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Breakfast with Arne: On ESEA, RTT Losers & Union Fights

This morning Arne Duncan held court with six education bloggers for an hour of Q&A. Joining in the dialogue, besides Politics K-12, were Mike Petrilli from Flypaper, "Straight Up" Rick Hess, new Education Sector executive director Richard Lee Colvin, who writes for the Quick & the Ed, Dropout Nation's RiShawn Biddle, and Dana Goldstein, formerly of the Daily Beast and American Prospect.

Highlights of the conversation:

• First off, the department released two guides for states: one on "smart ideas to increase productivity and student achievement" and another on flexibility states have in using existing federal dollars. Both are meant to help states navigate the persisting fiscal woes, which Duncan first told my colleague and fellow blogger Sean Cavanagh about. (Here's the letter Duncan sent today to governors introducing the two new guides.) However, there's one important caveat to the "smart ideas" document, which suggests things like dual enrollment courses for high school students and digital textbooks. There's a footnote the Education Department has inserted saying it doesn't guarantee the "accuracy, timeliness or, completeness" of the ideas in this document, nor does the department pass judgment on their "importance or success." So, I'm wondering how useful these "smart ideas" really are?

• Speaking of flexibility, and the slow-moving reauthorization of ESEA, Duncan continued to insist that the Department is not thinking about Plan B (creating waivers for districts from NCLB requirements) if ESEA isn't reauthorized. When pressed (by yours truly), Duncan said: "We are doing our job in passing that bill."

• The department is working on putting out guidance to states and districts on the creation and use of new assessments, which will be very important to the department's School Improvement, Teacher Incentive Fund, and Race to the Top programs. For example, the guidance will emphasize that in subjects like physical education, a test doesn't have to be a traditional pencil-and-paper test.

• As the push for ESEA continues, the department is playing up the growing number of schools that are not hitting their AYP targets. Carmel Martin, the department's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, said as we get closer to the 2014 deadline for proficiency, 80 percent of schools will be considered failing. "The system just doesn't have any credibility," said Martin, who also sat in on the breakfast.

• For the nearly three dozen states who lost out on Race to the Top, Duncan is helping a few of them raise private money. He said he's worked with Colorado, New Mexico, and other states out west to get together with funders who can help with parts of the states' plans. And he's also helping six districts in California find private money. "We are doing calls with states and funders where that's helpful," he said.

• And finally, on the hot-button political battles going on in several states over collective bargaining, Duncan echoed a lot of what he told Cavanagh over at State EdWatch. He reiterated that unions do need to make concessions when it comes to benefits, but that you don't "want to sledgehammer" unions when they were starting to come around on issues such as improving the process for getting rid of ineffective teachers. "You want to give them room to grow," he said.

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