An afternoon at Princeton with Arne Duncan

by Leonie Haimson

Yesterday, I attended a speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at Princeton University.  I was accompanied by Justin Wedes, the webmaster and social media expert for Parents Across America, and parent activist Julie Sass Rubin of SOS New Jersey, a PAA affiliate.

It was a gorgeous spring day, with the magnolias and cherry blossoms in bloom. Perhaps as a result of the fine weather, the rather small venue of Richardson Hall wasn’t full and they were giving out extra tickets at the entrance.

After brief introductions from the Dean Christina Paxson and Princeton’s President, Shirley Tilghman,  Duncan took the stage.  He went on for about 35 minutes, almost without taking a breath.  His refrain was familiar: education reform is the civil rights issue of our time; we are facing a crisis because companies can’t find enough qualified graduates to fill jobs; less than 25% of our students qualify for the military; to earn a good income you need a college degree; we need to change our education system and get it off the “agrarian calendar.”

Race to the Top was a great success, because it persuaded 42 states to adopt higher standards through the Common Core, whose assessments which will test “complex thinking skills”. RTTT also ensured that teacher evaluation would now be linked to student achievement.

He supports public boarding schools, early childhood education, and criticized school boards as examples of “adult dysfunction.” He is for “tough collaboration” as exemplified in the new Illinois legislation, which was passed with union support but will end LIFO and ensure that teachers who receive two unsatisfactory ratings in 7 years lose their licenses.   He mentioned this legislation several times as a “blueprint” for the country.

We are doing “everything we can to elevate the profession” of teaching and “reward excellence”.   We need to recruit a million more teachers over the next few years. “Teaching is not for the faint of heart …If you’re looking for an easy job, this is not for you. But I can’t think of a better way to elevate opportunities for children.”

Technology will be a “game-changer” so that we can “deliver content on cell phones.” ( He used the words “game-changer” several times in relation to different proposals.)  We have to turn around chronically low-performing schools and drop out factories, by forcing these schools to do “radically different” things, like offering afterschool and Saturday programs (?), hire new principals, etc.

Instead of NCLB, which was too punitive and prescriptive, we should focus on growth, “shine a spotlight on success”, give more flexibility to schools, and make sure they have a well-rounded curriculum.  Tenure should never be a “lifetime guarantee.”

He also said he wanted to put $100-$200 million of the new Race to the Top program into luring states to provide more preK.  (If he does this, it will probably the only positive research-based reform encouraged by his administration.)

Duncan is a very fast talker, with a practiced delivery.  He reminded me of a motivational speaker or a folksy version of Harold Hill from the Music Man. I later found out by Googling that much of the speech was identical to speeches he has given before.

For example, he said that when he was in Chicago, he closed Englewood HS in Chicago, with a 60% dropout rate, and started three new schools in the building, one of which, Urban Prep charter, graduated its entire class of 107 students, all of whom went to college.  “Same children, same communities, different expectations.”  He later found out that Donald Stewart, the former president of Spellman College, would have gone to Englewood himself if his mother had not made him attend elsewhere.

He told this exact same story last July 27, at a speech at the National Press Club: “Today, every single member of their first graduating class is heading to a four-year college; 107 students — 107 graduating — and 107 going to college.”

But as Julie Woestehoff had earlier pointed out on July 9, weeks before he gave that speech, Urban Prep’s graduation rate wasn’t really 100 percent, since the school started out with 160 9th graders.  Thus, Urban Prep had a  graduation rate of 64%, or nearly 6 points lower than the average district rate of 69.8%, and many of these  graduates would likely struggle in college, given the school had a composite state high school scores of 15%, compared with the Chicago average of 28%.  (The Wall Street Journal later confirmed the high attrition levels here.)

Duncan appears to be not entirely impervious to revising his remarks, though, at least when it comes to bad PR if not fact-checking.  While in the past,  he has been justly criticized for saying that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to New Orleans schools, yesterday he called  Katrina  a “horrible wake up call” that nevertheless had produced the “most improved school district in the country.” He added that the rest of the country needs to emulate New Orleans, without  having to suffer “a Katrina to wake us up.”

Duncan’s speech was followed by some questions from the audience.  First up was Catharine Bellinger, founder of Students for Education Reform, who asked about the computer performance adaptive assessments being developed for the Common Core: aren’t there big risks and real challenges in implementing these assessments successfully by 2014?

Duncan responded that “there are risks in everything” and “we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  There is a healthy “competition” between the two consortia developing these assessments; and states can opt out of one group and join another.  Though there may be “a couple of choppy years till we get it right, and “mistakes” will be made, there is a “level of thoughtfulness” behind this effort that is extraordinary, and we must get “to this point as soon as possible” if we want to compete with other advanced nations.  (Why?  Has any other nation in the world adopted these highly expensive and complex computer-based performance assessments – and so quickly and on such a massive scale? )

Unfortunately, the rest of the questions were mostly softball, or self-promotional from individuals representing TFA and/or charter schools.

After the speech, Julia and I went over to speak to Congressman Rush Holt who sits on the House Education committee.  A few minutes later, Justin called me outside because he had heard that Duncan was about to do a photo op with Students for Education Reform.

When Duncan showed up, I introduced myself, and told him I was very disappointed in his recent remarks to the American Enterprise Institute that districts should choose to increase class size if faced with budget cuts.

I pointed out that class size reduction was one of only four education reforms that his own Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US DOE, has identified as proven to work through rigorous evidence; that Alan Krueger of Princeton, former chief economist of the Treasury Department in the Obama administration, has estimated that the economic benefits of smaller classes outweigh the costs two to one, and that class size reduction has shown to be especially effective in narrowing the achievement gap.

He responded, “But you know I said that they should raise class size selectively.”  I replied, “But why raise class sizes at all; while most of the reforms you are pushing instead, like more testing, have no research base at all?”

He asked, “Have you looked at the other countries, like Finland, Korea etc?”  Which gave me the perfect opening: “Actually, Finland turned around its educational system in the 1970’s when it reduced class size, and it has no standardized testing in any grade.”  He seemed rather annoyed, nodded his head, and said “I hear you,” but whether he really did or not, it’s hard to say.

He then went over to have his photo op with the eager contingent of Students for Education Reform.  Afterwards, Justin buttonholed him and asked, “Can I ask you a question?  Do you think you and the President are in agreement over testing?  Because he said we should have less standardized testing, and you are pushing for even more tests, four times a year [through the Common Core].”

Duncan replied that some of these will be “formative” assessments, rather than high-stakes tests. Justin insisted that they are still standardized tests, and the president had said we should have fewer of them, and Duncan got annoyed and replied, “You’re not listening to me.”

Anyway, I think it was good that we were there, because it provided Duncan with yet another small dose of reality that not everyone in the country is on board with his corporate agenda of more testing and larger class sizes.

We plan to send him more questions soon, through his spokesperson, so please email us at info@parentsacrossamerica if you have a question you’d like to ask .

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25 Responses to An afternoon at Princeton with Arne Duncan

  1. Tom Gaffigan

    Great blog! Thanks for at least nipping at the heels of this dismissive corporate tool.

  2. Stuart Buck

    I pointed out that class size reduction was one of only four education reforms that his own Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US DOE, has identified as proven to work through rigorous evidence

    That’s a misleading way to describe it. IES’s page actually offers the four examples there as merely “illustrative.”

  3. leoniehaimson

    Did the IES identify any other K-12 reforms that were proven to work through rigorous evidence? No. Nuff said.

    • Stuart Buck

      Do you understand what “illustrative” means?

    • Stuart Buck

      Here’s what Patrick Wolf wrote in 2009:

      “The achievement results from the D.C. voucher evaluation are also striking when compared to the results from other experimental evaluations of education policies. The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) at the IES has sponsored and overseen 11 studies that are RCTs, including the OSP evaluation. Only 3 of the 11 education interventions tested, when subjected to such a rigorous evaluation, have demonstrated statistically significant achievement impacts overall in either reading or math. The reading impact of the D.C. voucher program is the largest achievement impact yet reported in an RCT evaluation overseen by the NCEE. A second program was found to increase reading outcomes by about 40 percent less than the reading gain from the DC OSP. The third intervention was reported to have boosted math achievement by less than half the amount of the reading gain from the D.C. voucher program. Of the remaining eight NCEE-sponsored RCTs, six of them found no statistically significant achievement impacts overall and the other two showed a mix of no impacts and actual achievement losses from their programs. Many of these studies are in their early stages and might report more impressive achievement results in the future. Still, the D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s official education research arm so far.”

  4. Help Schools

    The guy has courage and is calling for an unprecedented amount of change and accountability. Finally.

    Funny that you would call him on rehashing his speaches, given that you yourself are the one-hit-wonder of school reform. You’re like a broken record regarding class size. He did say “selective” increases but you refuse to listen. I’d rather have my kid in a class with 35 kids and an outstanding teacher than with 18 kids and a lousy one.

    I think you should open a school one day…would love to see how that goes.

  5. Daryl

    @ HELP SCHOOLS – Have you taught before? Bigger classes don’t improve instruction, in fact almost always compromise the quality of instruction in my practical experience (10 years of teaching). I’m not against change or accountability, but I think that the type of classroom setting teachers are being forced into cripples creative teaching and learning. Great for churning out corporate drones, though.

  6. Help Schools

    Yes Daryl, I’ve taught. I have worked in schools for more than 15 years and have seen outstanding teachers do wonders with 30 kids and miserable teachers struggle with groups of 6, even 2 kids.

    The point Duncan and others are making is that the quality of the teacher is more important than the # of kids in the class – that’s what he means by “selective” increases. Like I said, as a parent, I’d rather have my kid in a bloated class with a great teacher than in a tiny one with a lousy teacher.

  7. leoniehaimson

    Don’t our kids deserve both, a small class with a good teacher? Why should they have to choose?

  8. Help Schools

    Consider the following very realistic example.

    Two teachers on the grade. 50 kids.

    One teacher sucks (miserable tests scores, kids/parents don’t want to be in her class) but was tenured in 1988, the other one is great by all accounts (tests scores, kids, teachers, etc.).

    I would choose to put 30 in one class and 20 in the other. The 5 kids who would have been in the sub-par teacher’s class benefit, and the other 25 are fine too because the teacher is VERY capable.

    Additionally, the sucky teacher is impacting fewer kids and should have an easier time managing 20 kids. That said, some horrible teachers can’t even manage 4 kids, so she is still a danger.

    This is a very real example of the types of decisions school leaders have to make on a daily basis. This is selective class increase.

  9. jcgrim

    Help Schools, I can’t believe you have ever taught school if you would choose 30 students over 20 in class if given a capable teacher. It doesn’t make sense and is contrary to ALL independent research. And what does ‘worked’ in schools mean? What exactly did you do in schools?

    I taught school for 23 years and currently prepare pre-service teachers at a university. NEVER, EVER has ANY teacher I’ve ever known, collaborated with, or placed students with, wanted larger classes. Every teacher, repeat- every teacher- will tell you that larger classes reduce the time for: a) individual instruction, b)assisting students on lessons with diverse learning needs, c) ability to give adequate feedback on assignments and projects, d) less time to develop quality projects for students, and e) higher number of behavior issues.

    So you can say you’ve “worked” in schools for 15 years, but I don’t believe you know much at all about teaching and learning.

    • Help Schools

      Of course no teacher wants more students. You are missing my point.

      If we are putting kids first, more kids would benefit if 30 were with the great teacher and 20 with the sucky one. It’s simple logic.

      Would the one with 30 feel put off? Perhaps. But we are not looking to treat every teacher exactly the same because they are not. Some are very capable, some are not. Some are great for kids, some turn them off to learning. If we are looking out for kids’ best interests we will put more kids with great teachers and (gasp!), offer them more money.

      I have taught and worked as an administrator for more than 15 years.

  10. Help Schools

    JCGrim, has your kid every had an awful teacher? Mine did, with just 19 classmates. I would rather he had 29 classmates if his teacher was outstanding. Remember, in my example I was comparing a great teacher with a lousy one, not two comprable teachers.

    I am not saying “More kids is better for learning.” NOBODY is making that claim. I am just saying there are times when it is appropriate to “selectively” raise class sizes, which was precisely Duncan’t point.

    • jcgrim


      You are missing the point. It is absolutely relevant what teachers want with regard to class size and teaching conditions. I to, served as an administrator and a teacher in a public school. As a young teacher, my administrators valued teacher input and worked to help us succeed. That model is effective, and should be the one DoE is emphasizing instead of the dumb initiatives they are spewing.

      When teachers are given the resources and conditions they need to actually teach, they flourish. Even poor practitioners improve if given mentoring, curricular support, regular in-class follow-up from specialists in curricular areas.

      Even great teachers cannot institute BEST practices when are too many students in their classrooms. For you to make that claim suggests you don’t know much about teaching practices and diverse student learning needs.

  11. leoniehaimson

    I think you are missing the point. One of the contributing factors to high levels of teacher attrition particularly in schools w/ high needs students, is the large class size. If we want a more experienced, effective teaching force, we must reduce class size in these schools. Smaller classes and quality teaching are not opposing factors, but synergistic.

  12. Help Schools

    I’m not missing the point, I just disagree with you.

    I provided a concrete example. If you were the principal, would you make it 25 / 25 per class, or do you agree with the way I selectively increased the class size for the great teacher? Why?

  13. leoniehaimson

    What you propose above is not a budget savings; Duncan’s suggestion was that to make budget cuts, teachers should be laid off and class sizes increased.

  14. Matt Frisch

    Rather than be manipulated into arguing about a hot button issue such as ineffective teachers, why not look at curriculum, for once. I’m a New York City school teacher. The students in our schools have been the unwitting guinea pigs of an ideologically driven educational experiment called balanced literacy. Want to know the results of that experiment? A distressingly high percentage of students graduating from elementary schools in my district can’t spell and literally don’t know a noun from a verb. For years, teachers were expressly forbidden to tell students how to spell a word. Inventive spelling became the norm. Students’ ‘published’ work is riddled with spelling errors. It’s the emperor’s new clothes curriculum. Tremendous damage has been done, not by a few inadaquate teachers but by a whole cadre of educational policy makers gone mad. This about sums up what is going on across the country with teachers’ salaries determined by standardized tests. The society has decided that teachers are not trustworthy. And yet, the people at the top making the policies and ignoring the disfunctional curriculum are teflon coated. When public schools are destroyed and handed over to for profit corporations, will anyone point the finger of blame at the Arne Duncans of the world? They should. Teachers are not the problem. It’s the curriculum and policies coming from the top that cripple our schools and our kids on a daily basis.

  15. Maite Luz

    I don’t understand why people like Help Schools don’t just save their breath — there is no point to make here. OK, so you think that class size is not the biggest issue in education. But, you can’t argue with the fact that good teachers teaching to smaller classes can do a better job than good teachers teaching to larger classes — and even “bad” teachers do better with smaller classes. Similarly, people who believe that class size is an extremely critical issue cannot dispute the fact that good teachers are more effective than “bad” teachers, that teachers are more effective when they have the resources they need, that technology when used effectively can make a real difference, that parents who are supportive of their children’s academic success and have the tools they need are a key factor, or that early identification of learning differences and differentiated learning is critical to ensuring that all children receive the education they need. I honestly don’t see how anyone who supports quality education would spend time arguing against efforts to realize smaller class sizes — I have never heard anyone say that all that our children, teachers and schools need is smaller class sizes. Those of us who follow Class Size Matters know that Leonie’s focus is much broader as well. Why not talk about what else we can actually do to increase the quality of education, rather than to refute the importance of class size.

    As an additional point, as a current parent of children in New York City Title I public elementary and middle schools, I would point out that over the last few years, not only has the size of classes increased, but resources have decreased throughout the school, including after school programs. Due to budget cuts, there are less resources for children. Yes, the data is being mined in increasingly minute detail relevant to the standardized testing that the children receive; however, the impact of multi-year budget cuts have affected all areas of the schools — particularly those serving low income children.

  16. Matt Frisch

    Slightly ironic that the same people crying the loudest about the urgency of getting rid of bad teachers in order to improve our schools are also signing on to budget cuts which do direct damage to schools and kids chances for future success. They are passionate about the scourge of bad teachers but they’re OK with raising class size and cutting programs? Please!

    • Kira

      Here, here. We need more resources, not less. In Berkeley, CA the district – or is it all of California? — has “unfunded mandates” that require teaching English Language Learners 45 minutes (or is it an hour?) separately from the rest of the class. Our PTA had to fork over $23,000 as well as release special monies to fund a program that takes place after school, so all the kids aren’t impacted during language arts due to the mandate. It seems like a fine program, though as it has only begun, I don’t know what evidence supports any “gains.” What bugs me about the program is the “unfunded” part of the mandate. Why do the parents have to put on Silent Auctions and Walkathons to fund this mandate? We are losing PE and a school yard supervisor potentially. We spend time and energy on the stupid standardized tests — but we’ve lost our Science Fairs. Teachers who used to teach Shakespeare, now spend their time on “test prep.” Our music program–for some reason tauted by our principal as an example of the enrichment provided to our kids–is 1 hour a week for 2nd -3 graders, nothing for K-1st, and 2x a week at 45 min each for the 4-5 kids. PTAs cannot continue to fund these “unfunded mandates.” Now we are being roped into narrowing the curriculum rather than what we really want: a broadening of the curriuculum.

  17. Ross E. Mitchell

    I appreciate that “agrarian calendar” was placed in quotes. This is a popular label that misrepresents the historical development of the school calendar. Summer vacation is primarily responsive to urban, not rural, needs. Moreover, it represents a compromise struck between an eleven- to twelve-month calendar in the cities and as short as a six-month calendar in rural communities (over a century ago). Summer vacation is a product of urbanization during the turn from the 19th to the 20th century in both the United States and Canada (see works by Joel Weiss and Robert S. Brown, or Kenneth M. Gold). (Note: Depending on the crop and its labor demands, the time to be out of school was NOT summer, but spring for planting and fall for harvesting.)
    Given that all of the solutions related to the school calendar and time almost always require the same or more days, not fewer, there is no cost saving in calendar reform. Additionally, changing the calendar affects the local economy (either as a period of adjustment or in more significant ways), not just the schools. Finally, depending on the nature of the calendar reform, achievement gaps and other targets of school reform can become more problematic, not less.
    Calendar change is highly visible, but it has absolutely no effect on the core technologies of education, namely, quality teaching and curriculum. And since most of the calendar reform is about finding ways to strategically introduce more instruction for students who need more of it (e.g., summer school or inter-sessions), we will need more money, not less, to talk about something that is a very weak and often ineffective intervention.

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