Category Archives: Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan: Testocracy Tsar. Educational Alchemist. Corporate lackey.

Arne_Duncan_at_Fern_Creek_High_School,_Louisville,_Kentucky2016 has begun with important news: We have endured the last days of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan roaming the halls of government, looking for teachers and students to intimidate.  Arne, “the nation’s bully,” no longer runs the schoolyard.  Educators and families around the country will remember him by many monikers, none of them sympathetic.

I should admit from the outset that my appraisal of Duncan isn’t informed by a dispassionate tally of his pluses and minuses. My evaluation of Duncan’s performance is the result of my personal interaction with the Secretary and his staff, his attack on the schools in my community, as well as a through review of his policies.

I wrote this essay for The Progressive magazine giving my assessment of Duncan’s tenure–let’s just say he didn’t pass the class.

Arne Duncan: Testocracy Tsar. Educational Alchemist. Corporate lackey.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education is set to resign at the close of the 2015, ending his tenure as one of the most destructive forces against public education in history.

“He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else,” President Obama gushed announcing Duncan’s resignation last October. Obama’s words were meant as praise for the Secretary, but in this one aspect of the assessment of Duncan I have to agree with the President. There can be no doubt that Duncan inflicted policies that caused students and educators to cry out for help.

Duncan’s official title may have been Secretary of Education, but his real role has been the “testocracy tsar.” His signature policies of Race to the Top and Common Core have been singularly focused on promoting high-stakes, standardized test-and-punish policies.

For example, in order for states to compete for grant money under Race to the Top, Duncan required them to increase the use of standardized testing in teacher evaluations. Duncan’s championing of the Common Core State Standards—and the tests that came shrink-wrapped with them—has ushered in developmentally inappropriate standards in the early grades that punish late bloomers, while further entrenching the idea that the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning can be reduced to a test score. For many, Duncan will be remembered as an educational alchemist who attempted to turn education into “testucation”—with the average student today subjected to an outlandish 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. The highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.

In addition, Duncan has been widely derided as “the national school superintendent” for the way he held waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act over the heads of state officials. NCLB set an unattainable goal of 100% proficiency in math and reading for every school in the country by 2014. As per the plan, not a single state reached the proficiency goals, and schools could only escape sanction by the federal government if they were granted a waiver—which Duncan would only grant to states who would agree to more testing.

This hit home for me last year when my state of Washington refused to mandate standardized tests in teacher evaluations. Arne Duncan then took off his gloves and showed he wasn’t afraid to punish children by revoking the NCLB waiver for the state. With the waiver gone, nearly all of Washington’s schools were labeled failures, resulting in the loss of control of millions of dollars in federal money.

And yet, as harmful as Duncan has been to our nation’s children, it’s important not to credit him with having too much impact. Duncan wasn’t a mastermind or a skilled political operative. He was a corporate yes man who did anything that was asked of him by the richest people the world has ever known. As Anthony Cody and others have detailed, billionaires such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family, set the education agenda, wrote the policy, worked political backchannels, and lined up the corporations who would profit. Once the education reforms were neatly packaged, these billionaires trotted out their flunky, Secretary Duncan, who dutifully worked to sell their agenda to the nation.

One of Duncan’s primary objectives has been the privatization of education through the dramatic expansion of charter schools. But as The Washington Post reported, an audit by the Department of Education’s own inspector general found “that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charter schools.” This lack of oversight laid the foundation for a recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), which found some $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.

04-dscf3949-antoinette-barnesDuncan also implemented his policies in a cruel and arrogant manner. He infamously proclaimed Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” Duncan saw the destruction as a great opportunity because so many people were displaced that it allowed the privatizers to completely end public schooling in New Orleans. Today the district is 100 percent comprised of charter schools. Duncan wasn’t content replacing the arts, physical education, civics, literature, and critical thinking with high-stakes tests. He also sternly chastised parents who chose to opt their children out of standardized tests, dismissing the opt out movement as “coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were…” Duncan insulted white moms while simultaneously erasing the rising leadership of people of color who have long organized against high-stakes testing.

Duncan’s general attack on education got personal for me on July 9th, 2010, when he visited my hometown of Seattle to deliver a speech at an area school. I joined a throng of protesting teachers that day outside the school to picket his appearance and the corporate reform policies he was promoting.

As we rallied outside the high school, his handlers grew nervous that we would disrupt this stage-managed affair. They offered us a meeting with Duncan in exchange for our polite behavior during his address. We agreed, and after the event were escorted to a nearby classroom for the meeting.  That half hour with the Secretary was all I needed to know. The following is a transcript from an article I wrote at the time:

Mr. Duncan: To be clear, we [the Department of Education] want curriculum to be driven by the local level, pushing that. We are by law prohibited from directing curriculum. We don’t have a curriculum department.

Mr. Hagopian: I have to interject on that point. Because I think that merit pay…

Mr. Duncan: Let me finish, let me finish…

Mr. Hagopian: …Directly influences curriculum. When you have teachers scrambling and pitted against each other for a small amount of money [based on how their students perform on a test], what it does is narrow the curriculum to what’s on the test, even if you don’t set curriculum specifically. So I think you have to address that.

Mr. Duncan: I will. No one is mandating merit pay.

Mr. Hagopian: But you support it though?

Mr. Duncan: I do, I do…

Mr. Hagopian: So you support narrowing the curriculum.

Mr. Duncan: Can I finish? It’s a voluntary program. Schools and districts and unions are working together on some really innovative things.

Mr. Hagopian: Merit pay isn’t part of Race to the Top?

What my meeting with Secretary Duncan demonstrated, more than anything else, was his refusal to listen to educational professionals about how to improve public education. His dismissal of professional expertise has greatly contributed to the plummeting moral among teachers.

Yet, I have also discovered that the best antidote to despair is collective struggle. The one positive aspect of Duncan’s legacy is that his policies have sparked the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. Increasing numbers of teachers have flat out refused to administer standardized tests, students around the country have lead walkouts against the tests, and during the 2015 testing season, parents opted out some 620,000 public school students around the U.S. from standardized exams. This mass movement forced Duncan in his waning days as Secretary to begrudgingly acknowledge his policies have led to an “overemphasis on testing in some places,” and that “testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”

As thrilled as I am to see Duncan resign, President Obama’s replacement, John King, will likely only serve as a new testocracy tsar.  As Long Island opt out leader Jeanette Deutermann said of King when he stepped down as head of the New York State Education Department:

For the past few years we have endured an education commissioner that has repeatedly ignored our pleas for help. He has heard our stories of our children suffering as a result of the Board of Regent’s corporate reform agenda, and replied, “full steam ahead.”

Secretary John King will be tasked with carrying out the new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which eliminates the “Adequate Yearly Progress” annual test score gain requirement. However, the new law maintains the detrimental mandate to give standardized reading and math tests to children in every grade, from 3-8 and once in high school—empowering states to sanction any school labeled as underperforming.

Federal education policy will continue to follow the whims of the richest people in the world—people who did not attend public schools and would never dream of sending their children to one—until the opt out movement joins with other social justice struggles to fundamentally shift the balance of power away from the executive board room and towards the classroom.

So, join me in a New Year’s toast to Duncan’s dethroning—and then join the struggle to overthrow the testocracy all together.

Jesse Hagopian is a Progressive Education Fellow and the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Follow him on twitter: @jessedhagopian

Obama regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning” with too much testing

In a stunning turn of events, President Obama announced last weekend that “unnecessary testing” is “consuming too much instructional time” and creating “undue stress for educators and students.” Rarely has a president so thoroughly repudiated such a defining aspect of his own public education policy.  In a three-minute video announcing this reversal, Obama cracks jokes about how silly it is to over-test students, and recalls that the teachers who had the most influence on his life were not the ones who prepared him best for his standardized tests. Perhaps Obama hopes we will forget it was his own Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who radically reorganized America’s education system around the almighty test score.

Obama’s statement comes in the wake of yet another study revealing the overwhelming number of standardized tests children are forced to take: The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. Because it’s what we have rewarded and required, America’s education system has become completely fixated on how well students perform on tests. Further, the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.

To be sure, Obama isn’t the only president to menace the education system with high-stakes exams.  This thoroughly bi-partisan project was enabled by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB became law in 2002 with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Obama, instead of erasing the wrong answer choice of NCLB’s test-and-punish policy, decided to press ahead.  Like a student filling in her entire Scantron sheet with answer choice “D,” Duncan’s erroneous Race to the Top initiative was the incorrect solution for students.  It did, however, make four corporations rich by assigning their tests as the law of the land.  Desperate school districts, ravaged by the Great Recession, eagerly sought Race to the Top points by promulgating more and more tests.

The cry of the parents, students, educators and other stewards of education was loud and sorrowful as Obama moved to reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score—one that would be used to close schools, fire teachers and deny students promotion or graduation.  Take, for instance, this essay penned by Diane Ravitch in 2010. She countered Obama’s claim that Race to the Top was his most important accomplishment:

[RttT] will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test.

What Ravitch warned us about has come to pass, and Obama has now admitted as much without fully admitting to his direct role in promoting the tests. Duncan and Obama, with funding from the Gates Foundation, coupled Race to the Top with Common Core State Standards and the high-stakes tests that came shrink wrapped with them.  Together these policies have orchestrated a radical seizure of power by what I call the “testocracy”—The multibillion dollar testing corporations, the billionaire philanthropists who promote their policies, and the politicians who write their policies into law.

These policies in turn have produced the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history.  To give you just a few highlights of the size and scope of this unprecedented struggle, students have staged walkouts of the tests in Portland, Chicago, Colorado, New Mexico, and beyond.  Teachers from Seattle to Toledo to New York City have refused to administer the tests.  And the parent movement to opt children out of tests has exploded into a mass social movement, including some 60,000 families in Washington State and more than 200,000 families in New York State. One of the sparks that helped ignite this uprising occurred at Garfield High School, where I teach, when the entire faculty voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  The boycott spread to several other schools in Seattle and then the superintendent threatened my colleagues with a ten-day suspension without pay.  Because of the unanimous vote of the student government and the PTA in support of the boycott—and the solidarity we received from around the country—the superintendent backed off his threat and canceled the MAP test altogether at the high school level.  Can you imagine the vindication that my colleagues feel today—after having risked their jobs to reduce testing—from hearing the president acknowledge there is too much testing in the schools?  And it should be clear that this national uprising, this Education Spring, has forced the testocracy to retreat and is the reason that the Obama administration has come to its current understanding on testing in schools.

However, the testocracy, having amassed so much power and wealth, won’t just slink quietly into the night.  A Facebook video from Obama isn’t going to convince the Pearson corporation to give up its $9 billion in corporate profits from testing and textbooks. The tangle of tests promulgated by the federal government is now embedded at state and district levels.

More importantly, the President exposed just how halfhearted his change of heart was by declaring he will not reduce the current federal requirement to annually test all students in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading, with high school students still tested at least once. A reauthorization of NCLB is in the works right now, and all versions preserve these harmful testing mandates.  As well, Obama’s call to reduce testing to 2% of the school year still requires students to take standardized tests for an outlandish twenty-four hours.  And it isn’t even all the time directly spent taking the tests that’s the biggest problem.  The real shame, which Obama never addressed, is that as long as there are high-stakes attached to the standardized tests, test prep activities will continue to dominate instructional time.  As long as the testocracy continues to demand that students’ graduation and teachers’ evaluation or pay are determined by these tests, test prep will continue to crowed out all the things that educators know are vital to teaching the whole child—critical thinking, imagination, the arts, recess, collaboration, problem based learning, and more.

Obama’s main accomplice in proliferating costly testing, Arne Duncan, said, “It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves. At the federal, state, and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation.”

Yes, let’s all be honest with ourselves. Honesty would require acknowledgement that standardized test scores primarily demonstrate a student’s family income level, not how well a teacher has coached how to fill in bubbles. Honesty would dictate that we recognize that the biggest obstacle to the success of our students is that politicians are not being held accountable for the fact that nearly half children in the public schools now live in poverty. As Congress debates the new iteration of federal education policy, they should focus on supporting programs to uplift disadvantaged children and leave the assessment policy to local educators.  They have proven they don’t understand how to best assess our students and now they have admitted as much. It’s time to listen to those of us who have advocated for an end to the practice endlessly ranking and sorting our youth with high-stakes tests.  It’s time Congress repeal the requirement of standardized tests at every grade level.  It’s time to end the reign of the testocracy and allow parents, students, and educators to implement authentic assessments designed to help support student learning and nurture the whole child.

Cover_MTaSJesse Hagopian is an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine and teaches history at Garfield High School. Jesse is the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.

Education Secretary Duncan Steps Down!: Raise a toast with me this evening, and let’s drink to downfall of the whole testocracy

Arne Duncan has been one of the most destructive forces to public education in the history of our country.

Duncan was appointed by President Obama as the Secretary of Education, but his real role has been “testocracy tsar”–as his signature policies of Race to the Top and Common Core have been singularly focused on promoting high-stakes, standardized test-and-punish policies in service of the privatization and charterization of the public schools.  One of the most cruel aspects of Duncan’s legacy was his pronouncement that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans”–coupled with his celebration of the fact that because of Katrina, 100 percent of the New Orleans schools were converted to charter schools. Duncan’s initiatives have been designed to reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score that can be used to close schools, fire teachers, stop students from graduating, and siphon more and more money out of the public schools towards privatized charter operators.

For that reason, I hope you will raise a toast with me this evening–let’s say at 6pm Pacific time, and make it a collective action–at Duncan’s announcement today that he will step down from his post in December.

To be sure, the proposed replacement for Duncan, John King, will only serve as a new testocracy tsar with a proven track record of supporting corporate education reform.  As Long Island opt out leader Jeanette Deutermann said of John King when he stepped down as head of the New York State Education Department,

For the past few years we have endured an education commissioner that has repeatedly ignored our pleas for help. He has heard our stories of our children suffering as a result of the Board of Regent’s corporate reform agenda, and replied, “full steam ahead.”

Still, it’s worth marking the departure of Duncan–someone whose policies have damaged so many children across the country–as we continue planning to do away with the testocracy all together.

During the summer of 2010, several other educators and I obtained an in person meeting with Secretary Duncan–so when I say that I am celebrating his departure, I base that not only on having followed Duncan very closely in the news, but also on how he failed to adequately answer my direct challenge to him about how his policies were designed to favor corporate reformers over children.  When Secretary Duncan came to deliver a speech in my home state of Washington, I joined a throng of protesting teachers who picked his appearance and his corporate reform policies.  As we rallied outside the high school, the event planners grew nervous that we would disrupt this stage-managed affair. They offered us a meeting with Duncan in exchange for our polite behavior during his address. We agreed, and after the event were escorted to a nearby classroom for the meeting.  Those thirty or so minuets with the Secretary sealed my understanding of just how hurtful his policies are.

Check out the essay I wrote, “Schooling Arne Duncan,” that details our encounter with the Secretary.  Then raise your glass with me.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Schooling Arne Duncan by Jesse Hagopian

“Hi, Arne. My name is Jesse Hagopian.”

As I locked eyes and firmly shook hands, I wondered if my years of teaching would be enough to help the freshman Secretary of Education gain the knowledge and skills he would need.

[read the rest of the story on Common Dreams, at: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2010/07/21/schooling-arne-duncan ]

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