Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education is set to resign at the close of the 2015, ending his tenure as one of the most destructive forces against public education in history.
“He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else,” President Obama gushed announcing Duncan’s resignation last October. Obama’s words were meant as praise for the Secretary, but in this one aspect of the assessment of Duncan I have to agree with the President. There can be no doubt that Duncan inflicted policies that caused students and educators to cry out for help.
Duncan’s official title may have been Secretary of Education, but his real role has been the “testocracy tsar.” His signature policies of Race to the Top and Common Core have been singularly focused on promoting high-stakes, standardized test-and-punish policies.
For example, in order for states to compete for grant money under Race to the Top, Duncan required them to increase the use of standardized testing in teacher evaluations. Duncan’s championing of the Common Core State Standards—and the tests that came shrink-wrapped with them—has ushered in developmentally inappropriate standards in the early grades that punish late bloomers, while further entrenching the idea that the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning can be reduced to a test score. For many, Duncan will be remembered as an educational alchemist who attempted to turn education into “testucation”—with the average student today subjected to an outlandish 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. The highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.
In addition, Duncan has been widely derided as “the national school superintendent” for the way he held waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act over the heads of state officials. NCLB set an unattainable goal of 100% proficiency in math and reading for every school in the country by 2014. As per the plan, not a single state reached the proficiency goals, and schools could only escape sanction by the federal government if they were granted a waiver—which Duncan would only grant to states who would agree to more testing.
This hit home for me last year when my state of Washington refused to mandate standardized tests in teacher evaluations. Arne Duncan then took off his gloves and showed he wasn’t afraid to punish children by revoking the NCLB waiver for the state. With the waiver gone, nearly all of Washington’s schools were labeled failures, resulting in the loss of control of millions of dollars in federal money.
And yet, as harmful as Duncan has been to our nation’s children, it’s important not to credit him with having too much impact. Duncan wasn’t a mastermind or a skilled political operative. He was a corporate yes man who did anything that was asked of him by the richest people the world has ever known. As Anthony Cody and others have detailed, billionaires such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family, set the education agenda, wrote the policy, worked political backchannels, and lined up the corporations who would profit. Once the education reforms were neatly packaged, these billionaires trotted out their flunky, Secretary Duncan, who dutifully worked to sell their agenda to the nation.
One of Duncan’s primary objectives has been the privatization of education through the dramatic expansion of charter schools. But as The Washington Post reported, an audit by the Department of Education’s own inspector general found “that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charter schools.” This lack of oversight laid the foundation for a recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), which found some $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.
Duncan also implemented his policies in a cruel and arrogant manner. He infamously proclaimed Hurricane Katrina as "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” Duncan saw the destruction as a great opportunity because so many people were displaced that it allowed the privatizers to completely end public schooling in New Orleans. Today the district is 100 percent comprised of charter schools. Duncan wasn’t content replacing the arts, physical education, civics, literature, and critical thinking with high-stakes tests. He also sternly chastised parents who chose to opt their children out of standardized tests, dismissing the opt out movement as “coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were…” Duncan insulted white moms while simultaneously erasing the rising leadership of people of color who have long organized against high-stakes testing.
Duncan’s general attack on education got personal for me on July 9th, 2010, when he visited my hometown of Seattle to deliver a speech at an area school. I joined a throng of protesting teachers that day outside the school to picket his appearance and the corporate reform policies he was promoting.
As we rallied outside the high school, his handlers grew nervous that we would disrupt this stage-managed affair. They offered us a meeting with Duncan in exchange for our polite behavior during his address. We agreed, and after the event were escorted to a nearby classroom for the meeting. That half hour with the Secretary was all I needed to know. The following is a transcript from an article I wrote at the time:
Mr. Duncan: To be clear, we [the Department of Education] want curriculum to be driven by the local level, pushing that. We are by law prohibited from directing curriculum. We don't have a curriculum department.
Mr. Hagopian: I have to interject on that point. Because I think that merit pay...
Mr. Duncan: Let me finish, let me finish...
Mr. Hagopian: ...Directly influences curriculum. When you have teachers scrambling and pitted against each other for a small amount of money [based on how their students perform on a test], what it does is narrow the curriculum to what's on the test, even if you don't set curriculum specifically. So I think you have to address that.
Mr. Duncan: I will. No one is mandating merit pay.
Mr. Hagopian: But you support it though?
Mr. Duncan: I do, I do...
Mr. Hagopian: So you support narrowing the curriculum.
Mr. Duncan: Can I finish? It's a voluntary program. Schools and districts and unions are working together on some really innovative things.
Mr. Hagopian: Merit pay isn't part of Race to the Top?
What my meeting with Secretary Duncan demonstrated, more than anything else, was his refusal to listen to educational professionals about how to improve public education. His dismissal of professional expertise has greatly contributed to the plummeting moral among teachers.
Yet, I have also discovered that the best antidote to despair is collective struggle. The one positive aspect of Duncan’s legacy is that his policies have sparked the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. Increasing numbers of teachers have flat out refused to administer standardized tests, students around the country have lead walkouts against the tests, and during the 2015 testing season, parents opted out some 620,000 public school students around the U.S. from standardized exams. This mass movement forced Duncan in his waning days as Secretary to begrudgingly acknowledge his policies have led to an “overemphasis on testing in some places,” and that “testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”
As thrilled as I am to see Duncan resign, President Obama’s replacement, John King, will likely only serve as a new testocracy tsar. As Long Island opt out leader Jeanette Deutermann said of King when he stepped down as head of the New York State Education Department:
For the past few years we have endured an education commissioner that has repeatedly ignored our pleas for help. He has heard our stories of our children suffering as a result of the Board of Regent’s corporate reform agenda, and replied, “full steam ahead.”
Secretary John King will be tasked with carrying out the new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which eliminates the “Adequate Yearly Progress” annual test score gain requirement. However, the new law maintains the detrimental mandate to give standardized reading and math tests to children in every grade, from 3-8 and once in high school—empowering states to sanction any school labeled as underperforming.
Federal education policy will continue to follow the whims of the richest people in the world—people who did not attend public schools and would never dream of sending their children to one—until the opt out movement joins with other social justice struggles to fundamentally shift the balance of power away from the executive board room and towards the classroom.
So, join me in a New Year’s toast to Duncan’s dethroning—and then join the struggle to overthrow the testocracy all together.
Jesse Hagopian is a Progressive Education Fellow and the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Follow him on twitter: @jessedhagopian