Arne Duncan gave an extended interview to EdWeek staff a couple of weeks ago. I was disappointed that the resulting article gave no hint that critical questions were asked.
But on reviewing the transcript -- http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/12/02/14duncan-transcript.h29.html -- I find that he was asked (rather gently) a question I would have asked (more pointedly): What, if any, evidence supports the sweeping, radical agenda the Obama administration is promoting: unlimited charter schools, national standards and high-stakes tests, "data-driven" teacher evaluations and salaries, and large-scale closings of "failing schools"? And if there's no supporting evidence, why are you trying to bribe states into adopting such dubious "reforms" through the $4.3 billion Race to the Top Fund?
Arne's answer: "I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work." Ergo, drastic measures are in order -- never mind that there's no evidence for their effectiveness and considerable evidence they will do harm. Characteristically, the EdWeek reporters were too polite to challenge that logic.
Here's the exchange:
Q: To pick up on that evidence base, there are a lot of policies and strategies that the department seems to endorse or favor that don’t necessarily have a strong evidence base for them. President Obama has talked about restoring scientific integrity in the government decision-making process. How much of a role does the evidence play in setting policy in the department, and in things like charter schools and teacher evaluation?
Mr. Duncan: I would challenge your assumption a bit. So I would argue the whole turnaround stuff is relatively new but I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work and that’s the evidence that I’m looking at. I’m looking at places where 70 to 75 percent of kids aren’t graduating and somehow that’s been okay for the country. People don’t expect anything different. I would argue that all of these things there’s lots of evidence that the current thing doesn’t work. Teacher evaluation is broken. Teacher evaluation in this country is fundamentally broken. And if someone wants to make the case that it’s good, I would love to have that debate. But there’s nobody making that case. Nobody. So let’s try to fix it. Let’s not use the excuse that we don’t have all of the answers to continue to do nothing.
We’ve tried not to be very specific. We’ve said a couple things matter: data matters, we’ve said that talent matters, we’ve said having high standards matter, and turning around things matter. How you do those things, how you get there, [there’s] lots of room to play, to get creative. No one by themselves is the answer. I’ve never said that. But again, I’d love to argue or counter anyone who says data doesn’t matter, that talent doesn’t matter, that turnarounds don’t matter, that a high bar doesn’t matter. That’s a debate I’d love to have. I think there’s pretty compelling evidence of what hasn’t worked as well as what’s possible. In a country where teacher evaluation is largely divorced from student progress, student success, how do you defend that? Again, there’s lots of gray. We’ve talked a lot about multiple measures, and not one thing. As a country we’re at zero. That’s wrong; 100 percent is wrong. There’s a big middle ground there that we got to find. Anyone who would argue that where we’re at now is good or has evidence that that’s the right thing, I don’t buy it. No one is. I went to the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] conventions, I went to the NEA [National Education Association] convention, I said teacher evaluation is broken, guess what, all the teachers cheered.
Jim Crawford. ELL Advocates