July 9, 2015; Salon and Washington Post

The numerous issues that have been at the center of a growing controversy about public education place the policies of President Obama in the spotlight. The debate has become integral to the U.S. Congress’s efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (née No Child Left Behind), the vehicle through which the federal government influences the direction of public education at a state and local level.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education throughout the years of the Obama presidency, has led the administration’s efforts and is the champion for the themes that have become the center of debate. He has been a strong advocate for “school choice” and expanding the use of charter schools, including those operated by private for-profit organizations. He has strongly supported the adoption of the Common Core as a national set of curriculum education standards. He has worked to increase the use of standardized testing as the mechanism for assessing student performance and as a key component of school and teacher evaluation and rating. He has led the effort to reduce the power of teacher’s unions and expand the number of teachers who do not come from traditional sources (through programs like Teach for America.) And he has been aggressive in using federal funding as the lever to bring schools into alignment with the administration’s strategy.

Six years in, the backlash to these efforts has become more frequent and louder. And it threatens to severely limit the ability of the national government to have a coherent national policy to ensure all children receive an equal, high quality education.

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, sees Duncan’s years at the DoE as being much more harmful.

  • “When Obama was elected, many educators and parents thought that Obama would bring a new vision of the federal role in education, one that freed schools from the test-and-punish mindset of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind. But Arne Duncan and Barack Obama had a vision no different from George W. Bush and doubled down on the importance of testing, while encouraging privatization and undermining the teaching profession with a $50 million grant to Teach for America to place more novice teachers in high-needs schools. Duncan never said a bad word about charters, no matter how many scandals and frauds were revealed.”
  • “This era has not been good for students; nearly a quarter live in poverty, and fully 51 percent live in low-income families. This era has not been good for teachers, who feel disrespected and demeaned by governors, legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Education. This era has not been good for parents, who see their local public schools lose resources to charter schools and see their children subjected to endless, intensive testing.”
  • “It will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan’s policies have inflicted on public education. He exceeded the authority of his office to promote a failed agenda, one that had no evidence behind it. The next president and the next Secretary of Education will have an enormous job to do to restore our nation’s public education system from the damage done by Race to the Top. We need leadership that believes in the joy of learning and in equality of educational opportunity. We have not had either for 15 years.”

Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post education reporter, in a recent profile of Secretary Duncan saw the impact of his tenure as having a more global impact. She quoted Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who said, “I’ve never seen both Democrats and Republicans want to curb the authority of the federal Department of Education the way they want to now.” Jack Jennings, founder of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy and author of a new book about education politics, told Layton that he saw little good from Duncan’s efforts. “The record will show these policies brought about minimum improvement…they also did considerable harm

The loss of the national perspective will be a concern beyond the debate over specific strategies and tactics. It is the vantage point from which we can ensure that all children are being given an opportunity for high quality education, a concern of critical importance if we are to overcome the growing gap that are rooted in racial and socioeconomic differences.—Marty Levine