10/18/2011 01:13 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2011

Arne Duncan's Second Chance

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan can now do something that his boss has also been reluctant to do -- acknowledge mistakes and work with some of their most loyal supporters to set them right. The NCLB waiver process, which is designed to clean up the mess created by President Bush's education policy, provides an opportunity for the Duncan administration to extricate itself from the assault on teachers that was initiated by its predecessor.

Teachers have reason for anger, but we should remember that many of Duncan's errors in being overly trusting of market-based solutions, like President Obama's continued efforts to cooperate with corporate powers, are more obvious with hindsight than they were during the first frightening months of 2009. The administration's Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other innovations were riverboat gambles. Turnarounds, under the best circumstances as opposed to Duncan's rush to transform at scale, fail two thirds of the time. Innovations, though, were only a small percentage of the administration's investments in schools.

Most of the Obama administration's spending was devoted to saving hundreds of thousands of teachers' jobs. Also, candor should be easier for Duncan because his really destructive turnovers are related to primitive bubble-in testing. (If Bill Gates had not liked standardized testing when he was in high school, I bet Duncan's policies would be very different.) And given the president's campaign promises to reverse the damage done by standardized testing, it should be easier for the administration to pay attention to the increasing evidence of that destructive legacy of NCLB.

Today, the downsides of their risk-taking are obvious to people who are actually in schools, but we still do not know which of Duncan's and Obama's gambles will pay off down the road. If the Secretary of Education were to admit that many of his innovations are not just "imperfect" but they are backfiring and damaging kids, I would gladly withhold judgment on others.

The Huffington Post's Joy Resmovits provides the most prescient analysis of Arne Duncan's strengths and weaknesses. Duncan explained to her, "I'm sort of strange. I've never thought about what the next step of my journey is. ... I see the opportunity now not to transform education in the next couple of years, but to transform education for the next 30."

Resmovits concludes her profile of Duncan:

Reformers want to try new things, while traditional educators and unions say trying out untested policies on students would be tantamount to making schoolchildren guinea pigs in an experiment. In response, reformers argue that a new experiment is better than a failed one.

With that philosophy of experimentation in mind, Duncan sprints ahead, enacting policies that, helpful or harmful, temporary or long-lasting, idealistic or political, appear only to chip away at intractable problems. On the one hand, it's admirable to see someone who lives and breathes education trying so hard. On the other hand, though, one wonders whether he'll leave a trail of teachers fired for their students' failed bubble tests in his embrace of the imperfect.

The paradox, I would argue, is that the way to maximize the chances that Duncan's experiment will eventually pan out is peer review. And this is where the NCLB waivers come in. After all, the real experts of the harm done by standardized test-driven "reform" are the educators who have suffered under it, and studied it, for nearly a decade.

Education Week reports that states' requesting NCLB waivers will be evaluated by peer reviewers. States must show that they will give enough weight to student growth in teacher evaluations. In doing so, however, states must show that they "meaningfully" engaged teachers in the process, and show that teachers are "committed" to the successful implementation of the states' efforts.

Let's see how peer review in Tennessee could be a turning point. Tennessee's RttT application promised to work collaboratively with unions, but since then it has meaningfully engaged teachers by attacking due process and rushing a "gotcha" evaluation system into place. The Tennessean's Julie Hubard, in "New Evaluations Run Off Tennessee Teachers," explains how the state's new evaluation regime "overwhelms even the best teachers and turns their focus away from students."

In addition to not-ready-for-prime-time statistical models, evaluators use a three-page checklist to review teachers' lesson plans, forcing teachers to write lesson plans as long as 26 pages. Tennessee has handed the power to destroy careers to evaluators who have not been in the classroom long enough to judge the teachers fairly. One gave the lowest rating of "One" to a teacher for not knowing all of her students' names after three days. A Teacher of the Year's lesson plan, which was good enough to be used as a district model for others, was assigned a "Two." And it is not just teachers who are angry. Veteran principals also are demonstrating their commitment to the new evaluations by quitting, and board members are protesting the new system.

Think of the message it would send to other states if the Duncan administration were to require Tennessee to live up to its commitments or forfeit its waiver request and the remaining RttT money. Would Chicago be more likely to respect the National Labor Relations Board? Would Rhode Island think twice about using incompetent metrics to destroy teachers' careers?

I doubt that the Republican governors of Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio would lessen their war on unions, but teachers would be more likely to forget earlier insults if the Obama administration took a clear stand and showed that the federal government will no longer subsidize teacher-bashing. And that could be the first step towards restoring our educational alliances in order to help kids. Friends don't let other friends drive schools into a ditch with an ill-conceived testing spree.