Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Wednesday denied that there is a direct "causal" effect between the high-stakes testing under the No Child Left Behind law and the cheating scandals that have erupted in school systems across the country, including the District.
While saying that pressure to meet NCLB-established benchmarks may have played a role, he blamed the problem on ineffective school leaders who "turned a blind eye" to brewing problems and refused to confront the reality that teachers were lying to students and parents.
"I think there is a morally bankrupt culture there," Mr. Duncan said, referring specifically to Atlanta, where a recent government probe found that 44 schools and 178 teachers and principals had been faking test scores for the past decade.
Similar cheating charges have been leveled at schools in Dallas, Baltimore, Houston and elsewhere.
Dozens of Pennsylvania schools, many in the Philadelphia area, are under review. In the District, the Education Department's inspector general is assisting with a cheating investigation. Scores in more than 30 New Jersey schools are getting a second look, and state officials are implementing more stringent controls over testing.
Education specialists have theorized that NCLB, which labels schools as "failing" if they don't meet student performance thresholds in reading and math, is the driving force behind cheating. In Atlanta, teachers are said to have erased students' incorrect answers and replaced them with the right ones, artificially boosting scores and helping districts avoid the "failing" designation.
The secretary said he finds the cheating scandals "heartbreaking," especially for students who were led to believe they scored much better than they actually did.
"You have so many young people who needed additional help," Mr. Duncan said. "The most important thing we can do as adults is to tell children the truth."
He made his remarks during the first-ever "Twitter Town Hall," where teachers, students and members of the public were invited to submit questions via social media. Many dealt with cheating and the need to reform current student assessment systems.
While stressing that accountability must remain the foundation of education, Mr. Duncan said he thinks schools should avoid spending too much time getting their students ready for standardized tests. Preparing for NCLB and other assessments, he said, should be "a tiny percent of what we're doing," and teachers should instead have more freedom in the classroom.
To give them that freedom, Mr. Duncan has proposed an NCLB waiver system for states that show commitment to reform and maintain a high bar for student achievement. In exchange, they'll be exempted from the "failing" label and other negative consequences under current law.
The details of the waiver plan will be released next month, but Mr. Duncan said he's received positive feedback from nearly every governor in the country. He argues the proposal - which he calls "plan B" since Congress has been unable to pass an education reform bill - will result in a "narrower, smaller federal footprint" in the day-to-day operations of schools across the country.
"I'm frankly trying to get Washington out of the way," he said. "Washington can never run public education. Education has always been and should be at the local level."
But the waiver proposal isn't meant to let Congress off the hook, and Mr. Duncan said he "desperately" hopes the House and Senate will come together on a bipartisan bill soon. The House Education and the Workforce Committee has passed three bills in a five-part reform package, while the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee thus far has produced nothing, despite calls from the administration that a new law be in place for the start of this school year.
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