01/21/2015 09:58 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

Duncan's Scapegoat Ate His Homework


Arne Duncan recently stated he believes NCLB should be rewritten but that standardized testing should remain mandatory. His reasons were that the achievement gap is closing and if we shy away now we won't succeed at our ultimate goal, which is equity and equality.

NCLB has been attacked because of new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core State standards. While some factions are in disagreement with the Common Core due to insane conspiracy beliefs, most educators take issue with the time required for the mandated testing and how the scores are used to punish schools, teachers, and students. The dissatisfaction has grown to a point where the traditionally left-leaning teacher unions are looking to a Republican from Tennessee to help thwart the mandated annual testing. We live in interesting times.

Duncan stated, and I agree, that "parents and teachers and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year." I'd argue the only real accomplishment of NCLB over the past fifteen years has been the spotlight it shined on educational disparities between our white, black, Asian, and Latino students.

In his speech Duncan points to the "highest-ever high school graduation rates" especially for our minority students. Duncan also said, "It is striking to me, that today, black and Latino 9-year-olds are doing math at about the same level that their 13-year-old counterparts did in the 1970s." And this is the problem.

Although students of all color are achieving at a higher level, the achievement gap persists. Finding a trustworthy source on whether the achievement gap is narrowing or widening is challenging. This source states "the gaps separating the achievement of African-American and Latino 12th-graders from their white peers are bigger now than they were in the late 1980s". This site, in part sponsored by Pearson, claims "While the gap narrowed considerably through the late 1980s, particularly between blacks and whites, progress since then has been marginal."

Here is one source that analyzes NAEP scores and suggests the gap between white and black students has closed by nearly half, although this is over the course of nearly forty years since 1971, beginning long before mandated standardized testing. It also appears some of the biggest gains happened prior to mandated standardized testing.

It is rarely if ever acknowledged by our political leaders but there are alternatives to standardized testing. Here are four alternatives recently described in the Washington Post. The refusal to attempt an alternative to standardized testing has only fueled the conspiracy theories that companies like Pearson, that create and sell the tests, are influencing political decision-making for the sake of profit.

Standardized test scores play into one of our weaknesses, which is that Americans love numbers. As an industrial nation we tend to have less faith in science than other nations, and we have even less belief in the soft sciences. The alternatives to standardized testing don't offer the neat, simple scale-scores that standardized tests do. Portfolios can lead to a bit more subjectivity and messiness. Many people believe that if we can't quantify our findings we shouldn't rely on them. In education, whenever you hear someone mention "data" they are inevitably referring to test scores and not anecdotal or qualitative data. Standardized tests are a quick, easy, and cheap way to quantify "education". Another quality of Americans is that we like a bargain.

Many of my colleagues will argue standardized testing isn't cheap, sucking nearly two billion dollars away from classrooms, but using a portfolio system could potentially cost even more. Regardless, the change would be worth every penny.

Standardized testing has resulted in a drastic narrowing of the curriculum as teachers and schools frequently cancel any kind of learning that isn't on the test. I know of one school that changes their entire focus the second half of the year and stops teaching science and social studies to focus exclusively on math and reading. They achieve some of the highest gains of standardized test scores in their district, but at what cost? Duncan acknowledged the focus on standardized tests has affected the curriculum and suggested a revision of the policy could help limit the time schools spend on test preparation. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem Duncan did his homework on how policies are implemented when designed by bureaucrats in Washington and geared towards affecting change in the classrooms across the country. I don't know of a single district or school that has enough administrators to check up on what teachers are doing every minute of the day, especially when they are the ones encouraging such narrowing of the curriculum.

Teachers don't want to narrow the curriculum. When I was a teacher some administrators would emphasize test prep and the teachers adamantly refused or did so begrudgingly. Now that the stakes of tests have been raised and the scores are used to evaluate not only schools but individual teachers, it's the teachers that are demanding time to prep students for tests. In my own school I've had multiple conversations with teachers about how test prep can only offer short-term gains at best, yet many still seek the silver bullet that will help them achieve higher test scores.

Using a portfolio system would lead to teachers preparing students for a more holistic assessment, and in this way, the money and time spent would not be wasted. The learning that happens would be more meaningful and last longer than preparing for a standardized test. But the way we evaluate schools isn't the most glaring of Duncan's errors.

Duncan's biggest mistake has been his acceptance that education is to blame for the socio-economic gaps throughout our country. Education has been the scapegoat of American society for over a century. As Dana Goldstein has detailed in her phenomenal book "The Teacher Wars", education has been used as a scapegoat for everything from the Red Scare to sputnik and now for our level of competitiveness in the global economy. Duncan's recent speech was on the 50th anniversary of LBJ's speech, which launched the ESEA, or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the precursor to NCLB. The ESEA was a civil rights act focused on disparities of race and poverty.

In 1965, as there is today in 2015, a vast disparity existed between how schools were funded. Then, as now, some schools had a plethora of education materials, small class sizes, more-than-highly-qualified teachers, low mobility of teachers and students, shiny and clean buildings, and the list goes on. Then, as now, other schools had to beg for materials, suffer over-crowded classes, contend with ridiculously high mobility of students at rates more than 30%, a turnstile-faculty of burned-out teachers, school buildings with roofs that leaked, and the list goes on. Then, as now, students suffering the effects of poverty were far more likely to attend a segregated school that was run-down and ill-prepared to deal with the massive and crippling effects of poverty. Happy 50th anniversary LBJ. We continue to blame education for poverty, one of the only countries to do so, and the industrial nation with the most families suffering in poverty.

Duncan and those who feed the scapegoat of education believe that if we close the achievement gap and enable all of our students to be college and career ready, the income and racial disparities will disappear. There is little evidence this will happen absent of significant reform of other social institutions, including our labor and legal practices.

I truly believe schools need to be improved. I left the classroom to become an administrator because I realized teachers needed support changing their instructional practices and it can only be done with an effective principal leading the school and protecting them from some of the inanities imposed from on high. I'm not an advocate for the status quo or for traditional education, and at my school we are trying innovative new methods.

But Duncan has maintained the status quo and placed the cart before the goat.

The income gap is not caused by education but by disparities in the economy related to racial disparities that are deeply rooted. Despite some test scores indicating a narrowing achievement gap over forty years, and other scores indicating black and brown students achieving at a higher rate, the wealth gap is growing.

If the theory of action behind NCLB is that better education will lead to less disparity, the data suggest this theory is dead wrong. Even the most promising analysis of test scores suggests the achievement gap has been cut in half over forty years, yet we see zero correlation with income or wealth. Along with the wealth gap, the arrest rates of whites, blacks, and Latinos indicates significant and persistent disparities of experience in our country.

Education is not the cause of inequities in our country, it is a symptom. The disparities we find in education, be it the funding or the achievement gap, is almost entirely due to the disparities we find throughout every aspect of our country. We can prepare every child for college and career but if our biases persist and income isn't shared more evenly across our demographics, we're simply using education as a scapegoat, and the resulting policies are abysmal. Too often the achievement gap, as measured by test scores, is used to close public schools and open privately-run charter schools that offer no better results in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods. NCLB might shine a spotlight on the disparities, but what we do with that spotlight isn't pretty. To many of our fellow black and brown citizens, the focus on test scores is not a spot light on a stage, but a spot light in a prison yard.

Our political leaders, be it Duncan, Holder, or Obama, need to do more to demand that income is more equitable and laws protect our citizens equally. After six years, and only immediately prior to his resignation, Attorney General Holder is finally addressing the laws which disproportionately affect African-Americans and Latinos. President Obama has addressed race, albeit only when forced to do so because the media was distracted by his former Reverend, or when it becomes a temporary national issue such as Ferguson. Their solutions are departmentalized and never connected, and they fail to help the citizenry understand a holistic view of our society, resulting in constant turf battles over Common Core, charter schools, stand-your-ground laws, predatory lending and foreclosures, and the list goes on. The departmentalization of our national and state leadership has enabled our country to be divided and conquered by the status quo.

President Obama has had a very tough run as we have witnessed how deeply prejudiced all parts of our country can be towards blacks. The least Arne Duncan could do is stop using education as the sole scapegoat and begin to fully acknowledge learning doesn't happen in a vacuum. Education is deeply affected by every aspect of our local, state, and national communities, especially poverty. I don't believe you can reform or fund a school in any conceivable way that will alleviate the drastic effects children encounter when they go home to a family suffering from poverty. The only way some high-poverty schools have done it is by creating a system in which those students that are less likely to succeed are less likely to enroll.

Duncan is the Secretary of Education, and therefore some might say he isn't responsible for addressing things like poverty and race. In contrast, my fellow Chicago educator Greg Michie has explained how the issue of race and education are tightly intertwined, yet rarely acknowledged.

Either Duncan is willfully ignoring the issues causing gaps in wealth, income, arrests, and other significant problems, or his scapegoat ate his homework and he doesn't know any better. When Duncan was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools I served for one year on his committee of teacher-leaders, so I believe I know the answer to this question. I just hope he spends his last two years reforming his practice.