Duncan: Get productive, drop ‘factory model’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan “knocked it out of the park”  in a speech at “Bang for the Buck in Schooling,” sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, writes Rick Hess, who hosted the AEI panel.

The New Normal — doing more with less — is “an opportunity to make dramatic improvements,” Duncan said. “It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.”

Duncan urged states and districts to consider raising some class sizes and consolidating schools, but not to try to balance budgets by “reducing the number of days in the school year, slashing instructional time spent on task, eliminating the arts and foreign languages, abandoning promising reforms, and laying off talented, young teachers.”

Duncan made clear the financial drag of the status quo, saying, “The factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers–and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology. Teachers cannot be interchangeable widgets. Yet the legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.”

And his to-do list was spot on. He said, “Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education–almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.”

. . .  “Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers — with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.”

Small classes improve student learning only in the early grades, Duncan said. Duncan “laudably argued against gutting arts, music, and sports in a mindless effort to protect small classes, and pointed out that schools in South Korea and Japan excel with class sizes much larger than ours,” Hess writes.

While Duncan said in the Q and A that unions need to reform, he added that many problems are the fault of  “dysfunctional school boards”  that lack courage and superintendents who put “political longevity” over “doing the right thing.”  His own department ” in many cases has been a huge part of the problem,” Duncan said. “I promise you, we’re looking in the mirror every day to say how do we stop being this compliance-driven bureaucracy and how do we support innovation.” He also warned that no more federal bail-out money will be flowing to districts.

Duncan can “make it safer for superintendents and state chiefs to talk about productivity and efficiency alongside student learning, Hess writes.  The U.S. Department of Education can “scour its regulations to make it easier for states and districts to spend dollars smart. It can reduce paperwork and compliance burdens. It can fund and disseminate research and tools that help state and local officials gauge cost-effective programs and services.”

Ed Week’s Teaching Now has more on Duncan and his co-panelist, Shawn McCollough, superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District in Arizona, who cut $7 million in the past two years without layoffs. McCollough redeployed central-office staff to positions working directly with students and families.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    I recall that Mao suggested a thousand flowers bloom. Easier to spot the troublemakers that way.
    Any idea what would happen to somebody who took Duncan seriously?

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Just as I often called President Bush a “Hedgehog” rather than a “Fox” because, despite his numerous policy errors he had one really good idea (kill terrorists) and stuck with it, I entertain the fantasy that President Obama and his team might, despite their ruinous economic policies and their junior-league diplomacy, have one really good idea with their vision of education. Little rays of hope seem to flash out from this administration, giving one the sense that there is something at work there, behind the incompetence.

    I’ve got hope. Hope for change.

    But I’m still not going to vote for the fella.

  3. Maybe people like Duncan who use “factory” as a term of insult should instead learn something about what actually goes on inside a real factory and what they might be able to learn from it.

  4. Actually, Duncan’s suggestions for changes seem to endorse the factory model. He argues for larger classes with fewer workers and a focus on efficiency, both of which are valued by successful factories.
    In the same speech, though, he supports individualized instruction which seems contrary to his desire for larger classes.

    Any efforts by Duncan are doomed to fail simply because he can’t separate the reality of the situation from his political ideals.

  5. Interesting concept. I’ve always thought that small class sizes work when they’re really small. Will have to learn more about class sizes and not just take Duncan’s words as gospel.

  6. Perhaps in 2012 President Daniels and V.P. Christy should consider keeping Duncan on?

  7. i recently moved from PA to KY. in my old school, my classes ranged from 15 to 20 students. it was manageable and i felt that i was able to help students individually often enough to keep them from falling through the cracks. in my new school my classes range from 22 to 30 students. and i feel like some are falling through now. i can’t make it to each kid. (this is middle school.) ideally, students would listen and follow examples, take peer feedback, etc, but many do not — many want or need the teacher/student one-on-one time and i just can’t get to them all in one class period. i vote no to larger class sizes — for the kids’ sake.

  8. Did Duncan mention where he heard that small classes only help at elem level? Because it’s the opposite of what I have heard. And experienced… Will look for citation tonight (posting from phone & not very good yet).

  9. Mike in TExas says:

    The American Enterprise Institute is one of the biggest right wing nutjob organizations around. The fact that his Sec. of Education is a hit there should tell Obama he made an idiotic choice.

  10. Charles R. Williams says:

    Arne Duncan has his own herd of sacred cows that need to be butchered.

  11. Right. The bigger the class the easier it is to individualize instruction.

  12. Looks like the NEA’s demand that Obama dump Duncan isn’t playing well in Obamaville. Did the White House even respond? If there was even a response to the demand it wasn’t the response the NEA was looking for.

    It would be sweet irony if the farthest-left president since FDR was pivotal in precipitating the downfall of the public education system but once the district system comes under scrutiny, and people start wondering exactly why the district is necessary, the end of that institution could come with a thump.

  13. This is about the most lucid and remotely accurate commentary I’ve heard from Duncan in two years. Of course, mandated seat time is part of that factory model, as is k-16 and the notion of college for all.

  14. “and pointed out that schools in South Korea and Japan excel with class sizes much larger than ours”

    However, students in Japan and South Korea behave very differently from American students, and they and their parents have much different attitudes about education than American parents and students.

  15. President Obama and his team might, despite their ruinous economic policies and their junior-league diplomacy, have one really good idea with their vision of education.

    I do hope you think his policies are not liberal enough: otherwise you haven’t the intelligence God gave my houseplants.

  16. Teacher With a Capital T says:

    On this website, there are people demanding:

    * increased class size
    * increased individualization of student assignments
    * improved minority/low-income student performance
    *abolishing the teacher’s unions, but let’s have
    * more rigorous teacher training but
    * less pay/more static teacher compensation
    * inter-school competition
    * increased use of technology in schools, but others favor
    * decreased use of technology in schools
    * more focus on academics, but college isn’t for all, so perhaps we need
    * more focus on vocational training
    *improved teacher evaluations,, but teachers plagiarize and are stupid, so maybe
    * homeschooling is better?
    *more local control but with
    * less federal funding, but it’s all a charade so let’s get some
    * charter schools
    * abolish the Dept of Education
    * reduce the education budget but
    * demand more accountability

    Anyone want to switch careers into teaching? Heaven knows, the expectations are simple enough.

  17. We want to hear what successful techniques Arne Duncan has used during his many years in the classroom. teaching low-income students. I’m sure he has many valuable anecdotes from all the time he spent as a teacher before he worked his way up through administering schools and eventually, through merit and hard work, earned his post as the nation’s top education official.

    Oh, I forgot. Arne Duncan has never spent one day in the classroom teaching low-income students — or in any classroom teaching any students at all, ever — and he worked his way up by pulling strings with his friends, faking an entirely sham miracle in Chicago schools while he was the boss of them, and playing basketball with President Obama. Gosh darn my faulty memory.

  18. Gee, with all this emphasis on the dastardly Arne Duncan it looks like the Insulter of Teachers in Chief is getting away scot free. Doesn’t anyone want to rail at the guy who hired Duncan and who continues to send him around the country to defame noble teachers?

  19. I’ll listen to the podcast, if it’s posted.

    Hmmm. Drop “factory model,” but increase class sizes, increase individualization, maintain non-core academic classes (I like the arts too! Don’t flame!), do away with all union contracts, cut special education, pay teachers according to their excellence (undefined term), and do it all on less money. Right. Got that.

    Does anyone know the definition of “contradiction?” Or “impossible?” Or, “not in this lifetime?” Or, “federalism?”