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Four Assurances Four Speeches

On June 11 Connecticut became the 31st state to have its application for federal stimulus funds approved by the Federal department of Education. The quid pro quo for receiving these monies is the agreement by each state to four assurances:

  • Adopting rigorous standards that prepare students for success in college and the workforce;
  • Recruiting and retaining effective teachers, especially in classrooms where they’re needed most;
  • Turning around low-performing schools; and
  • Building data systems to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness

These assurances have become the framework for the Obama administration’s vision for school reform as best we can tell. On June 8 Secretary Duncan delivered the first of four speeches intended to put a little flesh on the bones of these “assurances” when he addressed the Annual Conference of the Institute for Education Sciences – the research arm of the department established under the Bush administration. The focus of his remarks was the building of better data systems following students from cradle to college and teachers from college to their classrooms to “track student achievement and teacher effectiveness.” He reminded this audience of researchers of the paradox that plagues so much of the current policy debate in education that of competing research conclusions often based on the same data.

For every study showing the benefits of the policy, there’s another one with a different conclusion. Quite often people draw different conclusions from the same study and that’s where we need to separate ideology from analysis.

This week Duncan addressed the National Governors Association education conference and focused on standards and assessments. (The day before he announced that $350 million would be set aside for the development of rigorous assessments linked to internationally benchmarked common standards being developed by the states.) One of Secretary Duncan’s most repeated criticisms of the law is that it is “loose on the goals and prescriptive on how you get there”. He has called this “fundamentally backwards” and will work to flip the equation in the reauthorization leaving it to schools to determine how best to achieve the goals. He is a strong advocate of growth models and formative assessments. As I mentioned in my previous post the NGA is partnering with the Chief State School Officers Association to develop common standards. This will be a major league cat fight, but has gained great momentum with the support of the administration.

Another group empowered and emboldened by the Secretary is charter school advocates. Next week Duncan will address the National Charter School Conference in Washington, DC and will focus on turning around low performing schools. President Obama has promised to double the funding for charter schools and recently Duncan announced that those states who do not remove caps on charter schools (there are 26 states with caps) will put themselves at a “strategic disadvantage” when they try to access his Race to the Top war chest. In a June 8 press conference he said:

States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund. To be clear, this administration is not looking to open unregulated and unaccountable schools. We want real autonomy for charters combined with a rigorous authorization process and high performance standards

I would imagine that Secretary Duncan will be warmly received by this audience, but the euphoria is not universal among charter school advocates since he does not seem to support the notion that only non-unionized charter schools can raise achievement which has some ideologues like Jeanne Allen apoplectic. This is also an area where the research has been an ideological war. Just this week a new study was released by a research group at Stanford does not provide a great platform for Duncan if he feels that charter schools should be the main vehicle for turning around low performing schools. You can read this article in EdWeek to get a sense how proponents as well as opponents can find something encouraging in this large study. Opponents, for example, will find solace in this,

Looking at 2,403 charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, researchers at Stanford University found that students in more than 80 percent of charter schools either performed the same as—or worse than—students in traditional public schools on mathematics tests.

The Secretary, however, will likely take some solace in this quote from Margaret E. Raymond, the director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes and the study’s lead author of the study:

Such disparities in performance depended on each state’s charter school law and policies, including whether the state imposes caps on the number of charters and whether it allows multiple entities to authorize the schools. States with multiple authorizers produced slower academic growth, the study found, while charter school students in states with caps performed worse than pupils in states without caps.

I haven’t read the full report of the study, so I will reserve judgment and share any further insights or opinions for a later post.

The final of the four policy speeches will be delivered to the delegates of the National Education Association in San Diego on July 2. Here he will address the issue of teacher effectiveness with a focus I would imagine on teacher evaluation and incentives, the issue that has been a third rail issue for so long with so many teachers – pay for performance. This may be Duncan’s greatest challenge thus far, but just as his boss did with the American Medical Association this week, I expect he will assure the delegates that they will have a place at the table (which they most assuredly should) and that when we come to together in collaboration the world is our oyster (which it most assuredly is!).

We shall see.

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