The ed blogosphere has done quite a lot of post-mortem analysis of Arne Duncan’s impact as Secretary of Education, since he announced his departure from that post a few days ago. A great place to start the retrospective tour is the Hechinger Report’s column, “What Arne Duncan did to American education and whether it will last.” Ariana Skibell’s column describes Duncan’s broad agenda, from early childhood intervention to the regulation of for-profit colleges. Duncan, fully backed by President Obama, pushed aggressively forward much of Pres. Bush’s agenda for K-12 schools, especially in two crucial areas: the deployment of curriculum standards integrally tied (in policy) to high-stakes tests, and a move towards more quantitative teacher evaluations, most notably the use of “value-added” or “growth” measures — also tied to student testing. It must be said that one important motivation for Duncan’s policy emphases was the need to improve access to good education for poor children. Yet there is something about the emphasis on (test)data-driven, standards-driven “reform” that reminds one of Laffer’s “supply-side economics” — with no corresponding attention to improving opportunities and resources to meet the demands, and little willingness to listen to data that runs counter to the ideology behind the policies (see Jan Ressinger’s critical overview here). (Valerie Strauss has an anthology of Duncanisms which illustrate these and other points here.)
Although Duncan and others insistently remind people that the Common Core (and near-forgotten NGSS) standards are not “imposed” by the federal government, considerable federal pressure has been applied to push standards+testing adoption. The Race To The Top (RTTT) program alone provided a lot of propulsive force, and federal money (hundreds of millions of dollars) funded the two multi-state consortia developing tests to accompany the standards (PARCC and Smarter Balanced). Moreover, RTTT required state awardees to adopt test-based teacher evaluations. Thus, it is not surprising that Duncan and his allies keep having to repeat endlessly that the Standards were not federally funded, nor imposed as a national policy — because they have done everything in their power to “own” these policies de facto. The impression that is left with both the right and the left is an acceleration of the tendency to federal control of education. As Patricia McGuire writes in a different post in the Hechinger report, Duncan’s legacy is infused with a “top-down approach to education.”
Duncan and his allies (including the president) have given a strong impetus to many other aspects of what has come to be called “corporate school reform” — buying the “market-based” thinking on charter schools, for example, and embracing the dramatic growth of the influence of philanthropy and other “private actors” in education (see Dorn and Patterson’s essay here).
Of course, there are those who don’t feel that Duncan went far enough:
Mr. Duncan did well to promote charter schools
and high standards. His Race to the Top initiative used federal
dollars to catalyze reform in the states, especially by encouraging
them to hold teachers accountable for student performance.
Yet such progress was overshadowed by his unwillingness to fully take on the union-backed status quo….The nation’s first
African-American President had unique standing and moral capital to remake the politics of education. Mr. Obama might have united reformers on the right and left into a movement that empowered parents to choose the best school for their children regardless of their location or income. It might have been a unifying issue and a great legacy.
“But he opted for tepid, and now his main K-12 legacy will be having presided over the unwinding of President George W. Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind reform. We were no fans of that law, but at least it elevated higher standards and performance measurement regardless of background. Those principles are now under assault by unions on the left and populists on the right.
(from the Wall Street Journal, quoted by Diane Ravitch)
Dorn and Patterson’s blog post led me to a piece by Marzawi called “Grammars of privatization, schooling, and the network state.” (Abstract here, and partial access here) Marzawi’s contention, as I understand it (and he warrants his thinking with a range of references I haven’t had time to track down*), is that we have seen the development of “networked government,” which allows for various components of our society (business, government, civil services, etc. ) to pay attention to their own imperatives and methods, while both giving and demanding strong interaction with the other components, so that all feel the pull of each other’s needs and priorities, and benefit from the dynamic sharing of power and wealth. Education, he contends, is now shaped by this networked system, which allows the centers of power/wealth to exert influence while sharing responsibility (and risk) in a way that provides stability in the face of unrest or opposition. This, it seems to me, is a very effective vantage from which to look at how things happen in education policy now: it doesn’t flow from a Duncan, Obama, or Bush; or from a Gates, Broad, or Pearson; or from NEA, or ALEC, or any of dozens of other power-centers. All are moving things into the network, and exerting pulls of various strengths — but the network structure itself is very stable, despite being distorted and stretched hither and yon. Teachers, parents, students, school administrators, scholars — these don’t have “nodes” in the network. Their participation is mediated through institutions and The Market, and occasionally the ballot box — unless they find ways to opt out, or build alternative networks.
- “Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” — Herman Melville