Arne Duncan ‘Hopeful’ About Bipartisan Education Reform

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been urging Democrats and Republicans to work together on reforming education. Secretary Duncan recently called for greater bipartisan collaboration to address the pitfalls of "No Child Left Behind" policy and to adopt the Obama administration's blueprint for education. But he faces an increased challenge with a new Republican-led House of Representatives and increasing state budget cuts. He speaks with host Michel Martin about how he plans to push forward the administration's education reform package.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It could be the world's newest country if the south Sudanese vote as expected. The polls opened yesterday on the referendum on the future of Africa's largest country to divide the country. It's expected to take several days. We'll hear more about it in a few minutes.

But first, we are talking education reform with the highest ranking education official in this country. Just last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan heard dismal news from an international survey of student achievement. The United States ranks 25th in the world in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading, this from the program for international study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation.

We also know it's an especially grim picture for communities of color. A report last October titled A Call for Change, found that black males lagged behind their classmates in academic achievement and are twice as likely to drop out of school as white males. Arne Duncan recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post calling on Democrats and Republicans to rewrite the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind reform effort. That controversial education plan set federal benchmarks to close the achievement gap basing its assessment of schools, in great part, on standardized tests.

We wanted to know more so we've called upon the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. He's with us now from his office. Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Secretary.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): Thanks for the opportunity.

MARTIN: And I don't want to glide by the issue that's on so many people's minds today, which is that terrible shooting in Tucson, Arizona, where a member of Congress was gravely wounded, a federal judge was killed. And I did just want to ask whether you personally feel that the tenor of discourse in this country is contributing, in part, to a situation like this.

Sec. DUNCAN: I do think this gives everyone, unfortunately, a huge opportunity to really step back and reflect. And I think, you know, the vitriolic language, I think the lack of tolerance, all those things don't help to create a civil society. And obviously to the congresswoman, her family, to the judge, you know, I have a nine-year-old daughter at home and that one's really hit me hard, the little girl there who just came out to hear the congresswoman speak was killed. And it's devastating.

And I think it gives everyone a moment to pause and to think and to reflect. And I think we have a huge opportunity as a society to do much, much better than what we're seeing in the recent past.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things you say in your op-ed is that education reform is one of those issues in which many Democrats and Republicans agree. They even agree about the course that they think that No Child Left Behind has taken. So, why don't you just start there and tell us what it is that you think most Democrats and Republicans do agree on in the area of education reform?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, you started with a challenge. So whether it's us falling far behind to other countries internationally, whether it's a 25 percent drop out rate that's morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable. We've also fallen from first in the world to 9th in the percent of college graduates. All of us, regardless of politics, ideology, I think share the same sense of urgency that I feel that we have to educate our way to a better economy.

This, I believe, is the civil rights issue of our generation. The dividing line in my mind today is much less around race and class than it is around educational opportunity. It's also a national security issue. So whichever lens you look at it, you know, it's a civil rights issue, as one of an economic comparative or one of national security, we have to drive a huge amount of change and reform and help lead the country where we need to go and we cannot afford to wait.

MARTIN: Here's something that many people don't agree on. This is former Washington, D.C.'s school chancellor Michelle Rhee, who's of course a very popular figure in some circles, a very polarizing figure in other circles. This is what she told us on this program a couple of weeks ago.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Former School Chancellor, Washington D.C.): The problem that we face in public education today is that essentially tenure for teachers means that you have a job for life regardless of performance. And that is an adults first policy, not a students first policy.

MARTIN: And what is your view of that? Do you agree that that is one of the most significant issues today?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, I think the many challenges, what you have seen, Michel, is huge reform that states have taken on with tremendous courage through part of our race to the top initiative. So, whether it's, you know, Delaware or Tennessee or other states, you have union management working together, everyone moving outside their comfort zones. And it's not just tenure that sometimes doesn't work. It's the whole teacher evaluation system is broken in many places.

But we're seeing some fantastic new contracts emerge in places like Tampa in Florida and Baltimore recently, and right here in D.C., New Haven. And so, are there real challenges out there? Yes, absolutely. But, honestly, for all those challenges, I'm actually very, very optimistic. We have more examples of success, more and more folks doing the right thing for children, working with real courage and I think we have a chance to fundamentally break through as a country.

MARTIN: But what is the right thing? I think isn't that the question that many people are asking? I'll just play another short clip from Frederick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute. He was also on the program last month and this is what he had to say. Here it is.

Mr. FREDERICK HESS (American Enterprise Institute): Having 18 rather than 22 or 26 kids in a 7th grade or in 10th grade class, there's really no evidence at all that this makes a lick of difference. And, in fact, by going to larger class sizes, it means we need fewer educators. We can devote our resources to paying those educators more and to training them better. This is simply off the table in many conversations.

MARTIN: So, what about that? There does seem there is a real legitimate difference of opinion about what is best.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, I think you need a number of things. I think that's part of the difficulty here, Michel, is people look for one simple answer. So, do great teachers matter tremendously? Absolutely. And give an average child three great teachers in a row, and they're going to be a year-and-a-half to two grade levels ahead. Give the average child three bad teachers in a row, they'll be so far behind they'll never catch up.

So, great teachers matter tremendously. We need great principles. Great principles attract great talent. They retain and nurture that great talent. We need our schools open longer hours. We need wraparound services. If children can't see the blackboard, we need to give them eyeglasses. If they're not fed, we have to feed them. If they're not safe, we have to make sure we create an environment in which students are safe.

So we have to put all these things together. And we have schools and communities that are doing that that are, you know, providing extraordinary talent in historically underserved communities. So they're working much longer hours, that are engaging the community, engaging families. And when that happens, you see students beating the odds every single day. We have to take those examples of success, those islands of excellence and hold them up and replicate those absolutely as fast as we can.

MARTIN: We're speaking with the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is commonly known as No Child Left Behind, is at the point of being revised or rewritten under the law. We're talking about the best course of action for doing that.

Now, what criticism you have of No Child Left Behind that you say it created a federal standard, but it didn't let local schools pursue the solutions that worked for them?

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah, there are a number of things that I think, frankly, were broke with No Child Left Behind. As you remember, I lived on the other side of the law as a school superintendent of Chicago for seven-and-a-half years. So I think the law was far too punitive.

There are many, many ways to fail, but very few, if any, rewards for success. It was very prescriptive top down. I almost had to sue the department of Education when I was Chicago for the right to tutor my children after school. It was absolutely crazy. We got into a huge fight, but luckily I won. But why did I have to battle the federal government for the right to tutor my children after school?

No Child Left Behind also led to a dumbing down of standards. Many states reduced standards. It was good for politicians, but bad for children and bad for education and bad for our country. And it led to a narrowing of the curriculum. So we have to reverse all those things.

We need to reward excellence and where we have great teachers, great principals, great schools and great districts, even great states, we need to recognize and learn from, incentivize that fantastic work. We have to provide much more flexibility. We have to hold folks accountable and hold them to a high bar, but give great local educators the room to move. And frankly, get Washington, you know, out of the way in many situations.

We have seen 40 states raise standards. College improved (unintelligible) standards, thanks in part to Race to the Top. So there's been tremendous progress there. And all that courage has been at the local level, not by folks here in Washington. And then, finally, we have to give every single child a well-rounded education.

So, yes, reading and math are, you know, obviously fundamental and foundational, but science, social studies, foreign languages, dance, drama, art, music, physical education, all of our children desperately need and deserve a well-rounded education. And not just at the high school level, in first and second and third grade when they're really starting to figure out what their passions are and develop their sense of self-esteem.

So I think we have a chance to work together to fix much of what was broken with the current law, and really create a system in which many, many more students will have access to a world class education.

MARTIN: And, finally, Mr. Secretary, a new Congress has just begun and there are a number of members of Congress, particularly new members of Congress who have a very different vision of the role of government than many of the people that they replace. There are still people, for example, in the new Congress who don't even believe that the Federal Department of Education should exist. How confident are you that given this very broad range of views about the proper role of government, particularly the federal government, that you can reach agreement about the way forward?

Sec. DUNCAN: I'm really hopeful. I've reached out already to many of the new members of Congress who are going to serve in our committee. We've had great conversations. And, again, while none of us are going to agree on the details of every issue, I think everyone understands that what we're doing now isn't good enough for our children, isn't good enough, ultimately for our country.

And so we have to work together. We have to put politics and ideology to the side and do the right thing. I think we have a tremendous opportunity to do that. Will there be compromise? Of course, that's the nature of this work. Do all of us have to move outside our comfort zones? Absolutely.

But the cost of inaction, the cost of the status quo is simply intolerable. And I do - I feel we have a great chance to do the right thing together and I'm very hopeful that you'll see that happen as we move forward this year.

MARTIN: Arne Duncan is the secretary of Education. He was kind enough to join us from his office. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us. We hope it won't be last time.

Sec. DUNCAN: Thanks so much. I'm happy to come back anytime you want me.

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