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Mercedes Schneider reflects on Arne Duncan’s legacy. He was described by President Obama as a man who “has dedicated his life to the cause of education.” Now he is gone. He left behind, said the President, “a good product.” We will somehow have to persist without him.
But his “legacy” of bullying states and school districts lives on.
Mercedes notes that one of his aides, Ann Whalen, sent out a threatening letter to several states, warning that there would be serious consequences if they permitted or experienced high number of opt outs. They might even see the loss of federal funding for their poorest kids. Imagine that: the U.S. Department threatening to hurt poor kids as a punishment to states where many children opt out of testing.
This letter violates the spirit of the new federal law, Every Student Succeeds Act, but the new law has not yet taken effect. So, the Duncan crew must bully and intimidate as much as possible until the new law kicks in.
Ann Whalen, by the way, wrote a blistering attack on experienced educator Carol Burris last year for doubting the transformative power of high standards and daring to question the Common Core standards. Whalen has a BA in political science from Stanford; that makes her assertive and confident. She has apparently never been a teacher or principal, unlike Burris. Whalen worked for Duncan in Chicago before he became Secretary. She has been a bureaucrat now for many years, but she has some nerve lecturing Carol Burris. I suppose we should forgive her messianic belief in high standards and the Common Core because her attack was penned before the release of the 2015 NAEP scores, which showed that after 15 years of relying on standards and testing, after five years of Common Core, NAEP scores were flat or declining in almost every state.
What I can’t forgive, however, is the very idea that a federal official would attack a private citizen. When I served in the U.S. Department of Education under Lamar Alexander in 1991-92, that impropriety would not have been permitted. Something about working in Arne Duncan’s space seems to give his aides the belief that they are relieved of the rules of civility and propriety. I still recall that he accused me of “insulting” teachers, principals, and students “all across the country” when I wrote an article in the New York Times debunking his absurd claim that his favorite schools were achieving miraculous results merely by having high expectations and firing experienced teachers or closing the school and restaffing it. I used data to demonstrate that there were no miracles. No, I wasn’t insulting teachers, principals, or students; I was calling out the hype and spin that is now customary from the U.S. Department of Education. The only thing they haven’t been able to spin is the NAEP scores. And the NAEP scores raise serious questions about the Bush-Obama reliance on standards, testing, firing teachers and principals, and closing schools as a strategy for reform.