Arne Duncan, fiction writer

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News flash for Washington watchers!  Now we know what Arne Duncan will do once his service as US Education Secretary comes to an end.  In the Boston Globe on Monday, he demonstrated a flair for fiction, with a panegyric to Gov. Patrick’s stewardship of education policy.  My reaction is posted here and at the Globe’s Podium section:

Who says Common Core advocates don’t like fiction?  In his Globe opinion piece (Under Deval Patrick, Mass. has led the nation in education, January 5), US Education Secretary Arne Duncan got one fact right: Massachusetts leads the nation in education.  Attributing that progress to Gov. Patrick’s leadership is like suggesting that a pinch runner who finds himself on third base hit a triple.

Massachusetts has led the nation in all subjects tested on sampled national assessments for a decade.  In fact, before Gov. Patrick’s inauguration in 2007, Massachusetts had been one of the fastest improving states in the nation.

Secretary Duncan makes glowing reference to Massachusetts’ performance on the international PISA tests.  But, again, already in the spring of 2007 the commonwealth’s students had taken the Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS), a higher-quality international test than PISA, and ranked in the top six countries in math and science.

Only a politician, or an Education Secretary playing one, would attribute Massachusetts’ success to Gov. Patrick.  The very best one can say about overall student achievement in the commonwealth during the Governor’s terms in office is that it has been stagnant.  An objective observer would note significant areas of decline:

  • Since the adoption of Common Core in 2010, sampled national tests show fourth-grade reading scores, the best predictor of future success, falling more significantly in Massachusetts than anywhere else in the country.
  • During Governor Patrick’s time in office, Massachusetts students’ SAT scores have fallen by 20 points.  (Prior to 2007, SAT scores had risen for 13 consecutive years.)
  • When Patrick took office, 67 percent of third graders scored advanced or proficient on the state’s third-grade reading tests (again, an important marker); that number is now 57 percent.

The one area where I do agree with Secretary Duncan is in his praise for the work being done in the Lawrence Public Schools.  There the Patrick Administration has demonstrated strength of purpose and a willingness to bring in outside partners to advance the interests of all children.

Secretary Duncan’s suggestion that this uninspiring record is path-breaking no doubt stems from his own support of policy changes Gov. Patrick made.  The most significant of these is the governor’s abandonment of two pillars of Massachusetts’ original, bold reforms — academic content standards that approached those in the highest-performing nations and a unique accountability system focused on improving district leadership and performance.

It may also stem from the malady that most plagues our nation’s capital—that toxic mix of self-importance and the inability to see reality.  After his six years in Washington and tens of billions of dollars spent on policies that centralize power at the Lyndon B. Johnson Building and away from classrooms, the Secretary continues to believe that his policies have been “game-changing,” a term he seemingly has on speed-dial.

Six years later, any policy analyst can review the data.  Arne Duncan’s impact on student achievement in the United States is no different from that of his predecessors—imperceptible.

When it comes to education, I hope Governor-elect Baker opts for empirically proven policies rather than the Secretary’s empty PR.

Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.

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