Spared Cuts, Education Gets Special Attention

This week, the Obama administration pledged to cut spending in order to bring down the national deficit, but not where education is concerned. It's put a good deal of money on the table for states which fall in line with the administration's ideas of a major education overhaul. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about redesigning the standard-setting No Child Left Behind law and other Obama administration initiatives.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

This week, the Obama administration said it wants to overhaul the country's education system and is looking to redesign the No Child Left Behind law. That legislation, introduced under former President George W. Bush, has set achievement standards for nearly a decade.

I'm joined now by Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education. Secretary Duncan, welcome to the program.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): Thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

CORNISH: You said that the No Child Left Behind law, as it exists now, does too little to reward progress. Explain what you meant by that.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, there are a couple of things. Let me first start with what I will always give the previous administration credit for, and that's shining a spotlight on achievement gap and really just aggregating data. But having said that, there are a couple of things that we think about what needs to be fixed. There are a couple of themes that are really important to us.

First, is we want to have high standards for everyone. We've talked a lot about college ready, career ready internationally benchmarked standards. Under NCLB, many states literally dummied down standards due to political pressure, and that's bad for children, it's bad for families and it's bad for the economy. And so we've talked about having a high bar, high standards.

Secondly, we want to reward excellence. Under NCLB, there are many, many ways to fail, and so we want to shine a spotlight where we're seeing great work, where we're seeing growth, where we're seeing progress. We want to learn from it, we want to replicate it and we want to reward it.

And then third, we talked about that high bar, high standards, and we want to have that for the country but at the same time be much more flexible at how states and districts in individual schools hit that higher bar. I think NCLB was very loose on the goal but very tight, very prescriptive on how you get there. We want to literally flip that on its head.

CORNISH: Where do you see this moving on the congressional agenda? Because Capitol Hill, there's already a pretty packed schedule there.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, there's tremendous bipartisan support for fixing NCLB. And we've been working very hard with the House and Senate leaders from both the Democrats and the Republicans. This is the one issue that we think that we think everyone, not just political leaders but the entire country, can rally behind, regardless of politics or ideology.

As you know, the president's budget put very significant new resources - $3.5 billion in new money - for education, which is a huge investment, and an additional billion dollars if Congress does reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Act. So, the president's put a very significant financial incentive on the table for us to continue to work together.

CORNISH: Now, the No Child Left Behind law also has reading and math proficiency goals that they want met nationwide by the year 2014. Are you considering eliminating that deadline?

Sec. DUNCAN: No. What we want to do is actually raise the bar, and so it's not about a deadline; it's about having a high bar that's meaningful. And again, that bar, I would argue, in many states is unacceptably low.

CORNISH: So, that 2014 year would still be in place under your plan?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, if we can figure out the timeframe, to me the first question's not what your timeframe is but what your goal is. You know, there are lots of different ideas about timeframes and we're open to, you know, those discussions. But my bottom line here is we have to have a much higher bar, true college ready, career ready standards.

CORNISH: I want you to talk a little bit about the Obama administration's competitive grant program. It's called Race to the Top, and it was actually introduced in the previous stimulus program. It's a competitive grant system.

Sec. DUNCAN: What we fundamentally think is that we have to continue to find ways to reward excellence. And historically is we're pushing for dramatically better results for children. We're looking in the mirror every single day and trying to be very honest and self critical about what this department has done to help or to hurt progress historically.

And I would argue quite frankly that this department has been part of the problem. We have been this big, compliance-driven bureaucracy. Ive said repeatedly that the best ideas are never going to come from me or from Washington. They're always going to come from great educators at the local level. What...

CORNISH: At the same time, it rewards school systems or, for now, it rewards states who participate in some of the policies that you talked about and suggested - increasing numbers of charter schools or tying teacher pay to student performance. And I'm wondering what kind of response you're getting from people who are still very critical of some of these policies.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, there's actually been an extraordinary outpouring of support for this. There are 48 states today, 48 governors, 48 state school chiefs that are working to gather on higher standards. You saw 40 states plus the District of Columbia come in and apply in the first round of Race to the Top for funding. You've seen a number of states eliminate legal barriers barring the tying together teacher evaluation with student performance.

You've seen just remarkable progress in this first year before spending a dime, before the first round of funding has gone out.

CORNISH: I also want to ask you about measuring student performance. So, we're talking about the changing of standards. Now, standardized testing is one metric, but a lot of educators complained that they were forced to teach to a test, and I want to get your definition of the best way to measure student performance.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, there's no one simple way and I think we have to be really thoughtful around this. One of the major complaints I've heard was a real concern about the narrowing of the curriculum under NCLB. I heard that from children, I heard that from parents, I heard that from students. And we're looking to make sure students have a well rounded education from the earliest of ages. That's hugely important to us.

But ultimately we want to look at growth and gain. We want to look at high school graduate rates. Today, as many as 60 percent of our nation's incoming freshmen to college have to take remedial classes. They're really not ready, and that's due to the dummying down standards across the country that we've unfortunately seen.

CORNISH: Arne Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education. Secretary Duncan, thank you for joining us.

Sec. DUNCAN: Thanks so much for the opportunity.

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