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.