At first, I didn’t think my Education Sector colleagues and I were going to get into Arne Duncan’s Senate confirmation hearing yesterday. Arriving at 8:00 for the 10:00 event, we were surprised to find a line of 50 people already camped out in the hallway. They were a pretty disheveled crew, and they weren’t exactly jazzed about the Duncan event. A couple were dozing off. But as 10:00 approached and the line grew to several hundred people, these early birds at the front began to disappear, replaced by well-heeled lobbyists for major education organizations, including a half dozen from the National Education Association. It turns out that the organizations hired a company to have homeless people arrive at 4 am to hold places in line for them (a thriving business on Capitol Hill, I discovered). At a rate of what one of the company’s representatives said was $30 an hour, the NEA spent over $1,000 to get its team in the room. The homeless seat-savers, of course, only saw a fraction of the fees. Perhaps they should unionize.
The hearing itself was pain-free for Duncan. He had some good opening lines—“never before has being smart been so cool” and “we can’t wait [to help disadvantaged kids] because they can’t wait.” We learned that he scored 20 points against Duke in a losing cause when he played basketball for Harvard. And for those trying to get a read on Duncan’s likely priorities at the Department, some of his comments were telling.
“I’m a big fan of “growth models,” he said, referring to calls in the policy community to shift the way the No Child Left Behind Act requires states to measure school performance to take into account how much schools improve individual students’ achievement over the course of a year, in contrast to measuring the law’s early focus on gauging how many students in a school meet state standards—a strategy that didn’t take into account the many non-school factors in student achievement and thus gave schools serving affluent schools an advantage.
He weighed in on the school time debate, saying “our day, our week, and our year are too short” in education.
He also sent a strong signal to the education establishment that he would support school reform. He plans, he said, to “challenge the status quo every single day.” I’m not sure that’s what the NEA lobbyists paid big bucks to hear, but that’s what they got.
“Teacher quality,” he said, “must be addressed on many levels: recruitment, preparation, retention, and compensation.” He endorsed pay for performance for teachers and praised the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, the $99 million program that promotes performance pay. “We can’t do enough to incent talent,” he told the members of the Senate Heath, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Notably, Senator Tom Harkin, a pro-labor Iowa Democrat who president over the hearing on behalf of chairman Ted Kennedy, gave a shout out to Teach for America, the alternative-certification program founded by Wendy Kopp that the unions are not thrilled about (TFA gets $14 million a year in federal appropriations, Harkin told the hearing). Duncan echoed Harkin’s praise of TFA and Kopp and extended it to other social entrepreneurs working in school reform, including Jon Schnur, a former Gore aid and founder of New Leaders for New Schools. He’s working on the Obama education transition and is a likely candidate for an administration job.
But Duncan is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He’s looking for solutions. Tapping the drive and the talent of education entrepreneurs like Kopp and Schnur makes sense to him. But so does expanding preschool and early childhood education. New research on the importance of intensive early language instruction in helping poor kids develop the cognitive skills they need in schools but often don’t get at home makes this a no-brainer, so to speak.
So is putting health clinics in schools in poor neighborhoods and keeping schools open 12 hours a day to teach parenting classes and English to immigrants, all things Duncan endorsed at the hearing. “The more schools become community centers the better,” he said. He wants to improve learning from within schools and without. Smart.