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Arne Duncan Working to Pass Republican Education Reform

One item that would have made my list of things to watch in 2011 if I expanded it would have been education. We’re going to hear a lot that this is an area where Democrats and Republicans can find “common ground.” That’s only superficially true; John Boehner was the lead sponsor of No Child Left Behind, and so reauthorizing that under his precepts would not necessarily represent common ground at all. Especially because the public figure positioning himself to the right-most point in this debate is Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

On many issues, Democrats and Republicans agree, starting with the fact that no one likes how NCLB labels schools as failures, even when they are making broad gains. Parents, teachers, and lawmakers want a system that measures not just an arbitrary level of proficiency, but student growth and school progress in ways that better reflect the impact of a school and its teachers on student learning.

Most people dislike NCLB’s one-size-fits-all mandates, which apply even if a community has better local solutions than federally dictated tutoring or school-transfer options. Providing more flexibility to schools, districts and states – while also holding them accountable – is the goal of many people in both parties […]

Finally, almost no one believes the teacher quality provisions of NCLB are helping elevate the teaching profession, or ensuring that the most challenged students get their fair share of the best teachers. More and more, teachers, parents, and union and business leaders want a real definition of teacher effectiveness based on multiple measures, including student growth, principal observation and peer review.

These issues are at the heart of the Obama administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing ESEA: more flexibility and fairness in our accountability system, a bigger investment in teachers and principals, and a sharper focus on schools and students most at risk.

Basically, you have a Democratic education secretary valuing local control, some form of merit pay based on an undefined measurement of teacher effectiveness, and the ability to shut down failing schools or replace them with charters. It wasn’t so long ago that this was the entire Republican education agenda. Race to the Top and the standards it mandated (things like “reshaping labor agreements around student success”) to qualify for a few scraps of funding exemplified this very approach. Simply put, if Republicans cannot agree to this, it means they won’t be willing to agree to anything that President Obama suggests. Because this is their reform.

John Kline, the incoming chairman of jurisdiction, talks mainly about a goal “to pull back federal involvement in the day-to-day operation of our classrooms.” And you have bomb-throwers and back-benchers calling for the abolition of the Department of Education. Paradoxically, these are probably the biggest allies of the Education Secretary, as he paints what is essentially a Republican education agenda worshipped by financiers and elites as a credible alternative to the “extremes”.

And of course, this all will get tied up in the GOP war on public employee unions, as teacher’s unions are habitually the first on the firing line in that scenario.

This is not to say that No Child Left Behind is somehow the gold standard; far from it. It also doesn’t mean that nothing in Duncan’s proposal makes sense; a longer school day sounds right to me. But what’s missing are the elements that we actually know improve school performance, things like early childhood education, anti-poverty programs and actual legitimate funding for public schooling. Instead we have a very corporate-friendly reliance on for-profit schools, standardized tests, and turnaround specialists, spread with a healthy dollop of scorn for teachers.

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David Dayen

David Dayen