Duncan To Congress: Rewrite No Child This Summer

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is prepared to bypass Congress and relax elements of the No Child Left Behind law if lawmakers do not rewrite the law this summer. Duncan talks about the law, changes in public education and how to improve schools in the midst of widespread budget cuts.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. After several attempts to persuade Congress to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a Plan B over the weekend. He said he's prepared to bypass Congress and relax elements of the law if lawmakers do not rewrite it before the start of the next school year. Secretary Duncan joined us here in studio four A at the start of the school year to take questions from high school students.

As summer vacation now looms, he's back to take questions from more students here in the audience. We'd like to hear comments from students, teachers, adults and parents in our audience, as well. After two years, what's making a difference at your school? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN: Neal, thanks for having me back, and I want to thank all our students and teachers for coming today. I really appreciate they've taken the time.

CONAN: Well, we'd like to thank everybody coming. And we appreciate it. Now, you announced that you're prepared to bypass Congress, relax some parts of the No Child Left Behind. That law was passed by Congress, signed by the president. We may disagree with it. It may be outmoded. It may be unwise. Nevertheless, isn't it the law?

DUNCAN: It is the law. And we're not bypassing Congress by any stretch of the imagination. This is simply, as you said, a Plan B. And we think there are many, many flaws in the current law. We think with - if nothing happens, the vast majority of schools in our country will be labeled as failures. That's not reality. That's not fair to teachers and principals who are working so hard. It's very confusing to students and to parents.

And so we have the ability to provide regulatory relief. And, again, our absolute Plan A is to work with Congress to fix the law, and to do it in a bipartisan way. And there have been some encouraging signs in the last week or so. But Neal, what's not tenable to me is doing nothing, just going to the next school year with the current law in place, exactly as it is, where states are raising the bar, where they're doing the right thing by children. We need to provide them greater flexibility, and we need to meet them half way. And that's what - if Congress doesn't act, we will. But again, our absolute first goal, first priority is to work with Congress to fix the law across the country.

CONAN: The law called for 100 percent of American students to be up to speed in reading and math by 2014. Is that an unrealistic goal?

DUNCAN: Well, let me tell me what's happened, what the law did. There are many problems with the current law, Neal. At the top of that list is the law led to a dummying down of standards. So many states, in reaction to that part of that law, actually reduced the standards in their states. And so what you have now, is you have some states where maybe 80, 85, 90 percent of students are quote-unquote "at a level," but it's actually a very, very low bar.

Some of those states, Neal, are showing real courage, are raising the bar. And if they raise standards, you might see, rather than 90 percent of the students that hitting that proficiency level, you might see 40 or 50 percent. But that's the truth. That's reality. And where states are doing the right thing, they'll get crushed in the current law. That doesn't make sense. We need to support them. We need to focus much more on growth and gain rather than absolute test scores.

Are schools getting better? Are graduation rates are getting better? Are more students going into college? Those of the kinds of measures that I'm interested in doing. And we just want to support the hard work, the courageous reform that we're seeing around the country over the past two years.

CONAN: And our goal here is give everybody here in this room and the people listening a chance to talk with the Secretary of Education. But I do have to say that the philosophy of No Child Left Behind was accountability had to be put into the whole system that, if schools were persistently failures, they had to be held accountable, that if teachers were not performing up to standard, they had to be held accountable, principals, administrators. Is that principle going to be going by the board?

DUNCAN: No. We're absolutely committed to accountability. We want it to make sense, though, Neal. There's been an absolute lack of common sense with the current law. What the law got wrong fundamentally is the law was very, very loose on what the goals were. So you got 50 different goal posts, 50 different standards, and many of them got dummied down. The law was very prescriptive, top-down, on how you get there.

I think that's fundamentally wrong. We should have a high bar, college and career-ready standards for every single child. But give states, give districts, give teachers, give schools much more flexibility in hitting that higher bar. Just to give you an example, Neal, this one's very personal for me. When I ran the Chicago public schools, I almost had to sue our Department of Education here for the right to tutor our children after school, the kinds of great tutoring programs that everyone, you know, everyone here in this room was involved in.

I got in a massive fight with the U.S. Department of Education, who didn't, who literally didn't want to let me tutor about 25,000 children after school who wanted to work harder. That was absolutely ludicrous. The amount of wasted time and energy, it made no sense. And so we want to support the creativity, the hard work, the entrepreneurial efforts at the local level, not be an impediment. That's what got to change.

CONAN: We're going to get questions from members of our audience here in Studio 4A. They are from District of Columbia schools. They're part of 826 DC, a program that provides tutoring, field trips and afterschool programs to help elementary and high school students shape creative writing skills. We're happy to have all of you with us here today. And we're also going to be taking questions, of course, on the phone: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Susan, and Susan's calling from Ann Arbor.

SUSAN: Yes. I wanted to say that I think that children with disabilities and children that need remediation are not being served under the present No Child Left Behind program. And I think that they were much better served in the '60s and '70s, when they were given individualized attention and small group locations.

And I don't believe that it's realistic that all children will be achieving 100 percent in math and reading, because this doesn't take into account the varieties of children and people who will be entering the educational system. And I also believe that children who have exceptional ability in math, reading and English should be challenged and should be given, in some way, a kind of tracking in order to - for them to realize their potential. And children who are a little bit under that level academically should be trained the way they are, and also that career opportunities should be made available to them.

And I think we're very far behind, for instance, the German educational system, which is doing a much better job of teaching people at the levels where they are.

CONAN: Secretary Duncan, well, tracking is a big question. But special disabilities...

DUNCAN: Well, I think I'm going to address that head on. But it actually goes beyond that. What I really resent and disagree with the current law is the focus on absolute test scores. So, Neal, the focus is on just that percent of students, right about that cut score, that proficiency level. So those students with special needs, who might not be close to that, there's not a big incentive to work with them. There's not a big incentive to work with the gifted students, the students that are already above that cut score, but should continue to get better.

And so whether you are struggling, whether you're in the middle, whether you're at the top of the class, what I want to know is: How much are you improving each year, every single child? And under the current law, there are lots of incentives to work with that small percent of children right around that middle cut score, not work with those children who are further behind, not work with those students that are further ahead. That has to change.

I want to know: How much is each student improving each year? And if you have special needs, great. How much are you improving relative to other children with special needs? If you're gifted, great. How much are you improving relative to other children who are gifted? That's what hasn't happened here. And again, that's one of the fundamental things we want to change. So I basically agree with Susan's point, but goes much deeper than just those students with disabilities.

CONAN: Well, she's talking about the '60s and '70s. Since then, those children have been mainstreamed, and they have put into much larger groups.

DUNCAN: Well, I actually - I'm a big supporter of exclusion. And I think historically, those children with special needs were kept in broom closets. They were kept in basements. And today the vast majority of students with special needs are in regular ed classrooms. And...

SUSAN: Okay. But I would like to say something. I'm not in favor of keeping any child in a broom closet. I'm not in favor of that. And there are opportunities for inclusion throughout the school day in recreational activities, in gym, in lunch, in many different ways. But if children have specific challenges, they are not really being helped. And if you go the schools of education and listen to the people who are working in schools they will tell you that, and that whose children are actually being ignored. And so there are very many ways that you can include all people in schools. But to have children in the general education classroom who cannot really participate in that classroom, I think that is certainly - that is a specific kind of broom closet. It may be an invisible broom closet.

DUNCAN: Susan, I got the...

SUSAN: Those children still are being ignored.

DUNCAN: I got the point Susan. And again, maybe you and I will disagree on this. I think the vast majority of children should be included. I think historically there's far too many children with special needs were kept out of the mainstream. And that was very, very detrimental to their learning. And to helping them fulfill their potential. Teachers need to be trained and there needs to be additional support. But I think today we have many, many more children being included in historically. And generally speaking that's a very good thing.

CONAN: All right, Susan, thanks very much for the phone call. I appreciate it. Let's see if we can get a question from here in the audience.

ASIA: Hello. My name is Asia and I'm a freshman at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. And at my school, they kind of fill us in (unintelligible) going for the next school year with a blind eye (unintelligible) some of the programs we're going to have at our school. So my question is that, and then that the economies and our certain state now. Will it affect the school system; and if so, what are you doing to ensure stability in the school system?

DUNCAN: That's a great question Asia. How are your grades so far this year?

ASIA: They're fine.

DUNCAN: All right. Keep pulling them up for me, okay. So it's a really, really key question. It's one of the things that keeps me up at night that I worry about. So just so folks can understand. It's actually interesting in terms of funding for schools. We at the federal government do between like eight and 10 percent. So we do a small percent of funding. Usually about 50 percent of funding comes from the state. And usually about 40 percent comes locally. And in tough economic times elected officials, governors, mayors, have to make tough choices. But I always say that our budgets reflect our values, reflect our priorities. And I think where folks are scaling back in education, they do a real disservice to students like you and frankly to the futures of their state. So, what President Obama has done, we try to not talk about these things. We try and walk the walk. We try and lead by example.

And in a very tough economy where President Obama is basically flat lining domestic spending, he's asked for a four billion dollar increase in funding for education. And so we're trying to put our money where our mouth is. And he has said repeatedly the one thing we can't afford to cut is education. Because it's not an expense. It's an investment. And if we're serious about winning the future, if we're serious about giving you a chance to compete in a global economy, you're not competing for jobs in the district or even in the country. You're competing with children in Singapore and South Korea. And we want you to be absolutely competitive and level the playing field for you. The only way we do that is be investing. And investing smartly and investing a vision of reform.

So we are trying to lead by example. And we're challenging states and local districts to do the same thing. But you have many places are cutting back in education and that's a real worry.

ASIA: So what does that, in Arts Programs? Because my school is an art school. And I'm afraid, of like, losing our arts program.

DUNCAN: I worry a lot about losing arts programs. I worry a lot about losing extra circulars which all of you guys are in engaged in. I worry a lot about losing PE. And so we're, as part of that money that I'm talking about we want to invest it what we call a billion dollars. In what we call the Well Rounded Education. 'Cause that includes the arts, foreign languages, dance, drama, art, music, environment literacy, financial literacy PE. We're trying to put our money where our mouth is.

CONAN: Our guest today, the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. More of your questions right after a short break. Stay with us. And I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education is with us today. We last spoke with him in September at the start of the school year. Now as we approach summer vacation many schools continue to face deep budget cuts, difficult choices for the coming year. Along with requirements to continue to boost student test scores. We talked a bit earlier about the Secretary's promise to ease some of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law if Congress should decline to rewrite it in time. The Obama Administration took office in January 2009. After two years what's making a difference at your school? Students, teacher, parents give us a call 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Let's go next to - this is Michael, Michael with us from Knoxville.

MICHAEL: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. Secretary Duncan, I wanted to let you know that I think the education program or the revising concepts are great. However, what you may not be aware of is that social studies has been increasingly marginal and especially within the last two years to focus more on reading and math scores. And especially in last week's political gas, this is probably not something that we want to see happen. And I'm hoping that you would know when the pendulum will swing back towards civics education and the need for it. Because right now it's just not there in middle high schools.

DUNCAN: Thanks Michael so much for your question. And to me this is, as I've traveled to country I've been to probably 44, or 45 states. Michael, this is the biggest complaint I've heard is about a narrowing of the curriculum. And yes reading and math are fundamental and foundational, but science, social studies, foreign languages, dance, drama, art, music, physical education, environment literacy, financial literacy all those things that give our students a world class world amount of education. And far too many places folks have walked away from that. And I hear it from students. I hear it from parents. I hear it from teachers. I hear it from principals. Your particular concern about civics education fits right into that. I've have actually done a couple speeches on the importance of civics education. I've been teaming up with former Justice Sandra Dale O'Connor whose done some great, great work in this area.

When I was in Chicago we had a great non-profit partner. Like 826, called a Mikva Challenge that did phenomenal work with children after school in the area of civics education. Really engaged them in that and made what they're learning during the school day much more relevant. And again, we're going to do everything we can to support a world class well rounded education. And I'm going to go one step further. You talked about, you know, middle and high school - and we have a bunch of high schoolers with us today. But to me it starts much earlier than that. It starts in first and second and third grade. Our babies, our seven, eight, nine year olds deserve a world class education as well. And so this has to be right the way up Pre-K through 12. And if we wait 'till high school to start providing these opportunities, I just think it's too late in the game.

MICHAEL, CALLER: All righty, thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much Michael. Let's get another question from here in studio 4A.

REBECCA: My name's Rebecca. (unintelligible) and I'm in ninth grade. I was wondering where there's no variation of teaching within school D.C. and as far as the U.S.? Because in my school, we start at like, at 7:50 and the (unintelligible) leave five. But compared to other schools they may leave earlier or much later.

DUNCAN: So Rebecca, let me ask you. How do you feel about that longer school day?

REBECCA: It helps a lot.

DUNCAN: It helps a lot. That's music to my ears. So usually when I ask that question to students, I get booed. And usually when we talk about it with adults, folk cheer me. So here's our challenge for the country. Our academic calendar is based upon the agrarian economy. How many of you here are working in the fields in the summer? Raise your hand. We have one or two. Actually not, I think those were misplaced hands. My point is simple. Our calendar is based upon a 19th century model. And our schools should be open much longer hours. I would say 10, 12, 14 hours a day, six, seven days a week throughout the summer. And it's not just asking our teachers to work longer hours, that's not it. Having great non-profits come in. Great after school programs, great extra circulars like 826. And the idea of our schools being open six hours a day, five days a week, nine months out of the year makes no sense whatsoever.

You go to a fantastic school. You guys are getting great results. And guess what, you're working harder. You have better, more opportunities than children in other schools. It's not that you're smarter. It's not that you're more committed. You guys are just putting more hard work in. And a lot of this is just putting in that time. And so Neal, this is one of the many, you know, just fundamental things that I think our country is getting right now. Is this idea of a short school day, a short school week, short school year.

The final thing I'll say is where it particularly bothers me, is with disadvantage children. And I don't need another study around summer reading laws, where you have children who have access to museums and libraries in the summer, that's one thing. We have children with no enrichment. We know children get to a certain point in June, thanks to a teacher's hard work and then come back just in the fall and September further behind when they left.

That makes no sense. That's absolutely crazy. And if we're serious about closing achievement gaps, we got to change how we function.

CONAN: Is there any prospect during your time in office do you think of going to 10, or 11 month education?

DUNCAN: Well, there are actually many schools doing it today. And not enough. Folks are moving more in that direction. But I think that is where we have to go and the other part we haven't talked about Neal is the use of technology. So it's not necessarily that children have to be in school all those hours. But I was at a really interesting school with President Obama in Boston called Tech Boston. Where the children are getting assignments and completing them on their cell phones. And so you're the living content 24/7. And it's, I think we have to, you know, very much think in a new way, break the mold in how we deliver content and how we engage students. And what we're doing today simply doesn't cut it.

CONAN: Go to the other end of the economic spectrum and thanks very much for the question. Thank you. This is an email from Sara in Minneapolis. I'm a reading teacher in an urban district. One of our biggest obstacles in helping our students to be successful is the constant challenge that comes with living in poverty. Students tend to move and out of different schools. A lot, sometimes several times in one year. The bad economy makes this is even more difficult. Teachers need time in their day to immediately assess these students. Find out where they are at in their reading and then tailor instruction to their needs. However, our class sizes are so big now, we hardly have time in a week to meet with students one on one.

DUNCAN: Those are very real, real concerns and real challenges. And Neal, when I ran the Chicago public schools I had over 400,000 students and 85 percent of them lived below the poverty line. And so this is an issue. This is extraordinarily important to me. I grew up as part of my mother's inner city tutoring program working in the community on the South side of Chicago that was desperately poor. And so from the time I was a baby I've seen the impact that poverty can have. But I've also seen the difference that great schools and great adults can make in those children's lives. And so what is additional after school tutoring? What of serving students two or even three meals a day. Children need eyeglasses. You need to get them glasses. If they need clothes, you need to get them clothes. You need to make sure they're safe physically and emotionally and psychologically.

And we have to do all those things so that our students can envision a positive future for themselves. When I ran the Chicago public schools, far too many of my children were killed due to gun violence in the community. It was absolutely devastating. That was one of the biggest challenges that I struggled with. And I kept it behind my desk a poster, a drawing that one of my teens did for me. And he wrote in it, he drew a picture of himself as a fireman. And he said, if I grew up I want to be a fireman. And that was a really deep concept to me. It wasn't when I grow up I want to be a fireman. It was if I grow up. We have to better protect our children. We have to keep them safe. And we have to deal with all those challenges they faced. So they can fulfill their tremendous academic and social potentials.

CONAN: Another question here in the audience.

HELICKA: Hi. My name is Helicka(ph) and I'm a tutor at 826 D.C. And I just wanted to know about the emphasis placed on standardized testing. And if it's going to be continued being the prevalent measuring forming decision making education.

CONAN: I think we have about 800 emails on exactly this point. Thank you.

DUNCAN: It's a great question. So I think in some places we over test. And we need to be smart about that. I also think it's important to evaluate students on an ongoing basis and know how much they're learning. But I'm really interested in outcomes. What are schools graduation rates? Are graduation rates going up or down? Are more students who are graduating being successful in some form of higher education? If you guys graduate from high school today and don't get any more education, how many good jobs are out there for you now? Not a lot, right. Not a lot. So to me the goal can't just be to graduate from high school.

First of all, if you drop out, there are no good jobs - none in the legal economy. But once you graduate, the goal has to be some form of higher education, four-year universities, two-year community colleges, trade, technical, vocational training, whatever your passion is.

And so I want to look at are test scores a piece of what you have to look at, yes. But I want to look at graduation rates. I want to look at once students graduate, how are they doing on the next level? And where students are being successful and furthering their education, we need to do a lot of more of that. Where students are unprepared to be successful, then we have to challenge the status quo.

CONAN: Should we be investing more in technical schools after high school? Should those kinds of, the goal has always been a good four year college education for everybody. Is that really...

DUNCAN: I always talk about four year, or two year or trade, technical and to me we should be investing not just post high school. And we're doing that Neal. A two billion dollar investment in community colleges with the Department of Labor. So a massive investment in community colleges. Which I think have been this unrecognized jumble on the education continue. But again Neal, I would start earlier. I think, you know, six, seventh, eighth grade, throughout high school. I think probably the country, we did a better job in these areas in, you know, the '60s or the '70s. And we somehow got away from that.

And for me you brought it up earlier. There's always this concern about tracking students. You know, college or careers. I think that's an absolute false choice. I think we got to prepare a lot more students for college, we have to prepare a lot more students for careers, and we have to empower them to decide what they want to do with their lives. And so it's not about tracking these students. It's about giving them a range of options and letting them chase their dreams.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Grayson, and Grayson, with us from Bentonville in Arkansas.

GRAYSON: Yes. I - how are you guys doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

GRAYSON: Good. I actually have a few things with the No Child Left Behind. One of these things is our school here in Bentonville is a Blue Ribbon school apparently, or was when I graduated. And they talk about it all the time how great it is and how great our test scores. And one of the biggest things that I've always had trouble with was our math program. They call it the Mastery Math(ph).

And my biggest issue with that is that with the Mastery Math program, basically we get free tests. There's - you take - you do your homework. You get to take your first test. If you fail your first test, you get to take the second test a week later. And if you fail the second test, you get to take it again later. And to me, it seems detrimental that no matter what you do, you're always able to pass.

I've been out of high school for two years now. And even on the college level, I've seen a lot of kids being able to retake tests or kids being able to turn in late homework. And with my mom as a teacher at the high school, one of my biggest frustrations is that they've just a passed a - the idea that it's OK to turn in late homework and that there is no such thing as late homework. My mom has actually been grading papers almost nonstop from kids that have turned them late. And it's just a frustration both as a student and for my mom being a teacher, watching the school system, at least in our area, seem like it's been kind of backwards.

DUNCAN: Grayson, great question. First of all, please thank your mother. I think teachers around this country are the unsung heroes in our society, and we're trying to do everything we can to elevate the teaching profession, to shine spotlight on it. I hope all the students here thank their teachers every single day. I'm looking around a little bit.

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DUNCAN: I'm seeing a few nods. But we can't do enough to do that. But, Grayson, you asked a really important question. There isn't an easy answer. I think there's a fine line. I think what you're really getting at is, in some places, are the expectations too low. And where the expectations are too low, I would agree with you. We need to have high expectations. The more we challenge students, the more we raise the bar, the better they do. And I've seen that throughout my life.

You often hear about if you raise the bar, graduation rate is going to go down. You're going to encourage more dropouts. That basically never happens. When you raise the bar, more students engage. They do better. Having said that, if students are struggling, they need individual help. They need folks not to give up on them. They need folks to help them through those tough times or help them in a subject they might not be as strong. So I don't think we should lower the bar.

We need to have a high bar, but you also need sort of a safety net to help those students get through, and trying to hit that fine line between those two things, I think, is the point Grayson is trying to get at.

CONAN: And, Grayson...

GRAYSON: I do agree completely. My biggest thing is my mom has always been doing tutoring inside and outside her school during her prep periods and stuff. I've even helped her on occasions. It's, I mean, I (unintelligible) about getting in teaching, and the more I've been around it, the more discouraging it is. But it's still something I enjoy and would like to do. But as I said, it's a frustration that it's hard to avoid, especially in our area.

DUNCAN: Well, Grayson, let me give you a little pitch. Please visit our website, teach.gov. We have a baby boomer generation that's moving towards retirement, and we're going to need about a million new teachers across the country over the next four to six years. And so I need the next generation of hardworking, talented, committed folks like yourself to come back and help out.

I think all of us are here because we had those great teachers in our lives that helped us believe in ourselves and pull those things out of us that maybe we didn't know existed. For me, it was my high school English teacher, Ms. McCampbell(ph). So I'd encourage you. There are challenges, but don't get discouraged, and it's in your blood, it's in my blood, and think about it.

CONAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is with us today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go back to the mic here in Studio 4A.

ELLIE: My name is Ellie. I'm in ninth grade and I go to Duke Ellington School of the Arts. My question is since the job market is kind of diminishing and competition for jobs is becoming really fierce and intense, how is it affecting the education system.

DUNCAN: Well, I think we have to educate our way to a better economy. And it's really interesting - folks here might not know it, in this tough economic times where unemployment is higher than we'd like, we actually have about two million unfilled high-wage jobs in this country. And so we're simply not producing the talent, the workers who can fill those jobs.

And at present, I have met with a number of CEOs who says, we're desperately trying to hire and we can't find the workers to fill that. And so I think we owe you a higher quality education across the country to help get you ready. We need to make sure once you graduate, you're - again, you're really, you know, college and career ready. And if you just barely graduated and then dropping out, there are no jobs out there for you. But there are actually many, many high-wage jobs today that are going unfilled. And if we do a better job of educating you and educating your peers across the country, I absolutely believe our country will grow, will prosper.

And in terms about long-term economic security, there's nothing more important we can do than to give every single person in this country a great, great education.

CONAN: You mentioned a million of those jobs are going to be in education, teachers. Here's a question from Matt in Oradell, New Jersey, by email. The last in, first out rules that dominate the hiring and firing of teachers seemed like an unnecessary restriction. Why not the principals hire and fire according to their judgment rather than some universal top-down standing?

DUNCAN: Well, I'd encourage - Neal, this is actually, I think, a fascinating topic, may be for a show for you, is there is legislation that, I think, is passing in Illinois today.

CONAN: You're a producer now?

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DUNCAN: Just a suggestion. Just a suggestion.

CONAN: Okay.

DUNCAN: There's a legislation passed in Illinois today that I think is groundbreaking. It has national implications. It looks at not just at last in, first five, but looks at the quality of that teacher. If a teacher isn't getting good marks over, you know, twice over seven-year period, that she's unsatisfactory, the state superintendent can remove their credentials. This legislation is supported by the unions. It's supported by management. It's supported by education reform advocates.

Everybody is working together to do something much, much better. And this is very difficult. It's basically passed the legislature in Illinois almost unanimously. I'm from that state. I couldn't get pass this June unanimously.

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DUNCAN: It's - I still am amazed that they did it. But I think this is the wave of the future. And I think you have to look at a number of factors in terms of what the teachers you want. And the last thing I'll say, Neal, it's so much into me that, you know, whether it's in business or the nonprofits or in a sports team, the whole emphasis is how you get the greatest talent onto the field or into the office. And we've acted - and I think it's absolutely demeaning to great teachers and to the profession, we've treated teachers as if they're just interchangeable, like it just doesn't matter. And I think that is absolutely the wrong thing.

And recognizing excellence, rewarding excellence, shine the spotlight, paying great teachers a heck of a lot more money, learning from what they're doing well, we have to break through as a country, and we want to work hard to do that.

CONAN: Yeah. They think they'd like Chancellor Steinbrenner to be in charge of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It's like in that particular team. More with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in just moment. Students, teachers, parents, after two years, what making a difference in your school? 800-989-8255.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

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CONAN: Right now, we're continuing conversation with Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education. We're in Studio 4A today with an audience of students. We'll hear their questions for the secretary. We'd also like to hear from teachers, students and parents in the radio audience. After two years, what's making a difference at your school? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's go to the microphone here in Studio 4A.

KATIE: Hi. My name is Katie, and I'm a tutor with K-6 D.C. You said earlier - you called teachers the unsung heroes of the States, and I completely agree. It's the teachers you remember who inspire you to follow, you know, whatever it was you're passionate about, and they're the people that are really encouraging students.

But with these standardized tests and curriculum requirements that are kind of being dictated from far away places and by, you know, companies and people that aren't really in touch with the students, how are these people expected to kind of utilize and use their gift of inspiring learning in students if they have to be keeping up with these standards?

SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: It's a hugely important point. First, I want to thank you for tutoring. I mean, K-6 is a great - we need more - great program. We need more and more adults coming in before school or after school, weekends, whatever it might be, and so thanks for your hard work there. And I would like to have more students engaged in programs like K-6 around the country.

What I think - again, the trade off for me is where you have a high bar (unintelligible) standards means provide much more flexibility to great teachers, to great principals, to districts. Washington should never be engaged in curriculum, never want to be. My challenge historically is, again, that so many places dummy downed standards. But now, thanks in part to (unintelligible) we've seen 42 states raise standards.

It's amazing. It came about two years ago. It was impossible. Nobody would have predicted that to happen. And we have folks really raising the bar to meet a great trade off. It gives them a lot more flexibility to hit that high bar, hold them accountable for results but give them a lot more room to move. That's the kind of thing we're trying to do in ESEA Reauthorization.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Nancy. Nancy is on the line from Cincinnati.

NANCY: Hi. Thank you. I have some questions. I have worked as a teacher at a charter school here in Cincinnati. And we work directly with several school districts here, most of whom consistently were awarded, you know, excellence awards. My students were the high risk, special ed students, the kids who, you know, their behavioral issues were - been disrupted the class, and they were, you know, by the time they were sophomores or even - or should've been sophomores or juniors, you know, may have - only had a quarter or less of the credits they needed to graduate.

The system that we had with those school districts was like this. These students attended my class, and they could receive credits from me that, eventually, hopefully, would lead to their receiving a diploma from their home high school. The main issue that I had - one of the main issues was that they were able to receive credit for simply participating, what was called participation, and participation literally meant (technical difficulty).

CONAN: Nancy, we're having trouble with your phone. And I'm afraid we've lost her. I apologize.

DUNCAN: I think we lost her. But, again, I think she raises a really important point of are we really expecting students to do well. And I think what Nancy's point was is that you have children you may have been struggling but where there really weren't high expectations for them. And what we want to do is provide students who are having a hard time all support, again, during a school day, after school, whatever it might be, but at the same time, we have to be preparing them to take that next step in their educational journey. And if we're not doing that, we're actually setting them up for social failure.

CONAN: She mentioned she was a teacher at a charter school. This from Samantha, in East Lansing. Could you please explain your believe that charter schools are the source of innovation and improvement given multiple research studies showing that, overall, charter schools do not outperform regular schools, even given their release from constraints in their greater ability to filter out underperforming students? Many hardworking, innovative teachers in regular schools wonder about your allegiance to charter schools.

DUNCAN: My allegiance is to good schools.

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DUNCAN: I've been clear everywhere I've gone, and, you know, we just need more good schools in this country. And good traditional schools are part of the solution. Good charter schools are part of the solution. Bad traditional schools are part of the problem. Bad charter schools are part of the problem. So, again, people love to make these false choices. These are all public schools. They're all accountable to us. These are all our kids. And more good schools we have in this country, the better we're going to do. Where we're seeing academic failure, we need to challenge that. Great charter schools are part of the solution. Bad charter schools are part of the problem. Same is true for traditional public schools.

CONAN: Another question from here in the audience in Studio 4A.

ANDREW: Hi. My name is Andrew. I teach ninth grade math at Chavez prep. And one of the ways we constantly try to improve as a school is always evaluating our teachers and our administrators. When you're visiting a school, what do you look for to see if that school is a high-performing school?

DUNCAN: First of all, thanks for your service, and I love what you guys are doing at Chavez. I've been out there. You guys are one of the communities that's working hard in terms of Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, which I think has huge potential.

To me it's real simple. You can walk into a school - I've been to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of schools - and, honestly, in about two minutes, figure out, are students engaged? Are they having fun? Are they learning? Are teachers actively engaged? And you can almost just feel it, walking down the hallways or visiting a classroom, where students are bored or disengaged, where teachers aren't, you know, aren't actually committed. You feel that too.

But the vast majority of classrooms, the vast majority of schools I visit, students are working hard. Teachers are engaging them in very creative ways. These are tough times to be a teacher - less resources than before, often higher class size than before - and amazing teachers are finding ways to be very, very successful.

As I sit down, sort of have further conversations, I love to hear about what schools are doing in terms of the use of data. I was in a great school today that's doing great work in terms of formative assessments and figuring out who's learning what and why and how can teachers better support each other. I'm really interested in where schools see every single child as their responsibility and not sort of, you know, picking and choosing or saying, well, this child came to us late. We can't help them.

But where more and more of the high-performance schools I visit, like you guys, just think about continuous improvement, how we keep getting better, how we celebrate successes, how we keep challenging the status quo, how do we use data to drive on instruction to individualized instruction. And as I travel, I honestly - it makes me very, very hopeful. For all the challenges we have, I'm continually, including this morning, inspired by what I see.

CONAN: This an email question from Larry in Lakewood, Ohio: How can we hold students and parents accountable when they don't contribute to a student's success? As a teacher, I'm frustrated when I'm told I fail as a teacher when a student chooses not to put forth effort. I can teach and adapt, but I can't learn for the students. They have to be responsible for their own efforts or lack thereof.

DUNCAN: No question, and that, you know, just to be very clear to these students and students who might be listening, their job, student's job today is to get a great education. And without that, they are simply not going to have any positive choices in life. And teachers need to work hard, need to challenge, need to engage. But anyone who thinks teachers can do this by themselves misses it. So students have to be committed. They need help. They have to be looking for help. They have to be helping each other be successful.

To go back to your question, Andrew, lots of schools have what I call a culture of positive peer pressure, where young people are encouraging each other to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing. And to me that's so critically important. Too many places, if you're successful, somehow that's like a bad thing, and we have to challenge that. So students have to take their responsibility very, very seriously.

And then, Neal, I was at a school today to talk about fathers being more involved and engaged. And I come at this first not as secretary of education, whatever. I come at this as a dad. And my wife and I have a third grader and a first grader at home. And the most important thing I can do is to be engaged in their lives every single day, to be a good partner to their teachers, through reading to our children every single night at home. We're all in this together, Neal. I think, historically, far too often we've all pointed fingers. We blamed each other. When we blame each other, students fall through the cracks. And so all of us have to be working together to support young people. Where parents and teachers come together, I can basically guarantee you those students are going to be motivated. They are going to be engaged. They're not going to fall through the cracks and they're going to do well.

CONAN: Let's go next to Paul, and Paul is on the line with us from Appleton in Wisconsin.

PAUL: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'd just like to say that I'm 19 years old and I just finished a fifth year program over at my state's school for the visually handicapped down in Janesville. And I would just like to follow up on the first caller at the beginning of the show, I think, because I am a very avid user of the Internet. And through my research, I've noticed that although several states do have specific schools, there are a lot of states in this country who either do not have schools that are verily - are dwindling schools that are for the deaf and blind and for other disabled students. I would just comment. I'd just like to say that, you know, if more states have schools like this, I don't think we would run into the problem as much as figuring out ways of how to teach the students like who are blind and deaf and so on and so forth to figure out how - we wouldn't have the problem of how to figure out how to teach them in the public school setting. And I would take my comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, Paul. Thanks very much for the call.

DUNCAN: Oh, Paul, first I wanted to congratulate you on your commitment to getting your own education and to overcome some tremendous challenges. So thank you so much for the example you're setting for all of us. And, again, whether a child is visually impaired or deaf or has special needs, it's incumbent upon all of us as adults and educators to find ways to help you be successful. And I'm sure you have some tremendous gifts as well, and we have to find out what those gifts are and help you build upon them.

So helping every single - when I say all, I mean all - helping every single student, students with disabilities, students with specials needs, gifted children, wherever it might be, helping every single child be successful, finding the right environment for them, finding the right supports and opportunities for them, again, both during the school day and after school is critically important. And we just can't allow any students to fall through the cracks.

Neal, our biggest challenge today in this country is our nation's dropout rate. We have a 25 percent dropout rate in this country. That's a million young people leaving our school through the streets each year. That is just morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable. And so, we have to, you know, get that rate to zero as fast as we can and help young people lead our country where we need to go.

CONAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, with us in Studio 4A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to the mic and get a question.

HENRY: Hello. My name is Henry(ph) , and I'm a (unintelligible). I have a question. You know, a lot of my friends are dropping out, and I want to know what had been done to prevent it.

DUNCAN: Well, let me ask you a question. Why are some of your friends dropping out? What's leading them to drop out?

HENRY: Like, because they want to do homework and there's too much what teachers do at school, you know?

DUNCAN: Well, I think it's incumbent on all of us, again, adults, teachers and you as a good friend to really encourage them to stay in school. And school could be hard and school can be challenging. I can't say I loved every homework assignment I had. But the consequences of dropping out are devastating. And what you do at 14 and 15 and 16 shapes your life chances for the rest of your life. And it's changed. You know, when I was in high school back in Chicago, if my friends dropped out of high school, it wasn't good, but it wasn't as bad.

You could go to stockyards and steel mills and get a good job and have a decent income and support a family. Those jobs are gone, none. And so, while maybe historically there were some acceptable dropout rate, today, there is no acceptable dropout rate. And so, whatever we can do to work with you and your friends to understand how important it is, how this is your job now to get a great education and how, if you want to have any options in the future, you have to stay in school, and that can be difficult.

I think, often, people drop out because they're having problems in the neighborhood or at home and going to school becomes that much harder for them. But whatever those obstacles are, we have to help kids stay in school because there's just nothing out them on the streets - out them for the - on the streets today, nothing.

HENRY: Thank you. OK.

CONAN: Thank you. Secretary Duncan, when you joined us in September, you said you were still figuring out exactly what a secretary of education does.

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CONAN: Any more clarity on that?

DUNCAN: I think I continue to learn every single day. But I'm very clear that my job is to support courage and innovation and leadership at the local level. The best ideas in education will never come from me. In fact, it will never come from anybody else in Washington. It's always going to come from great teachers, great principals, great superintendents and boards at the local level.

And the more I can shine a spotlight on them, the more I can encourage them, the more we can learn from them, the more we can challenge the status quo where that's not happening. That's our role. But if we can take to skill best practices, if we can reward innovation, reward courage, then we can change outcomes for - not just for our children but for our country, and that's the work I'm thrilled to be doing.

CONAN: You recently wrote a letter to America's teachers, which some of your critics said, fine words but the secretary doesn't always seem to follow through in his deed. And I think, mostly, what they were talking about was the strictures of No Child Left Behind. Do you think that providing waivers should Congress not rewrite the law will go some way to alleviate that?

DUNCAN: I hope so. And I think that's been the tremendous frustration of many, many teachers for a long time in the law. And again, I lived on the other side of the law for seven and a half years, so I'm acutely aware of the issues and the challenges and the perverse incentives. And so, if we can provide some flexibility and some relief, again, in exchange for having a high bar, I think that will go a long way to giving teachers more flexibility, more autonomy in helping them do the great job of educating young people.

CONAN: You have to work with both houses in Congress as well. There's a Republican charge on the House side. Of course, the Democrat Tom Harkin charge on the Senate side. Neither have been particularly thrilled with the idea of these waivers.

DUNCAN: That's OK. We'll continue to work together. And, Neal, I think - you understood, I'm the least political guy you're ever going to meet. I have no interest in politics. I simply want to give children a chance to get a great education, and I'll work with everybody: Republicans, Democrats, doesn't matter, House, Senate. I have great relationships with Chairman Klein in the House, great relationships with Chairman Harkin in the Senate.

I think we absolutely all agree that, by far, that the best option would be to get this law reauthorized and to do it now. But the fact is, Neal, it's four years overdue. And as you know, there's tremendous pent-up frustration and demand for change. Everywhere I go people are demanding to just listen to what is broken and fix it. And so, I really hope Congress can do it and to do it with a real sense of urgency. But if they don't act, I will.

And even if we go to some regulatory release, that, in no way, precludes Congress from fixing the law moving forward. And maybe we're a bridge to where they need to go, but we have to take some action here.

CONAN: Secretary Duncan, thank you again for joining us here in Studio 4A.

DUNCAN: Thanks for the opportunity. I want to thank all the students and teachers here for great questions and for spending time with you and I, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Arne Duncan is United States Secretary of Education. We'd also like to thank the high schools students in our studio audience today, part of the creative writing program called 826DC. Tomorrow, MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep recently returned from two weeks in Pakistan. He joins us to talk about what he learned in what he called Pakistan's nightmare moment. Join us for that tomorrow in this hour on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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