Duncan to Congress: Giving States Flexibility is Working

Secretary Duncan testifies at Senate Hearing

Secretary Arne Duncan testified on Capitol Hill Thursday during a hearing on ESEA flexibility. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

States and their schools are breaking free from the restrictions of No Child Left Behind and pursuing new and better ways to prepare and protect all students, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a Senate committee Thursday.

In a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Duncan promoted the value of providing flexibility to states under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which the Department of Education began offering in 2011. Duncan said that granting states new flexibility through waivers was not his first choice—he would have preferred that Congress reauthorize, or amend the law instead. But in light of congressional gridlock over reauthorization, Duncan said that he was “not willing to stand by idly and do nothing while students and educators continue to suffer under NCLB.”

NCLB is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). And Duncan said that NCLB has become a well-intended, but overly-prescriptive law that created incentives to lower standards, encouraged teaching to the test, mislabeled many schools as failures, and prescribed a one-size-fits-all accountability system that failed to support local solutions and innovation. With ESEA years overdue for congressional reauthorization, the Obama Administration sent Congress a Blueprint for Reform of ESEA in 2010.

Nearly two years later, after Congress failed to authorize ESEA, the Administration offered states the chance to pursue waivers to NCLB in September 2011. Duncan told the committee that “providing waivers was always, always our plan B.”

In his testimony, and during questions from the Committee, Duncan outlined in detail the ways in which the waiver approach, or “ESEA Flexibility,” – has strengthened accountability for at-risk students, improved evaluation and professional development for teachers and principals, and unleashed a wave of  state-led innovation.

ESEA flexibility supports states and districts in replacing the “one-size-fits-all” interventions of NCLB and empowers states to tailor reforms that meet the needs of their students. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have been approved for ESEA flexibility, and nine states, plus Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education, have pending requests.

Map of ESEA Flexibility

Duncan noted that states receiving NCLB flexibility “must demonstrate a commitment and capacity to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction.”

Multiple Measures of Growth and Gain

One of the unintended effects of NCLB is that it provided incentives to lower academic standards—and 19 states actually lowered their standards after NCLB was enacted in 2001. The law’s narrow measures for school progress—annual reading and math test scores and high school graduation rates—also prompted teaching to the test and an overly simplistic model for assessing school progress. “Under No Child Left Behind there was far too much focus on a single test score,” Duncan said. “I’m more interested in outcomes,” Duncan added. “If you have the best third grade test score in the world but 50 percent of your students are dropping out of high school, you are not changing student’s lives. You can’t get a job with a third grade test score.”

Under ESEA flexibility, states are using multiple measures of growth and gain in student learning, rather than NCLB’s narrow measures. “This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Duncan. “All of the leadership, all of the creativity, is coming from the states.”

Multiple Measures of Growth and Gain Graphic

Better Serving At-Risk Students

At the hearing, Duncan said he was surprised to learn that under NCLB, low-income and minority students, English learners, and students with disabilities were  “invisible” because schools were not held accountable for the performance of subgroups of students if there were not enough students in their subgroup to “count” under state rules. Duncan explained during his testimony that under flexibility, these students are no longer invisible, which “is a significant step in the right direction,” he said.

At Risk Bar Chart

One example of how flexibility is helping at-risk students can be found in Arkansas. Under ESEA flexibility, Arkansas is now holding more than 1,000 schools accountable for subgroups that weren’t accountable under NCLB. Across all states receiving waivers to date, at least 9,000 additional schools are now accountable for subgroups for which they weren’t accountable before.

Duncan pointed out that states with waivers have set aggressive performance targets for all subgroups. They are using performance targets to tailor local interventions, rather than as a tool to label schools as failures. Waiver states are expecting progress for all subgroups–but much faster rates of progress for those that are furthest behind.

Recognizing and Rewarding Schools for Progress and Success

Under ESEA flexibility, states are recognizing a school’s student growth and success–and supporting interventions that work. Secretary Duncan cited the example of Columbus Park Preparatory Academy in Worcester, Mass. Under NCLB, the school was deemed to be among the bottom 20 percent of schools in the state, despite the fact that it was making significant progress in boosting achievement for traditionally low-performing students. “That school’s not a failure,” Duncan said. “That school’s a success … think of how demoralizing it is to teachers who are working so hard to be labeled a failure when you are seeing improvement each year.”

Supporting Teacher and Principal Effectiveness

“Talent matters tremendously in education,” Duncan said in talking about the new and far more robust evaluation systems that states are building under flexibility. States are developing evaluation systems that go far beyond NCLB’s minimum “highly qualified teacher” standards, and are using systems that measure and support effective teaching and leadership based on multiple measures, including student growth. “Great principals lead great schools. Great teachers do miraculous things with children,” he said.

Supporting Teacher and Principal Effectiveness Pie Chart

Duncan described how Tennessee has been at the forefront of improving teacher and principal evaluation systems with the input from 17,000 teachers and administrators. The state also continues to receive feedback so it can refine and improve its evaluation system. “I have yet to meet a teacher who is scared of accountability,” Duncan said. They just want it to be fair. They want it to be honest.

Providing States with Flexibility to Move Forward With Reform

The federal role in education is relatively narrow, Duncan told the committee. “What’s exciting about ESEA flexibility, is that states are leading the way in strengthening education for all children,” he said. In explaining the federal role, Duncan said:

The federal government does not serve as a national school board … We don’t dictate curriculum, levy school assessments, or open and close schools. We don’t specify the content of academic standards or negotiate teachers’ contracts. We do have a responsibility to set a high bar to protect the interests of students, especially at-risk students. But how to reach that bar, I believe, should be left to the states.

Duncan concluded his testimony by noting that in a time of partisan rancor, ESEA waivers had an unusual bipartisan appeal in statehouses across the country. He observed that “we approach this work with both a tremendous sense of excitement, coupled with a real sense of humility.”

In the end, Duncan said, he didn’t have “a moment’s doubt” that state flexibility “is a major improvement for children and for adults over NCLB.” But he stressed the need to learn from any mistakes in the waiver process, correct them quickly, and share that learning across the country. “We can never let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” he cautioned.” And that is what we have done for far too long in education.” Ensuring a world-class education for every child, Duncan added, “is both a demanding challenge and an urgent imperative for our nation, our communities, and our children.”

Click here to read Secretary Duncan’s prepared testimony, and click here to watch a video of Secretary Duncan’s opening statement and the entire hearing.

Read the Department’s recently released publications highlighting ESEA flexibility.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

Secretary Duncan Testifies on Across-the-Board Budget Cuts

U.S. Capitol Building

Secretary Arne Duncan testified before Congress today on the impact of across-the-board cuts. Photo courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.

Earlier today Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified on Capitol Hill about the impact of budget cuts called sequestration. Sequestration would mandate across-the-board cuts to the federal budget that will go into effect in January if Congress doesn’t act. While a lot of attention has been given to impeding cuts to defense, Secretary Duncan testified about the impact the cuts would on all government services and programs.

“Education, defense, public safety and all other federal agencies would indiscriminately cut services that are essential to every state and community,” Duncan said.

The Secretary said that education is the cornerstone of our country’s economy and essential for our military preparedness. Duncan noted that 75 percent of young Americans are unable to enlist in the military because they have either failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.

While most schools won’t feel the impact of across-the-board cuts until the fall of 2013, the lack of federal funds would be felt deep throughout the country.

    • Title I funding would be cut by $1.1 billion, cutting off funding to more than 4,000 schools serving an estimated 1.8 million disadvantaged students. The jobs of more than 15,000 teachers and aides would be at risk.
    • Funding for special education would be reduced by $900 million. That could translate into the layoffs of more than 10,000 teachers, aides, and other staff who provide essential instruction and other support to 6.6 million children with disabilities.
    • Up to almost 100,000 low-income children would be denied access to the Head Start program, which is critical to preparing them for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Duncan noted that the Obama Administration stands ready to work with Congress on preventing sequestration with a balanced approach to deficit reduction. The President’s plan includes more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction. It maintains the Budget Control Act caps, and calls for significant, yet targeted, cuts in discretionary spending.

Click here to read Secretary Duncan’s testimony.

Duncan Heads to Capitol Hill for Budget Hearings

“We must come together as a country to make sound, bipartisan investments in education,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said earlier today at a budget hearing on Capitol Hill. “It is unconscionable for us to ask a generation of students to pay the price for adult political dysfunction.”

Secretary Duncan Testifies on Capitol Hill

Archive photo of Secretary Duncan testifying on Capitol Hill. Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

Duncan testified before the House Committee on Appropriations as part of the annual federal budget process. In the early months of each year, the President submits his budget request to Congress. Congress can then choose to accept the President’s request or develop its own budget, deciding which programs to authorize and fund before the new fiscal year starts on October 1.

Secretary Duncan testified that the Obama Administration’s fiscal year 2013 education budget reflects the Obama Administrations commitment to reduce spending, make government more efficient and invest to secure our future. “We must educate our way to a better economy,” Duncan said.

Key areas of the budget that the Secretary highlighted include:

  • Making college affordable and the middle-class dream alive for Americans by providing new incentives for states and institutions to keep college costs from escalating;
  • Providing billions of dollars a year in aid to college students through Pell grants;
  • Prevent student loan interest rates from doubling this summer;
  • Double the number of work-study jobs within five years;
  • Make the American Opportunity Tax Credit permanent;
  • And dedicating significant resources to transforming the teaching profession through a new program called RESPECT.

Read more about 2013 budget and what it means for you.

Duncan Heads to the Hill for Budget Hearing

Secretary Duncan Testifies on Capitol Hill

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

“You can’t sacrifice the future to pay for the present, and nothing is more important to a family’s future—and our future as a nation—than education,” Secretary Duncan said during his opening statement before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, earlier today.

Duncan appeared before the subcommittee to answer questions about President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Proposal. Secretary Duncan explained that the budget proposal seeks to make key educational investment, including:

  • Closing the Pell shortfall both through efficiencies and more resources.
  • Protecting Title I and IDEA formula funds for students most at risk.
  • Expanding reform programs that support state and local policies, including Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and ED’s learning and college completion programs.

Secretary Duncan noted that the President’s budget includes efficiencies, consolidations and cuts in ED programs that are not as effective as they should be. “We understand that, just as every family is doing more with less, so should we,” Duncan said.

Read Secretary Duncan’s entire testimony, and for or more information on the President’s FY 2012 Budget Request for the U.S. Department of Education, visit our FY 2012 budget page.