Monday, August 8, 2011

I Wonder If Arne Duncan Is A Light At The End Of the NCLB Tunnel Or An Oncoming Train

I'm intrigued, confused, hopeful, and worried about this New York Times report.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has announced that he will unilaterally override the centerpiece requirement of the No Child Left Behind school accountability law, that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
Mr. Duncan told reporters that he was acting because Congress had failed to rewrite the Bush-era law, which he called a “slow-motion train wreck.” He is waiving the law’s proficiency requirements for states that have adopted their own testing and accountability programs and are making other strides toward better schools, he said.
I am happy that Duncan is taking steps to end to impossible 100 percent requirement.  The process, however, does give me pause.
In Friday’s conference call, Mr. Duncan and Ms. Barnes [Melody Barnes, director of President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council] said the Department of Education would issue guidelines next month inviting states to apply for the waivers. For a waiver to be approved, they said, states would need to show that they were adopting higher standards under which high school students were “college- and career-ready” at graduation, were working to improve teacher effectiveness and evaluation systems based on student test scores and other measures, were overhauling the lowest-performing schools, and were adopting locally designed school accountability systems to replace No Child’s pass-fail system.
Those requirements match the criteria the administration used last year in picking winning states in its two-stage Race to the Top grant competition. Ms. Barnes said states would not be competing against one another with their waiver applications. But the similarity irked critics.
I have three main fears.  First, Duncan's record spotty record doesn't give me hope that he will accept sensible plans.  In short, we'll get more bureaucrats telling teachers what to do and Race To The Top through other means.

Second, Duncan seems to favor those who defer to him.  South Dakota's Melody Schopp took a stand earlier this summer to unilaterally change South Dakota's standards.  I realize I may be acting on stereotypes about Chicago politicians, but I can't believe that Duncan is going to make things easy on Schopp and South Dakota nor do I trust Senators Thune and Johnson or Representative Noem to apply effective and proper political pressure.

Third,  this action feeds the conservative narrative that Duncan and Obama are trying to centralize everything and further politicize the process.  The Times report indicates that the politicization is happening.
When Mr. Duncan sketched an outline of the administration’s waiver plan in June, Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who is chairman of the House education committee, demanded that Mr. Duncan show by what legal authority he would override the federal law. Mr. Duncan responded by citing provisions of the No Child law itself that give the education secretary broad waiver powers.

On Friday, Mr. Kline said in a statement, “I remain concerned that temporary measures instituted by the department, such as conditional waivers, could undermine” efforts by Congress to rewrite the law.

Mr. Kline’s committee has completed three overhaul bills focusing on elimination of federal programs, financial flexibility for states, and charter schools. But the committee has not yet produced bills rewriting the law’s crucial school accountability and teacher effectiveness provisions.

Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman the Senate education committee, said he understood why Mr. Duncan was pursuing the waiver plan, since “it is undeniable that this Congress faces real challenges reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on anything.”
I applaud efforts to remedy the harm done by NCLB. RTTT, however, is not an improvement.  Given Washingon's recent performance. I'm worried that Duncan and the politicians who oppose his efforts will simply make matters worse.

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