Arne Duncan’s Moment of Truth

As two powerful forces collide at this moment in educational history, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has an opportunity to make a mid-course correction that could save public education. The first powerful force is the Common Core and the accompanying tests that are being ‘rolled out’ in classrooms around the country.  The epidemic of cheating on standardized tests is the other threat that must be understood and addressed.

Think of these two forces as mighty rivers, separate until now–but converging.

Dealing with the Common Core is going to require restraint on the Secretary’s part, it seems to me. Adopted by all but five states, the Common Core raises standards and expectations, surely a good thing.  However, it is also scaring a lot of politicians and educators.  Some are upset at the idea of change because fear of the unknown is par for the course, others suspect a federal takeover of education, and some think it’s a good idea being done badly.

Mr. Duncan’s official position is that the Common Core is not Washington’s doing, but everyone knows that federal dollars have supported its development and growth–it wouldn’t have happened without Washington.  As protests{{1}} grow, Mr. Duncan might be wise to keep relatively quiet and let others defend it, lest his support be taken as evidence that the Common Core really is that ‘federal takeover’ the critics fear.

But the arrival of the Common Core has created an opportunity for Mr. Duncan to speak out about the epidemic of cheating.  FairTest, an organization that is strongly opposed to over-reliance on standardized testing, has compiled a list of states and districts where cheating (most often by adults) has come to light.

It identifies 38 states (most recently Iowa) and the District of Columbia (I have written about the latter.)

Secretary Duncan has previously said that the solution to this problem is tighter security, a position he took with me in a conversation after the Atlanta scandal became public. That might have been an appropriate response back then, but it is woefully inadequate today.  Calling for increased security to solve today’s situation reminds me of that old fable, ‘The Boy at the Dike.’ You may remember the boy trying vain to plug holes and running out of fingers.  Something more is going on here, and I think we should expect our Secretary of Education to help us grapple with this.

The challenge for the Secretary is that his own federal policy is at least partially responsible for what’s going on now. By insisting that student performance on standardized tests be an important part of teacher evaluation, Mr. Duncan and his “Race to the Top” have helped change the game.  But it’s a game without clear rules besides “Produce or Else.”  Surely he, as an athlete, must know that competition without rules leads to chaos.

Secretary Duncan has, wittingly and unwittingly, allied himself with the “Produce or Else” approach favored by Michelle Rhee {{2}}, Beverly Hall {{3}} and other school leaders, apparently without clearly thinking through what “Produce” means.  As a consequence, standardized tests have become a wedge (or a weapon) for administrators in their relations with teachers, a ‘them against us’ approach that is souring public education.

When I was a kid and when my now-grown children were kids, tests were designed and used to assess student performance and make judgements about school quality.  Now, however, tests are all about holding teachers and principals ‘accountable.’  We have lost our way, and the cheating epidemic is the clearest sign of that.  Principals and teachers know that their livelihood depends on rising test scores, and so the curriculum has been narrowed; adult energy is focused on the so-called ‘cusp kids’ who are just a few points shy of making it over the bar; music, theatre, and field trips have disappeared; children are objects to be manipulated, not living, breathing human beings with individual needs, strengths and weaknesses; and morally weak adults are cheating.

Here’s the rub: Cheating is not the problem that must be addressed. It is the most visible and disturbing symptom of the disease, but the disease itself is our excessive reliance on high stakes testing.

The Common Core tests represent an opportunity to cure the disease, and the Secretary should seize the opportunity. These new tests are supposed to reveal student strengths and weaknesses; their results should provide insights into what teachers need to do to help their charges learn.  But if we continue with our “Get Tough” policies and use scores to reward and punish teachers, the Common Core is doomed, it seems to me.

The Secretary could proclaim a new day in testing and assessment–actually a return to the old days when we trusted teachers. He could seek consensus on what “Produce” actually means, which would be the first step to moving us beyond hyper-testing.  Most of the teachers I have known over 39 years of reporting on education are not afraid of accountability.  They need to be part of the conversation, however.

Why not bring together {{4}} several dozen thoughtful teachers? (Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network would be a great place to recruit.)  Invite the two teacher union leaders and some savvy principals and superintendents (I’d pick some names from David Kirp’s excellent new book, “Improbable Scholars.”)  I suggest inviting Bill Gates, because he now says that education needs an accountability system that has the support of teachers, and because he is a smart man.  Let these men and women–at least half of them classroom teachers–discuss and argue until they reach a consensus on what it is we want schools to “produce” and how that–and the adults in charge–should be assessed.

The ball, Mr. Secretary, is in your court.


[[1]]1. The anger seems to be directed against high stakes testing, not the Common Core tests.  Randi Weingarten has called for a one-year moratorium.  Around the nation some parents are organizing to withdraw their children on testing days; some teachers in the northwest have refused to participate, and many school districts in Texas are petitioning their state legislature to ban high stakes testing. But that is my point: this moment of transition is a perfect opportunity to revisit what we are doing.

The Common Core tests have come and gone in New York City.  I spent an afternoon with some 8th graders in Brooklyn last week, hearing their thoughts about the new tests they had just taken. Every single student wished for more time, but most did not seem fazed by the supposedly tougher requirements.  The English Language Arts exam required them to read and write about several non-fiction passages, which most of these bright kids found boring. “Who wants to read about robot soccer players or the intelligence of crows,” one kid asked scornfully?  English Language Learners who have taken the tests may have had a very different experience.[[1]]

[[2]]2. The DC schools are worse off today by every measure I can think of. See my blog post. And Secretary Duncan has made no secret of his admiration for Michelle Rhee, even to the point of electioneering. The Washington Post’s Bill Turque reported, “if any doubt remained about where the Obama Administration’s sympathies are in the District primary, they were eliminated at a morning photo op that preceded the official RTTT announcement.” Duncan’s announcement of the grant on the eve of the election had “the unmistakable feel of a Fenty campaign stop,” as Duncan joined the embattled mayor and his controversial chancellor in a walk with children wearing Fenty campaign stickers. Asked if he was taking sides in the Democratic primary, Duncan said of Fenty, “I’m a big fan.”  When the new mayor, Vincent Gray, took over, Duncan urged him to keep Rhee on as chancellor, but Gray wisely let her go. Duncan then reportedly urged Gray to promote Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s Deputy Chancellor.  (Cited in David Safier’s blog)[[2]]

[[3]]3. Dr. Hall and 34 other Atlanta educators have been indicted and are awaiting trial, and Atlanta remains the epicenter of our cheating universe.[[3]]

[[4]]4.  Peter Cunningham, Secretary Duncan’s erstwhile Assistant Secretary for Communications, reminds me that the Secretary has been an active participant in Project Respect and has met personally with hundreds of the roughly 5,000 teachers the Department has met with since taking office.[[4]]

67 thoughts on “Arne Duncan’s Moment of Truth

  1. How is education a disease and the Common Core a solution? The Common Core is actually copyrighted and the nonprofit who created it gets paid every time you use the term. Do Bill and Melinda Gates really pay a large amount of money to Learning Matters? What other money is donated to Learning Matters and who donates it? What is the purpose? Calling education a disease? Calling Common Core a solution? As an educator, you must read research, but there is no research cited in your post. Why don’t you cite the sources you are using. It would be a start.


    • Whoa….I said excessive high stakes testing is the disease. We do not have funding from Gates, although we have in the past. I think raising standards is a good thing, and the Common Core is the route we have chosen. But if we continue to use test scores as a weapon against teachers, the whole enterprise is in jeopardy.


      • To the right of this page (under Our Funders), The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is listed. I’m glad to hear that you no longer have Gates funding. Maybe the reference could be removed. You have become an even more credible reporter in my eyes without that funding.

        I think anyone writing honestly about education today should be very cautious about accepting Gates money.

        In response to your suggestion to invite Bill Gates “because he is a smart man:”

        People are smart in many different ways, and I don’t think Bill Gates is too smart when it comes to education. Accepting that he is generally smart has proven disastrous for public education.


      • John, you are still focused on a very top down approach. When the teaching profession finds the brave leaders who trust teachers and establish structural, systematic teacher autonomy to create schools where teachers respond to student needs not administrative, district, state and federal mandates we will see true accountability. Those entities should be accountable to the children and the teachers not the other way around! It is currently upside-down.


      • Still wondering why The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is listed as a funder although you no longer have Gates funding.


      • Agree, ECH. David Sirota has a short piece on YouTube explaining how Bill Gates and others stand to profit (and have) off charters: “Education ‘Reform’ with David Sirota.” I think it speaks to the amazing job the “reformers” have done denigrating the profession of teaching that we allow a businessman, who’s likely not taken a single course in education, to tell the country how to assess teachers. There’s a gross presumption to it. I can’t imagine creating an assessment system for, say, accountants, not having spent one day trying to negotiate the finances of a company. It’s insulting.


      • Only if people like David Berliner, Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody were in the room, too, because Gates could learn a lot from them about education, which his paid lackeys probably don’t tell him.


      • John, I guess I don’t understand WHY he would be in that room. Has he ever studied education or taught? Maybe he has and I don’t know about it. To use my example above, if you had some background knowledge of what an accountant does, but, in fact, you’d never done any kind of sophisticated profit/loss analysis, would you be a wise choice for a committee formed to create an assessment for accountants? And consider that the system was being designed for approximately 3,000,000 accountants and each one of them has more knowledge and experience than you do. Consider, too, that you’re only inviting 25 people to the conversation… Do you think that you’d be the best one for that job? Maybe I’m missing something. I’m open.


      • John, I am a Certified Data Processor and used to be a Certified Systems Professional, with 20 years in the field before I became a teacher. I am more qualified to be in the room evaluating Microsoft and Gates on the quality of what they produce than he is qualified to be in the room judging me or any teacher. I would NOT have him at the table, in the room, or even in the building.


      • Is this all about Gates’ money? Because I really don’t see how he qualifies to be in the room either. I would not presume to be qualified to attend a meeting concerning how Microsoft employees are handling coding –although I would like to share a piece of my mind with him alone about his practice of rank and yank and offer suggestions about alternative management styles.


      • He, and any other citizen would be qualified to be in the room, because public education is not just about representing the interests of educators. Public education exists to benefit the public. And that means everyone.


      • You seem to assume that Gates would represent the public more than parents who actually have children in public schools, but who are not on that list of invitees. If all relevant stakeholders are represented, Gates might be included as a representative of the community at large, but if not, I see no reason for him to take precedence over others just because of his wealth.


      • Kathy, I wasn’t speaking of representing “interests.” When talking interests, of course any and all who have a stake in the system should be welcome. But we’re talking about developing assessments for teachers. If you’ve never been taught to instruct musicians, how are you going to assess someone else’s skill at teaching clarinet? You might know that the sound is good or bad, but what would you know about what the instructor needs to do to help the student improve or replicate the sound?


      • Kathy, the point is that being alive in the United States does not make one qualified to create an evaluative system for teaching. Neither does being alive in the United States and being very successful in banking, accounting, medicine, law, or any other highly valued and rewarded profession. Teaching is a profession, and just as there are qualifications for other professions there are qualifications for teaching. That is not to say that everyone can’t hold opinions about education, that’s just not a qualification. Where education has dropped the ball is they invited in opinion holders before establishing qualifications on which to judge those opinions. Education lost it’s professional voice as a result.


      • That is why there are monthly school board meetings in most public school districts so that the public can attend. The public is not invited to all meetings pertaining to education. Mr. Gates can go to a school board meeting and sell his snake oil. The meeting John is suggeting would be a meeting of professional education people. Mr. Gates does not belong at that sort of meeting.


      • Any citizen is qualified to be in the room, but Bill Gates could help most by using his money to purchase expertise. When he offers his opinion, he should qualify it by saying, “As a parent, I think…” or “As a citizen, my opinion is…” But he should be careful to remind people that his money cannot buy him expertise in education or any other field where he has insufficient background, training and experience.

        Bill Gates means well and he is a very generous man, but he has inadvertently done a lot of harm to American education.


  2. Arne Duncan isn’t listening, Mr. Merrow.

    He said yesterday that he (now) realizes that the testing has gotten ridiculous in public schools, but he was simply promoting his new tests. More and better tests. That’s his answer.

    “More” is true, too. The Ohio Common Core assessments include still more time devoted to testing.

    I’m genuinely sad for my 4th grader. He loves school, and our “national leaders” seem bound and determined to turn his public school into a glorified test prep facility. He’s the youngest in our family. Our local school simply wasn’t test-obsessed ten years ago when my older children were in 2nd and 3rd and 4th grade (before NCLB and RTTT) and it is now.

    “Reformers” should be held accountable for this situation we’re in. They all contributed to it, and they don’t seem to have the integrity to admit it’s out of control.


  3. John, I’m guessing this means that you didn’t get the interview with Arne. No surprise there, since the carrot and stick are his signature strategies and Rhee is his poster child for “Produce or Else” style education “reform.” Avoiding a discussion about that is just one more thing suggestive of collusion though.


  4. I think it’s fine to have Gates there. He already has a following (from mostly non educators), but I think it could be powerful if he came out with more sane education policies.


    • Disagree. Gate’s policies? Who elected Gates as a policy maker? He’s a clueless profiteer who would not last one week in a high school as a teacher. The Moms need to cleanup his multiple messes.


      • I guess I’m trying to take the approach that Gates already has a lot of influence in education, whether we like it or not. There’s two approaches I see. One is to remove him totally from education conversations, which a lot of people here are advocating. I think that’s a decent idea. Another idea that I’m throwing out there is to try and get him to be a more sane education advocate. But I know it’s likely a naive take on things as I read more comments here. Doesn’t hurt to hope that he could reverse course.


      • Removing Gates from education conversations simply isn’t possible. Can’t he simply donate to organizations that he is convinced are doing the right thing (in his opinion) and thereby voicing his beliefs indirectly?

        Given the fact that there is a huge amount of money he and his foundation are willing to donate to organizations in education, isn’t it more important to educate him and get him to support the actually good ones?

        Just look at the 8 million going into Rhee’s student first. For what?


      • The $8M for StudentsFirst was donated by the Waltons, not Gates.

        There is a huge difference between genuine charity and venture philanthropy. The latter has strings attached, as indicated by the donations from the triumvirate, Gates, Broad and the Waltons, who donate to promote specific agendas, such as high-stakes testing, data warehousing, VAM, charter schools, privatization, etc.


  5. Here’s my question, Educator: Given that he’s poised to profit from charters (see the Sirota video at YouTube), and given the enormity of influence he has on the American populace (mainly because he’s a billionaire and American culture is enamored of money and status climbing) do you think he would come out sane, or ready with a new arsenal of manipulation tactics that would benefit his profit margins. And given that there are educators a-plenty with passion and talent and experience… why him? Because he has a following? Then why not Michael Jordan? Or Bon Jovi? They have followings, too.


    • Gates stands to profit from data warehousing through InBloom, too, so it’s in his best interests to promote standardized testing.

      Just the fact that this guy has more wealth than any other person in this country and he is the second richest man on the entire planet, but still wants more, tells me that there is something very wrong with his thinking. His business history is not indicative of a highly ethical man either.

      I would prefer that Gates not be in the room.


      • Part of me thinks that he’s trying to do a lot of good with his foundation now that he’s accumulated so much wealth doing some arguably bad things. So now it’s kind of like penance. I think he has a following from some folks who have good intentions and are trying to improve education (but are naive), and he has a following from some folks who want to privatize education. So on an optimistic day, I’m hoping he can reverse course and be a public education advocate of the likes of Diane Ravitch. Other days I know I’m kidding myself.


      • As disturbing as the profit motive is, and it is very disturbing, the idea that he actually believes that he is a force for the improvement of education is even more troubling. And more disturbing than this is the fact that Arne Duncan, our nation’s “premiere educator”(irony) has the same bankrupt, narrow vision for public education.

        Having said that I would let him in the room and let him air his ideas, so long as their was a nice compliment of well spoken people who understand what it means to educate the whole person, and have a real value for education.


      • Arne Duncan is not an educator. His parents are educators. Arne has a bachelor’s degree in sociology.


  6. Arne Duncan has created such damage to American education over the last 4+ years that he should leave office immediately. Bill Gates has also done much more harm than good through his reckless pronouncements.


  7. Duncan needs to go as soon as possible. He’s a clueless and destructive force. If he’s the face of the USDOE, abolish the USDOE. He’s worse than Paige/spellings and they have zero credibility if added together.


  8. Is Mr. Gates a smart man? Well, he was an obsessed and ruthless–see the Microsoft antitrust case–and wildly successful businessman. That’s the only reason anyone gives his education ideas the time of day. But any experienced teacher who glances at one of his op-eds, interviews, or speeches on education will find unwarranted assumptions, false assertions, glaring omissions, illogical conclusions… jumping right off the page! Imagine him in a Norman Rockwell painting, having handed that shoddy work in to his fair but stern schoolmarm: little Billy would be sitting in the corner with a dunce cap on. The worst thing about Mr. Gate’s foray into education policy is his willful and persistent ignorance. Even his occasional changes of tune are impossible to fathom. No wonder he invites suspicion among those who haven’t accepted his funding.

    If there’s to be a Rethinking Summit on education policy, please don’t invite him. His “nonprofit” foundation dollars would distort the proceedings like a black hole distorts a galaxy.


  9. John, why not, along with educator, include some parents, community members and students in the discussion about what we want schools to achieve?

    You wrote, “Why not bring together [4] several dozen thoughtful teachers? (Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network would be a great place to recruit.) Invite the two teacher union leaders and some savvy principals and superintendents (I’d pick some names from David Kirp’s excellent new book, “Improbable Scholars.”) I suggest inviting Bill Gates, because he now says that education needs an accountability system that has the support of teachers, and because he is a smart man. “


    • Probably need some business people too, but the central point remains: teachers as majority of group


      • John, I’m still not getting why you think business people are needed to create an assessment for teachers.


  10. Come on, John, should we also do away with high stakes testing for pilots (and aircraft)? With high-stakes bar exams for would-be lawyers and high-stakes health screenings for restaurants and meat-packing plants? Shall we quit publicizing hospital death rates and cure rates? Every single human endeavor and institutional arrangement that really matters needs to be accountable for its results, not just its intentions, and that entails some form of testing. High stakes of one kind or another, both for individuals and for institutions. And anything with high stakes invites cheating. Everybody knows that. And in every endeavor that matters we make arrangements that minimize it. In education, that’s known as test security.


    • As with other professions, teachers have to pass high stakes exams for entry into the profession. Exactly which of the examples provided directly link on-going high-stakes testing, after entry into the profession, with continued employment and pay, based on the outcomes of the people with whom they work? Is this true for every lawyer when their clients lose cases in court? Every doctor when their patients don’t recover or die? Others?


    • Do you see the difference between the high-stakes tests given to lawyers and the ten-dollar group tests given to children?


    • Checker
      This is a classic straw man argument. I didn’t say ‘do away with high-stakes testing.’ And do you seriously think that our problem is lax security?


    • Checker,

      You should respond to these people. We are waiting…did you ever teach children in a school? Ever?


  11. Or, we could just go back to a simpler, common sense approach. Hold educators responsible for what they do. Priority #1 would be firing educators who don’t do their job. Priority#1 for data would be for diagnostics and Consumer Report-type transparency.

    Of course, people like Checker Finn would cry heresy. How could we challenge their hypothesis that accountability must be output-driven? Input driven accountability is bad. (even though, by my reading on his comment above, three of four of his metrics were closer to input metrics, and one was for a consumer report, and one was an entry exam like teachers advocate for. In other words, despite protestations he still wants to treat teachers different than any other professional, i.e. with collective punishment, but he defends that position using examples of accountability that teachers support.)

    I’m glad Finn brought up airplanes. We’d never put passengers in an airliner before its construction was complete. We should stop using half-baked hypotheses and half-tested statistical models for firing teachers. Test those critters before trusting the education field’s futures with them.

    In my experience, and you’ve written something similar, you can walk into a school and easily see teachers and others who need to go. Instead of spending 2% of ed budgets on complex evaluation models to drive all aspects of school reform, why not spend a fraction of it on training principals and preferably others (like peer reviewers) so they have time to do observations?

    Als, face the facts about the effects of poverty. Firing bad teachers is necessary, but that will only take you so far. Until we improve conditions in our tough schools, all we can do is replace bad teachers with permanent subs, because we don’t have applicants who can get the job done. Make teaching a better job and we’ll attract and retain more talent. Make teaching a team effort and we’ll get better teachers. (I dont recall where those ideas came from …)

    Seriously, for the people who can get er done, teaching in an inner city high school is the greatest job in the world. But the blood, the chaos, the continual fighting and the sporadic extreme violence, and the heads-in-the-sand mentality wears people down. There will never be enough replacements for a job that burns out so many people so heedlessly. And, as you also reported, better teaching conditions are better learning conditions.

    But, here’s the basic question Duncan should ask. If we documented and fired people for unexcused absences, not performing their duties, sitting at their desks rather than teaching, talking on their cell phones when they should have been working, being abusive to students, and the other things that are easy to document, what additional value would high-stakes value-added add? Would the removal of bad teachers also remove ineffective teachers?


    • Let’s not forget that almost 50% of all new teachers quit within 5 years of employment. 50% quit–not fired–they leave on their on accord because they can’t deal with it. How to replace all of these “bad” teachers and who is going to do their job?


  12. Yes, let’s include teachers in the conversation. Full disclosure, although currently retired from the classroom (although that might change) I am still a member of the Teacher Leaders Network which includes some very articulate and knowledgeable teachers who also write about education.

    To see what is wrong with what we are doing with education, I would strongly suggest that anyone who has not already read it need to read an important piece of writing by former National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen, titled Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard.

    I do agree with Joe Nathan that we need to add more than just the voices of teachers. That is why when we organized the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in 2011 we included those in universities who train teachers, parent groups, and community groups among our leadership. With the advent of student groups in a number of communities, we should ensure their voices are included – they are the ones being subjected to a narrowing of their education to what is being tested.



    • Ken is also a National Board Certified teacher and a Washington Post Agnes Meyer Teacher of the Year.

      Also, Governor McDonnell of Virginia just proposed a idea of great merit:
      McDonnell to create ‘Teacher Cabinet’ to advise on Va. school policies
      Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) announced Wednesday that he will create a “Teacher Cabinet” of advisers to influence high-level decisions that affect public schools.

      The teachers who will comprise most of the cabinet will be charged with developing recommendations for new ways to engage parents and close achievement gaps, and they will work on methods for improving the collaboration between public schools, colleges and workplaces.

      “Teachers are valuable resources to ensure a prosperous future in the Commonwealth,” the governor said in an executive order. “While the Commonwealth is fortunate to benefit from a top-ranked K-12 education system and world class teachers, we must continue to look for ways to elevate our educator workforce.”

      The cabinet will include up to 20 teachers, as many as two legislators with teaching backgrounds, the secretary of education and the state’s Teacher of the Year. The governor will appoint a chair and vice chair.


  13. sorry, my answer was not complete.

    And for starters, we certainly should end the idiocy of rating teachers by scores of students they have not taught and/or in subjects they do not teach merely because we do not have test in their subjects for their students. It will be very interesting to see if the courts agree with the recent lawsuits in Florida against that practice.

    Finally, what John does NOT address in his otherwise good piece is that we cannot look at the ‘accountability’ movement without recognizing how much it is involved in finding ways for individuals and corporations to profit from the hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent on K-12 education, too often at the expense of real learning from the students. The poor performance of the burgeoning virtual charter school movement clearly demonstrates that.


  14. I just wanted to pick up on what John said–that Bill Gates “would learn a lot”. This assumes that Gates comes into any place “to learn” or that he might think he has “something to learn”. Gates CLEARLY does not feel he needs to learn anything. His very clear position is that he is the authority and educators are the one that need to learn…from him. Authority in education has been ceded to the business model, where (to echo John!), schools are factories, and children are widgets whose production can be manipulated to produce uniform results.


    • Bottom line: would you rather have him in the tent, or outside? Would you rather gamble that he (and everyone else) would learn something from being inside the tent, or leave him outside where his views wouldn’t be challenged?
      To me, that’s ‘asked and answered.’


      • John, your mistake is in thinking Gates will listen. The education people at his foundation don’t listen, as Anthony Cody demonstrated in his exchange with them. What evidence do you have that Gates would listen to even the most articulate of professional educators? If he really wants to hear what we have to say, he could start by reading what many of us have been writing for years. Or maybe he could pay to fly in a batch of articulate teachers and sit down, just him and teachers, and no one else.

        I point out that Arne seems to have a similar problem. It was demonstrated clearly in conference calls first with NBCTs and then with a number of people from the Teachers Letters to Obama group. The 2nd event went so badly he followed up with direct phone calls to a couple of leaders trying to fix the damage, and I got called by people within the Department of Education asking what they could do to fix the damage.

        I will grant that Duncan means well. He may honestly think he is doing good. That is because he really often does not understand about what he is talking, or what is said to him. And he surrounds himself with a lot of people who are from foundations and think tanks and not experienced educators. Having a handful of teacher ambassadors is insufficient. Even when one of the recent Ambassadors, Genevieve DuBose, was able to get a lot of the senior staff to shadow DC area teachers for at least half a day and many of them returned basically admitting they had no idea what it was really like to be a teacher, the policies did not change.

        Instead we get the self-appointed experts, starting with Wendy Kopp and what she has spawned, the monstrosity of TFA and the likes of Rhee, Huffman, White, and so many others. They are perverting education, the most recent example being the announcement by Johns Hopkins of “a new online master’s degree program specifically for TFA corps members and alumni that is aligned with TFA’s Teaching as Leadership model and provides the knowledge and skills necessary to make a lasting impact in the classroom” as the email I received this morning says. Consider – provides the knowledge and skills that maybe they should have had BEFORE they were given responsibility for students?


      • This is similar to the belief that Obama once had that he could work with Republicans if we would all just sit down together and listen to each other. Bipartisanship is what he called it!!! What he apparently was blind to was the fact that these guys were planning his “waterloo” from the very beginning (and readily admitted it to the media) They would do anything to see him fail.

        Gates, like the Republicans, could give a rat’s ass what others are thinking or what the other side has to say. He has no motive for public education to succeed. He wants public education to fail. Then the private corporations can have a real free market moment in education history. They are salivating over the future possibility. These kind of people are not going to give one inch. They do not have a “compromising” gene in their DNA structure.


  15. Mr. Merrow,

    Thank you for making the important point that teachers are not afraid of accountability. During the 42 years that I taught, I was always very proud of the progress of my students, as were the other teachers. We were always inviting parents, administrators and other teachers into our rooms to “see what my kids are doing.” I always kept careful records for each child so that I could show parents and principals how much each child had learned throughout the year. And of course, I gave tests, many of them.

    In California there is a law called the Stull Act (1971), which requires a teacher to be evaluated according to the progress of her students. In observance of this law, I gave my students pretests in the fall and then charted their progress over the year. In May and June I gave end of the year “cumulative tests” to add to other examples of progress. What’s so interesting to me is the fact that Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy has repeatedly tried to place the blame on “the unions” for ignoring this law, even though there is a lot of evidence that he either didn’t know about the law, or didn’t abide by it. That is another story for you, John.

    Teachers are NOT against accountability; they are against unfair evaluations. Because standardized tests tend to reflect the socio-economic background of the child, teachers do not want to be judged on the results of these tests. Testing experts tell us that 85% of these tests reflect the home, while only 15% reflect the school.

    Thank you again for your careful investigating. It’s badly needed and will help many children and their teachers.


    • Ms. Johnson, thank you for your service to LAUSD and its stakeholders.

      I’d like to point out, however, that the reason why standardized tests reflect all those factors is because there is no other way to obtain the distribution of scores inherent in all such tests: the Bell Curve.

      The tests are designed to obtain the same type of responses at every test administration. The place of a student who “grows” her/his score and moves to the right of the average must be taken by a student who, in turn, moves to the left. That is why California CSTs results are consistently reported by the Los Angeles Times as “nearly 50% of students are not at grade level.” How could they if the test is designed so that 50% are below the proficient cut-off point?

      As a teacher, I am sure you aimed to have all your students learn a significant portion of the curriculum so that they could tackle the following year’s material. The CSTs are not designed that way. No “Curve”-based test is.

      If we insist to sort and grade students “on the Curve,” the least we can do is inform the parents where the cut-off points are, and that a certain portion will be defined as “retention” material, regardless of their classroom mark.


  16. John – You might want to read, or re-read, Walter Karp’s article in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine entitled “Why Johnny Can’t Think”.

    Karp’s discussion of “the politics of bad schooling”, as observed by Goodlad, Lightfoot, Sizer, Boyer, Bunzel, Ravitch, and the Nation at Risk report, provides a window into a different notion of needed school “reform” that’s worth reconsidering in the context of your proposition.

    American public education, and therefore America, is in a bigger mess than a committee, even if it includes Bill Gates, is remotely likely to get us out of.

    Too bad.

    Now what?

    Ronn Robinson
    Geoduck Education Consulting
    Mercer Island, WA


  17. If Arne won’t get the ball rolling, maybe you could. Maybe others would join you.

    More needs to be said about how to help children get to where we would like them to be. It’s not enough to “punish” someone for kids “failing”, how do we get them to succeed. “Failing” children, schools and teachers, should receive aid, guidance, what are the doing “wrong”, what might work better.

    Over time change ultimately reaches a stumbling block. Each initiative is bolder than the previous and the roadblocks become greater.


  18. I would encourage those interested in the question of whether or not Arne Duncan might modify his approach to school reform to some significant degree to check out his major speech at the AERA Annual Conference on Tuesday. The audience was huge and diverse, and included many who are critical.of the administration’s approach to school improvement.

    Most would agree that it was a well-reasoned speech, certainly the most comprehensive outline of Secretary Duncan’s perspective about the link between assessment and reform that I have heard. While I doubt that many minds were changed by the address, I personally found encouragement in the section on unintended consequences.

    Researchers tried to point out the unintended consequences of the Adequate Yearly Progress nonsense in advance of NCLB, but were ignored. The Secretary’s acknowledgement of the posibility of harmful unintended consequences associated even with policies that are well intended is a hopeful sign, one that recommends continuing dialogue directed toward shaping policies that are compatible with what is known about schooling and learning.


    • I didn’t read the speech that way. He was arguing for POSITIVE unintended consequences, which is why he used the GI Bill as an example. He is still tied to the notion of tests as the primary indicator, and he still wants to use them for purposes for which they were not designed. I would call that stubborn, and not an indication that he is prepared to listen. He also really somewhat misrepresents Campbell, but that almost doesn’t matter since the multiple measures approach he seems to accept is only those other measures that correlate with the tests, which still makes the tests the sole measure where they are used.


  19. Countless students and teachers deserve multiple investigations by ethical journalists and attorneys. Sadly, there are few with the courage to do the required work.

    If any Watergate style bulldogs exist, begin with specific open records requests to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the UTHSCH for vendor contracts, start-up funds for commercialized intellectual property, and purchase orders with Wireless Generation (WG) purchased by Murdoch for the purpose of getting more contracts – Amplify and inBloom. Then file open records for nobid contracts signed by Arne Duncan with WG in Chicago.

    Follow the money – WG pays royalties (kickbacks) to UTHSCH and then UTHSCH funnels the royalties back to TEA, UTSystem, University of Houston, Barbara Foorman, David Francis, Jack Fletcher, Susan Landry, etc. Billions in local, state, and federal funds are misused with federal grant funds as the gateway for fraud. Conflict of interest policies are ignored and students and teachers are held hostage under corporate contracts by pseudo educators like Duncan. The scheme is related to why the reformers, News Corp, hedge fund managers and mega foundations need Rhee. There was a cover-up about the Reading First 6 billion dollar boondoggle and now there’s a cover-up about DC cheating.

    One example of a WG nobid contract signed by Arne Duncan

    Click to access 08-0723-PR16.pdf


    • When Arne was CEO of CPS, I coached teachers there and I had an office in the building where the DIBELS trainings were provided, week after week, to Title I teachers. I reviewed the DIBELS materials and, at the time, I could not help but wonder why it was necessary to provide all those trainings for teachers, because the DIBELS is pretty easy to figure out. (Parents are encouraged to use the DIBELS, too, and they’re not trained in it.)

      More importantly, why would an assessment that is FREE end up costing a school district $4,100,000 to implement? (This is the total from two contracts.) CPS has a department that crunches data and generates reports, and DIBELS also provides the benchmark info for free, so I don’t think it was necessary for CPS to pay for the DIBELS service which does that either. They sound like rather unnecessary, pretty hinky and very expensive no-bid contracts to me.


  20. My broker says, when the talking pineapple talks, people listen. The pineapple is saying, no more high stakes tests.


  21. Dear John, I think this is absolutely correct about the supersaturation and bad effects of high stakes testing. And I think there are some good aspirations and thoughtful aims in the Common Core. Perhaps, though, you need to consider the “reform” history of the last 30 years. It’s often a story of complex goals and truly intellectual aims boiled down in the end to a new layer of harmful testing. In Mass. the MCAS was supposed to be one of many tools for evaluation, but it became the only game. In Michigan in the ’90’s sophisticated and complex and intellectual and often surprisingly progressive goals (inquiry, for example) were laid out in various state designs for curriculum, but here, too the process ended up in what we would now see as Pearsonization. Another point to make is that in scattered places around the country, some really imaginative and thoughtful work in curriculum is taking place (I just attended a show and tell of the Critical Explorers Project in Mass., for example. I’d like to persuade the reformers that teachers and critics of testism and the Common Core alike might welcome proposals at the state level for intelligence curriculum that ran along similarly ambitious lines. The Core itself could be reframed with loose and large guidelines for grade levels and then educators would have a five year period of experimentation in which teachers and schools ready to innovate would do so and document it. This would not solve the problem of curriculum, teaching and teacher preparation (to say nothing of the damage done by being poor itself) for the most needy schools serving poor kids, but the Common Core itself does nothing for those schools anyway. Philosophically I believe the Common Core is wrong in that it makes no place in school for what students bring to the educational transaction, which is in my book the most powerful element in learning to build on. The assumption behind the Core seems to be that kids don’t know things, which is a half truth. Opening the door to thoughtful experiment might show this weakness in its otherwise decent aims, and also bring about a new age of curriculum not created by the publishing and testing trust whose influence over policy is pointed out by some of your readers on this site. I have had so many conversations in the last couple of years with people who chafe at the curricula now common in most schools. Most recently a smart Boston principal who once was a student of mine was saying that when he retires he wants to build a really good American history curriculum. jf


  22. Assuming that high stakes testing will improve academic performance is a little like creating a new budget and expecting your company to perform better. There is nothing wrong with having a budget, but to assume performance will improve, would be ludicrous. The cause of our poor academic performance has nothing to do with the quality or lack thereof of our tests.



  23. Dream on!! Arne Duncan has a mission to make money for billionaires nothing short of his good friend Barack Obama asking him to resign is going to alter his goals!!


  24. First off I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Cheers!


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