John Merrow has been a close observer of American education for decades, so it is always interesting to read him. In this post, he reflects on what Arne Duncan did and accomplished.

John expected that Arne’s experience in Chicago would have inclined him to push for less federal micromanagement but this didn’t happen.

“As CEO of the public schools in Chicago, Duncan had chafed under the directives of “No Child Left Behind” and its hundreds of pages of regulations. I thought the lesson of NCLB was inescapably clear: Washington cannot run public education. However, Democrats, including Secretary Duncan, apparently reached a different conclusion: “Perhaps REPUBLICANS cannot run public education, but we can.”

John made arrangements to film the creation of Race to the Top, but the DOE lawyers mixed it.

Early on, he found Arne open and accessible. As time went by, however, he gave canned answers and talking points, seldom straying.

John thinks that Arne’s worst mistake was to tie teacher evaluations to student scores.

Arne became the most powerful Secretary of Education in the Department’s history, because of the leverage that $5 billion discretionary dollars gave him, a gift from Congress as part of the economic stimulus that followed the 2008 crash.

Arne used that leverage to impose a heavy federal hand on almost every state and literally, to take control of public education–a goal that no other Secretary of Education ever tried (because it was illegal). As a result of Arne’s assertiveness, legislation to reauthorize ESEA/NCLB strips the Secretary of any authority to meddle in state and local issues related to curriculum, assessment, instruction. Such prohibitions are already in the law but Duncan ignored them. I wonder why there has been no lawsuit by a state or district to challenge his indifference to these clear prohibitions against meddling in curriculum and instruction. He claims that he had nothing to do with the Common Core standards, but that is widely viewed as a fabrication since states had to adopt something very much like them (and there were no competitors) to be eligible to compete for Race to the Top funding. Surely, the federal funding ($360 million) of two tests aligned to the CCSS has something to do with shaping curriculum and instruction.

So $5 billion was spent by Arne to promote school closings (mostly in black and Hispanic communities), to encourage the opening of more privately managed charter schools (despite the number of scandals associated with their deregulation and lack of oversight), to make standardized testing the most important ends and means of education, to fire principals and teachers, and to impose an invalid means of evaluating teachers and principals.

Merrow wonders:

“What if he had used that power differently? What if the Secretary had told states that they would be evaluated on their commitment to art, music, science, and recess? Or to project-based learning? Or social and emotional learning? Instead of today’s widespread teacher-bashing, excessive testing, test-prep, and a rash of cheating scandals, many more schools might be places of joy.”

I ask: What if he had used that power to request voluntary proposals to desegregate the nation’s schools?

We would be a different country. It would have been money well spent.

Unfortunately, neither happened. The $5 billion for Race to the Top was not only squandered, but did incalculable harm to students, educators, and public education.