Duncan Talks Back-To-School Bus Tour

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan just returned from a three-day bus tour of schools in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and other cities that are struggling economically. He speaks with host Michel Martin about his tour and how investing in schools relates to President Obama's jobs plan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The school year is just beginning and already some students are learning hard lessons. At the University of Akron, an email meant to advise black male students on how to deal with the police has sparked an uproar. We'll hear from a critic of the email plus a university official who is himself a black man about why he thought the email was tough to swallow but necessary. But first, a newsmaker interviewer with the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

He started this school year by heading back to class himself. As part of his back to school bus tour, the secretary has met with students, teachers, and administrators in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and other schools in the Great Lakes region to drive home the message that, quote, "education is the economic strategy for the 21st century." The bus tour wrapped up this past weekend. We caught up with Secretary Duncan earlier and he joined us from his Washington, D.C. office.

Welcome back, Mr. Secretary. Thanks for speaking with us once again.

ARNE DUNCAN: Thanks for having me, Michel. I appreciate the opportunity.

MARTIN: Tell us again, what's the idea for the tour?

DUNCAN: It was a fascinating - it was a six state, three-day tour. It ended last week and we went, you know, basically to Rust Belt states, states that have, you know, have some tough economic times, and talked about how the only way we strengthen, whether it's a state or a country ultimately, is through high quality education. And I have to tell you, these are very, very tough economic times, you know, across the board. I heard about, you know, devastating cuts and things you never want to see happen.

But I can't tell you how inspired I was by teachers, by parents, by students themselves, by principals, administrators, everybody's working hard. No one's making excuses. Everyone's trying to take education to the next level despite the tough economic times. It was just an amazing couple days for me and it makes me, frankly, very, very hopeful about where our country can go educationally and then long term economically.

MARTIN: Well, you know, throughout the bus tour you repeatedly said we have to educate our way to a better economy, but what you just talked about, some of the economic troubles facing many communities across the country, you know, if not most, means that in a lot of jurisdictions there's just less money to spend. For example, you had a pretty heated town hall, as I understand it, in Detroit. There was an announcement that about half of the Detroit public school children didn't show up for the first day of school on Tuesday.

I'm sure there were many reasons for that. But what do you say in a situation like that, where people are just discouraged?

DUNCAN: Well, children have to come to school, and parents, you know, first of all, it's young people's job. Everywhere I go I say it's young people's job to get an education and nobody can make you do it. No one can force you. The greatest teacher in the world can't teach you if you're not in class, obviously. And parents have to be responsible for getting their children to school and being a full and equal partner with the school and with the teachers.

Detroit has had very, very tough times historically. I actually think Detroit has an opportunity going forward to become one of the fastest improving school districts in the country. They have a long, long way to go but there's a confluence of leadership and commitment and urgency that I haven't seen before in Detroit, and in(ph) my second trip there I really challenged the city because the education historically has been so poor there, quite frankly. But I think Detroit is poised to move forward in the right direction and we want to be a good partner in those efforts, but children and parents have to be part of the solution.

MARTIN: Along the same lines, though, the last time we spoke with you, we talked a little bit about the department's efforts to get more men of color, particularly, interested in the teaching profession, and again, you know, not to belabor the point, but how do you spread that message and encourage people to get into teaching at a time when jurisdictions are in some ways, in some cases laying teachers off?

DUNCAN: A couple things. First of all, Michel, part of my job is to look a little bit over the horizon and as we've talked about over the next four, five, six, seven years, we're going to need as many as a million new teachers in this country. We have a baby boomer generation moving towards retirement and we're going to be hiring somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 teachers every single year. So as I travel the country, everywhere I go I'm encouraging young people, young people of color, young men of color, if you want to make a difference in your community, if you want to do some tough, tough work but amazingly rewarding, inspiring work, there's nothing more important you can do than come to the nation's classrooms and come back to your communities and help out.

We did that(ph) in Prince George's County, Maryland, which is just outside of Washington here. We didn't set it up. A group of young African-American male teachers set up the event. It's sort of part of their back to school work, and one of the young men is who the leaders there, he brought back his teacher who had mentored him and this is sort of what it's all about. And so we're going to continue to sort of spread the word. But again, the leadership is going to come at the community level of folks saying I want to be part of the solution. I want to give back.

Great teachers made a huge difference in my life. How can I help?

MARTIN: We're speaking with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He just got back from his back to school bus tour. We're checking in with him about what's on his plate for the upcoming school year. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. So let's talk about some of your homework, you know, for the coming days, the administration's work on No Child Left Behind. It has a deadline, 2014, when schools have to reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math and Congress has so far not agreed on proposed changes to the law.

So you've recently announced that states could apply for waivers from some requirements. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

DUNCAN: Sure. There are two big pieces of homework that I had I have now as we get rolling in the school year. First, as you just talked about, is the waiver package, and I just fundamentally think the No Child Left Behind law is broken. It's far too punitive, far too prescriptive, led to a dumbing down of standards, led to a narrowing of the curriculum, which was one of the biggest complaints I hear as I travel the country, and right now, unfortunately, Michel, Congress is pretty dysfunctional.

It's having a hard time getting anything done together. So I absolutely would have preferred that Congress would have reauthorized the law, fixed those things that are broken in a common sense way, done it in a bipartisan manner, but that's not happening. So literally this month, in the next couple weeks, we're going to come out with a waiver package and partner directly with states, and for me the trade off is a pretty simple one intellectually, where states have a high bar, college (unintelligible) standards, where they're committed to closing achievement gaps, where they're being thoughtful around teacher and principal support and evaluation. We want to give them a lot more time, you know, a lot more flexibility, and I've talked to, you know, 45, 46 governors, almost every single governor, and every single one is saying thank goodness someone in Washington is listening. We need change, we need reform, we need a chance to innovate, and we're going to work directly with them.

The second big one, Michel, as you know - this is equally as important if not more important - is the president's announcement of the jobs bill last week, and we desperately want that to pass. The stories I heard that I traveled last week and I heard today in my office from a number of teachers who are being laid off from districts around the country, are just devastating, and in the jobs package $60 billion for education, 30 billion to save or restore educators' jobs, and we think that could save as many as 280,000 jobs around the country, and another 30 billion to help on the renovation and rehab of so many school buildings where, you know, roofs are leaking and walls are crumbling. And so we're going to be traveling to Columbus, Ohio with the president to push and then continue to travel around the country, to get the word out that we need to do this.

We need Congress to act absolutely as quickly as they can, and when this bill is passed we'll get the money out to states and districts as fast as we can. But there is tremendous unmet need now. Educators are working so hard. We have to meet them halfway. We have to help our children ultimately. We have to help our country's economy.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about both those things in the couple minutes we have left, so let's talk about both those things separately. First, the waiver issue. A number of states have said that they intend on submitting waiver plans - that Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee, Minnesota, South Carolina, California, these states vary wildly in their student achievement, at least as it's described in the current kind of metric. So what do you say to people who would argue that you're making it entirely too easy for people to go back to the bad old days of having no standards at all?

Particularly of kind of hiding their less well performing students under the rubric of their better performing students. What do you say?

DUNCAN: Well, if any state has a low bar, is hiding things, we simply won't grant a waiver. And I think, Michel, if anything you've seen from day one is, very consistently, we've had a high bar and challenged folks to challenge the status quo and to shine a spotlight on achievement gaps.

So let me give you a prime example of why we need to do the waiver package. You mentioned Tennessee. Tennessee, like many states, historically dummied down standards and were lying to children. They were telling their state, telling children, telling families that 91 percent of students were proficient in math, 91 percent.

They then did the courageous thing. They raised standards. And when they did that, they went from 91 percent proficient in math to 34 percent. And while that might sound tough, guess what, Michel? It's the truth. And for the first time, they're being honest with the public.

When they raised standards, they also found that achievement gaps that were already large actually doubled because those achievement gaps had been masked, had been hidden with the lower bar.

Under the current No Child Left Behind Law, when a state shows courage and does the right thing like Tennessee, they actually get penalized. Everyone gets labeled a failure. What we want to do is reward that courage, reward excellence, reward those states that are willing to shine a spotlight on the achievement gap and take it on and give them the room to move.

So I absolutely assure you and all your listeners, we will maintain a high bar. In fact, the current law has led to the wrong kind of behavior, perverse behavior, and we think by giving more flexibility, it will encourage more and more states to deal honestly with the real academic and educational challenges they have.

MARTIN: And finally, you talked about the need to be honest with the public. Is the administration being honest with the public about a reasonable expectation that this sum of money that the president has requested for education is actually politically possible? As you pointed out, he's asked for an additional $77 billion for education. Is that really politically possible?

DUNCAN: Well, this is a battle and, again, we're going to be traveling the country and we need the public to let their voices be heard with their congressmen and with their senators. And the president obviously cannot do this alone. Congress has to pass this. We need congress to act together on behalf of our country, on behalf of our children, on behalf of education and on behalf of our economy.

But getting congress to do anything productive, lately, has clearly been a challenge, so we have our work cut out for us, but I'm going to go everywhere and anywhere I need to go to make this happen. This would be a huge step in the right direction if we can get this done quickly, and it would be absolutely heartbreaking to me if it doesn't happen.

We have too many great educators we need to keep in the classroom, not on the unemployment line. We have too many aging facilities that don't give our children the world class, you know, facilities and environment that are conducive to them being successful.

We have an opportunity to break through together. This has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with strengthening our country. And I hope and pray congress will do the right thing. But to ensure they will, the public's voices need to be heard.

MARTIN: Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education. He just returned from a Back-to-School bus tour where he met with students, teachers and administrators across the great lakes region and he was kind enough to speak to us from his office in Washington, DC.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for speaking with us. We hope we'll speak again throughout the course of the school year.

DUNCAN: Sounds great. Thanks for having me back. You take care, now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, in the wake of a rash of robberies near campus, the University of Akron sent an email telling students how to respond if approached by police. What's the problem? The email only went to African American males. Was that email common sense coaching or racial profiling? That discussion is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

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