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Duncan: Incentive Grants May Be Used to Reward Rigor

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Arne Duncan, the brand-new Secretary of Education, said today that he would consider using $15 billion in proposed federal incentive grants to reward states for setting more "rigorous" standards. The money would be available to him under a broad $819 billion stimulus package that passed the House, with no GOP support, last night.

"There's a series of things we're looking for," in allocating those funds, Duncan told me, in the first of a round of one-on-one interviews he gave to reporters. He indicated that the Department would want states that receive the funds to have a comprehensive data system, strong assessments, and rigorous standards. "With this fund, we really have a chance to drive dramatic changes, to take to scale what works, invest in what works."

Given his emphasis on standards, I asked him whether he might use the fund to push for national or more uniform, rigorous standards. He left the door open for that. "Sure, absolutely," he told me (though without committing himself.) "Lots of folks are already thinking this way. We want to reward rigor and challenge the status quo."

—Christopher Powers/Education Week

I asked him about some of the reform-oriented programs in the stimulus package. He wasn't specific about which items the administration had pushed for until I brought up the $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund in one version of the bill, which doles out grants to districts for alternative pay programs, the $25 million for charter school facilities, and the $250 million state data systems.

"That stuff's hugely important to me,"Duncan said.

Those provisions were included in the House version of the stimulus package, but not in the Senate measure, to the consternation of some folks in Edu-Think-Tank Land.

Duncan was largely viewed as a compromise candidate who could bring together two disparate groups in the Democratic party. Some say there is one faction led by the unions and other education organizations, and another led by civil rights groups and some urban superintendents. (You can read more about the perceived division here.)

"The press likes controversy, pitting folks against each other," Duncan said. "We have to dramatically increase our [academic] expectations" he said, but he also talked about addressing children's social needs as a part of a boosting achievement. "If they're hungry we need to feed them, if they don't have clothes you need to give them clothes. ...We need to absolutely push as hard as we can on both of these agendas. These are not in competition with each other. They are absolutely complementary."

I also asked him whether he might be interested in revisiting the broad new Title I regulations put in place by Secretary Margaret Spellings during her last year on the job. He said he wasn't ready to talk about that yet.

And, unfortunately, I wasn't able to get him to spill the names of any folks who might be coming into the Department in sub-cabinet positions, such as Deputy Secretary of Education. He said he was looking for "folks who are absolute innovators, who are visionaries." He said the personnel "picture would get a whole lot clearer over the next two weeks." So stay tuned on that, I guess.

Before our interview, Mr. Duncan told me he is considering sending his children to a public school in Northern Virginia. Greg Toppo, over at USA Today, has more.

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Please someone tell me what "strong assessments" and "rigorous standards" mean to Arne Duncan! And please don't tell me it is built around multiple-choice standardized tests. These types of tests may be able to judge the knowledge acquisition of someone training to sell real estate, or be a contractor, but as the main means to judge if a kid is developing?

We have a history of depending on multiple-choice intelligence tests to judge people's IQs. That led to a fiasco in the 1920s of labeling Jews and southern European immigrants as mental defectives that should be barred from entry to the United States. That means of assessment was later shown to be total bunk by social scientists.

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