Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Arne Duncan and the HELP Committee

On January 13th, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP-which includes Senator Coburn) held a hearing to consider the nomination of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Here is a summary of that hearing.

The hearing was chaired by Senator Harkin (D-IA) in the absence of Senator Kennedy (D-MA). Also in attendance at the hearing were Senators Mikulski (D-MD), Reed (D-RI), Sanders (I-VT), Murray (D-WA), Enzi (R-WY), Alexander (R-TN), Coburn (R-OK), Roberts (R-KS), Burr (R-NC), Isakson (R-GA), Murkowski (R-AK), and Hatch (R-UT).

Opening Statements Superintendent Duncan was introduced by Senator Durbin (D-IL), who cited Duncan’s success in raising test scores and decreasing dropout rates and in working closely with the business community and unions. Senator Enzi, ranking Member on the Committee, made an opening statement in which he expressed his pleasure at Duncan’s “support for merit pay and charter schools.”

In his opening statement, Superintendent Duncan cited three “deeply held beliefs:”

1. Every child from every background can be successful.
2. When we fail to educate children, we “perpetuate poverty and social failure.”
3. Children have only one chance to be educated – we cannot wait because they cannot wait.

He spoke about wanting to focus on things that are practical, pragmatic, and innovative. His statement focused on the themes of recognizing and rewarding excellence, challenging the status quo, elevating the teaching profession, and scaling up what works. In his written statement submitted to the committee, Duncan stated with regard to NCLB, "I have seen the law's power and its limitations. I agree with the president-elect that we should neither bury NCLB nor praise it without reservation."

Questions and Answers

· Teacher Incentive Fund/Pay-for performance – Senator Alexander asked about Duncan’s views on the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF). Senator Burr asked about expanding pay-for-performance programs. Duncan stated that he is a big fan of TIF, calling it “one of the best things Secretary Spellings did.” He mentioned that he received TIF funds in Chicago and thought it was a highly successful program that rewards talent and helps to attract and keep great teachers where they are needed most. His goal is to reward excellent teachers. He wants to support and potentially expand TIF. Duncan indicated he had a teacher advisory council in Chicago that helped shaped the program and spoke positively about his partnership with the union. He also wants to look for other ways to support teachers and attract them to high-need areas, including career ladders.

· Teach for America – Senator Harkin expressed strong support for Teach for America (TFA). He stated that a “high percentage of Teach for America alumnae stay in teaching and become excellent teachers.” He indicated that TFA needs more money than Congress currently provides ($14 million). Harkin asked Duncan about his familiarity with Wendy Kopp, the head of TFA, and his views on the program. Duncan stated that he is a huge fan of Wendy, calling her “one of a breed of educational entrepreneurs that includes Jonathan Schnur (Executive Director of New Leaders for Schools)” who are “changing the face of public education.” He expressed his strong support for TFA and talked about the partnership Chicago schools had with the program. He called it a “pipeline of talent” and indicated that many TFA alumni are principals in Chicago schools and many are among his advisors. He would like to scale up TFA quickly.

· Teacher retention – Senator Mikulski asked why so many teachers leave the profession after only a few years and what can be done to retain quality teachers. Duncan talked about the need to support new teachers, including through induction and mentoring programs. He also indicated his support for career ladders. Duncan indicated that teaching is an art, not a science, and that it takes 10-15 years to develop excellent teachers.

· Teacher compensation – Senator Roberts indicated that the main reason teachers leave the profession is the need for more money. Duncan did not provide a response to this statement as no question was asked.

· Teacher preparation – In response to a question from Senator Reed, Duncan indicated his desire to work with institutions of higher education to make sure that teachers are prepared. He also stated his support for teacher residency programs. In addition, he stated support for alternative licensure programs.

· Early childhood education – Senators Harkin and Sanders asked questions about early childhood education and the need to ensure that children come to school ready to learn In his responses, Duncan cited the Obama “zero to five” plan and his goals for improving the quality of and access to early childhood programs. Duncan indicated that there is nothing more important than getting kids ready to learn and that early childhood programs need to be much more than glorified babysitting. Duncan also indicated support for a goal of moving to universal access to quality child care.

· Higher education – Senator Murray and Senator Sanders asked about access to and affordability of higher education. Duncan responded that we need to reduce barriers to higher education, including simplifying the federal financial aid application. He also indicated his support for increasing the Pell Grant award, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. He also stated support for loan forgiveness, cautioning that there has to be mutual responsibility and those who receive loan forgiveness must give back to the community.

Senator Burr asked about higher education matriculation rates and how long the government should have to pay for students to attend higher education. Duncan responded that he did not have a specific answer but would want to look for ways to support people who are trying to take advantage of the opportunity of higher education, including those who may need to take longer to complete their education.

· 21st Century skills – In response to a question from Senator Murray about preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow, Duncan highlighted the disconnect between the business community and education and his hopes for bridging those gaps. He stated his concern about the need to prepare students for 21st Century skills and gave the example of nursing, which cannot be outsourced.

· IDEA special education – Senator Roberts asked about IDEA funding, indicating that IDEA is currently the “biggest unfunded mandate foisted on schools.” Roberts indicated his strong support for increasing the federal share of IDEA costs. Duncan spoke about living on “the other side of the unfunded mandate” and the high price that mandate has had in Chicago’s schools.

· Highly qualified teachers/Special education --- Senator Coburn raised concerns about the impact of the definition of “highly qualified teacher” on special educators and the loss of teachers due to this problem. Senator Isakson later followed up with a similar question. In response, Duncan indicated that we need to take another look at things that are impractical and we need to be more pragmatic.

· Assessments for students with disabilities – Senator Isakson raised the issue of assessing students with disabilities and his belief that the IEP should determine the type of assessment. In response Duncan stated, “I tend to agree with you. We need to be practical.” He further added, “For English Language Learners, we need assessments that test knowledge. If we give an assessment they cannot read, what good is it?”

Senator Harkin raised the “one percent” and “two percent” rules, which limit the number of students with disabilities who can be tested with alternative assessments and count toward AYP. Harkin was concerned that these rules “leave as many as 30% of students with disabilities not counted.” Duncan stated that he “philosophically agrees” with the Senator.

· Adequate Yearly Progress – Senator Isakson raised concerns about judging schools on the failure of one subgroup. Duncan indicated his support for disaggregated data and growth models, but that it is too blunt an instrument to measure a school because of one student in one subgroup.

· Charter schools -- In response to a question from Senator Alexander, Duncan indicated that he is a great supporter of charter schools. However, he believes in holding charter schools accountable and does not believe that just anyone should be able to open a charter school. In Chicago, he stated that charters were successful because they had “rigorous strict standards up front.” In short, he supports creating schools in any format that works.

· Community schools – Senator Sanders asked about the provision of health services in schools. Duncan responded that schools should be community centers and provide services to the whole community. They should be open for 12 hours, not 6, to allow access for working parents.

· Dropout/Graduation rates – Senator Burr asked about the dropout rate problem. Duncan responded that the U.S. hasn’t so much fallen behind other countries as other countries have surpassed us. He stated that we do not need to look overseas to find good models for reducing dropout rates. He wants to “shine a light” on excellent programs in the United States and scale up what is working.

· Physical education – Senator Harkin spoke about the importance of physical education programs and the problems of childhood obesity. Duncan agreed, noting that his wife is a PE teacher.

· Challenges in rural areas – Senator Murkowski mentioned the challenges of education in a vast rural state like Alaska, and invited Duncan to visit Alaska to see these challenges first hand. She asked about a focus on middle school. Duncan indicated that there is “no magic bullet” as to which grade levels are most important and reiterated his themes of being practical, pragmatic, and focusing on what works.

Closing Statement
Senator Harkin closed the hearing by indicating his hope and expectation that Duncan would be confirmed unanimously by the full Senate.

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