U.S. Dept. Of Education Welcomes 'Mom Congress'
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the story of how a group of high school kids in Kalamazoo scored a coveted speaker for their graduation ceremony, President Barack Obama.
But first, we have a newsmaker interview with the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Earlier this week, Washington, D.C. hosted the first so-called mom conference. It was an event sponsored by Parenting magazine and it encouraged mothers to share their parenting success stories, their challenges and concerns and to brainstorm ways to improve the nation's educational system.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on hand to speak to the attendees about the role of parents in improving education. Secretary Duncan joins us now from his office to talk about the Mom Congress and more about his department's work. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Education Department): Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: Now, your speech to the Congress focused on parental involvement and you catalogued a list of failed attempts at the federal, the state, the local level to keep parents involved in school. So, what do you think you can do differently or this administration can do differently to meet that goal? Why do you think this will work this time?
Sec. DUNCAN: Well, first, let me say I was just honored to be a part of the Mom's Congress. It was an amazing group of women from around the country who are making a huge difference, not in the lives just of their own children, but of the community's children. And their passion, their commitments, their interest in education was extraordinary. So it's the first they've done it. Parenting magazine was a great partner. And I learned a lot from the conversation.
What we've done in our proposed FY11 budget is we would like to double federal funding for parental engagement and family involvement. We want to put $270 million behind this effort. But the good ideas are always going to come at the local level, and we simply want to take to scale those best practices that are demonstrating the ability to drive student achievement.
MARTIN: I would like to talk a little bit more about the whole question of parental involvement. This has become one of the mantras, you know, that schools will do better when the parents do more.
But according to the national Kids Count program, more than 60 percent of African-American kids live in single parent families. The number is close to 40 percent for Latino families.
I think for a lot of parents they would say that this model for parental involvement is really based on a traditional two-parent family for many people, the stay-at-home mom, you know, meetings often held at times when working parents find it very difficult to attend, there's no child care. How do you expect parents to be involved when if they don't work, then they're labeled for not doing what they can do to support their families? Could you talk about that?
Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah. That's a very real concern. And you're right, whether it's a single mom working one or two or sometimes even three jobs trying to make ends meet or whether it's a mom or a dad who, unfortunately, is out of work and is desperately trying to find a new job to support their family, families had never been under this kind of, you know, financial stress. And schools have to flexible to your point about, you know, parent/teacher conferences or bringing parents in.
It's got to be teachers and principals giving out cell phone numbers and calling and really, you know, going out and knocking on doors. It takes a different level of engagement. But I will tell you, when I ran the Chicago public schools and some of the toughest communities are on the south and west side, you had at times 100 to 150 parents coming to school every day, not just for their children's education, but for their own.
You know, GED classes, ESL classes, family literacy nights, there are so many different ways to engage. There isn't one correct model. And every community, every school, every principal, every team of teachers has to be committed to meeting parents halfway. At the same time, parents, despite those financial stresses, have to find ways to be full partners and really supportive of what's going on in school.
And I say all the time that parents are always going to be their children's first teachers and they're always going to be their most important teachers. That never changes. And, you know, so for all the work I'm trying to do around the country, I have an eight-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son at home and my wife and I have to do everything we can to make sure we're supporting our own children in getting an education and supporting their school and that we're part of the solution there and not part of the problem.
MARTIN: And as of course you know, the whole question of immigration is very much in the news. A couple questions I had for you about that. One of the sticking points, obviously, for many people, since 1995, the number of students in U.S. schools who are not native English speakers has risen 60 percent. And since we're talking about parental involvement, who do you think is primarily responsible for bringing kids up to facility and fluency in the English language, especially if they have parents who are not speakers of English, fluent speakers themselves?
Sec. DUNCAN: Okay. We always base - in education, we start pointing fingers and laying blame. I would say we all have to take collective responsibility at the end of the day if, you know, parents can do their part. And if you have parents who don't know the English language themselves, obviously schools need to step up and do more in community centers. And, again, I think schools can be real neighborhood centers.
These school buildings have classrooms, they have computer labs, they have libraries, these are phenomenal community assets and they should not just be open 9 o'clock in the morning to 3 o'clock at night, they should be open much longer hours with a wide variety of activities for children, for their older brothers and sisters, for their parents. And where parents need to learn the language, well, let's do at the school. Let's really get them engaged not just in their own education, but in their children's school.
MARTIN: Let's talk a little bit about this whole finger-pointing question. As you know, there have been a number of high-profile, kind of controversial confrontations involving school administrators and teachers' unions. One in particular got a lot of national attention with that struggling Rhode Island high school, the administration fired all of the teachers, or sent layoff notices to all of the teachers when they couldn't reach agreement on work rules and so forth.
And there are those who would say, or members of the teachers' unions who would say that they feel that this administration is kind of scapegoating teachers for the lack of success of students. How do you respond to that and how do you get beyond this sense of, no, it's your fault, it's your fault, as opposed to focusing on getting results?
Sec. DUNCAN: Well, first of all, thankfully (unintelligible), the right thing is finally happening. We have union management actually going through mediation together and working those issues. And where communication broke down, that's not good. And there's still some hard work ahead of them, but I'm very hopeful that that will come to a successful resolution.
But there's nothing more important we can do than to celebrate and support great teaching. Teachers are absolutely the unsung heroes in our society and we need to celebrate great teaching. We need to shine a spotlight on it. We need to reward it. We need to help those teachers that are struggling and give them the mentoring support that they need. And so we have to all work together again.
It's interesting that, you know, often, you know, colleges blame high schools that students aren't ready. High schools blame elementary schools. Elementary schools blame early childhood and then early childhood blames parents. And what I'm really trying to urge the country to say is that these are all of our children collectively and we have to take collective responsibility. And we're challenging everybody, you know, teachers, parents, students themselves.
And I've said very said very publicly that the Department of Education historically has been part of the problem. We've been this big compliance driven bureaucracy and we're trying to change our culture to become this huge engine of innovation. And so all of us have to move outside our comfort zones. All of us have to put our egos aside and we have to educate our way to a better economy.
MARTIN: Do you think we're making any headway on valuing teaching more as a profession, as something that is life changing for some people? You know, every year, particularly, I don't know if you noticed this around baseball season, somebody inevitably makes a comparison of how much a teacher makes and how much the star, whoever the star player of the season is, and do you think we're making any headway there?
Sec. DUNCAN: I do. It's a great question and it's a profound one. I think we are making headway, but I think quite frankly we have a long way to go. I think we desperately undervalue and under invest in education. I think our best teachers should be getting paid, you pick a number, you know, a hundred grand a year, 125 grand a year. I don't think we can pay our best teachers enough.
Nobody goes into education to make a million dollars. They all go in, again, for the most altruistic of reasons. They just want to make a difference in students' lives. But we need to continue to find ways to recognize and reward great teachers, great principals, great schools. When you see schools that are, you know, beating the odds every single day, it's not one miraculous teacher, it's a culture of high expectations, everybody pulling in the same direction.
And I think we have to continue to elevate the profession. Teachers in other cultures are more revered and are better supported. And we're trying to work as hard as we can to get to that point. I think we are making progress, but there is a long way to go.
MARTIN: And to that point, we're heading toward the end of this school year. What grade do you give Arne Duncan this year and it's keeping the goals that you set?
Sec. DUNCAN: Oh, I have a long way to go. We're just getting started. It's been a great, great year. I mean, I couldn't be more proud of the progress we've made. We've seen 48 states working together behind to create college and career ready standards, really raising the bar. You've seen states tear down restrictions on innovative schools. We were able to stop subsidizing banks and put an additional $36 billion into Pell grants to make college much more accessible. So it's been a phenomenal first year. But we have a lot of hard work ahead of us.
I'm desperately worried about teachers losing jobs for the upcoming school year. And I think Congress needs emergency legislation. We don't want to see hundreds of thousands of teachers laid off. We have to keep getting better. We can't afford to take a step backwards. So it's been a phenomenal first 15 months or so, 16 months, but a heck of a lot of hard work ahead of us.
MARTIN: Can you think of a story - often, you know, at the end of the school year, when teachers kind of put a memory book together for the students and they say, well, you know, you'll always remember this time we did together or this time we had together. My kids are six, too, so that's why I'm kind of thinking about this.
Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah.
MARTIN: Is there a story from this year that you think you'll take with you?
Sec. DUNCAN: There are so many stories. I wish I could give you one. I've visited, I think, 37 or 38 states. But I'll tell you, spending time in Indian Country in Montana in the Northern Cheyenne territory and getting a sense for the extraordinary challenges that those young people face. Visiting a remote Alaskan village where there wasn't running water in Hooper Bay and talking to those children, families. And I thought I had some sense of what poverty was like from the south and west side of Chicago, what I saw in those two places, it blew me away. It absolutely stunned me.
I was in a school just Friday in Texas, a high school, that two years ago was by any measure a failing school. And a great mom, a woman named Marina Mendoza(ph) and others rallied and said this isn't good enough for our children, for the community and tough, tough conversation, that school turned itself around. And less than two years later, they have basically doubled the number of students going to college. I mean, just amazing.
So I've seen huge challenges, but I've seen remarkable triumphs in place after place. I was in Selma, Alabama for the 45th anniversary of the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And to retrace those footsteps and to speak with some of the original marchers who fought so hard and bled and were beaten as they fought just for the basic right to vote. You know, the courage and the conviction that they demonstrated was extraordinary.
So I've been touched by so many just extraordinary leaders. And these are all just regular, you know, moms, dads, parents, grandparents who have shown amazing, amazing courage to make a difference in students' lives. And it really inspires and it humbles me.
MARTIN: How will you know when you've succeeded?
Sec. DUNCAN: Well, we can't rest until our dropout rate is basically down to zero. The president's drawn a line in the sand. He said by 2020 we have to again lead the world in the percentage of college graduates. We have to educate our way to a better economy. And so we're in this for the long haul.
And what we're doing today currently, I think, is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable. And so, if we can again lead the world by 2020 in the percent of college graduates, that's an ambitious goal, but that's what we're shooting for. And I want to be held accountable for getting there.
MARTIN: Arne Duncan is the secretary of Education for the United States. He joined us from his office here in Washington, D.C. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Sec. DUNCAN: Thanks for the thoughtful questions. Take care, now.
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