TOPICS > Education

Secretary Arne Duncan defends against growing criticism from left and right

March 28, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
Indiana, one of the 45 states that adopted the national Common Core educational standards, has became the first state to drop them. Across the country, anger over the federal government’s role in schools has been focused at Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports on Duncan’s role in the evolution of American educational policy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This week, Indiana became the first state to drop the so-called Common Core public education standards adopted across much of the country. State officials there will now create their own plan.

Indiana may be the first to do so, but likely won’t be the last. There’s growing anger about the overall role of the federal government in education, and often it focuses on the secretary of education.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has our report.

JOHN MERROW: Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who ran the public schools in Chicago for eight years, is President Obama’s friend and trusted confidante, and this former pro basketball player can still hold his own on the court.

MAN: Oh, my, what a look.

MAN: He’s got to be playing on the president’s team every pickup game, right?

JOHN MERROW: However, with national visibility and power comes criticism, on the right from John Kline, chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

REP. JOHN KLINE, R-Minn., Chair, Education & Workforce Committee: When you give the Cabinet secretary a big pile of money, and then he starts changing policy, in effect dictating policy, that’s acting like a superintendent.

JOHN MERROW: And on the left from Diane Ravitch, author of “Reign of Error.”

DIANE RAVITCH, Author, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools”: We now have local communities asking their state for permission, and the state asking Arne Duncan for permission, and Arne Duncan as the nation’s school superintendent.

JOHN MERROW: Why are critics on the left and the right accusing Arne Duncan of meddling in the nation’s 100,000 public schools? How much power do they think he has? How much power does he have? It turns out, quite a lot.

Only nine men and women have served as secretary of education. That’s because the U.S. Department of Education didn’t exist prior to 1979.

FORMER PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: This administration declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN MERROW: Washington became deeply involved in education in 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as ESEA. It gave money to schools serving impoverished children.

JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN, New York University: The idea was, we have to create social institutions that will help compensate for different kinds of disadvantage.

JOHN MERROW: So, it was about equity?

JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: Everything changed in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN MERROW: Washington was no longer giving money to help one group, the disadvantaged. Now the federal government wanted results: Every school had to prove that all students could meet the mark.

Education historian Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University explains.

JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN: I think it was unprecedented in what it had the federal government doing, which is requiring everybody to test the kids in grades three through eight, requiring them to disaggregate its data in different ways, including based on race and ethnicity, tying various sanctions, positive and negative, to those outcomes.

JOHN MERROW: If schools didn’t improve, they faced significant consequences. Schools could be shut down, all teachers and administrators replaced. Before long, the law that everyone once supported was being roundly criticized.

DIANE RAVITCH: I fell for it. Lots of other people fell for it.

REP. JOHN KLINE: Now everybody knows it won’t work. It is time to fix the law.

ARNE DUNCAN, Secretary of Education: My plan A was always to work with Congress to fix No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind is fundamentally broken. It is obsolete. It had many perverse incentives, led to a dummying down of standards, led to too much of a focus just on a single test score. So No Child Left Behind was doing frankly a lot of harm.

JOHN MERROW: No Child Left Behind, which requires all students to be proficient this year, expired in 2007, but it remains the law of the land until Congress rewrites it. Because not a single state has achieved 100 percent proficiency, all 50 states are breaking the law, or would be, if Secretary Duncan didn’t grant them waivers.

The waivers are, in effect, carrots to avoid the big No Child Left Behind stick.

REP. JOHN KLINE: The secretary is allowed to grant waivers; his predecessors granted waivers.

But what he’s doing is granting temporary, conditional waivers. That is, you get the waiver if you do what I want you to do.

JOHN MERROW: Duncan has granted waivers to 43 states that have agreed to certain conditions, including using student test scores to evaluate teachers.

REP. JOHN KLINE: That’s a terrible way to establish education policy.

ARNE DUNCAN: Previous secretaries have provided waivers to states on various things, so this is, again — legally, folks are happy to challenge this if they want to, but we’re on strong, strong, solid footing there.

And we’re going to continue to partner with states. We are out traveling in the country every week. We talk to teachers, we talk to parents, students, school board members, and hopefully what you have seen is a much better sense of partnership.

JOHN MERROW: When the economy tanked in 2009, Secretary Duncan’s power over education increased dramatically. A desperate Congress approved a $100 billion education stimulus package to keep schools from shutting down, teachers from being laid off. Nearly $5 billion of that was discretionary, meaning that Duncan could spend it as he saw fit.

No previous secretary of education had ever had such power. In 2009, the president announced a competition for the money.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and school districts compete for it.

JOHN MERROW: Almost every state entered the race, but few were expected to win.

MAN: We’re nervous.

JOHN MERROW: So, states will get more money if they do this thing that Duncan wants?

ARNE DUNCAN: If you play by these rules, absolutely right.

JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN: Some of us like to talk about Race to the Top as No Child Left Behind on steroids. The principles of Race — Race to the Top are the same as No Child Left Behind, which is, you know, we’re going to reward states that set and maintain a high standard.

JOHN MERROW: States that agreed to Duncan’s conditions, including developing common standards and assessments and using student test scores to evaluate teachers, had a better chance of winning.

ARNE DUNCAN: I’m a much bigger believer in carrots and not sticks; and if, you know, you encourage people to go in a certain direction, if they want to go into a different direction, they absolutely have the right to do that.

JOHN MERROW: What the secretary called encouragement, his critics saw as coercion.

DIANE RAVITCH: The states went along with Race to the Top because they were all broke.

JOHN MERROW: You’re saying the states were bought? 

DIANE RAVITCH: They — yes, well, yes, of course.

JOHN MERROW: During the Race to the Top competition, a coalition of states released the Common Core state standards. These were developed with money from private foundations, not federal dollars; 45 states and the District of Columbia adopted them.

REP. JOHN KLINE: If you adopt the Common Core, you’re much more likely to get Race to the Top grants, much more likely to get a temporary conditional waiver. And that puts the secretary in the business of starting to drive national standards and perhaps national tests and national curriculum. We don’t want that.

JOHN MERROW: The Common Core is not curriculum. It’s up to individual states to develop how and what to teach. But Duncan’s Education Department has funded the development of Common Core tests, to the tune of about $350 million.

ARNE DUNCAN: I believe this new generation of assessments is an absolute game-changer for American education.

JOHN MERROW: Duncan’s critics say he went too far when he financed the tests.

DIANE RAVITCH: The law is very clear that no agent of the U.S. government may do anything to direct, control, or supervise curriculum and instruction.

JOHN MERROW: Testing is not curriculum.

DIANE RAVITCH: Testing — no, it’s not. But it controls curriculum. Testing — what is tested is what gets taught. Everybody knows that.

REP. JOHN KLINE: That’s the ultimate fear, that the federal government does get in the curriculum business and tells the states what they’re supposed to teach.

JOHN MERROW: As for the secretary, he stays resolutely on message.

ARNE DUNCAN: It’s important to have high standards. We have encouraged that. How you teach to those higher standards, the curriculum behind that, we have never touched that, never have, never will do that.

JOHN MERROW: Although the discretionary dollars are almost gone, Secretary Duncan still has the power to grant or withhold waivers. And if any of the 46 states with Race to the Top funding or NCLB waivers do not live up to their end of the bargain, the secretary could force them to return millions of dollars.