Did Former DOE Official Admit to Breaking U.S. Law?

“U.S. Dept. of Education officials write about accountability and evidence-based reforms, yet purposefully ignored decades of research on successful learner-centered whole school innovations and the dangers of high-stakes testing. Federal laws were ignored, new rules, measurement tools and standards were written out of thin air. By cutting professional teachers and education experts out of the formulation of education policies and seeking to “leverage” change, DOE’s leaders (directly connected to charter school investors) put in place one of the most destructive education policies in recent U.S. history. And, they broke the law to do it, in my opinion.” ~Christopher Chase

violating law 2

Joanne Weiss, the former Dept. of Education official in charge of President Obama’s Race to the Top program recently wrote an article entitled  “Competing Principles” for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It’s a journal put out by Stanford University’s PACS (Center on Philanthropy & Civil Society), an educational institution which seeks to “leverage the intellectual assets of a diverse, world-class faculty across the University,” created by “Billionaire Professor” Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen,

In the essay, former RTTT director Weiss describes the goals, methods and strategies of the program and speaks of the importance of creating a competition so as to  “force” and “require” agreement from leaders in each state. Weiss wrote that:

 “First, we forced alignment among the top three education leaders in each participating state—the governor, the chief state school officer, and the president of the state board of education—by requiring each of them to sign their state’s Race to the Top application. In doing so, they attested that their office fully supported the state’s reform proposal. “

The idea of “forcing alignment” is not the way educators typically speak. We think more in terms of supporting, facilitating and guiding change. But Weiss is not an educator, her background is with business, consulting and administration.

Before moving to the Dept. of Education Ms. Weiss worked for almost 8 years as a director at New Schools Venture Fund, a charter school investment group funded by Eli Broad, The Walton Family, Pearson Foundation, Bill Gates & others. (see also: Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools)

She was one of many Broad connected Dept. of Education officials brought over by Eli Broad’s friend Arne Duncan (a former member of Broad’s board). Writing below in the comments area, Colorado parent Cheri Kiesecker responded to Weiss this way:

“This confession is astounding. How distrubing that the federal government would “promote approaches to education reform that would be coherent, systemic, and statewide” when there are laws prohibiting the US Dept of Ed from directing local education.  RTTT, taxpayer money,  could have, SHOULD have been used to help struggling schools in a time of “profound budgetary challenge for state governments,”  instead you chose this as an opportunity. “A perfect storm for reform,”  with no teacher or parent approval necessary or invited involvement.”

Indeed, the observation that Department of Education officials appear to have broken U.S. Law was put forward by Diane Ravitch as early as 2013. Ravitch had worked for the Department of Education and said that there were strict rules governing what Federal employees could and could not do. In a blog post entitled “Is Common Core Illegal? Did Duncan Break the Law?” she wrote this:

When I worked in the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1990s, I was frequently reminded by colleagues and counsel that the Department was forbidden by law from interfering into what was taught in the schools. When the Department made grants to professional groups of teachers and scholars to create “voluntary national standards,” I made a point of never interfering in their work. I extolled the value of having standards that states, districts, and schools might find useful but made clear that the decision to use or not to use the standards was strictly voluntary. There was no thought that the Department could advocate for the standards or use money to bribe states to adopt them. That would have been illegal.

This is what the law says: Public Law 103-33, General Education Provisions Act, sec 432,reads as follows:

“No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, [or] administration…of any educational institution…or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials…”

But consider this: in 2009, the federal Department of Education used billions of dollars as part of its “Race to the Top” to lure states to adopt the Common Core standards. That is the reason that 45 or 46 states adopted them. According to Robert Scott, former commissioner of education in Texas, his state was asked to adopt the CCSS before they were finished.

Since the Department of Education could not pay for the creation of the standards, the Gates Foundation stepped in and provided the necessary millions. In order to win a waiver from the absurd demands of NCLB, states had to agree to adopt the Common Core standards.

The role of the federal government in offering money to states to adopt the standards may well have been illegal. Secretary Duncan’s fervent advocacy for the standards at every opportunity may well be illegal… This is dangerous territory. These are questions that should be carefully considered by Congressional committees, not brushed aside as unimportant…”

Diane Ravitch’s discussion of the billions of dollars involved with Race to the Top is another issue that was mentioned in Weiss’s article and that received a powerful response in the comments area below. In the article Weiss describes how they set their program up as a competition rather than dividing the money up equitably. The purpose was to gain compliance by the states leadership. There seemed to be very little thought about issues of poverty and inequality of financial resources that most states and poorer local communities have experienced. In the comments area, author Victoria M. Young pointed out that:

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars being used on a poorly designed experiment was a horrible waste of tax dollars at a time when schools – ACROSS THE COUNTRY – needed real help. Let me try to explain because clearly you people don’t get it. First, you set the rules. Then you say winners were picked that “had outstanding ideas for improving educational outcomes.” You forgot the part about how they had to be in lock step with what you leaders already decided. Then, you all thought it was a good idea to pick winners that “were also in a strong position to implement those ideas.” That is where all logical thinking about real reform (improving those schools that aren’t “strong”) is dead in the water. Do you wonder why historically we never succeed in “scaling-up” ideas that “work” in states that already have good outcomes? Think about it. Competitive grants? What a horrible way to do the business of educating all children!”

Indeed, the entire article by Ms. Weiss seems less like a description of how to facilitate effective school reform as guidelines for how wealthy private citizens can use their money to “leverage” the takeover of a nation’s public education system by gaining control of positions of power and authority, so as to make up new rules.

In my response to Ms. Weiss, in the comments area, I focused on just one sentence in her article that was filled with (what I believe are) deceptions and mistruths, based on my knowledge of successful learner-centered education reforms and research. She wrote that:

“The competition required applicants to address four key areas: standards and assessments, teachers and leaders, data, and turning around low-performing schools.”

Concerning “standards and assessments” – In reality, what happened is that the Common Core standards and assessments were put together in secrecy by people associated with testing (not learning), with a pedagogy out of the Cold War era (New Criticism) and little input from real teachers and education reform experts. DOE officials ignored research on child development, focused on high-stakes testing and rigid standards, which all the research has shown diminishes student motivation and learning. See this blog article that I wrote, Fraud at the Heart of Education Reform, for more details on this.

With “teachers and leaders” – yes, the Department of Education helped put Broad Academy affiliated persons like Ms. Weiss & Mr. Duncan in leadership positions. They also “leveraged” states to introduce VAMs and teacher assessments which leading researchers and statisticians such as Stanford’s Prof. Edward Haertal have said do not have validity as measures. This led to a witch hunt mentality shared with the media, and a demonization of the teaching profession, beginning with the President himself, saying that “bad” teachers would be located (with new assessment strategies) and terminated. Since 2008, we have seen a drop in morale among teachers as a result.

True, Race to the Top and Common Core focused on collecting data and testing, but officials ignored  decades of careful research and innovation with effective whole school reform and student learning that researchers in the field of education have carefully studied and implemented successfully. Professional educators don’t collect data thoughtlessly, when we assess students we need to care about the children we are testing, to observe how data collection influences them, to be sure we are motivating learners and not doing them harm.

For many educators and students in the U.S., the results of Common Core and Race to the Top has been something akin to a sabotage of their learning and teaching. This is what created the Opt Out movement and has caused so much distress for millions. Data collection and top-down decisions that do not take into account the effects on human beings are very destructive.

As an example, film maker Michael Eliot talked with Jitu Brown, last April (see video). Mr. Brown is one of a dozen people who have been on a hunger strike for Dyett High School in Chicago, to protest the actions of their mayor and education administrators there. For almost a month now they have not eaten, to draw attention to officials who have failed to communicate and collaborate with local neighborhood school communities.

In the interview, Jitu Brown shares a story about two elementary schools in his area, and “their destruction at the hands of Chicago Public Schools [administration].” Like Ms. Weiss, he describes two “competing principles,” one that cares about children, teachers and parents as human beings, the other focused solely on power and manipulation. As Michael Elliot put it, “Its a tragic story that is echoed around the country, where the voices of communities are ignored and politics takes over.”

DOE officials sometimes claim that their intention has been to “turn around” and support low performing schools. Sadly, nothing of the sort has happened in Chicago, Philadelphia and many other urban cities. Low performing public schools where not turned around, they were shut down, with profit-making charters opened in their place and thousands of teachers and staff (mostly people of color) put out of work.

Given that the leaders of the DOE have strong connections with the charter school industry, many believe that this closing of neighborhood schools in poor communities was their intention from the very beginning. That’s the biggest deception here, in my opinion. There are documents available, from leading Democratic fund-raisers with ties to charter schools, that describe how a plan was hatched to use President Obama as “cover” in order to bypass American educators, so that people who were already financially well-off could fill their pockets further. This is not some conspiracy theory, as the plan was laid out in this DFER (Democrats for Education Reformdocument from 2012:

“[Governors] of both parties nationwide have been empowered by the “cover” that has come from a Democratic President who has been willing to embrace reforms that are not always in line with the priorities of the nation’s powerful teachers unions. The evidence of what this shift in a political messenger can bring is clear-cut. As a result of the RTTT competition, fifteen states lifted caps on the creation of new charter schools, and one state enacted a charter school law. Charter schools flourished more under three years of Obama than under eight years of George W. Bush. Funding for state charter school grants, for example, stayed between about $68 million and $81 million during Bush’s two terms, but jumped to $138 million during Obama’s first full budget year…

Along with the creation of new charter schools, the RTTT program effectively demonized and dis-empowered teachers, leveraging the competition design so as to pressure states to create new teacher evaluation systems, even though there was absolutely no evidence that these evaluations were valid instruments. Rather then focusing on innovative and successful public school transformation projects like Deborah Meier’s Mission Hill School and James Comer’s School Development Development Program at Yale, they sought to demonize teachers, and focus on the collection of “data.”

“The politics of teacher evaluations changed instantly and forever when President Obama made improved teacher evaluations a cornerstone of his federal “Race To The Top” initiative. “If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that in too many places we have no way – at least no good way – of distinguishing good teachers from bad ones,” Obama said, in unveiling the RTTT competition. “Let me be clear: success should be judged by results and data is a powerful tool to determine results. We can’t ignore facts. We can’t ignore data.”

These are the words of DFER’s director, Joe Williams, and President Obama. One can find additional “evidence” of their intentions at the website of Joanne Weiss’s former employer New Schools Venture Fund. The plan was to intentionally target the schools of the poorest and most disenfranchised Americans, shutting them down. Closing their doors, sending the kids on buses elsewhere and opening new charter schools. Anyone who goes to the source documents of DFER and New Schools Venture can see that it was all intentionally designed to work this way, not as present and former DOE officials spin it.

The use of high-stakes testing and competition for limited rewards is a method Asian schools still use to force compliance, over-work and obedience. It’s an out-dated paradigm of teaching that progressive educators have spent decades dismantling and moving beyond, an authoritarian model linked to suicides and bullying in China & Japan. (For more on that see: The View from Japan: Why Common Core is a Disaster in the Making).

U.S. Dept. of Education officials write about accountability and evidence-based reforms, yet purposefully ignored  decades of research on successful learner-centered innovations and the dangers of high-stakes testing. Federal laws were ignored, new rules, measurement tools and standards were written out of thin air. By cutting professional teachers and education experts out of the formulation of education policies and seeking to “leverage” change, DOE’s leaders (directly connected to charter school investors) put in place one of the most destructive education policies in recent U.S. history. And, they broke the law to do it, in my opinion.

Christopher Chase
Seinan Gakuin University


Nine Billionaires are About to Remake NY’s Public Schools; Here’s Their StoryWho are the Corporate Reformers? – Diane Ravitch * Why Hedge Funds Love Charter Schools by Alan Singer *  The Daily News – Hedge fund execs’ money for charter schools may pay off (NY Daily News) * Ranking and Sorting: The Sordid History of Standards and Tests * In 2016 Democrats Have Good Reason to Run Against Obama’s Education Record * Walmart, Gates, Hedge Funds & Charter Schools (Business Insider) * Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing * Why VAMs are Unreliable Measures for Evaluating Teachers * Schools That Learn – Peter Senge * Standardizing Education – Common Core’s Hidden Agenda * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * Real Learning is a Creative Process  * Why Corporate School Reform Will Eventually Fail *  Schools for Democracy – Deborah Meier * Who is Behind the Privatization of Education? (video) *

About myselfFrom 1988 to 1993, I worked on my doctoral degree in Child & Adolescent Development at Stanford University’s School of Education. During that time, I was a research assistant for 3 years with the Accelerated Schools Project, a successful learner-centered whole school reform program. After graduating from Stanford, in 1993, I moved to Japan, where I have been teaching English language and culture at Seinan Gakuin University, in the City of Fukuoka.


About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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