Arne Duncan

Are Students Today “Relatively Poorer” Than in 1971?

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has taken to the pages of the Washington Post to let you know that you shouldn’t listen to people who tell you that “education reform” hasn’t worked well. At least, that is, reforms that he likes—he ignores the evidence that private school choice works because, as far as can be gathered from the op-ed, he thinks such choice lacks “accountability.” Apparently, parents able to take their kids, and money to educate them, from schools they don’t like to ones they do is not accountability.

Anyway, I don’t actually want to re-litigate whether reforms since the early 1970s have worked because as time has gone on I’ve increasingly concluded that we do not agree on what “success” means and the measures we have of what we think might be “success” often don’t tell us what we believe they do. These are, by the way, major concerns that I’ll be tackling with Dr. Patrick Wolf in a special Facebook live event on Wednesday. Join us!

Rather than assessing the impacts of specific reforms on what are often fuzzy and moving targets, I want to examine one crucial assertion that Duncan says needs to be “noted”: students today are “relatively poorer than in 1971.”

Analyzing Arne’s Era and What’s to Come

Arne Duncan announced Friday that he is resigning as Secretary of Education, effective sometime in December. He will be replaced – sort of – by Deputy Education Secretary John King, who will not be put up for the permanent job but will be kept until the end of the administration in an “acting” – and Senate confirmation-less – capacity.

Of course, what Duncan has done as Secretary reflects what the Obama administration wanted, not what Duncan did on his own. Regardless who was ultimately calling the shots, though, Duncan presided over a period that has fulfilled some of the worst fears of anyone who has ever said, “It might be a bad idea to have a federal education department. They might start trying to run things.”

The overarching theme under Duncan has been huge consolidation of power not just at the federal level – alone blatantly unconstitutional – but in the Department itself.

Opt Out Tests If Child’s a “Mere Creature of the State”

The Common Core War, over the last few months, has been fought on a largely new front: whether students can be forced to take state tests – in the vast majority of cases, Core-aligned tests – or whether parents and students can refuse. It is perhaps an even more fundamental question than whether the federal government may constitutionally coerce standardization and testing generally, and with Common Core, specific standards and tests. The testing battle is to a large extent about whether a child, in seeming opposition to the seminal Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, is indeed a “mere creature of the State.”

The opt-out numbers are hard to pin down, though there is little question that some districts have seen very large percentages while others – probably the large majority nationwide – have seen few. It is also probably reasonable to conclude that the leader of the opt-out crusade has been New York State, where animosity toward the Core has been high since the state first rushed implementation and state officials, in an effort to calm things, actually inflamed them with a condescending approach to public engagement that launched weeks of recriminations. Last year the state saw an estimated 60,000 students opt out, which leapt to nearly 200,000 this year.

The root question, of course, is should students and parents be able to opt out without fear of punishment? And since punishment would be coming from a government institution – yes, that is what a public school is – that means without fear of punishment by the state. If children are, in part, creatures of the state – and Pierce did not say there is no legitimate state role in education – than punishment is legitimate. If, however, the public schools exist to serve fully free citizens, then punishment cannot be meted out for refusing the test; it is up to parents to freely decide whether or not their children are subjected to the tests.

The Contempt’s the Thing

There’s been much ink spilled the past few days over U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s defense of the Common Core, delivered as an obnoxious attack on white, suburban women. Proclaimed Duncan to a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers (one of the Core’s progenitors):

It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who – all of a sudden – their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.

Much of the uproar over Duncan’s attack has been over his injecting race and sex into the Common Core debate, and that certainly was unnecessary. But much more concerning to me – and indicative of the fundamental problem with federally driven national standardization – is the clear message sent by Duncan’s denunciation of Jane Suburbia: average Americans are either too dull or too blinkered to do what’s best for their kids. The masses need their betters in government – politicians, bureaucrats – to control their lives.

Alas, this has been a subtext of almost the entire defense of the Core. Every time supporters decide to smear opponents primarily as “misinformed” or “conspiracy theorists,” they imply that people who are fighting for control of what their children will learn are either too ignorant, or too goofy, to matter.

Of course, there are some opponents who don’t get all the facts right about the Common Core, but supporters ignore that many of these people are just finding out about the Core. Unlike major Core supporters, many opponents – often parents and plain ol’ concerned citizens – haven’t been working on the Core for years. And even when opponents use such regretably over-the-top rhetoric as calling the Common Core “Commie Core,” they are ultimately making a legitimate point: the federally driven Core is intended to make the learning outcomes of all public schools the same – “common” is in the name, for crying out loud! – and in so doing, nationalize learning. At the very least, that’s not a move in the libertarian direction.

Ed Sec to Media: Get Those Common Core Critics!

In a bid to prove that Washington never tried to strong-arm states into adopting the Common Core, yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the American Society of News Editors that the media had better start attacking “fringe,” “misinformed,” Core opponents and their arguments.

Think about that for a moment.

Yup, seems like a self-defeating tactic to me, too. But it’s not the first time the secretary has launched into attack mode to show that Washington would never – ever! – get pushy on education.

Now, despite my fatigue with constantly debunking Core supporters on federal coercion, I was prepared to do a huge dismantling of Duncan’s speech. Thankfully, both for the public and my workload, one of those media types whom Duncan implied hasn’t been doing her job – Michele McNeil of Education Week – was, indeed, inspired to do some fact-checking by Duncan. Too bad for the secretary, it was on his claims. Among McNeil’s offerings:

  • “On a grading scale of 500 points, Duncan said adopting common standards and assessments was worth relatively little. ‘Did the points, and the dollars, matter to the states? Undoubtedly. But it’s not the only reason or even the most important reason why states adopted the Common Core,’ he said. In fact, adopting and implementing common standards and assessments was worth 50 points, or 10 percent. That’s the same amount of points allotted to a state’s plan for turning around low-performing schools. In a contest in which only a few points separated winners from losers, those points mattered—a lot. And it likely spurred states to actually adopt the standards; the first state adopted them in February 2010.”

Arne Duncan, Less Than Zero?

Yesterday we laid out how, as percentages of total state education workforces, the Obama administration’s worst-case sequester job loss predictions are actually tiny. They’re so small they approach zero, generally clocking in at around 0.30 percent.

Reality, Meet Education Policy. Education Policy, Please, Meet Reality!

Nobody wants to be the guy – especially the Congress-guy – who says that we need to cut education spending. Nobody wants to be the target of attacks from both the well-intentioned and politically opportunistic that they hate children, only care about “the rich,” or any of the other deviousness  that long ago snuck up behind reasoned debate, threw a rope around its neck,  and pulled it backwards.

That’s been proven again today.

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