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DISPELLING THE MYTH: Duncan Defends NCLB Waivers in First Post-Election Speech

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“Contrary to what you may have read, these waivers will push states to dramatically accelerate achievement and attainment for disadvantaged students and students of color.”

In his first post–Election Day remarks, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, by re-electing Barack Obama as president, the American people affirmed that education is “not just an expense on a budget line that can be sacrificed in tough economic times,” but that it is “an investment in the future of our nation and our children—all of our children.” Duncan pivoted from the election to equity and achievement gaps and devoted the majority of his speech to defending the waivers that the U.S. Department of Education granted to states from certain aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

“Contrary to what you may have read, these waivers will push states to dramatically accelerate achievement and attainment for disadvantaged students and students of color,” Duncan said during his November 8 speech at the Education Trust’s “Dispelling the Myth” awards ceremony.

Duncan said NCLB’s goal that 100 percent of students be proficient in 2014 was “laudable and lofty,” but “not credible.” Faced with meeting this “utopian goal,” Duncan said too many states took the “easy path,” by lowering standards to make it look like more students were proficient. On the flip side, too many schools that were successfully educating black, brown, and poor children, and were actually closing achievement gaps, were labeled as failures, Duncan said.

As an example, Duncan pointed to Kentucky where only about 20 percent of schools were accountable for the performance of African American students, even though 85 percent of Kentucky’s schools enrolled African Americans. Under Kentucky’s waiver, however, Duncan said 99 percent of schools will be accountable for the performance of these students.

“No one was more hurt by setting unrealistic goals and states gaming the system than disadvantaged students and students of color,” Duncan said.

Duncan said the goals of the NCLB waivers are to “protect children, set a high bar, and provide as much flexibility as possible.” He said getting the goals right was important, but not as important as the actual outcomes for children. “What matters most is results,” Duncan said. “Whether kids are learning, and if achievement gaps are narrowing dramatically.”

Duncan’s complete speech is available at http://1.usa.gov/SOcplg.

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