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Arne Duncan Has Become a National Embarrassment, Part II

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In a previous column, I reported how Arne Duncan has become an embarrassment here in New York City for his misuse of statistics and his slavish support of our billionaire Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who is running for re-election to a third term. Duncan also called a series of blatantly propagandistic articles that supported Bloomberg's education record as "thoughtful," published in the NY Post, the tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch.

But the problem is much larger than this: Duncan's policies now threaten to alienate voters nationwide. The latest embarrassment is a national "tour," where Duncan plans to join Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich in cities around the country, pushing for more privatization, including the proliferation of more charter schools.

The fact that Duncan is joining these two disreputable figures reveals troubling insensitivity on his part. The last time Gingrich got involved in the education issue, Newt proposed forcibly removing children from inner-city parents to put them in orphanages and boarding schools.

As for Al Sharpton, he was prompted to become involved in the education issue in the first place in return for a $500,000 donation from a prominent hedge-fund, which was lobbying the state and the city to acquire off-track betting parlors. The cool half a million Sharpton received, improperly funneled through a tax-free pro-charter school organization, kept him out of jail when he was fighting federal charges of tax evasion and other illegal activities.

Even worse are Duncan's funding proposals. His $4.3 billion slush fund called "Race to the Top" is designed to reward school districts and states for implementing a narrow set of unproven strategies, based on the deregulatory biases of the corporate world. These schemes include pressuring states to raise their caps on charter schools and instituting teacher performance pay based on student test scores, despite the lack of any supporting research or proof of success in the real world.

Indeed, a recent report funded by charter school advocates showed that nationally, charter schools have failed to achieve superior results.

In New York City, the rapid rise in the number of charter schools has led to divisive battles in neighborhoods throughout the city, as a two-tier, inequitable system of education has taken hold, with traditional public schools losing classroom space and resources to the favored charter schools, which enroll far fewer of our neediest students, including those who require special education and/or bilingual services.

Teacher performance pay based on test cores is another of Duncan's favored "reforms" that has no support in the research. In North Carolina, which instituted merit pay early on, performance incentives led to even worse teacher attrition in the state's high-needs schools.

When asked by Senator Patty Murray at a recent hearing where the evidence was for teacher performance pay, Duncan stumbled and referred to an experimental incentive program instituted in Chicago.

Not only has this program never been evaluated, but a recent report sponsored by his former supporters in the business community found no significant improvements in achievement in Chicago's public schools under the Duncan regime. PURE, a parent organization in Chicago, has revealed the truth about Duncan's misstatements as regards his "turn around" schools: to the extent that these schools succeeded, it was because they got rid of their low-performing students.

Proposals that would reward teachers for increases in test scores often lack transparency and are based upon formulas that are statistically unreliable. In NYC, education officials claimed that their teacher data reports, used to analyze teacher performance, had been approved by a panel of independent experts. Although I submitted a FOIL request over six months ago for the model used in these analyses, as well as the identity of the independent panel who supposedly attested to their reliability, I have still not received the information requested.

Moreover, as many studies have shown,performance-based incentives are based on unreliable measures of achievement, and "absorb vast amounts of management time and resources...diminish intrinsic motivation" and "actually decrease performance in tasks that require creativity and innovation."

Among the strategies left out of the mix for Duncan's "Race to the Top" funding is class size reduction -- even though smaller classes are one few education reforms that have been shown to narrow the achievement gap -- an ostensible goal of this program. Smaller classes are also one of only four education reforms that have been proven to increase learning overall, based on rigorous scientific evidence, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, the research branch of the US Department of Education headed by Duncan.

What's especially ironic is that most charter schools advertise their smaller classes to parents as their most attractive quality, and the particular charter school model that President Obama
has said
he would like to replicate across the country, Harlem's Children Zone, has "classes [that] are tiny, with a student-teacher ratio of 4 to 1."

Yet this option will not be provided to states in "The Race to the Top" program.

Indeed, Obama, Bloomberg and Klein themselves sent their own children to private schools where classes are small and their children were provided maximum attention from their teachers. But here in NYC and elsewhere in urban districts where there are large numbers of minority children, classes are so big -- up to 34 students per class or more -- that it is nearly impossible for them to receive an adequate opportunity to learn.

To add insult to injury, in apparent mimicry of the disregard in which parents are held here in New York City, the Race to the Top guidelines maintain that states will be awarded funds to:

"the extent to which the State has demonstrated commitment, support, and/or funding from the following key stakeholders: the teacher unions, charter school authorizers, the "business, community,
civil rights, and education association leaders" and private foundations,

while leaving out parents -- the most important stakeholders of all.

Never before has a Secretary of Education so aggressively inserted himself into local politics and so insistently pushed for changes in state and local laws -- with such a tin ear for the actual priorities of parents. Never before has a Secretary of Education so aggressively attempted to bribe states to adopt policies with little or no research to back them up, and that will lead to widening inequities.

Indeed, the crassly intrusive nature of the Duncan educational agenda, and its lack of support in evidence-based research, has now been criticized from the left, right
and center.

Several commentators on the NYC parent blog have expressed their deep discontent with these policies. As one wrote, "If President Obama and Arne Duncan keep it up with this educational mess, Obama will never again in life get my vote."

It would be a pity if President Obama were to repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration by promoting policies based on the political biases of a bunch of inside-the-beltway ideologues, rather than based on solid research. Let's hope that the President changes course soon, rather than damage his reputation for integrity, and more importantly, our most vulnerable public schoolchildren.

You can submit a comment on Duncan's "Race to the Top" proposals on or before August 28 here.