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Educating for Democracy: Has Arne Duncan Seen the Light?

The recent reports coming from the Department of Education that Arne Duncan has decided to grant "waivers" to states that feel overwhelmed by the requirements of No Child Left Behind for a 100% compliance for student achievement gives hope that the many reports and protests that have come to his attention have finally penetrated his awareness that standardized tests simply don't accomplish what they are supposed to: improved public education.

In a recent Huffington Post item (8/8/2011), Joy Resmovits reported:

On Monday, the Obama administration said it would use waivers to provide regulatory relief to states, confirming an earlier plan that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan first mentioned in June in light of what he called a "slow-motion train wreck" created by the law."Today it's forcing districts into one-size-fits-all solutions that simply don't work," Duncan said on Monday. Congress has failed to reauthorize NCLB since 2007.

But although the toxic "one-size-fits-all" rubric that educators over the last decade have objected to is finally being acknowledged by Duncan for what it is: a bad idea badly implemented, much dangerous territory lies ahead. As a fig-leaf to his acknowledgement that the standardized testing mania is a failure, the Secretary of Education has indicated that in order for a state to get a waiver, it has to agree to certain stipulations, some of which could be as restrictive and harmful as the ones that are being waived. It's hoped that common sense will prevail over more micro-managing of students, teachers and supervisors that has passed for "Education reform" in the previous ten years. Perhaps the recent meeting Duncan had with representatives from the SOS March held in Washington D.C. on July 30th made him realize how damaging the program -- including the Obama initiative, "Race to the Top," which is NCLB on steroids -- has been to public schools. But there is no telling what kind of testing schemes the states themselves will come up with to substitute for Federal mandates.

Even if one of the most important demands of the SOS March were met, however, an end to standardized testing, it will take a great deal of patience and the exercise of common sense and decency in public school governance, particularly the way teachers are treated, to attract high-quality students comparable to those in Finland to choose a teaching career. The recent test cheating scandals, which might have also been a factor in persuading Duncan to change his policy, show evidence of what can happen when an almost impossible task is given to teachers who know that with all their most conscientious efforts to improve their students' learning, they have little control over its results. One can only hope that school boards around the country will take the hint and finally listen to educators who have thoroughly researched fair and effective ways to evaluate educational achievement. But like Dr. Frankenstein, the creation Arne Duncan has helped develop might be out of his own control. He may have "seen the light" but the restrictions on good teaching imposed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top in the hands of officials who still are wedded to the idea of standardized testing might be with us for decades to come.

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Joel Shatzky

Joel Shatzky is an early-retired English Professor who taught writing and drama at SUNY-Cortland (1968-2005) and is presently teaching English and writing at King...