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.