Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Chief Bull in a China Shop of education “reform,” will step down in December. Having spent his tenure in Washington working more at the behest of private foundations and billionaire backed advocacy groups than on behalf of constituencies like students, parents, and teachers (who he frequently insulted), Secretary Duncan will leave behind a legacy of rapid and coercive change and a burgeoning parental rebellion against corporate education reform. Under his watch, states were incentivized to jump head first into the Common Core State Standards before they were even finished, confusing and rapidly developed CCSS classroom materials proliferated across numerous states, states were bribed to adopt teacher evaluation systems that use standardized tests scores to judge teacher effectiveness, and states were promised new tests that would actually demonstrate students’ “college and career readiness” but were delivered the so far execrable Common Core aligned examinations rolled out across the country. The National Education Association has previously called for his resignation, and the American Federation of Teachers placed Secretary Duncan on an “improvement plan.” So it would seem obvious that teachers and parents across the country should breathe a sigh of relief to see the controversial Secretary, whose affability is vastly overshadowed by his skill at breaking things, depart.
Not so fast.
The same reports of Arne Duncan’s pending resignation also state that former New York State Commissioner of Education, Dr. John King, Jr. will lead the Department of Education as Acting Secretary, possibly for the remainder of President Obama’s term which ends in January of 2017. To say that Commissioner King’s departure from the Empire State was unlamented would be a mammoth understatement. While far quieter than his current boss in the Federal DOE, Dr. King is no less devoted to the central tenants of education reform today: Common Core standards, mass standardized testing, evaluation of teachers using standardized tests, and the proliferation of loosely regulated charter schools. What Dr. King lacks in dynamic public persona, he more than makes up for in dogged determination to plow ahead with a fixed agenda regardless of feedback or evidence. Indeed, the most constant skill he demonstrated as the head of the New York State Education Department was his ability to patiently let feedback and criticism wash right over him and have no influence on decision making whatsoever. Head of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, had this to say upon his leaving:
John King was the most unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State. He showed no respect for parents, teachers or student privacy. Ironically, he was intent on protecting his own privacy, and routinely withheld public documents; our Freedom of Information request of his communications with inBloom and the Gates foundation is more than 1 ½ years overdue. His resignation is good news for New York state; hopefully he will be unable to do as much damage at the US Department of Education.
Sadly, as the new head of the US Department of Education, Dr. King will be in quite a position to do a lot of damage over the next 15 months.
Dr. King has a remarkable personal story and truly impressive academic credentials, including include a B.A. from Harvard University, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and both an M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University. After short stints in charter schools, he was tapped as a deputy commissioner in New York at the age of 34 and succeeded to the Commissioner’s office only two years later. Now, at the age of 40, with scant experience in teaching and school leadership, including no time at all as a superintendent of any school district of any size, Dr. King will take over the work of a Cabinet Secretary with far reaching influence over the direction of public education in the country.
Dr. King’s leadership of NYSED was made complicated not only by the controversial policies that he was tasked with putting into place, but also by the rapidity with which he pursued those policies and his consistent ignoring of all stakeholders. As the Common Core standards, the EngageNY materials to support the core, and as the aligned testing all were put into place at a breakneck speed, legitimate concerns and criticisms from teachers, parents, and lawmakers went unheeded. Principal Elizabeth Philips of PS 321 in Park Slope noted questions about Common Core testing that simply were not heard in Albany:
In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes….
…At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.
Not only were the standards and tests confusing, Dr. King’s department set about creating cut scores for the exams that all but guaranteed only a third of students in the state would be marked as “proficient.” Following growing complaints across the state, the Commissioner attempted to “engage” parents and other stakeholders in meetings across the state, but one of those erupted disastrously in Poughkeepsie. At the time, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch praised the Commissioner for his hard work, but she was subsequently quick to throw him under the bus when it became clear that NYSED had approved a charter school application submitted by a 22 year old who had lied up and down on his resume. By the end of his tenure in the Commissioner’s office, there were bipartisan calls for his removal from office:
“For quite some time, Education Commissioner John King has closed off all meaningful conversation with parents, educators, administrators, and elected officials who have highlighted serious deficiencies in State Education Department policies,” Abinanti said. “He has exhibited a conscious disregard for their concerns.
“He should be listening, educating where criticisms are unfounded, and adopting changes where criticisms are valid,” the lawmaker continued. “His rigidity makes him unsuited for the position of Education Commissioner. Commissioner King should resign immediately.”
By the time, Dr. King left his office in Albany, he had created a great deal of chaos in New York schools, alienated every major constituency, and had created the conditions that led to the largest parental opt out movement in the history of standardized testing.
There you have it, America: your new Acting Secretary of Education.
So will anything change in the United States Department of Education? In a word: no. Acting Secretary of Education Dr. John King, Jr. will not waver an inch on the Arne Duncan education agenda. Standardized testing will remain the sine qua non of educational quality and evaluation. Charter schools will continue to be favored over fully public schools regardless of the evidence of their success. The US DOE will continue to back efforts to break our national teachers’ unions. And education policy will continue a thirty two year trend of demanding that our nation’s public schools be held fully accountable for creating economic opportunity for children in poverty without the rest of society being called upon to do a single thing to make those opportunities real. The central fallacies of education reform in the modern era will remain cemented in place.
The only change we can expect is one of style. While Arne Duncan blundered about in bull like fashion breaking all of the china, his successor will be quite content to quietly step on all of the shards to make certain they are good and broken.