That anger led Republicans to demand provisions in the replacement law that specifically curtailed the education secretary’s authority. Future secretaries, for example, are forbidden from mandating or even incentivizing states to adopt particular standards like Common Core. The provisions led scholars like Frederick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute to describe the new Every Student Succeeds Act as a “repudiation” of Duncan and his way of doing business.
You might think the departing secretary would be cool to the bill, if not downright bitter about the congressional stripping of his department’s power. But in an interview earlier this week, Duncan was practically jubilant.
“If you look at the heart of the bill, it absolutely reflects our values and priorities,” he told me.
The compromise hashed out over the last few months is a reflection of the fact that both parties came to believe that No Child Left Behind had gone too far and more importantly, that the waiver system Duncan implemented to shield states from its harshest penalties had caused a torrent of frustration across the country. The new law returns significant power to the states to develop their own accountability standards for schools, repealing the requirement that schools demonstrate “adequate yearly progress.” But it doesn’t eviscerate the federal role entirely.
The legislation maintains the requirement for annual testing, and it requires the Department of Education to sign off on state-developed plans for improving when states fail to improve their lowest 5 percent performing schools and high school “dropout factories.” It prevents states from exempting more than 1 percent of students from their main annual tests, and it mandates that states report performance data broken out by subgroups based on factors like income, race, language barriers, and learning disabilities—a tool advocates consider crucial for addressing the achievement gap. And in a victory for the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, the law includes $250 million in annual funding for early childhood education, although it is housed not in the Department of Education but in Health and Human Services.
Perhaps most importantly to Duncan, the law codifies the idea that states must develop standards to make students “college and career-ready.” “This is the first time in the history of the nation that college and career-ready standards are going to be the law of the land,” Duncan told me. “That’s a massive breakthrough.”
Yet Congress leaves it to the states to define what those mean, and Duncan acknowledged that the added flexibility offers “both the greatest opportunity and the greatest risk.” “If they focus on real long-term outcomes, then this is going to be a huge step in the right direction,” Duncan said. “If states resort to softer things and walk away from real outcomes for kids, that’s the risk.”