the retirement of baby boomers. He said that if we "bring in the best and brightest from around the country" now, then we'll be setting public education on a positive course for the next 25 to 30 years. The the poor economy might actually contribute to the viability of this. As the economy shrinks, Duncan said, teaching is becoming a more attractive career option.

"I see this along a continuum," he said. "We need to have a world-class effort to recruit the best and brightest into teaching. We need to find ways to better support and mentor those teachers. We need to find ways to reward excellence. And we need to find ways to reward folks to tasked on tough assignments in communities that have been underserved. And we need to find ways to eliminate our math and science shortages. And along this continuum of activity, I think we can dramatically improve student achievement because nothing is more important."

And for teachers who may not live up to that "best and brightest" standard: "The flip side of that," Duncan said, "is where at the end of the day, after great support, great mentoring, great induction, if teachers aren't making it, I think they need to find something else to do. So we have to look at all ends of this continuum and just be very honest about how critical it is to get the best and the brightest where we need them the most."

Additonal information about Duncan's appearance before the House Budget Committee can be found here.

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