On Wednesday, December 9, I attended a farewell party for Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the U.S. Department of Education, where we performed humorous skits, gave a few teary speeches, and thanked him for his service. As I often do in these circumstances, I turned to song to highlight some of the ups and downs and poke fun at our critics.
To the tune of “Yesterday,” here are the lyrics and commentary.
Yesterday, all our troubles seemed so far away
So much money just to give away
Oh we had fun yesterday.
In our first year, we certainly had a lot of money—$100 billion included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As the law provided, we sent the money directly to states and districts with no strings attached to protect teacher jobs, low-income students and students with disabilities, and to send young people to college. Every now and then, I have to remind my union friends that the administration helped save some 400,000 teaching jobs in the depths of the recession.
Just $5 billion of the Recovery Act money supported reform initiatives, including Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation. Our first two years were a whirlwind with states all across the country raising standards, lifting charter caps and putting some muscle into school turnarounds and teacher evaluations.
For a while, things were going great. Congress continued to fund our priorities each year, teachers unions were eager to collaborate, governors on both sides of the aisle were singing our praises, and the media ate it up. The backlash of course was inevitable as the money dried up and the reforms kicked in. Activists, teachers and some parents especially pushed back against testing.
Suddenly, we could be another passing fad
White suburban moms are really mad
They can’t believe their kids are bad
Politicians and pundits raked Secretary Duncan over the coals for pointing out that “white suburban moms” didn’t want to face the fact that many of their schools were getting mediocre results. Everyone blamed the federal government for increasing testing, even though the federal testing requirement never changed; the real culprits were state and local leaders who layered on countless extra tests of little real value, partly in response to our evaluation policies, but mostly out of fear.
Why the Common Core launched a war we still can’t say
And we’re sorry schools choose to test your kids all day-ay-ay-ay
We were thrilled that 46 states and D.C. adopted Common Core State Standards in 2010 and 2011, driven in part by our incentivizing that applicants for Race to the Top funds adopt “college and career-ready standards.” We never imagined politicians would turn this innocent incentive into Exhibit A in their phony narrative that Arne Duncan was wildly exceeding his authority. Some even praised him privately while castigating him publicly. Reform opponents on the left joined with tea-party conservatives on the right to denounce the Obama education agenda.
Yesterday, everyone was racing to the top
Now some people say it all’s a flop
Too bad, cause it’s too late to stop
The reforms we helped usher into existence have taken root all across the country. For all the noise about Common Core, most states have kept the standards and the choice movement is healthy and thriving though increasingly under attack. It’s unclear if teacher evaluation will survive but it’s alive and well today in many states and districts and some surveys suggest many teachers value it.
If you hope reform is no more when Arne’s gone
You are out of luck cause it’s here to stay with John
To his credit, President Obama has stood strong and has appointed John King, a deeply committed educator with a compelling personal story and a strong record on standards, evaluation and choice, to replace Arne Duncan.
Yesterday, Congress finally changed ESEA
When they couldn’t we just waived away
Oh we had fun yesterday
The day after Arne’s farewell party, America turned a page on the 2002 education law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) when the president signed the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). While accountability proponents cautiously applauded, local control zealots and accountability opponents cheered wildly. Behind the headlines and the rhetoric, however, remains the ironic truth: the new law essentially embodies several Obama reforms that were included in the administration’s waiver initiative.
The new law maintains annual testing and, like waivers, replaces NCLB’s goals and sanctions with more flexibility; states set their own performance targets and adopt more effective interventions more closely tailored to their learning needs. Like waivers, the new law also requires “college- and career-ready” standards, which the old law didn’t require. Lastly, the new law has other features we like, such as expanded early learning.
Arne Duncan’s legacy includes a more flexible education law, higher standards in states and districts all across the country, more and better educational options for low-income children, and more kids graduating from high school and going to college. Time will tell if states use the opportunity the new law provides to innovate and hold themselves accountable or retreat.
Arne Duncan is too humble to take credit for any of this, but we all owe him our thanks.