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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