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Jeff Bryant: Washington Post Was Wrong about Arne: He Has Destroyed Trust in the Federal Role in Education

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Jeff Bryant, Director of the Education Opportunity Network, faults Lyndsey Layton’s sympathetic portrayal of Arne Duncan. She portrays him as someone who is a good listener, a big-hearted fellow who won wide acceptance for charter schools, test-based evaluation of teachers, and the Common Core. Bryant says she got the story wrong. He says that reporters for the big national newspapers think that if they interview people in think tanks inside the Beltway, they have the real story. In fact, people inside the Beltway think tanks live in an echo chamber, almost completely detached from the rest of America and the consequences of the policies they promote.

Bryant says Layton got it wrong: Arne is not a good listener; in fact, he never listens to anyone unless they agree with him. Most Americans still don’t know what charter schools are. Test-based teacher evaluation has been a flop, and increasing numbers of states are dropping the Common Core and/or the tests that Arne paid $360 million for.

The most notable result of Arne’s stewardship of the U.S. Department of Education is that both parties have agreed to legislation that would neuter future Secretaries of Education and strip them of the power to punish schools, districts, and states. This is not exactly a resounding endorsement of his leadership. You might say that it is a bipartisan repudiation of it.

Bryant is quietly furious. He cites Arne’s “white suburban moms” quote about the anti-testing revolt in New York. He did not mention Arne’s infamous claim that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans’ public schools: It wiped out the public schools, created a pretext to fire 7,500 mostly African American teachers, eliminated the teachers’ union, and turned New Orleans into a privatized district. Nor did he mention Arne’s other memorable quote, that he wants to be able to look into the eyes of a second-grader and know that he or she is college-bound. When you see the kind of absurd comments that he is apt to make off-the-cuff, you can understand why he sticks with talking points and a tight script.

Duncan’s policies failed because he never listened to critics. He listened, or appeared to, then ignored whatever he may have heard. As Bryant writes, “Every time experienced educators challenged Duncan to question his agenda and reconsider policy directions, he responded by … continuing down the same course.”

The worst legacy of Duncan’s tenure is that Congress is determined to limit the role of the federal government in the future and to forfeit the good things that the federal government has done in the past.

He writes:

What’s particularly unfortunate about that policy direction is that the federal government historically has had a mostly positive influence in public schools. As the article reminds us, what we now call NCLB was “initially passed in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” a law that “was originally designed to protect the nation’s neediest students, and that the federal government must play a significant enforcement role to ensure that poor students, racial minorities and students with disabilities all receive an equal education.”

Because of that act, millions upon millions of impoverished children have had resources funneled to their schools through programs like Title I. Students who do not speak English as their first language have had funds sent to their schools to pay for specialists. Students who have physical disabilities, social-emotional problems and trouble with their learning and intellectual development have had more access to education opportunities and better supports in their schools. More girls and young women have been provided opportunities to play sports and experience a full curriculum.

Sure, this federal mission has not always been fully funded or adequately implemented. But that was the goal, and it was the goal NCLB took our attention away from and the goal this blundering oaf of a secretary refused to take up as his primary job, even though everyone outside his inner circle clamored he do so.

So the biggest tragedy of Arne Duncan is not only the millions of students and families ill-served under his tenure but the millions that will likely be ill-served in the future because it looks like his self-righteous, narrow-minded zeal will leave the federal government’s role in education marginalized for the immediate and foreseeable future.

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