Answerin’ to Mr. Miller

Sometimes, what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say.  Case in point, EdSec Arne Duncan’s testimony yesterday before the House Education and Labor Committee.  Emphasizing current efforts to effectively use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars, Duncan focused on a number of issues in the free-form part of the discussion, including topics such as restraint and student loans.

The full rundown can be found over at the Committee’s website, complete with video links to testimony and key questions.  Some of the highlights from Duncan’s testimony:
Many of you have heard me say that I believe education is the civil rights issue of our time. I truly believe every child is entitled to a high-quality education. I will work closely with the Office of Civil Rights to make sure that we properly review compliance in all programs and policymaking.”
If we are going to be successful in rebuilding our economy, our early childhood programs need to prepare our youngest children for kindergarten so they’re ready to start reading and learning, our K-12 schools need to make sure our students have all of the academic knowledge and skills that they need to enter college or the workforce, and our higher education system needs to offer whatever advanced learning students need to be successful in a career, whether they will become a plumber, a teacher, or a business executive. As federal policymakers, we need to improve preparation for college and expand college access and completion by increasing financial aid so that students of all income levels can pay for college without taking on a mountain of debt.”
States must build data systems that can track student performance from one year to the next, from one school to another, so that those students and their parents know when they are making progress and when they need extra attention. This information must also be put in the hands of educators so they can use it to improve instruction. Right now, according to the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, and Utah are the only states that are reporting to have comprehensive data systems meeting the basic elements of a good system.”

“I don’t want to invest in the status quo. I want states and districts to take bold actions that will lead directly to the improvement in student learning. I want local leaders to find change agents who can fix these schools. I want them to provide incentives for their best teachers to take on the challenge of

teaching in these schools. And where appropriate, I want them to create partnerships with charter school operators with a track record of success. I want superintendents to be aggressive in taking the difficult step of shutting down a failing school and replacing it with one they know will work.”

“Our agenda from early childhood through 12th grade is focused on helping states do the right thing. And that’s appropriate because States are responsible for establishing systems of education through the 12th grade. It’s our role to make it a national priority to reform schools and help states and districts do that.”

Eduflack bookended the two quotes in particular because I find them the most intriguing of what was said.  The first is Duncan’s continued commitment to the notion that a high-quality public education is an American civil right.  Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has disagreed, determining that education is a topic best left to the states and the localities (at least according to the U.S. Constitution).  We’ve seen school equity fights in states like California and New York recently, but with limited results.  SCOTUS hasn’t really heard the issue since the Rodriguez decision in 1973.  Perhaps the EdSec is daring a forward-looking advocacy or policy organization to bring the issue before the Supreme Court yet again.  The time may be ripe.
Duncan also focused on the issue of “helping states do the right thing.”  Eduflack couldn’t agree more, but can’t help but notice Duncan’s team seems to be a little light in the state understanding department, as highlighted in our post yesterday. 
What was noticeably absent from Duncan’s testimony, though, was any mention of No Child Left Behind reauthorization.  Certainly, it is an issue that both he and Chairman Miller are all too aware of.  Maybe they’ve already had deep and intimate conversations on the topic, and thus didn’t need to talk for the sake of the public record.  Maybe Duncan believes his four pillars of the Duncan Education Department suffices as the blueprint for where we are headed.  Maybe we believe that ARRA and the President’s budget are all that we need to know when it comes to the plan for Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization this fall or next spring.
Also missing from the general love-fest over at Chairman Miller’s committee was discussion of two specific policy matters.  There was no talk of the Reading First successor bill circulating around town (which Eduflack has dubbed, Yes I Can Read), though plans to expand the Striving Readers program ten-fold did warrant a mention.  And there was no talk at all about the national education standards drafts that Achieve is rumored to be delivering to the EdSec in the coming weeks for review, discussion, and debate.
All in all, Duncan’s performance was just a regularly scheduled check-up with the Committee, a chance to show that ARRA plans are moving forward, key concerns are being addressed, and no additional attention or worry needs to be paid to the U.S. Department of Education.  The trains are running fine.  There is nothing to see here.
Me, I’m waiting for the questions that have yet to be asked.  What’s in store for our federal accountability measures?  What improvements will be made to NCLB?  What’s next for federal reading investment?  Are we really heading to national standards?  What are our expectations from these new data systems?  Are we really going to turn back the regs on four-year high school graduation rates?  And how do we ensure that every low-performing and hard-to-staff school has effective teachers leading the classroom when the feds are only contributing eight cents of every educational dollar spent?  Lots of questions.  Hopefully, the answers aren’t too far in the offing.
On a related note, I have to give kudos to Chairman Miller’s staff and the way that they make information accessible to the average parent and the average blogger.  Almost immediately, the Committee has transcripts of the prepared testimony, along with video segments of the hearing, up on the Web.  For us former Hill rats, it may not be a big deal to watch a congressional hearing, but the Committee’s use of technology really throws the sunshine on the process and improves understanding and access.  Congressman McKeon and his staff were always terrific about getting information out to interested parties, and it is good to see Chairman Miller has taken it several steps further.

370 thoughts on “Answerin’ to Mr. Miller

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