Arne Duncan and What Went Wrong

Arne Duncan and What Went Wrong

There’s a fascinating piece on Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, in Politico, of all places.

What Duncan Does Well

There are some things that Duncan does really well, coming from the article.  It is clear that he is all about his perception of what kids need. He has integrity.  Second, he maintains an open door, talks to nearly everyone and has strong relations with a mix of Democrats and Republicans.  That’s unusual in this day and age. Third, he gets that education reform is a long term proposition and you can’t expect results in a year or two (cough, cough, Governor Cuomo).  His instructions about what states needed to do to get waivers for NCLB mandates is perfect.  He told his team to be “tight on goals, loose on means.” 

But much of what he and President Obama have done in education is likely to be undone by the next administration, Democratic and Republican.  He’s managed to unite broad swaths of people, Republicans and Democrats alike, against his vision. What went wrong?

Duncan’s Mistakes

I think Duncan made two huge mistakes, one conceptual and one procedural.  The conceptual mistake was in conflating accountability and testing.  Duncan, and a whole lot of other people, are correct that schools need to be accountable for the degree to which their students are learning.  But learning is not synonymous with how well you score on a plethora of standardized exams to which your pay is linked. 

The procedural mistake that Duncan made was in not building any kind of consensus about how accountability should work. He didn’t go  to teachers’ unions, educational reformers, principals unions, state departments of education  etc and say something like “we all want to make sure all of our children learn and we know that we have a problem with pretending that they are learning so we can all look good, when they actually aren’t.  So how can we devise something that ensures this goal and that all the players can agree to implement?” Instead, he used the carrot of federal money that the states desperately needed to avoid teacher layoffs to push an agenda heavy on standardized testing, merit pay based on testing (a truly horrible idea), more charters, a federal curriculum.  It’s no wonder that there has been a large pushback and many of his actions may be undone in the not-too-distant future.

When it comes to changing complex systems, John Kotter teaches us that you have to have a coalition of influential enough players to overcome inevitable resistance.  Duncan simply never built that coalition, and his transformation efforts will, I predict, prove to be a failure.

Jared Gellert is the Executive Director for CITE – 

CITE is the Center for Integrated Training and Education . For over 25 years, CITE has and continues to train TEACHERS (Early Childhood, Literacy, Special Ed, Grad Courses, DASA); COUNSELORS (School, Mental Health Masters, Advanced Certificate); and ADMINISTRATORS (SBL, SDL, Public Admin, Online PhD) in all five boroughs of NYC, Yonkers, and Long Island.

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