Archives for category: U.S. Department of Education

Mercedes Schneider transcribed key portions of the Congressional hearing into the ethics and performance of the US Department of Education.

Reader Chiara asked in a comment why there were no such hearings when Arne Duncan was in DC. A good question, since the events in the hearing occurred in 2013.

Earlier I posted a story about the four-hour grilling of the US Department of Education’s Chief Information Officer, Danny Harris.


According to the Washington Post, Mr. Harris had two outside businesses. And there was more that raised eyebrows:


The lawmakers’ concerns centered on an inspector general’s investigation that found Harris ran an after-hours car-detailing and home-theater-installation business that employed two subordinates from his agency and also allegedly accepted payments from other subordinates for the work.


The hearing also examined Harris’s effort to help a relative find work at the department and his close friendship with an agency vendor whose company has been awarded about $10 million in contracts to perform work that falls under the purview of his office.


Harris also failed to report an estimated $10,000 in income from his outside activities on federal disclosure forms and to the Internal Revenue Service, according to federal officials.



Here is a five-minute clip from that hearing, where Mr. Harris testifies and where Acting Secretary of Education John King insists that Mr. Harris was cleared by Department officials of any wrongdoing. This is a fascinating exchange and I highly recommend that you watch it.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post reports that Danny Harris, the chief information officer for the U.S. Department of Education, collapsed after a four-hour grilling into his after-hours business activities. He was rushed to the hospital but is okay now apparently. Harris is paid $180,000 for his work as a senior officer of the Department.


She writes:



The lawmakers’ concerns centered on an inspector general’s investigation that found Harris ran an after-hours car-detailing and home-theater-installation business that employed two subordinates from his agency and also allegedly accepted payments from other subordinates for the work.


The hearing also examined Harris’s effort to help a relative find work at the department and his close friendship with an agency vendor whose company has been awarded about $10 million in contracts to perform work that falls under the purview of his office.


Harris also failed to report an estimated $10,000 in income from his outside activities on federal disclosure forms and to the Internal Revenue Service, according to federal officials.


Although Harris told lawmakers that he exercised “poor judgment,” he said that his side jobs were hobbies, even as he earned money for them and paid subordinates to help him. He also had created business cards and a logo for the business.



When I worked in the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1990s, the ethical rules were extremely strict and unbending. If you worked at a high level, you could not pursue any outside business or have any outside earnings. Period. After I left the Department, I served on the National Assessment Governing Board (the board that oversees NAEP), an appointment by the Secretary of Education. There, even as an unpaid appointee, I had to fill out an ethics disclosure every year. At one point, I was investigated because the Department was concerned that I was receiving royalties from books that I had written. No, there was no conflict of interest. It was bizarre, but the point was that the rules were strong and made no exceptions.


Now, granted that a car-washing business and a home-theater installing business are not in conflict with education stuff. But that kind of outside income was strictly forbidden. That’s the way it was in 1991-1992. Maybe the rules have changed. Maybe senior officials can do what they want to earn extra money on the side.


Funny that Arne Duncan put himself in charge of policing every school in the nation, but couldn’t monitor his own immediate staff.

The series about the new Every Student Succeeds Act is concluded. I want to thank Senator Lamar Alexander and his staff, especially David P. Cleary, chief of staff, for responding to my questions. I know that readers have additional questions or want clarifications of some of the statements. The new law is the result of negotiations between the two parties. Questions will inevitably arise as the new law is implemented. Meanwhile, feel free to submit your questions and you can be sure that Senator Alexander’s staff will answer them as best they can. Let me add that there are things in this law I like, and things I don’t like. I will spell those out in a separate post.


Here are the links to each of the posts written by Senator Lamar Alexander’s staff.

1. ESSA and Testing

2. ESSA and Teacher Evaluation

3. ESSA and the Bottom 5% of Schools

4. ESSA and Opt Outs

5. ESSA and Special Education

6. ESSA and Teacher Education

7. ESSA and Charter Schools

8. ESSA and the Federal Role

9. ESSA and Common Core

This is the eighth in a series of exchanges about the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. I asked the questions, and David P. Cleary, chief if staff to Senator Lamar Alexander, answered them.

What is the role of the federal Department of Education and the Secretary in the new ESSA?

Short answer:

The role of the department under the new ESSA will be significantly scaled back from the role it has had under NCLB and the waivers. The Department still has a role in ensuring compliance with the law and monitoring state implementation of state plans, but the level of authority the Department has given itself over the past 14 years is significantly scaled back. But, it is important to remember that we are in a period of transition in moving to the new law, meaning the Department will have some authority from the old law and waivers that it can exercise until new state plans are in place.

Long Answer:

ESSA makes major changes in four areas: federal conditions on state accountability systems, peer review and secretarial approval of state plans, issuing regulations, and review of waivers.

First, ESSA significantly scaled back the federal footprint in the law by eliminating the original goal of all students being ‘proficient’ by 2013-2014, the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements, and the cascading sanctions that would go into effect of a school failed to meet state goals.

Second, the new law made significant changes to the peer review process and secretarial approval of state plans. Over the past 14 years, there has been too much secrecy about the approval process of state plans, and too much interference by the Department in reviewing and approving state plans. It is the role of the Department to determine whether the state plan meets the letter of the law—not whether the plans are ambitious or aggressive or exciting enough, or if the Secretary likes the state plan.

To take a couple examples: a state must show that it has an accountability system that will measure student achievement in all schools using the same measures and includes test scores, high school graduation rates, English language proficiency, and another indicator of school quality or student success. Academic indicators have to be a majority of the factors deciding school performance—but, other than that, how much those measures weigh, or count, in judging schools is not subject to negotiation with the peer reviewers or the Secretary. For example, if the peer reviewers really think that the state should weigh state tests at 43 percent instead of the state’s plan to weigh them at 38 percent, the peer reviewers can make that observation to the state, but neither they nor the Secretary can reject a plan because they don’t like the specific weights the state picks, so long as the state complies with the rest of the law’s requirements.

States can use whatever type of accountability system they want to identify and differentiate schools. Some will create a system involving A through F ranked schools, while other states will categorize schools as Excelling, Succeeding, Watch List, and 5 Percent schools. Others may go with Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Tin. The peer reviewers and Secretary cannot make a state change its system, or enforce a certain type of system.

Most importantly, ESSA made the entire federal review system a lot more transparent. Peer review comments and communications between states and the Department need to be made public, including on the Department’s website. Peer reviewer teams must be comprised of varied individuals that include practitioners and researchers, and states are given an opportunity for a hearing and a chance to revise a plan if the Secretary rejects a state plan for not meeting the law’s requirements. Imagine the showdown between a governor or chief state school officer defending their state plan to the Secretary and his staff. We think that the increased transparency will help states regain the upper hand. The Department’s power over the past 14 years has been both the requirements (and vagueness) of NCLB and the secrecy of peer review process. We’ve changed both in this new law.

Third, as explained elsewhere, ESSA has significantly changed the ability of the Secretary to issue regulations. The new law prohibits the Secretary from dictating or defining terms in a way this is inconsistent with or outside the scope of law, as intended by Congress. The new law also prevents the Secretary from mandating new activities by regulation, and even requires the Secretary to submit certain regulations, including those regarding standards or assessments, to Congress and the public before they become final to give Congress the opportunity to comment and review those regulations.

The best example of what would be prohibited is a requirement that states adopt a teacher evaluation system. Congress explicitly did not include a requirement for states to develop a teacher evaluation system in the law, so the Secretary cannot issue regulations imposing one on the states to get approval of state plans or waivers.

Fourth, ESSA ensures that if a state wants a waiver from the new version of the law, the Secretary cannot add new conditions as part of that review. Again, the teacher evaluation requirement is the best example of something we’ve prohibited. The Secretary is also prohibited from requiring the adoption of certain school turnaround or improvement efforts for any state seeking a waiver. For new waivers, the states can ask for a waiver and the Secretary is required to approve or deny the waiver on the merits of the waiver, not create new requirements that the state has to follow to get the waiver.

Last, it’s important to remember the transition period to the new law. It will take time for states to come up with new accountability systems and state plans. The effective date for accountability systems doesn’t kick in until the 2017-2018 school year to give states time to come up with new plans and transition out of old ones. We created the timeline as such to help prevent disruption for states.

Valerie Strauss writes that the U.S. Department of Education plans a new student data base that will collect personally identifiable information on 12,000 students, 500 teachers, and 104 principals, and and make the data available to private contractors.


EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), the nation’s premier organization defending privacy, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and said that its plans violate federal privacy laws.


The project is small today, only 12,000 students. But the precedent would allow larger and larger invasions of student privacy in the future.


The U.S. Department of Education worked closely with the Gates Foundation to try to establish inBloom, a data-collecting project that was halted by parent opposition. That data would have been available to private vendors too.


There is a federal law protecting student privacy. Clearly, the law should be strengthened so that the Department of Education is clearly barred from gathering personally identifiable information about any student. Under this administration, the ED has been a willing handmaiden of commercial interests, not children. This must stop.

No Child Left Behind required states to have a 95% participation rate in state testing; so does the new Every Student Succeeds Act. However, the U.S. Department of Education recently sent a letter to states with high opt out rates warning that there would be serious sanctions if their participation rate drops below 95%. The only reason this would happen is if large numbers of parents opted their children out of the testing. The Education Department that sanctions might include withholding federal funds. This is ironic: suburban parents opt their children out, so urban children (the main recipients of Title I funding) will lose funding. Good thinking, bureaucrats!


Randi Weingarten sent a letter to John King calling on him to back off:



January 7, 2016


The Honorable John King


Acting Secretary Department of Education


400 Maryland Ave., SW


Washington, DC 20202


Dear Acting Secretary King,


I am writing to express my disappointment and frustration at the Dec. 22, 2015, letter signed by Acting Assistant Secretary Ann Whalen regarding participation rates on state tests and the U.S. Department of Education’s planned enforcement of the 95 percent participation rate requirement.


This Dec. 22 letter signals intent to vigorously enforce the 95 percent test participation requirement and outlines consequences that include withholding funds. The letter goes against the spirit of a Dec. 18 letter from Acting Assistant Secretary Whalen, issued less than a week earlier, indicating that the department would fully support states, districts and schools as they transition to implementation of the new Every Student Succeeds Act. As you are well aware, while the new ESSA requires states to test 95 percent of students, it allows them to decide how they will factor this requirement into their accountability system. States are now working out how they will move to new accountability systems, and they need the flexibility and support offered in your Dec. 18 letter, not the threat of sanctions contained in the Dec. 22 letter.


Make no mistake, the opt-out movement—the reason that so many states did not meet the 95 percent participation requirement in 2014-15—was a referendum on this administration’s policies that created the culture of overtesting and punishment. Your October 2015 “Testing Action Plan” admitted as much, and the overwhelmingly bipartisan passage of ESSA was a strong signal that the page must be turned on these policies.


With one year left in your administration, we ask that you step away from business as usual. America’s schools don’t need letters threatening to withhold much- needed funds. They need support as they work to figure out their new accountability systems, including how the 95 percent participation requirement will be included.


Congratulations on your new role, and we look forward to working with you this year on ESSA implementation.




Randi Weingarten President

Laura Chapman, regular reader and commenter and expert on the arts, writes:



1. For people interested in the recent history of US technology policy for education see: “A Retrospective on Twenty Years of Education Technology Policy” (2003) prepared for the US Department of Education (USDE) by American Institutes for Research (Douglas Levin, Project Director).


This report shows the role of “blue ribbon reports,” from CEOs of tech and testing companies, McKinsey & Co., the US Chamber of Commerce and other groups in putting technology front and center in K-12 education and teacher education. The push is illustrated by the dates and titles of publications included in this “retrospective” report that begins in 1983 with “A Nation at Risk,” from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (In the 1960s USDE thought 8mm closed loop videotapes were the hot new technology).


2. In one of the first of several USDE technology plans, issued during the tenure of Secretary of Education Rod Paige, we see one of the first claims that proper policies on technology will revolutionize education. Notice the long and grandiose title (caps in the original) “A New Golden Age In American Education HOW THE INTERNET, THE LAW AND TODAY’S STUDENTS ARE REVOLUTIONIZING EXPECTATIONS: National Education Technology Plan 2004.”


One of many predictions:


“With the benefits of technology, highly trained teachers, a motivated student body and the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the next 10 years could see a spectacular rise in achievement – and may usher in a new golden age for American education.” p. 46.


3. The follow-on technology plan from USDE, 2010, has the same theme: “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology: National Education.“ This report calls for “revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering.”(p.ix).“ Specifically, the integrated technology-powered learning system should be able to:


• “Discover appropriate learning resources;
• Configure the resources with forms of representation and expression that are appropriate for the learner’s age, language, reading ability, and prior knowledge; and
• Select appropriate paths and scaffolds for moving the learner through the learning resources with the ideal level of challenge and support.”


“As part of the validation of this system, we need to examine how much leverage is gained by giving learners control over the pace of their learning and whether certain knowledge domains or competencies require educators to retain that control.


We also need to better understand where and when we can substitute learner judgment, online peer interactivity and coaching, and technological advances, such as smart tutors and avatars for the educator-led classroom model. (p. 78).”


Part of the marketing pitch for this envisioned learning system, with a minor role (if any) for a human teachers, it a request for federal investment in a national “mission” comparable to that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is credited with “the birth of the Internet.”


The DARPA-like mission for education?


“Identify and validate design principles for efficient and effective online learning systems and combined online and offline learning systems that produce content expertise and competencies equal to or better than those produced by the best conventional instruction in half the time at half the cost (p. 80)


In other words, “conventional instruction” is inefficient, ineffective, amateurish, takes too much time, and it costs too much. “Learning systems” can produce more learning, in less time, at lower costs…and with more content “expertise” …and real-time sentiment analyses for a feed back loop to the recommendation system, for personalized praise, or admonishments, or “you can do this” cheerleading consistent with the Dweck theory of mindsets that favor “success.”


If this “mission” succeeds, face-to-face encounters with wise and caring human teachers are likely to become a luxury, a frill, a bonus, an enrichment.


For the masses, algorithms contrived and organized to function as depersonalized learning systems will do the job of transmitting knowledge, deciding what questions should be presented, what forms the answers may take, and whether particular responses are satisfactory.


Orwell smiles, along with Bill Gates and all of the CEOs who have marketed this vision, and cynically advertised such systems as “personalized.”


If you want to see USDE’s latest enthusiasms for technology, go to and look especially at page 9, a project to change student “mindsets” with the link to USDE funding of this “at scale” project.

Kipp Dawson is a veteran teacher and union activist in Pittsburgh (she also spent a decade as a coal miner, this is one tough lady).


She is as as brave and clear-eyed a thinker as I have met. She recently received a form letter from President Obama expressing his new views about testing, and she decided to share her reply. Personally, if I got the form letter, I would ask the President why he thinks it is up to him and Secretary Duncan to tell the public schools of the United States how much time to devote to testing. This is not part of the federal role. In fact, federal law clearly states that no officer of the federal government may seek to influence, direct or control curriculum or instruction. Anyone who works in a school will tell you that testing has a direct influence over curriculum and instruction, especially when high stakes are attached to it and the survival of the school depends on it. Neither the President nor the Secretary was ever a teacher or an administrator in a public school. Why do they think they should tell the nation’s schools how much testing is “just right”? They have neither the authority nor the knowledge to do so.


Kipp Dawson writes:



Dear President Obama,


While I abhor the scurrilous racist attacks which have been hurled on you, I must respond to you from the opposite corner of the room.


Your recent statements on the over-testing of our children came like salt into the gaping wounds your administration has inflicted on our public education system. I speak here as a teacher, a parent, a citizen, a human on this planet of ours


Starting with the unbelievable (I wish) concept that schools and cities should compete against one another for funding for their schools (“RACE to the top,” really?!) to each and all of your DoE’s undermining of our public schools, teachers, and communities — historians will have to put on your “legacy” list the destruction of public education in our country.


While it will take decades to undo and turn around the damage, it is not too late to try.


Too little, too late, as your “apology” on testing is, is not the best way to leave us.


Imagine your two beautiful daughters in the public school system in Chicago, and place yourself alongside the other parents, and the teachers and community members who are giving their all to try to save and really build public schools there. Then say what really needs to be said.


It is not too late.


Very truly yours


Kipp Dawson

When I worked in the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1990s, there was a strict code of ethics. The Inspector General’s office scrutinized every employee and transaction for any hint of personal or commercial gain. But now the Department itself is hawking products.

Reader Chiara sent this comment:

“Here’s the US Department of Education selling a product called “Edgenuity”. This reads like an actual advertisement. I wonder if the company helped draft the ad:

“Village Green uses an online curriculum, called “Edgenuity,“ which allows students to move through assignments at their own pace. Every student has a workstation where they log into their own personal Edgenuity portal and choose what to work on. Students take frequent tests and quizzes, and complete practice assignments. A data dashboard displays skills they’ve already mastered in green, those they are on track to master in blue and those they are struggling with in red.

“The main things the teachers are freed from at Village Green are quiz and test construction, grading, and designing core lessons. “However, they still have to plan the workshop and plan to re-teach Edgenuity in case a lesson is not grasped,” explained Pilkington.”

“Is it ethical (or even legal) for Obama’s ed dept to be selling tech product to public schools? Aren’t there rules or regs about this sort of thing? Where is the line between the public sector and the private sector?”


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