The Passion of St. Arne

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will step down at the end of this year, and President Obama has announced that he will be replaced by former New York Commissioner of Education Dr. John King, Jr. as the acting Secretary of Education through the remainder of the administration.  Praising his often embattled Secretary of Education, President Obama said, ““He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else….America will be better off for what he has done.”

We’ll leave that judgement to history.

As is often the case when prominent Washington figures prepare to ride off into the sunset (or out of town under cover of darkness depending on your point of view) it is time for “legacy punditry” to kick into overdrive and attempt to place Secretary Duncan in history.  Most of it is premature.  Quite a lot of it is insipid. And much of it just cannot resist creating a “balanced” narrative whether it is honest or not, which is where, Secretary Arne Duncan, Martyr of the Intransigent Teacher Unions comes into play.  Michael Grunwald of Politico.com wrote just such a piece last week, explaining the the choice of John King signals that President Obama has no intention of backing off any controversial reforms and strongly emphasizing union opposition to both Secretary Duncan and his chosen successor:

Duncan has been the public face of those differences; the National Education Association called for his resignation, while the American Federation of Teachers put him on an “improvement plan” like the ones school reformers have endorsed for incompetent teachers. He is leaving with U.S. graduation rates at an all-time high and dropout rates at an all-time low, but there has been a growing bipartisan backlash over some of his favored reforms, like the Common Core math and reading standards (derided as “Obamacore” by many conservatives) or the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations (derided as “test-and-punish” by unions). I recently mentioned to Duncan that it seems like the main theme uniting his reforms has been the idea that adults in the education system should be held accountable for making sure kids learn. “Just a little bit!” he responded.

That is, shall we say, a very charitable explanation of the central themes in Secretary Duncan’s reform portfolio of Common Core standards, high stakes testing, value added measures in teacher assessment, and favoritism for charter schools despite the ongoing and shocking series of scandals coming out of the sector.  Another way of explaining the Arne Duncan is approach is to ratchet up expectations without increasing supports, mistake things that are harder with things that are better, work hand in hand with one billionaire’s vision of education reform to push through or coerce over 40 states to adopt new standards largely written in secret, and ignore growing mountains of evidence that growth measures from standardized tests are not suited for individual teacher evaluation.  So while Mr. Grunwald may be right to point out union exasperation with Mr. Duncan and concern about his successor, there is a hell of a lot of context to that exasperation that is left out as he tries to balance his piece with current critics of both men.

So let me state it very clearly:  Secretary Duncan in Washington and Commissioner King in New York absolutely were not victims of the teacher unions.  They are victims of their own bull headed insistence in backing abjectly harmful policies even as the evidence mounted that they are harmful.

But that does not make a traditional Washington narrative where if there is one side, there must be an equal and equivalent other side, so the story of President Obama’s embattled Secretary of Education and his soon to be embattled next Secretary of Education is one where the reform side faces implacable resistance from unions seeking to maintain the status quo at all costs.  It is true that the National Education Association called for Arne Duncan’s resignation, and it is true that the American Federation of Teachers put him on a metaphorical improvement plan — last year.  After years of trying to work with education reform.

Both the NEA and AFT were early supporters of the Common Core State Standards and maintain high levels of support for the standards themselves to this day.  The NEA maintains this website on the CCSS, including a “ten facts” section that could have been penned by David Coleman himself, and the AFT is equally optimistic going back to a 2011 resolution urging good implementation.  Both national unions took initially positive views of potentially using student test score data as part of a “multiple measures” approach to teacher evaluation.  Part of the AFT’s 2010 statement on teacher evaluation and labor-management relations reads:

AFT teacher eval 2010

And from the NEA’s 2011 policy statement:

NEA teacher eval 2011

While both unions have repeatedly warned Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration that the push for more and more standardized testing was risking the entire education reform agenda, both unions were cooperative early on with key elements of education reform from the Obama White House: Common Core State Standards and the use of standardized testing data aligned with those standards in teacher evaluation.  It just so happens that these were key components in the White House’s Race to the Top grant competition and were conditions that had to be met to be granted waivers from the worst consequences of No Child Left Behind.  It also just so happens that another person, outside of the Cabinet, was pushing hard to get people on board to support the Common Core standards and growth models based on standardized tests:

Bill Gates

Not for nothing, both unions and their respective leaders at the time were listed as “important partners” when the Gates Foundation in 2009 announced $290 million in grants to 4 major school districts across the country to “develop and implement new approaches, strategies, and policies, including adopting better measures of teacher effectiveness that include growth in student achievement and college readiness; using those measures to boost teacher development, training, and support; tying tenure decisions more closely to teacher effectiveness measures and rewarding highly effective teachers through new career and compensation opportunities that keep them in the classroom; strengthening school leadership; and providing incentives for the most effective teachers to work in the highest-need schools and classrooms.”  The same announcement included the plan to spend $45 million on the Measures of Effective Teaching study – more or less to buy the research saying growth measures based on test data can be used in teacher evaluation and which, well, comes to that conclusion via some seriously dubious reasoning.  President of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, eventually backtracked from the support of growth measures in teacher evaluation, saying “VAM is a sham,” but this was in 2014, long after flaws with the Measures of Effective Teaching study’s conclusion began to be obvious.

So let’s be very clear: far from being antagonists to the Obama White House on education reform, the national teacher unions were key partners in critical elements of it from early on.  If Secretary Duncan’s simply G-d awful oversight of those initiatives (thoughtfully organized for careful consumption by Jersey Jazzman here) finally turned those organizations against him by 2014, it is strange to place union opposition at the center of the story.  In fact, despite the increased criticism and despite the late support for the parental Opt Out movement, teacher unions are STILL keeping their biggest leverage at bay.  Both the NEA and the AFT have already endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for President despite her long standing connections with figures like John Podesta, who is running her campaign and was the founder of the Center for American Progress, a left of center think tank that is reliably in the pro-reform camp.  Further, with a few high visibility exceptions like the Chicago and Seattle strikes, neither union has been eager to take to the streets in opposition to the Duncan education agenda.  You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an historic table of labor actions by any group of workers over 1000. The average public school teacher to pupil ratio in 2011 was 16 to 1 (this includes special education teachers and teachers of non-core classes), and there are 453 school districts in the country with more than 16,000 students – meaning if their teacher workforce went on strike, they’d be recorded in the BLM tables.  Considering how the education reforms most embraced by Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration have played out most contentiously in our large urban school systems, wouldn’t we be embroiled in job actions across the country if the AFT and NEA were the kind of opposition imagined by Michael Grunwald in his Politico piece?

I am sure that Secretary Duncan and his supporters both in the White House and in the education reform community would like to invoke the image of a martyr in a passion play, set upon by self interested forces seeking to maintain their privilege at the expense of the nation’s children.  But our national teacher unions do not fit that bill.  Far from opposing the reforms proposed from the Obama Department of Education, they embraced large portions of it and offered mainly precautions rather than opposition on other parts.  While elements of reform policies from this administration were involved in the Chicago Teacher Strike in 2012, there simply has not been labor unrest promoted by the AFT and NEA in the past 6 years.  Discontent among rank and file teachers has been growing in recent years, but union leadership did not really turn the corner on Arne Duncan until 2014. Value added measures are so poorly suited for teacher evaluation that the American Statistical Association urged policy makers not to use them, but AFT President Randi Weingarten’s opposition to VAMs preceded the ASA statement by only 3 months.

The reality is that Arne Duncan and John King did not merely run afoul of national and state level teacher unions – after years of doggedly pursuing policies that harm teaching – they ran afoul of parents and lawmakers as well.  Key aspects of Duncan and King’s favorite reforms are not favored by Americans and by parents even less so.  While charter schools enjoy public support, the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and using test data to evaluate teachers are widely viewed negatively.  67% of public school parents agree there is too much emphasis on standardized tests, and 80% of public school parents said student engagement was “very important” for measuring effectiveness compared to only 14% who said the same about test scores. 63% of public school parents disapprove of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

I’m not the only one noticing a theme here, right?  The problems that faced Arne Duncan and which John King faced in New York and will now face on a national level are problems born of loss of trust from parents, key stakeholders in education who turned around between 2009 and 2014 to find huge portions of their schools changing without even the least effort to include them in the conversation.  Secretary Duncan’s tin ear on these matters is almost legendary, but his successor may actually be worse, if that is possible. Dr. King could never communicate effectively with parents, leading to disastrous public meetings, and his refusal to discuss issues or entertain other viewpoints led lawmakers to bipartisan calls for his removal from office.  Mr. Grundwald’s piece in Politico suggests that Dr. King’s problem in New York were mainly with the union, but he fails to acknowledge that he left Albany just ahead of an angry mob of parents and legislators.

Sadly, it is the very background that Mr. Grunwald suggests should help Dr. King repair relationships with the nation’s teachers that actually prevents him from doing so.  Dr. King’s background story includes the loss of his teacher mother at a young age and his crediting teachers for turning around his life (Peter Greene rightly wonders if those same Brooklyn teachers, working under Dr. King’s policy environment, would have the room to set aside pacing guides and practice tests to nurture a child in need).  His allies in reform took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing to tout his life in education, but his particular life in education left him sorely unprepared for his role as NY Commissioner and even less prepared to be Secretary of Education.  Dr. King taught for three years, only one of them in a fully public school.  He then helped to found Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to found the Uncommon School network of no excuses charter schools, which relies heavily on out of school suspensions far in excess of local schools where they operate.  As a “no excuses” chain, Uncommon Schools can employ discipline methods disallowed by public schools and parents have no say if they disagree.  Dr. King was tapped from this sector to become Deputy Commissioner in New York and then ascended to the Commissioner’s office in 2011 at the age of 36.

Dr. King has almost no experience in his career where he was answerable to parents and the overlapping constituencies that are stakeholders in public education.  His style of charter school is almost entirely private in operation and parents unhappy with the way the school operates have no input via elected boards. He never served as principal of a fully public school or as a superintendent in a public school district where he was answerable to different people with sometimes opposing interests that needed to find compromise.  That lack of experience was evident in New York state as he increasingly avoided engaging parents and legislators, and there is no reason to believe he will change in the Secretary’s office.  While our new Secretary of Education will certainly be in for tough times from the national teacher unions, he will undoubtedly be in for equally or worse rough times from parents.

Inflexible unions versus the earnest reformers makes for good copy.  But it isn’t even half the story.

3 Comments

Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, John King, politics

3 responses to “The Passion of St. Arne

  1. Zorba

    Reblogged this on Politicians Are Poody Heads and commented:
    This is a long article, but well worth reading. Excellent summation, Daniel!

  2. Charlie Puffers

    Thank you for setting the record straight on the involvement of teacher unions from the beginning of the reform movement. As a union member I have been enraged with the leadership’s support of misguided reforms and disrespect for the rank and file. When I read an article about reform efforts failing because of union opposition I can’t help but wonder what planet the writer lives on.

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