Secret legacy of Secretary Duncan

This month marked the official end of the No Child Left Behind era and the start of a state education policy paradigm. 

Under the newly minted Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Obama, states will have wide latitude to set their own goals, will be able to use a broader set of indicators to assess school quality and will be able to determine the interventions that will work best for their struggling schools. 

{mosads}But the dirty little secret may be that this isn’t quite the radical shift some would have you believe. In fact, because of the Education secretary’s leadership and through his policies, the work has already begun. 

That’s right: Contrary to popular belief, Secretary Arne Duncan actually shrank the federal footprint in education by empowering states to be drivers of education reform.

Duncan, who is stepping down from the Department of Education at the end of December, transformed the department’s work in three key ways. 

First, he reoriented its focus from hundreds of individual federal programs to its actual customers: states. Because of the way Congress creates and funds programs, the department traditionally operated in program-based silos, which led to similar silos in states and hampered efforts to link together programs in comprehensive reform. Under Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind waivers, states took on major challenges that required much more coordination at both the state and federal level. In response, Duncan created a new office that focused on supporting states across all of the major K-12 state grant programs, giving each state a single point of contact at the department who would know the state’s particular context and what its leaders were trying to accomplish.

Second, Duncan reshaped the type of support that the department provides. Instead of playing the role of expert, the department began acting as a convener, bringing states and districts together to learn from one another. Under Race to the Top, the department invested $43 million in a new support network, which included state-to-state partnerships around specific issues. This approach also transformed the department’s work on turning around low-performing schools with the creation of an online learning community where states, districts and schools could share best practices and learn from one another.

Third, he infused innovation and evidence in all of the department’s work. The most prominent example, the Investing in Innovation program, funds both promising ideas and those with evidence of impact, with more money going to programs with more evidence. Perhaps more important are changes that infused rigorous standards of evidence into the department’s little-known but highly influential administrative regulations, which govern all of the department’s work. These changes have led to a rise in evidence-based approaches in programs from the arts to literacy. As Duncan pushed states, districts and schools to use data and evidence in their work, he pushed his staff to do the same, always asking what was working and making adjustments when needed.

Still, there’s a real worry that these improvements to the ways the department does business won’t stick through the next administration. In fact, it’s happened before. But many of the changes are now so embedded in the department’s culture and operations that I’m willing to bet that they will. Certainly, the department’s core partners — states and districts — don’t want to go back to the way things were.

The Department of Education is a far different organization than the one Duncan inherited in January 2009. It’s striving to be a supportive partner for states and an engine of innovation, not an agency focused primarily on compliance.

Striking the balance between support and compliance is one of the central challenges to running an agency like the Department of Education. States must demonstrate that they appreciate that with greater flexibility comes greater responsibility, and the department must continue to hold their feet to the fire in terms of ensuring that all kids have access to a quality education. At the same time, in order to help all students graduate high school ready for success in college and a career, states and districts need more than an enforcer — they need a partner. Duncan’s vision and leadership transformed the department into that partner.

As one of the last remaining Obama administration Cabinet members, Duncan leaves a remarkable legacy. He brought a new sense of urgency and leadership on education’s most difficult challenges, and his departure leaves some big shoes to fill. Fortunately, his successor, John King, the former state superintendent of education in New York, knows firsthand the value of having a supportive partner in Washington. 

Martin is the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress. Before joining American Progress, Martin was the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the Department of Education.

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