Mr. Duncan's Smart Lesson Plan

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, February 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Mr. Duncan's Smart Lesson Plan


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

Budget crises have their benefits.

Arne Duncan, 46, a 6-foot-5 former basketball player (he played professionally in Australia), was on the Harvard team that set the NCAA record for highest free-throw percentage. He and his teammates, he jokes, shot well only when no one was guarding them. As secretary of education, he has grades K through 12 in a full-court press. Duncan says No Child Left Behind got things "exactly wrong" by being "loose on goals but prescriptive about how to get to them," which marks him as a friend of federalism.

Some of the $4 billion in Race to the Top funding--incentives for innovations--has been used to prod states to repeal laws that prohibited linking teacher evaluations to students' achievements. The family is the smallest school, but as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Children don't think up algebra on their own." It is, Duncan acknowledges, inequitable for teachers to be held accountable for test scores of students from poor or broken homes, but it can be fair to link teachers' evaluations to students' improvements, controlling for poverty and other socioeconomic conditions.

Duncan says it is "easier to move the bottom than the top"--easier to make marked improvements in failing schools than in proficient ones. Hence the need for incentives to get good teachers to go to the worst schools.

Children can meet many states' standards for proficiency, Duncan says, and yet have no realistic hope of flourishing in college. Indeed, he says, "most" U.S. high-school graduates are "unprepared" for college. Duncan believes more rigorous state standards are necessary "to get higher education out of the remediation business."

Funding for grades K through 12 comes in large measure from property taxes, and the housing crash depressed property valuations. But budget problems confronting municipalities can, Duncan thinks, have benefits because "when you're flush, you keep doing the same things."

America's per-pupil spending is higher than that of the 34 OECD nations except for Luxembourg. "Students in Estonia and Poland," Duncan says, "perform at roughly the same level as those in the U.S., even though Estonia and Poland spend less than half as much per student." But many higher-performing countries emphasize higher teacher salaries rather than smaller class sizes. …

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