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Arne Duncan’s mixed legacy

The outgoing secretary of education improved standards but will be remembered for undermining teachers

January 15, 2016 2:00AM ET

This year could be the start of a new and promising era in education policy. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has retired. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001, will finally be behind us. The presidential races are wide open, and whoever succeeds Barack Obama will take the helm with very different public opinion winds guiding his or her education policy sails.

Duncan’s Department of Education should be seen as a bridge between the standards-and-accountability-driven era that is coming to a close and an emerging new approach to education that places standards and accountability within a broader framework focused on multiple domains of child development, including not only college and career readiness but also civic and life readiness.

There is no doubt that, as his strongest proponents assert, he cared deeply about poor and minority children and the barriers that prevented them from getting a fair shake in our education system. But his track record is rife with contradictions. He saw flaws in the system that limited disadvantaged students’ opportunities and worked hard to change them. But he also enacted and stubbornly stuck with policies that put that fair shake even further out of reach.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Duncan’s legacy has been his Office of Civil Rights. It has been stalwart in bringing to the nation’s attention ways that our education system is rigged against poor children, especially black and Hispanic students. Under his watch, the office released groundbreaking data on race- and income-based disparities in school funding, on associated disparities in resources and teacher quality and on the harsh disciplinary measures disproportionately meted out to students of color.

His department has led the way on innovative policies to counter these problems. Under him, the Department of Education initiated grants for Promise Neighborhoods, modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, which build school-community partnerships to mitigate poverty-related barriers to learning. Shining a spotlight on how income- and race-based disparities often begin early in life, he and Obama have made new federal investments in early education a top priority of the president’s second term. Most recently, the department has worked with states and school districts to revisit and improve rules on disciplinary measures.

One of the greatest ironies is that Duncan’s well-intentioned but politically tone-deaf strategy may substantially set back the push for national standards.

Unfortunately, another aspect of Duncan’s legacy that stands out is his seeming lack of respect for educators and his failure to listen to them regarding evidence of what does and doesn’t work.

Prime among these is his prioritization of teacher evaluations based heavily on student test scores. This was a core component of his two flagship policies — Race to the Top and state waivers under No Child Left Behind. And he did not waver from his support, even as evidence mounted about the invalid nature of using test scores in this way and the negative consequences unfolding. This has played out from Florida, where teachers sued to prevent the scores of students they had never taught from determining their job status, to Tennessee, which overwhelmed teachers and principals with crazily complex effectiveness rubrics and beyond.

Consequences of this refusal to listen are evident in public revolt against excessive testing, including the growing momentum of parent- and student-led movements to opt out of taking standardized tests. Results from last year’s PDK/Gallup poll make clear the hole the secretary has dug — a hole made deeper when he blamed “white suburban moms” rather than his disdain for the advice of veteran educators.

Another failure has been Duncan’s lopsided support for charter schools and the blind eye he turned to their flaws, which led even some charter school champions to question his judgment. History may remember him not so much for nurturing innovative schools that dramatically improved disadvantaged students’ odds but for having cultivated a Wild West that subsequent administrations must rein in.

This split is illustrated too in the upsides and downsides of the Common Core, which, fairly or not, will be a key part of Duncan’s legacy. Higher, more consistent standards can help narrow the disparity between wealthy and disadvantaged students in their curricula’s rigor, but they must be part of a comprehensive set of investments in schools, teachers and students. Unfortunately, federal education policies have led to their implementation in many states and districts in a way that disrespects educators and frustrates and confuses parents and students. One of the greatest ironies, then, is that his well-intentioned but politically tone-deaf strategy may substantially set back the push for national standards.

Guiding federal education policy is a complex and challenging endeavor, more so now than ever before. As we look to the 2016 elections and our next president’s appointments, we would be lucky to land a secretary of education with Duncan’s passion for improving education outcomes, especially for our nation’s most disadvantaged students. However, we should seek an advocate who will take a broader view of what ails our school system and who will heed real experts’ advice on how to improve it.

Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, where she works with three co-chairs, a high-level task force and multiple coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of education policies to allow all children to thrive. She has a Ph.D. in public policy from the George Washington University Trachtenberg School, a J.D. from the Harvard Law School and a B.A. and B.S. from the University of Maryland at College Park.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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