So I said to Arne . . .

Since I couldn’t make the blogger breakfast last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan invited me to drop by yesterday for a chat. (I’m in Baltimore for a visit with our new granddaughter, who’s doing well in intensive-care, despite her small size.)

I asked Duncan about charges he’s hyping a 82 percent failure rate by next year — U.S. schools missing Adequate Yearly Progress — in order to argue for abandoning No Child Left Behind’s goal of universal proficiency by 2014. “Have you ever seen me hype anything?” he said.  Many states set modest goals in the early years with very high goals in the last few years. They’re hitting the curve of the hockey stick, he said.

If the 2014 goal is replaced by “college- and career-ready” by 2020, what’s to prevent another round of wishful thinking meets reality?

“My dream and my hope is that it’s an honest goal,” Duncan said.

NCLB let many states “dummy down standards,” he said. He has great faith that Common Core Standards will raise the bar to a high and consistent level, and praised governors for adopting the new standards even though their states’ test scores are bound to fall significantly. “They’re going to see proficiency rates fall from 80 percent to 40 percent” in some states, Duncan predicted. That will be politically painful. But fewer students will go through school thinking they’re doing fine and end up in remedial reading, writing and math in college. “I want to get community colleges out of the remediation business,” he said.

The feds are funding new tests to go with the new standards but are staying out of curriculum development, Duncan said. Common Core‘s curriculum maps, the proposed common curriculum endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, Core Knowledge and others and whatever else is developed will compete in the marketplace, he said.

I asked about his endorsement of Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity report, which call for creating alternative career pathways to motivate students instead of “college for all.”  Duncan admitted the new budget cuts funding for career tech ed, but said there’s a need to weed out low-quality programs and fund only the programs that really prepare students for jobs and increase college-going rates.  “College for all” includes all forms of postsecondary education, including apprenticeships and community college certificate programs, he said, not just bachelor’s degrees. (But that’s not what people hear.)

“College and career ready are the same skills,” he said. In schools with high expectations, low-income minority students can excel and go on to college. Schools that lower expectations for fear of increasing the drop-out rate leave students bored, disengaged and even more likely to drop out.

I asked: Does the would-be welder need trigonometry? “They all need algebra,” said Duncan.

Many teachers complain that it’s impossible to teach classes with a wide range of skills and knowledge — some algebra students are ready to learn algebra and others don’t know arithmetic — and language abilities and behavioral issues and disabilities. “What would you say to teachers who say they’re overwhelmed by students’ very different learning needs?” I asked.

He said the high-scoring countries provide extra help for struggling students after school — before they get years behind — and social services for children with family problems. He didn’t say: It’s time to stop pushing every child in the same class.

We talked briefly about the narrowing of the curriculum to what’s tested. Despite the big STEM push, Duncan also wants schools to teach reading, history, science, financial literacy, dance, drama, etc. Educate the whole child and the test scores will follow, he said.

That’s where time ran out. I left thinking that Duncan is an optimist. Perhaps he needs to be. I am more cynical. Measure reading and math performance, maybe science, and don’t expect schools to spend time on dance, drama or even history. Reward higher graduation rates and expect “credit recovery” and other scams to push marginal students to a diploma. (Stop measuring student performance — and stop looking at subgroup scores — and expect schools to give up on children who lack pushy parents.) Provide college aid to D and F students and open-admissions colleges will be overwhelmed with remedial students.

By the way, Patrick Richardson’s Pajamas Media column is very misleading. He confuses Common Core Standards, which indeed have been pushed by the feds, with a common curriculum. And he sees a sinister data collection campaign designed to train children for government-assigned careers. I see an attempt to track whether students are learning as they move from school to school so we can figure out what’s working and what’s not.

About Joanne


  1. Pretty impressive company you’re keeping.

    As someone who teaches English language learners, I know it takes a few years to learn English. Though my kids are the best kids you could ask to meet, they need time. Other kids have other needs that must be met, more complicated needs, and even so-called normal kids have their issues.

    The goal of making 100% of any group 100% anything is outlandish, a recipe for failure. I can’t understand why that isn’t patently obvious.

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    Joanne — thank you for the recap of your conversation with Arne.

    I, like you, am cynical when it comes to government schools truly educating our kids….so, I turn to the group with a question: what does the information below mean to you? This new policy is for high schools in an urban district with 75% FARM kids, a large ELL population and has stopped credit recover (what a joke) and summer school (another joke). My question is: is this district truly educating the children? Why or why not?

    A new Metro Grading Policy has been implemented for classes earning high school credit. Previously, credit has been awarded based soley on a passing grade for the semester.

    The NEW policy is: (effective immediately)

    In courses with the same course name and course number, students with grades

    between 50-69 may pass in the corresponding semester course, if the yearly average

    results in a passing grade.

    This means if your child is enrolled in a high school course and fails for the semester……we are now able to use the other semester grade to offset the failing grade and bring it to a passing grade, thus earning the full credit.


    Course: Algebra I H

    Fall semester: 68 Failed- 0 credit earned

    Spring semester: 72 Passed- .5 credit earned

    Student now earns 1 full credit because the average of the two semesters is at or above 69.5

    Student is NOT required to repeat the failed semester.

  3. “He said the high-scoring countries provide extra help for struggling students after school — before they get years behind — and social services for children with family problems.”

    So… is that what the federal goverment is going to start providing? Demanding that state governments start providing? Demand that local school districts provide? There is seems to be a lot of “this is what school X does…” without much support for other schools to do it. No funding, no training, no materials, no infrustructure, no people.

  4. This is the problem with Duncan and other “reformers”, instead of meeting with actual teachers he’s meeting with edubloggers who have no experience teaching.

  5. Tim, and that ‘reform’ style grading being implemented isn’t going to help the student at all. To give a 1/2 credit for something which isn’t earned is just silly, but the real test comes later in life, when the student will have to try to use whatever skills they have learned (not much in this case) to obtain employment.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    Mike in Texas,

    I doubt if it would make much difference who Duncan meets with (and for all I know he’s met with teachers numerous times). Most people are too polite–or too nervous– to tell the emperor he has no clothes.

    The problem with Duncan is not that he’s a reformer but that he’s a politician, a salesman. He believes in his product–whatever it happens to be–and sells, sells, sells.

  7. Roger,

    Agree with you about Duncan, but I wouldn’t be afraid to tell him he’s an idiot

  8. Mike and Roger, my take on Duncan is different. To me he doesn’t seem to be very political at all. He’s taken stands that a bolder than a politician would take. He’s stood up to the unions and it appears he’s results driven and has an open mind.

    Speaking of unions, I just quit mine yet I still have to pay 2/3 of the union dues. And boy, they sure make it difficult.

    Back to Joanne. She doesn’t say if she was favorably impressed. Or maybe she says she wasn’t and I didn’t read carefully enough.

  9. Wow, nice “get”.

    But honestly, this?

    “He said the high-scoring countries provide extra help for struggling students after school — before they get years behind — and social services for children Iwith family problems.”

    Snorfle. I mean, please. That’s why Finland has such high scores. After school tutoring!

  10. It is difficult to project future graduation rates based on the current reforms that are taking place, because don’t even know all of the ins and outs of the new regulations as of yet. The data collection plan seems a bit over the top… but it is hard not to speculate SOME answers in times of uncertainty.

  11. Northof49th says:

    Gotta agree with Cal here. Now Finland *does* provide “extra help” to many students — 25% receive special education support — but Canada is right up there in “high scoring countries” and I don’t see a lot of “extra help” around here. Social services for kids with family problems have waiting lists that are years long. Example: one of my students who was raped by a serial pedophile who escaped from prison was still waiting for counseling and support 10 months after the event. And the school wondered why he was “acting out” and not concentrating on his seatwork.

    We have plenty of students who fall “years behind” and severely limited special education services or “social services” especially for kids with mental illness. What we *do* have is readily available, reasonable quality basic medical care, and public housing is better than what is available in many U.S. cities.

    Arne might need to look elsewhere to explain why Canadian schools (even urban low-SES ones) do better than U.S. counterparts.

  12. Robert Wright,

    Check out the results he got in Chicago and let me know if you still think he’s sincere and effective. Be sure to look past the press releases and to the actual results.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    So one of the things that struck me reading about your chat with the Secretary was how the default conception of schools seemed to be one of an institution that goes out and makes a change.

    Here’s some kids. There’s the school. The school comes in and makes the kids different.

    But that’s a recipe for disaster: people don’t respond well to external changes. They certainly can’t be “educated” (in any reasonable sense of the word) through external forces.

    What a person can do is take advantage of external resources to educate him or herself. But if the student doesn’t want to learn, all the tutoring and resources in the world aren’t going to teach him algebra.

    That’s not to say that the student needs to want to learn algebra. It’s enough that the student see algebra as a step towards something he or she wants. But that’s precisely where schools are failing. Algebra is seen as something that they (the adults, the phonies, etc.) want. You don’t need algebra to use your iPod. You don’t need algebra to go shopping. You don’t even need algebra to make change working at McDonald’s.

    Schools don’t need more tutoring and better instruction. They need a vision of what an education can do for someone, and they need to communicate that vision to students and parents. They need to be institutions that allow change to take place, that facilitate the change that students wish to make in themselves.

    Schools need to be an opportunity for future citizens to shape themselves, not a factory for their passive production. (This seems to me to be somewhat related to the “opportunity to fail” meme that sometimes creeps up in education.)

  14. “They all need Algebra” is sort of like “They all need Spanish.” It’s true on the level of defining some skills that are gatekeeper skills to higher ed, but not to very many jobs. And some kids will struggle along and learn the Algebra (starting with working hard in K-8 math) because they understand, and buy into, that need to jump through the hoop of Algebra. But we have not found (and I don’t think any country has found) a way to actually make all kids learn Algebra. And it gets worse as you move up to Algebra 2 and Trig — which are even more gatekeeper skills, since ever-fewer jobs really require them. Of course, some kids who resist Algebra in HS don’t resist it as part of training for specific jobs.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    NCLB gets lots of ink without referring to its intent. That is, don’t hide the failing students’ failures in the all-school average, and take responsibility for failing students.
    My wife, before she retired, went to a PD day which was enlightening. One of the concepts discussed was the “INTENTIONAL NON-LEARNER”.
    Now that there’s a category for the phenom, perhaps we can pare those out of the averages.
    My daughter, a HS teacher, has the same kind of thing happening in her classroom.
    As somebody said, if we could only fire the kids, we could get better results.
    I talked to the truant officer in my daughter’s first high school, in CA. What about parental pressure on the kids. “You don’t need a hs ed to game the system, which is the career path for some of these families.” The “system” being the manifold means of public assistance.

  16. Michael Lopez and Richard Aubrey, good points.

    Thanks for your posts.

  17. Here in LA, kids enter knowing no English. Why don’t they get English immersion classes rather than throwing them into regular school?
    And I have a successful career in which I have never needed algebra for a day in my life.

  18. “College and career ready are the same skills,” he said.

    Gawd, what a stupid comment. A statement so divorced from reality shouldn’t be uttered by a cabinet secretary.

  19. Roger Sweeny says:

    And I have a successful career in which I have never needed algebra for a day in my life.

    Most people don’t need most of what they were taught in high school.

    I’m pretty sure that means something. I’m just not sure what.

  20. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I think it just means that we’re more interested in producing multi-capacity educated persons than engaging in job preparation.

    Education could be (and has been, particularly in the late 1200’s) made much more efficient if we assigned everyone a career and merely trained them for it.

    But that’s not how we roll in post-industrial America.

    This isn’t to say we succeed, mind you. Merely that this is what we’re up to.

  21. Roger Sweeny says:

    I think people give two primary justifications for schooling. One: “to get a good job, get a good education” and it’s corollary “So what if your job isn’t so good or the money isn’t so good; you don’t have a high school diploma/Associates degree/Bachelors degree/ Masters degree/fill in the blank.”

    The other is to produce “multi-capacity educated persons.”

    If most of what people are taught in school is never used in a job they have, the first justification takes a big hit.

  22. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I don’t ever recall anyone saying to me “to get a good job, get a good education.” But I suppose that you’re right. My school experience was several standard deviations off the norm on many axes.

  23. Richard Aubrey says:

    I don’t know about assigning people to careers. I gather that until recently, or perhaps still now–worked with exchange students until about fifteen years ago–many other countries track kids into college prep or commercial or vocational or some version. Early. The famed Brit brain-buster was at age eleven. Lucky the kids weren’t old enough to get test shakes.
    So that is/was some sort of broad career assignment.
    It would be nice if the folks had some training when they went to a career. Now, what do most careers require…? Well, there’s arithmetic, readingwriting, ability to be trained, ability to get function productively as a member of a group.

    Should say I was immensely impressed by the usefulness of the extracurriculars my kids were in, from team sports to yearbook and varsity club, etc. And the others their friends were in. Hate to lose it, but hard to financially justify something so nebulous and “unfairly” unavailable to those who don’t rouse themselves to get involved. You can teach a kid critical thinking when he’s a techie for the all-school musical, or when the backfield coach explains reading the linebacker. Or, to put it another way, the kid can learn it. Still, when money’s really tight, these will probably go. Too bad

  24. Roger Sweeny says:

    “To get a good job, get a good education” was a slogan of The Advertising Council, featured in public service ads on television in the 60s (and maybe the 70s). I think they were also in subways and buses.

    I think it is undeniable that most people believe it. Most people probably also believe that if you don’t have at least one diploma, you won’t get a good job–and that this is morally right–though that latter view may be more common among people well-supplied with diplomas.

  25. Michael E. Lopez, Esq., JD MA says:

    Speaking only for my part, I have a $hitload of diplomas, and I think it’s bunk.

  26. “Measure reading and math performance, maybe science, and don’t expect schools to spend time on dance, drama or even history.”

    Or even history??? Shoot for the stars. It would probably be good for kids to have some cursory knowledge of how we got where we are.