Category Archives: Arne Duncan

Goodbye, Arne Duncan…Hello, John King

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.

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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.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Common Core, John King, New York Board of Regents, politics, Testing

NY Commissioner Elia: The Time for Charm is Over; Let’s Start the Empty Threats

When MaryEllen Elia took over as Commissioner of Education in New York, she began by traveling the state to speak with various constituents about the direction of education in the Empire State.  This was no doubt in response to former Commissioner Dr. John King Jr.’s decided inability to listen to and to engage with stakeholders in public education, and Commissioner Elia should be granted kudos for being willing to step outside of her office in the current climate.  According to Principal Carol Burris, who attended the meeting between Commissioner Elia and New York State Allies for Public Education, MaryEllen Elia was cordial and generous with her time.  However, as was obvious from her resume in Florida, it is plain that New York’s new Commissioner is a true believe in the Holy Trinity of education reform: Common Core standards, high stakes standardized testing, and punishing schools and teachers whose students do not measure up on those examinations.  It is clear that the “listening tour” was more about changing the style than the substance of the New York State Education Department.  Ms. Burris, who recently took an early retirement to dedicate herself to defending public education, noted:

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the medium that delivers any message is of equal, if not greater, importance than its content.   Clearly the Board of Regents believes that by pivoting from the stiff and professorial King to the attentive and engaging Elia, parents and teachers will come to their senses and begin to like the Common Core and its tests.

So while I will give Commissioner Elia some marks for actually speaking with stakeholders and for accepting opportunities to speak with opponents of her favorite education reforms, there is no reason to think she will change anything of substance.

And now the charm offensive is over.  It is time to start in with the threats.

In a conference call with reporters, Commissioner Elia reported that the NYSED is discussing with the US Department of Education potential consequences for schools with high numbers of students who refuse the state standardized examinations.  The Politico New York story was followed by a story in The New York Times which states:

Officials at the federal Education Department have awhile to decide what to do. The state will not officially report its test participation rate to the federal government until mid-December, and the number will not be considered final until sometime after that, the State Education Department said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the federal Education Department’s spokeswoman, Dorie Nolt, said the agency was looking to the leadership of New York’s Education Department “to take the appropriate steps on behalf of all kids in the state.”

New York led the country in students refusing to take the state standardized exams with roughly 20% of students between grades 3 and 8 and in 11th grade refusing.  These numbers are not, however, evenly distributed with large numbers of the 200,000 students not sitting for the exams in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. However, as reported in the Times there were also high needs districts dependent upon Title 1 funds for students in poverty who had large opt out numbers.  Commissioner Elia told the Times that federal officials had asked her what “plan” she has for “dealing” with districts that have high numbers of opt outs.

So will this be how Opt Out ends?  With the federal DOE and NYSED joining together to punish districts who do not meet federal testing numbers until everybody agrees to play along?

Outlook not so good

In order to understand whether these threats have any teeth, one has to understand why they would be made in the first place.  There are several interconnected issues.

95% of all students in all subgroups must be tested annually.  Under the 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind, every school in the country must test every student in mathematics and English every year between grades 3 and 8 and once in high school.  There are no exceptions allowed to this.  Based upon this requirement, there are a number of schools and districts where test refusal has dropped the percentage of tested students well below this threshold.  However –

NCLB testing requirements were meant for schools, districts, and states, not for parents and students.  When Congress passed NCLB on a bipartisan vote, their intention could not have been clearer.  They were concerned about historic evidence of communities and states quietly shunting certain populations of students outside of accountability measures and subsequently ignoring their educational needs.  This same argument has featured prominently in recent debates over renewal of NCLB and the fate of annual testing.  Regardless of what anyone thinks about the merits of annual testing of all students versus gradespan testing of samples of students, the intent of the legislation was to make certain that schools and states could not duck out of accountability for all of the students enrolled in public school.

In fact, the federal DOE made that same point to New York when it rejected some provisions of the state’s renewal application for waivers from various NCLB provisions.  The state requested that English language learners who have been in the country for less than two years be exempted from the state English examination, but the Federal DOE cited that the state has only a limited exemption capability and then referenced that the state is required to create a “single, statewide, accountability system” and that this “requirement is necessary to ensure that schools are held accountable for the academic achievement of all students…”  The state is extremely limited in its ability to exempt students from the examinations, and the schools are supposed to be accountable for their students’ learning.  To that end, New York State has contracted and administered a system of annual statewide testing, albeit a controversial one, and schools administer those tests.

However, nothing in the statutes can make a school force students to take a specific standardized exam, and there is no mechanism for punishing a student for not participating in an exam that makes up none of that student’s grade.  Schools across the state have implored parents to not opt their children out, they have put out contradictory information about what consequences might befall a school that falls below 95% of children tested, and they administered the exams to every child whose parents did not refuse them.  However, there is no statutory authority that allows a school or school district to compel taking the exam, and it is contrary to the intent of NCLB to hold them accountable for actions beyond their control.

Consider another federal education law: the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  Under that law, schools and school districts must provide all students with a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment,” and schools are required to be proactive about students who are potentially disabled, conducting “child find” before the student falls behind academically.  School districts are sued routinely for failing to live up the provisions of IDEA, but if parents decline to participate in the evaluation process for special education services, the school is not held accountable for failing to evaluate and has only limited means to proceed without parents. In the case of IDEA, this is made explicit in the regulations.

NCLB does not address parental consent for or against annual standardized testing, but that is because the legislation is meant to hold schools, districts, and states accountable – not parents.  So long as all districts and schools are doing their best to ensure that as many students are tested as is possible, they are clearly fulfilling their obligations under the law.

About those waivers from the Federal DOE: While the Federal DOE did not grant all of New York’s waiver requests, the state is operating under a broad waiver from many of the more punishing provisions of NCLB.  This waiver specifically allows the state to identify schools that fail to make Annual Yearly Progress on standardized exams as Priority and Focus Schools instead of as schools for restructuring. 20% of Title I funds under the waiver no longer need to be spent on supplemental services and/or transportation for school choice options, and are replaced with funding for specific state programs and increased parental involvement.

Test refusal in large numbers in districts receiving Title I funds will complicate the state’s ability to identify reward schools, priority schools, and focus schools, but that is a matter between Albany and Washington, D.C. rather than between either capitol and individual schools.  Given that school districts have gone as far as to use the arguably abusive “sit and stare” policy to try to coerce test participation, there is no argument that either Albany nor Washington can make that holds entire schools responsible for the actions of a portion, plurality, or majority of their parents, so what argument is there to withdraw Title I money from specific schools when the entire state operates under waivers?

In a decade and a half has ANY school ever lost Title I funds for missing testing numbers? In a word, no.  Fairtest is a nonprofit that monitors testing across the country and advocates for changes to our standardized testing environment, and they are unaware of a single school, anywhere, that has ever lost Title I funds for missing the 95% testing requirement.  The scale of the Opt Out movement in New York may be a new phenomenon, but that does not suddenly grant Washington and Albany the power to do something they’ve never done before.

So what if Commissioner Elia and the US DOE find some way to claim statutory authority?  What then?  What then would be a political firestorm of epic proportions.  Apart from obvious lawsuits, imagine the situation. NYSED or the federal government threaten sanctions for failing to test 95% of students, but their only real option is to withhold Title I funds which are allocated to schools with significant percentages of students in poverty.  So that would leave a community like, say, Rockville Center on Long Island, which had a 62% opt out rate this Spring, essentially untouched. Why?  Rockville Center’s population’s is much wealthier than the state average, and its single middle school only has 10% of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch.

Compare that to the Earth School in Manhattan.  According to this statement from the Movement of Rank and File Educators, 100 students at the ethnically diverse elementary school refused this year’s tests.  Earth School is 44% African American and Hispanic and 43% of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  Or how about Dolgeville Middle School upstate where 64% of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunch and whose district had an 89% opt out rate?

Does anyone actually think that Albany or Washington could withstand the fury they would unleash by withholding federal money meant to aid schools with high percentages of student in poverty – inflicting great harm on students who are among the urban and rural poor – while leaving affluent suburban schools mostly unscathed?  The situation would be patently discriminatory on its face, and it could never stand either in the court of public opinion or in state and federal court.

NY Commissioner Elia and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may be threatening to pull out a gun against Opt Out, but the first rule is never pull a gun you are not prepared to fire.  In this case, it would help to make sure the gun is loaded and is not, in fact, a banana.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, Opt Out, Testing