Arne Duncan’s “Back-to-School Conversation”

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Last week, Arne Duncan wrote a blog post titled, “A Back-to-School Conversation with Teachers and School Leaders.” This was subsequently reprinted on the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education, “Homeroom,” and also summarized/critiqued by Alan Singer on an Huffington Post-post titled, “Arne Duncan Declares Victory in War on Schools and Teachers.”

First, Duncan thanks America’s students as they “have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year — the highest high-school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups [who] in the past have lagged significantly.” As Diane Ravitch would say, “Where is the evidence?” No evidence is cited or referred/linked.

Those who have ever worked with graduation and dropout rate data (rates in this case which are inversely related but reported here as separately celebratory), also know how difficult it is to report these in a standardized, but more importantly accurate manner. Graduation and dropout rates, like test scores, are very easy to manipulate, adjust, and game, also because few agree on how these should be calculated and what policies and rules should be followed when calculating these rates (e.g., what should serve as the denominator). But let us not spoil Duncan’s celebration, yet.

“These achievements come at a time of nearly unprecedented change in American education — which entails enormously hard work by educators [because educators were not working hard enough prior to Duncan…But now] nearly every state has adopted new standards, new assessments, new approaches to incorporating data on student learning, and new efforts to support teachers,” thanks to Duncan. These policies are, of course, what are purportedly causing the political miracles we are to now celebrate and observe.

But then comes Duncan’s concerns with his politically (and economically) driven solutions. Most importantly he notes that tests are “sucking the oxygen out of the room;” he agrees they should not be. Rather, we should focus on growth in student achievement (i.e., via the use of VAMs) using new-and-improved tests (i.e., via the new tests being developed to align with the common core). Growth in student achievement is reportedly valued “by all;” hence, this will add oxygen back to the classroom air, as well as illuminate that which needs to be done to continue our nation’s purported (and Ducan’s self-reported) trends.

So the conversation is to sidestep the concerns expressed by teachers and educators from throughout the country, and embrace a still grossly politically driven solution based on growth using new-and-improved tests. I see nothing here but a circular logic that, unfortunately, our nation’s education leader cannot convince himself out of. As per Duncan, this is why he, or more we as taxpayers under his leadership, have “committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create [these] new [and improved] assessments.”

Duncan then guarantees that the feds will “stay out of it” (i.e., what measures are used), even though there are only two sets of tests in which “we” have invested millions and in which states are still being encouraged to adopt. The “only” condition is that when “evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth [i.e., growth models and VAMs]” as at least one part of their state-level teacher evaluation plans. In addition, “states will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation…but typically I’d [i.e., Duncan, referring to himself] expect this to mean that states that request [a] delay will push back by [only] one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments [are to] become part of [states’] evaluation systems.”

As written by Singer in the aforementioned Huffington Post-post, Duncan, “instead of ending the onerous requirements that are creating the “distraction” and “sucking the oxygen” out of the classroom, postponed [these tests] for ONE year, granting states the “opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation.” Singer rightfully concludes: “Duncan’s blog is reminiscent of the famous George W. Bush May 1, 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln where the President celebrated the end of major combat operations by the United States in Iraq, a declaration that now appears to have been at least twelve years too early. The vast majority of casualties in the Iraq war occurred after the Bush speech and unfortunately the dismantling of education in the United States and the high-stakes testing war on schools and teachers will continue long after the Duncan blog.”

1 thought on “Arne Duncan’s “Back-to-School Conversation”

  1. What Brand Is Your School? ​

    On the first day of school every September students want to wear the right brand of sneakers, jeans, and accessories. Cigarettes come in brands too. So does soda. Who would have thought that schools come in brands also?

    Catherine DiMartino, a close colleague at Hofstra University recently coauthored an academic study for the journal Urban Education. It was called “School Brand Management: The Policies, Practices, and Perceptions of Branding and Marketing in New York City’s Public High Schools.” It is an excellent academic article, but as I read it I started to laugh hysterically at the idea that the way so-called educational “reformers” propose to improve urban (a euphemism for inner-city schools with student populations that are overwhelming minority and poor) education is to have better school branding so low performing schools can compete for better students and basically ignore the rest.

    What DiMartino and her co-author Sarah Butler Jessen uncover is the way high schools in New York City, especially new small schools, create a brand name that they market to attract the type of students and families they want to attend and discourage the students and families they do not want.

    According to DiMartino and Jessen, “Over the past 20 years, market-based choice initiatives have become a popular approach to education reform.” The New York City Department of Education now operates more than 400 high school programs. Many communities no longer have a zoned or neighborhood high school. Instead there is a market place of competing schools that are all trying to attract better performing students so they can improve their own report card grades. Middle school students attend school fairs where even the worst performing schools have seductive names and elaborate and attractive advertising displays and distribute “swag” or goody bags. They then apply to as many as 13 high schools, many at a great distance from their homes. If they are “interested” in law at the age of 13, they can take a highly competitive exam and attend the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School, the High School for American Studies at Lehman College, or one of four other high schools in the Bronx with Law in its name, or one of the nine non-law named Bronx high schools that offers a law program. There is similar market confusing in all the other boroughs as well.

    Amongst New York City’s highest ranking and most desired schools are the Bronx High School of Science, also known as Bronx Science, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and The Beacon School in Manhattan.

    Now that we know how to fool parents and attract higher performing students, I am looking forward to a clever charter school entrepreneur opening Brooklyn Science, Bedford Stuyvesant High School, and The Beacon Light School. Charter entrepreneurs and so-called reformers could also start Harvord University Prep with a slight spelling alteration to avoid trademark infringement.

    Students, as you return to school this September, remember that the most important brand in your wardrobe is the brand of your school. Welcome back!​

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