Students Quiz Education Sec. Arne Duncan

Sec. Duncan i i

Sec. Arne Duncan joined third grade teacher, Netosh Jones, children and staff at Martin Luther King Elementary school in May, 2010. Paul Wood/U.S. Department Of Education hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Wood/U.S. Department Of Education
Sec. Duncan

Sec. Arne Duncan joined third grade teacher, Netosh Jones, children and staff at Martin Luther King Elementary school in May, 2010.

Paul Wood/U.S. Department Of Education

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has spent much of the back-to-school season talking with teachers and parents. His department recently oversaw the awarding of more than $4 billion to public schools in select states.

While Duncan has addressed countless teachers in recent weeks, now, he tackles students' questions.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Back in April, as the school year was winding down, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined us to talk about his plans to improve America's schools.

Now that summer's behind us, most kids are back at school, and Arne Duncan is back too. This time dozens of high school students from the greater Washington, D.C. area join us here in Studio 4A. Today it's their turn to quiz the secretary.

We'd like to hear from high school students in the radio audience as well. What do you think the secretary of education needs to know about your education? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Secretary Duncan joins us now in Studio 4A. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: And most of the show is going to be devoted to questions from students, but I wanted to ask you: Can you tell us what the secretary of education does every day?

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): Well, I'm still trying to figure that out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, very simply, my job is to try and make sure that every student in this country has a chance to get a world-class education. There's nothing more important for our students, for their families, for the communities and for the country as a whole than to give every single child a chance to fulfill their tremendous academic and social potential.

So we have to drive change and get to the point where every single child, 52 million students in this country, have that opportunity.

CONAN: Do you actually get to go to schools very much?

Sec. DUNCAN: I'm in probably three, four, five schools every single week. I spend a huge amount of my time in schools, and here, I've visited 42 states. Over the past week I did an eight-state bus tour and was in many, many schools during that.

CONAN: A yellow bus?

Sec. DUNCAN: It was actually a blue bus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. DUNCAN: It was actually a pretty cool blue bus. But the only way I learn, the only way I can help to improve the quality of education is that I'm constantly listening to students, listening to parents, listening to teachers, and that's, frankly, the most fun I have, and it's easily the most important learning I do. And this recent bus trip was just absolutely fascinating.

CONAN: And how do students talk to you - I mean other than these visits to schools? Is there a way they can communicate with you?

Sec. DUNCAN: Students email me. I answer questions on Facebook. I'm learning to work with Twitter a little bit. And I play basketball with students. So there are formal ways, there are informal ways, and there's ongoing conversation. I can't tell you how helpful it's been, and frankly how hopeful I am about the future because of our students' passion and their commitment to getting a great education.

CONAN: As we mentioned, we have dozens of students from the Washington, D.C. area here in Studio 4A. There are from different schools. Some have lined up in front of the microphone. Just tell us who you are, where you're from and ask the secretary of education a question.

Ms. JUDY CRUZ(ph)(Audience Member): Hello. My name is Judy Cruz(ph). I go to Yorktown High School in Virginia. I was just wondering: Mr. Secretary, I've had the chance to witness the different standards places on students in my life, living in semi-rural New Mexico and now in urban northern Virginia, and through my family's work, because my mom, aunts and uncle are all public educators in Texas.

In Texas, sometimes teachers aren't allowed to fail students, and I think that by placing our students in a situation like that, we're setting them up for individual failure in the real world, where they aren't given too many second chances, and setting our country up for economic - I guess we're not going to be as competitive as we could be by not giving our students the best education.

So I was just wondering: What role does the Department of Education have in raising and equalizing the standards placed on students across the country?

Sec. DUNCAN: That's a great question. First of all, please thank your family members for their commitment to public education. Hopefully they'll follow in your footsteps. Do you think about teaching at all?

Ms. CRUZ: Sometimes.

Sec. DUNCAN: Good. We'll talk more about that. Let's see if I can sign you up. Great question. It's actually one of the areas we have worked the hardest and frankly seen the greatest movement around the country.

So what's happened, unfortunately, in many, many states around the country, due to political pressure, not due to what's right for children, not due to what's right for education, not due to what's right for our country's economy, but due to political pressure, many states have dummied-down standards.

And what states have been doing, unfortunately, is actually lying, lying to children, lying to families. And when a child hears they're quote-unquote "proficient," or you know, on track or on grade level, I think most students, most parents would logically assume, well, if I'm on track, I must be on track for later success in college and careers.

And in fact, those standards have been dummied-down so much that students who are, you know, on track are often barely able to graduate from high school and are totally, woefully inadequately prepared for college. And as you said eloquently, we do our children and our country a grave disservice when we do that.

So what we're seeing in a very short amount of time is huge leadership by states, by governors, by state school chief officers, by superintendants and boards around the country.

We have 36 states now that have adopted higher college and career-ready standards. It's been an amazing shift. And you know, two years ago you couldn't talk about this in education. It was a third rail. But now you have educators lined up behind this. Both major teachers' unions are wildly supportive. The business community has been begging for this. The whole country has coalesced behind this.

And this is a fundamental breakthrough, and what we want is we want a child in Mississippi to be held to the same standards as a child in Massachusetts, and we will let every child in-between know exactly what their strength and weaknesses are, and how do we as teachers, as parents, as students ourselves, work on our strengths and work on our weaknesses.

So this is fundamentally changing this country. We're going to stop lying to children, and that's a big, big deal.

CONAN: Let's take an informal poll here in Studio 4A. These are students from Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. Obviously this is completely unscientific. But applaud if you think your school has - its standards have gotten tougher in your time in high school.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: All right well, there's evidence, at least some evidence. Here's an email question for the secretary from Dave: Should the U.S. nationalize higher education, four-year college and university?

Sec. DUNCAN: Absolutely not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. DUNCAN: And one thing I'm always conscious of is that the best ideas in education are always going to come at the local level, never from me, never from Washington.

We have the best system of higher education in the world. It can continue to improve, and there are things we want to work very hard to help and improve. But our nation's colleges and universities are unparalleled anywhere in the world.

And we need to continue to support them. We need to continue to make sure they're doing a better job of graduating students. But they should absolutely not be nationalized.

CONAN: Let's get another question from here in the studio.

Mr. JEFF SINCLAIR(ph) (Audience Member): Mr. Secretary, my name is Jeff Sinclair. I am the SGA president at Herndon High School in Fairfax County. And my question is on your Race to the Top initiative.

I know it's one of this administration's big priorities, and I definitely think the intent is laudable. However, I am curious as to how you plan on addressing the concerns of the states that aren't successful in securing the money. What motivates the losers as well as the rural states that may not be as successful?

Sec. DUNCAN: These are just fantastic questions. And we've had unparalleled push for reform around the country because of Race to the Top. And what you had is 46 states apply. Due to funding levels, so far we've only been able to fund 11 states, 10 states and D.C. But as we move forward next fiscal year and the year after that, we're going to keep coming back and funding more.

But what I heard as I talked to governors and state school chief officers of states who applied and didn't receive money is, yes, they're disappointed and they would've loved the money, but what they said is going through the process itself has made us much better.

It's forced us to collaborate. It's forced all of us to move outside our comfort zones. We now have a roadmap. We have a blueprint for reform, and we're going to keep driving for it.

And so this is not about working with a handful of states. This is about a national movement, and our department is gearing up starting now, this fall, to work with every single state, whether or not they receive dollars from us, to help implement their bold reform plans.

And so it would be easy to, you know, get discouraged or give up, but what I've seen is just absolute true leadership, and folks said we're moving, we're going to make this happen. And that couldn't be more encouraging.

We want to come back year after year and continue to add resources and fund more. But at the end of the day, the money is really helpful, but frankly, a lot of this is about courage. It's about telling the truth.

It's about doing some things in very different ways, and again, moving outside comfort zones, raising the bar for all students, figuring out how we get great teachers into communities, rural, remote, inner-city urban, where too often great talent has left. In education, great teachers, great principals, make a huge difference in students' lives. You guys all know that.

It's about challenging the status quo; when you have a handful of schools in a state where it's simply not working - the dropout rates are 50, 60, 70 percent - being willing to do some things very, very differently.

And so resources are a piece of this, but frankly, the harder piece is courage. I'm just seeing amazing courage and leadership around the country.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the question. Here's an email question, this from Justin Feinmore(ph) at Urbana High School in I can't read where that's from, but somewhere in Maryland. Do you believe on assessing teachers based on the students' standardized test scores? If so, how do you expect standardized test scores to increase when class sizes continue to grow, with some classes at 40 children?

Sec. DUNCAN: A couple parts to that. So one thing, we were let me address the class-size issue. One of the things we've been very, very concerned about is due to the horrendous budget conditions around the country at the state and local level, many school districts are making very, very tough cutbacks.

And we were thrilled about a month ago to fight very, very hard and with Congress enact a $10 billion package to save about 160,000 teacher jobs around the country.

And lots of folks thought we were crazy to fight for it, that it would never happen, but it was simply the right thing to do, and we were so thrilled to see that actually come to fruition and prove all the doubters wrong, that we could really do something positive.

So we don't want to see class size at 40. We dont want to see after-school programs eliminated. We don't want to see summer school eliminated. We don't want to see arts and music, debate eliminated. And that jobs bill was a huge step in the right direction. There's still unmet need there.

What I've said repeatedly is that teacher evaluation around the country is pretty much broken, and we have to work together to come up with something that's more thoughtful and meaningful. We have to do it with teachers, not to teachers.

And as a piece - let me be very clear on this - there's a piece of evaluating teachers yes, we need to look at how much students are learning. But I've said from Day One that you have to look at multiple measures. And anyone that thinks that teachers should be evaluated based on one test, one day, you know, at the end of the year, I think is crazy.

So being very thoughtful, we have a number of districts breaking through, district leaders, unions working together. We have a handful of very, very thoughtful teacher evaluation systems around the country today, and we want to see that start to grow around the nation.

CONAN: We did a show on this earlier this week. I just wanted to report some news. The Los Angeles Unified School District today endorsed using the controversial system of value-added measures as a way to measure teacher performance. They authorized the district superintendent, Ramon Cortines, to start negotiating with unions to develop a new system to evaluate teachers and administrators that includes the value-added method.

Sec. DUNCAN: Just on that one, what's so important to me, not just - not for teachers but for schools, for districts, for states, is I want to look at how much students are improving each year. I want to look at growth and gains, not at absolute test scores.

And a quick example, today if a sixth-grade teacher, if a child comes to them three grade levels behind and leaves a grade level behind, under the current law, No Child Left Behind, that teacher is labeled a failure.

We want to change that. That child who's growing two years of growth for a year's instruction, that teacher's not a failure. That teacher's a hero.

CONAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is with us. More questions from our studio audience. We'd like to hear from high school students in the radio audience as well, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Arne Duncan was confirmed as secretary of education on inauguration day, January 20, 2009. Before that appointment, he headed the public schools in Chicago.

His latest accomplishment's an overhaul of No Child Left Behind, a round of several billion dollars for handpicked schools in the Race to the Top competition.

Our focus today, not just on the bottom line, it's on the students. We have an audience with us here in Studio 4A of high school students, and a few teachers as well. We'll get to more of their questions in just a moment.

We'd like to hear from high school students in our audience as well. What do you think the secretary of education needs to know about your education? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go back to the studio audience here in Studio 4A.

Mr. LEONARDO CONTRARES(ph) (Audience Member): Hello, my name is Leonardo Contrares, and I'm with Wilson High School. And throughout these years, a lot of students have complained about school lunches, and now at our school we have a new company of food, which is Revolution Foods, and I would like to know what took so long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. DUNCAN: That's a great question. I don't have an easy answer on that. And Revolution Foods is doing a great job. They're in other places. But let me just take a minute on this.

We talk about improvement. We have a long way to go on school lunches and school breakfastses, and lots of places, lunches and breakfastses are, frankly, part of the problem.

I know they say it's hard to concentrate in class if you're hungry. It's hard to be at your best academically if you're not getting nutritious food.

And you guys might boo me on this, but I've worked very hard to get junk out of vending machines, less ice cream, less soft drinks, healthier snacks. And I think healthy nutrition, better nutrition tied to more physical activity, sort of building those lifelong habits are hugely important.

People may not realize that we actually don't do the nation's school lunches. The Department of Agriculture does, Tom Vilsack. And he has been an amazing partner.

We're working very, very closely together. He wants to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. That happens with Congress. That would bring an additional $10 billion to school lunches and breakfastses around the country. But he wants to continue to fund places that are willing to challenge the status quo and get much better in terms of healthier food.

Obviously, the first lady's initiative, the Let's Move initiative, has been very, very helpful. And I think this is changing around the country. This is one of the issues that got to a tipping point. I think our schools and too many places have contributed to an obesity problem.

About a third of our nation's children are obese. That's sort of a stunning statistic. And we have to get much better, and I think this is starting to move with a real sense of momentum.

CONAN: Can you give us an example of what you're having for lunch now that you didn't have last year?

Mr. CONTRARES: Last year we had a lot of pizza, but now there's a lot of varieties of food like turkey sandwiches, hamburgers, salads.

Sec. DUNCAN: Salad bar?

Mr. CONTRARES: Yeah.

CONAN: And is the price the same?

Mr. CONTRARES: Yeah.

Sec. DUNCAN: And are you eating it?

Mr. CONTRARES: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's an important...

Sec. DUNCAN: That's the most important thing. Keep eating it.

CONAN: All right. Let's go to a question coming in by the phone. Again, the number is 800-989-8255. We'll go to Brett(ph), and Brett's on the line with us from Springfield in New Jersey.

BRETT (Caller): Hi, Mr. Duncan and host. This is Brett Eagelebert(ph) from (unintelligible) High School in Springfield, New Jersey. How are you guys?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

BRETT: I have a question that's sort of two-fold. My first question is: As you may know, in New Jersey, the state just recently passed a law that limited the salaries for administrators in public schools. And so my question is: What's being done to reduce administrative overhead so that money can be redirected into the classroom?

And the second part of my question, which is maybe not so related: What new teaching styles are really being developed that students can look forward to in the near future?

CONAN: All right.

Sec. DUNCAN: These are amazing questions. So on salaries, that's really something that's determined at the state and the local level, and states and districts are, again, in very, very tough budget times. Every district has to be making sure that scarce dollars are getting into the classroom, into after-school programs as well.

CONAN: Is there federal oversight of that? Can you say this state has or this district has X percent devoted to administration, this one has that much percent?

Sec. DUNCAN: So we cannot mandate it. We can't legislate it. But we can have great transparency behind it.

CONAN: Okay.

Sec. DUNCAN: And we will continue to do that. I think it's so important that students themselves and parents ask those questions and really make sure that every scarce dollar is making a difference in students' lives today.

I will tell you, and some of my ideas are a little controversial, I think, for example, where we have a shortage of math and science teachers in many communities, I think we should think about paying math and science teachers more money.

We've had a shortage of math and science teachers for a couple decades in this country, and it's hard for our students to, you know, learn biology, learn chemistry and learn physics if they don't have teachers who actually know that content.

CONAN: That sound you hear is English teachers gathering torches and pitchforks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah, usually my English and social studies teachers don't love this idea. But let me be clear. Particularly in disadvantaged communities, in remote areas, in rural areas, in inner-city urban areas, how can our students be successful long term if they don't have access to AP physics and chemistry?

And we have, unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of students who don't have those kinds of chances. I visited a high school in Detroit that has huge challenges, phenomenal young people like you guys, smart, committed, hardworking.

I asked them. They didn't have access to one AP class in their high school, not one. So how are we leveling the playing field? How are we giving them a chance to be successful?

So as a way of answering your question, I think we ought to be very creative in rewarding excellence and, you know, great teachers, great principals working (unintelligible) communities. We need to reward them.

In terms of teacher styles, I think what we're seeing today is less and less, which is a great thing, less and less of the autocratic, you know, teacher at the front of the classroom lecturing, much more hands-on, much more engaged, much more teachers giving students voice, you know, asking questions, challenging students to think for themselves, not just asking students to spit back facts but helping you think and formulate ideas and opinions and be able to articulate those.

And those teachers that are engaging students in very different ways, using technology, today more so than ever before, I think are the teachers that are having the biggest impact on student achievement.

CONAN: Brett...

BRETT: Absolutely, and I think that what you say about transparency is so important on the part of the administration, on the part of boards of education and everybody. I think transparency is absolutely key for moving education forward.

Sec. DUNCAN: One of the biggest things we're trying to do, Brett, is to tell the truth, and where we have great success, we're trying to celebrate that and recognize it and reward it, and where we have real challenges, we're trying to deal with it openly and honestly. I think the only way you get better is if you have frank conversations about both what's working and what's not.

CONAN: Brett, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

BRETT: Thank you so much. Have a great day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go back to the audience here in Studio 4A.

Ms. TAYLOR BIADI(ph) (Audience Member): Hi, I'm Taylor Biadi, and (unintelligible) Chevy Chase High School. And some counties with the largest teacher unions have the highest-achieving schools. Is there a danger in placing such importance on the teacher unions?

Sec. DUNCAN: No. I think teacher unions can and will be a huge part of the solution. And I have a great working relationship with Randi Weingarten, who runs the AFT. I was with her this morning. I have a great working relationship with Dennis Van Roekel, who runs the NEA.

And if we as a country want to get dramatically better, all of us have to work together. So that absolutely includes the unions. It includes parents. It includes you guys, the students yourselves. I can't overemphasize how important it is that we be in constant communication with you. It includes the larger community around schools. All of us have to work together to get to where we need to go.

And let me just take one minute why I feel such a sense of urgency on this. Who here can tell me what the nation's dropout rate is? Anybody can tell me? What's our country's dropout rate? Any ideas what percent?

CONAN: Oh, come on.

Unidentified Male: Twenty-five.

Sec. DUNCAN: Bingo, 25 percent. So our country today is losing, around the nation - about 1.2 million students every single year are leaving our schools for the streets.

That is economically unsustainable, and that is morally unacceptable. How many good jobs are out there today for a high school dropout?

CONAN: Very few.

Sec. DUNCAN: Zero, in the legal economy. In the legal economy, none.

There are almost no good jobs out there if you just have a high school diploma. Some form of higher education has to be the goal for every single one of you: four-year universities, two-year community colleges, trade, technical, vocational training.

K to 12 has to change its focus from just having you graduate to preparing you for the next step on the education journey. And so we have to get dramatically better. We have to do it very, very fast, and all of us have to work together to create those opportunities.

And I think the unions have visionary leadership. They have folks who are challenging the status quo, willing to move in tough areas and take some political risks, frankly. And I think they are absolutely going to be part of the solution as we move forward.

CONAN: Thank you. Here's an email question from Chris(ph): I'm currently starting an alternative school in Colorado, where students are mentored based on their interests. I wonder why we aren't doing something different with education. It seems to me we continue to try the same thing harder.

Sec. DUNCAN: Amen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. DUNCAN: And one of the things, if we want to get dramatically better results, you can't get dramatically better results by keeping doing the same thing. It just is not going to work. You're going to perpetuate the status quo.

And so I'm a big fan of alternative high schools. I'm a big fan of engaged learning. I'm a big fan of having every single young person have a mentor or role model, be able to discover their passions, discover their interests.

And we need to try new ideas. And most importantly, for all the challenges I just talked about, Neal, I'm actually very, very hopeful because we've never had so many high-performing schools around the country.

And so what we have to do is learn from them, replicate that success. Take the skill - best practices. We have to move from pockets of excellence, islands of excellence, to systems of excellence. And we can't be complacent if we have some students getting a world-class education, but many others, unfortunately, not. So we need new ideas. We need to innovate. We also need to share what is working. And I've - again, state after state around the country, I've seen hundreds and hundreds of extraordinary schools getting amazing results for children, often in very, very challenging circumstances.

CONAN: Question from here in the studio.

Mr. RASHAD JOY(ph) (Audience): Hi. My name is Rashad Joy and I'm a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest. I wanted to ask you - well, to start off, Wilson's one of Washington, D.C.'s largest, most diverse and academically rigorous public high schools. And diversity is our strength so - and based on No Child Left Behind, we're a failing - we've been a failing school for the past seven years. And since we're so diverse, there are 34 areas we are judged on. If you fail one or two, you're a failing school. Yet if you pass - if you take a test and you missed that one question, then you still get a A. Does No Child Left Behind punish diversity?

Sec. DUNCAN: That's a great question. I think No Child Left Behind - much that needs to be fixed, and that's one of the real challenges. So let me just take one minute on this one, because this is hugely important. I think the current law is far too punitive. If you said there are about 50 ways to fail and almost no rewards for success, it is very prescriptive. It's very top down from Washington. I think that, fundamentally, doesn't work. It is led and I talked about that earlier. I think there's an unintended consequence, but still led to dumbing down of standards.

One of the biggest complaints I've heard, ever, around the country, has led to narrowing of the curriculum. Teachers just teaching to the test, filling out bubble sheets. And so how do we fix all those? We have to reward excellence. We have to reward success. We have to find those schools that are beating the odds and doing a great job. Those teachers, those schools, those districts, those states - celebrate them. Reward them. Give them more resources, not less. We have to focus on growth and gain. How much of folks improving? So I'd be really curious. Can you tell me - is your graduation rate going up or down for the school?

Mr. JOY: I think it's been going up so far.

Sec. DUNCAN: So, to me, that's hugely important. Let me give you example. If your drop-out rate today is 80 percent, but it used to be 90 percent, you've got so many things to work on. If your graduation rate is 70 percent, but it used to be 50 percent, you're getting better. And so, again, I want to look in improvement. So that's one of the things I'd be very, very curious, if that school is - are graduation rates going up? Are drop-out rates going down? Are more students going to college? Are more students successfully staying in college? And I think we have to get away from looking at one test score. What are attendance rates? Is violence going down, is discipline rates going down?

We have to be much more comprehensive and look at a whole set of indicators and be much more thoughtful about it. We also have to raise standards, which has happened around the country. And the biggest thing is, we have to give everyone of you a well rounded education. So reading and math, English and math are hugely important, but so is science, so is social studies, so is foreign languages, so is financial literacy, so is environmental literacy. We have to get back to a well rounded curriculum.

And so much of No Child Left Behind, I think, doesn't work. And we're looking to work with congressmen a bipartisan way, Republicans and Democrats together, to fix that very, very soon. And we have to celebrate diversity. You are so lucky to go at a very diverse school. That is not the norm in this country. And I think you're going to be much richer as a person, because of that experience.

CONAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with us here at studio 4A.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go back to the phones. This is Kevin(ph), Kevin with us from Shawnee in Kansas.

KEVIN (Caller): Yes. Hi. I got a question for Mr. Duncan. I recently graduated from Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas. I was wondering where student's rights basically ends? Because for the last year and a half, going to my school, I fought my class about my rights. I tried to switch classes and drop classes, but they would not allow me to, even though I was 18 years old. But I am allowed to drop out of school and join the military, but I can't decide on my own educational future, even though I'm 18 years old.

CONAN: So how much choice should kids have in choosing their courses?

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah. So to me, it goes beyond what your legal right is, and it goes to what's our mission as educators. And we need to listen to our students, Neal. You know, these are extraordinarily smart, talented, committed young people. We need to listen to your hopes. We need to listen to your dreams. We need to help student at the right direction. When you get off track, we need to support you and listen to you to do that. So to me, it goes way beyond what your legal rights are. But do we have educators who are listening, really listening, and reacting to what they're hearing to give you a chance to fulfill your potential.

So if you want to take an AP class and being denied that right, if you're interested in auto mechanics or marine biology, whatever it might be, we need to be helping every student find their passion, find their interest in creating opportunities during the school day, after school, in the community, to fulfill that. And I'm sorry that you weren't listened to there.

CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much.

KEVIN: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck to you. Now, time for another question here in the audience.

Ms. ALEX FREELAND (Audience): Hi. My name is Alex Freeland(ph) and I attend Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia. And I have attended religiously affiliated schools since about the second grade. And my question is, you know, how is the U.S. government going to help support our education to ensure that we have the same opportunities as public schools? Because we help, you know, relieve overcrowding in public schools. And we also - like, there are so many ways that the U.S. government could help us. I mean, we could get textbooks that aren't - that don't have to do with religion and we could have, you know, make sports help and other facilities. I mean, there are so many ways you could help us. I was just wondering.

Sec. DUNCAN: So what I want for this country is for every single child to have a chance to go to a great school.

Ms. FREELAND: Yeah.

Sec. DUNCAN: And that might be public. It might be religious based. It might be private. And it might be something else. We just need every single child to have that opportunity. And - so to me, there's no sense of competition. There's no sense of us versus them. It's about us as a country, educating our way to a better economy.

And so, I've been working very, very closely with national leadership both from religious based schools, faith based schools, as well as from private schools. And we want to be a better partner. We want to be a resource. We want to support the hard work that's going on there. And we just want to see every single child have a chance. And so, we are finding, I think, some pretty creative ways to better partner and better support the hardworking that's going on in faith based and private schools around the nation.

CONAN: Thank you. We just have a few seconds left before a break. So a tweet question. This is from Erich Lindemann in Pastors for Youth. When are we going to start learning how to think and not just how to pass a standardized test?

Sec. DUNCAN: It got to happen yesterday.

CONAN: Arne Duncan, the secretary of education is with us. More questions and dialogue with students here in Studio 4A. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of Music)

CONAN: Right now, we're talking with secretary of education Arne Duncan. There's an audience of dozens of students from high schools from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia here in Studio 4A. In this last part of the program, we're going to mix it up. And Secretary Duncan may have some questions for them as well. I wondered if we could start with question from you, Secretary Duncan.

Sec. DUNCAN: I've got all kinds of questions. First one, who can tell me how many teachers you think we're going to need - new teachers within this country over the next five, six, seven, eight years?

CONAN: And we have a microphone here. Anybody want to raise their hand?

Sec. DUNCAN: Any guesses, any estimates?

CONAN: This guy over here can.

Sec. DUNCAN: (Unintelligible). Take a wild guess.

Unidentified Male: One million.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. DUNCAN: This will be the teacher's pet over here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. DUNCAN: Hit the nail on the head - million teachers. Exactly right. Yeah, a million teachers. We're going to - we have a baby boom generation moving towards retirement. It's about a third of our workforce, so I need to sign you up. But I would just actively encourage all of you to think about going into education. That if you want to serve the country, if you want to serve your communities, there's nothing more important we can do than to put a great teacher in every single classroom.

And so, this baby boom generation moving out, presents some challenges. It presents some huge opportunities, as well. And in education, I said (unintelligible) show that talent matters tremendously. Great teachers, great principals make a huge difference in students' lives. Our ability to attract this next generation of talent is going to save public education for the next 30 years. It's truly a generational shift. So I'd love you guys to think about that.

The second thing, Neal, if we could have a couple of students just talk about... I've just been so amazed. I've traveled the country at the level of, sort of, community engagement, the leadership, the community of service activities of students who joined outside of school to better their neighborhoods. And we're seeing students, you know, eight, nine, 10 years old -teenagers having just an amazing impact in the community. And I love to hear, you know, one or two stories from students, about what they're engaged in in the community and what difference it's making.

CONAN: There's a few hands up in the audience. So let's see if we can get a mic down.

TILLARY, (Audience): Hi. My name is Tillary Ree(ph), and I'm a senior at Central High School this year. Last year, I had - or two years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the youth leadership program called HOBY. And with HOBY, we're required to do 100 hours of community service and - if we want to come back the next year on staff. And so, of course, I wanted to and...

CONAN: HOBY stands for Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership, correct?

TILLARY: Correct, yes. And recently, I've gotten involved at this program called "Cupcakes for Cancer." And I'll be selling cupcakes to raise money to sponsor a "Child's Make-A-Wish," so I'm also working in affiliation with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. And I just can't wait to get started, and I can't wait to make the impact on someone's dream and knowing that I was a part of that.

CONAN: And Hugh O'Brian has certainly made an impact, yes?

TILLARY: Yes.

CONAN: The old actor, the former Wyatt Earp for those of you as old as me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...who remember that much TV. Let's see if we can get somebody else over here.

Ms. MANA(ph) SHEER(ph): Hi. I'm Mana Sheer from North County High School in (Unintelligible) County. And what I do is student government. But I don't just do student government within my school, I do it for my county. I'm actually the first vice president. And my job and my role is to look at youth-related legislation within the legislator of Maryland and, actually, voice the student opinion, so that legislators know what the students want and what the students feel. So that, when they are voting out of bill that has to do with students, they're not just giving their opinion as somebody sitting in a seat in a room, it's actually the opinions of the students.

CONAN: And we talk about student voices today. I have an email question for all of you. And, again, this is one of those informal and unscientific polls. This is a question from Pam, a retired teacher. How many students in your audience today, intend to become teachers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: A little louder, please. I would say that was a minority.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sec. DUNCAN: No, we need to work on that one.

CONAN: All right.

Sec. DUNCAN: By end of show, we'll have them.

CONAN: Let's get a question from the audience here in Studio 4A.

KIMBERLY GODFREY: Good afternoon, Secretary Duncan. My name is Kimberly Godfrey(ph), and I attend in Annapolis Area Christian Schools. My question is, how can we make education more attractive so that we can attract and retain qualified teachers? I know that in my school the teachers are very qualified. And in return, they get very good privileges and benefits.

Sec. DUNCAN: So that's a huge question, and it's really interesting. Teaching used to be a revered profession in our country. I think, somehow, we've lost our way. I think we've beaten down teachers. We disrespect them too often. And we have to find a way to elevate and strengthen the entire teaching profession. And actually, as we get into the end of the month, we're going to launch a national campaign. So you're hearing it here first. We're going to launch a national campaign to recruit the next generation great talent. And we're going to work hard to elevate the profession.

All of us, as adults, can point to those teachers in our lives who made just an amazing difference. And for it's a high school English teacher, Ms. McCampbell(ph). Then, we don't have computers, so I'd hand in an essay written in blue, I get back more red than my blue. But she pushed me and she forced me and encouraged me in ways, and pull things out of me I didn't know I had. And so, we have to elevate the profession. We have to respect it. This eight city -eight state bus tour I went on was called Courage in the Classroom. And I would ask all of you to go back and thank those teachers who are working with you every single day as you start the school year.

And it's interesting. Other countries who are out competing us, educationally, have taken very different approaches. Um, in South Korea, that, right now, is doing better than us by many measures, their teachers are known as nation builders. And that's a really interesting idea, teachers as nation builders. And I see this as their driving force for the entire country. In Finland, which is doing a great job, educationally, only one in 10 young folks who want to be a teacher is allowed to be the teacher. They take the best of the best, the hardest working, the most committed, into the profession. So I think we can learn some examples from around the globe. But we have to elevate the profession. And if we do that well, I think we'll give the next generation a phenomenal talent to come in and help us educate our way to every county.

CONAN: Are those teachers in Finland paid and better than, perhaps, other professions?

Sec. DUNCAN: They are. They are. In many countries - it is actually interesting. Some countries - and there's a little controversy here. They trade off class size. They have larger classes. And they pay teachers more in those larger settings.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's see if we got another caller. This is on the phone. This is Mike(ph), Mike with us from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. I have a question. When I'd listen to educators or the politicians at the local, state and government level, we - all I hear is how can we improve education and get those kids to AP or honors in classes. And I hear nothing about helping those who have a learning disability or how are you going to improve the special education classes. Considering that I am in special ed - and pretty much, the teachers -they're pretty there to babysit us, not to teach us. How are you or the state, the local municipalities, are you going to help us with learning disabilities, whether we have dyslexia or any other kind of disabilities to help us gain, you know, or enrich our education?

Sec. DUNCAN: So my simple goal, to articulate, is much harder to do, is that we want every single child in this country to fulfill their true academic and social potential. And I think, Mike, there are students like you, whether it's a student with special needs, whether it's an African-American, Latino student, or Native American student, there are many students today who, frankly, we're not put in a position to fulfill your tremendous potential. And, again, that's why I feel this huge sense of urgency. And so, the idea of babysitting a child in school is one that's - yeah, that's not what this is about.

MIKE: I mean, that - that's how I - you know, I know when I'm growing up in elementary school, the special education teacher would yell at all of us because we didn't understand what she was talk - they were talking about, especially in high school. I'm ready to graduate and I don't even know if I'm prepared or not, for college - to even go to a community college.

Sec. DUNCAN: You know, I think every child - again, regardless of the ability or disability, every child has unique gifts. They have unique talents. And it's our job, as educators, to find those and help you fulfill them. Students learn in many different ways, and having teachers to be able to differentiate instruction and help that student who has dyslexia, give them the additional supports they need. And there are so many extraordinarily talented folks around in leadership roles, in government around the country, frankly, who have dyslexia. And they had those adults in their lives who help them challenge that and do very, very well. But when we don't do that, we do you, and we do the country a great disservice.

CONAN: And you articulate the goal, clearly. What are you going to do to make that come about?

Sec. DUNCAN: There's not one thing. It's a number of things. It's putting in place the teacher training and the professional development to be able to identify every student's strength and weaknesses.

CONAN: Would the federal government pay for that?

Sec. DUNCAN: We have huge money behind professional development that, frankly, isn't always use well. So the amount of $10 billion we put into different types of training. It is recruiting that next generation of talent. And to me, again, it's not just special education. I think every child should have a set of goals that the child and that school are working on together. And whatever that might be, we as adults, have to be putting the time and energy to help that child be successful.

I think technology can be very, very helpful in helping students learn and engaging students in very, very different ways. And I think, working with the broader community as well after school programs, after school supports; drama, arts, sports, music. Some students who struggled during the regular school day, absolutely find their passion in robotics, in debate, in theater; in making sure the students have those kinds of opportunities, as well. So not one simple answer, Neal, but unfortunately, there are too many students like Mike who are frustrated, who don't feel they're being challenged, where expectations are too low, frankly. And that's simply not good enough.

CONAN: Mike, thank you. That was a great call. We're talking with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And another question from here in the studio.

Ms. DIANA SAFFARINI (Audience): Hi. My name is Diana Saffarini. I go to the Chantilly High School in Chantilly, Virginia. I'm a part of the National Honor Society. I'm an officer. And I'm on the executive board of the SGA, the Student Government Association.

However, I got cut from my school's varsity field hockey team last year, despite the fact that I attended all practices and practice sessions before tryouts. I was told that my skills were inconsistent.

What do you think about the idea - since I've - excuse me - noticed in my school, that I feel like people who excel or are given the opportunity to try something, originally, they're able to continue honing their skills. Whereas other students who are labeled as inconsistent, according to my coach, are not given that chance?

Sec. DUNCAN: So, I think both at the elementary and middle - but particularly at the high school level - need a whole host of activities, both during the school day and after school. So I was a big basketball player. That was my passion, sports. But whether it's sports, field hockey, football, soccer, lacrosse, whatever it might be - baseball - whether it's debate, whether it's student government, whether it's robotics, whether it's yearbook, we have to have those kinds of opportunities.

On the sports side, I think we both need, you know, competitive teams for the school, but also intramural competition, and let folks find their passion, let folks find their interests. One of my goals, Neal, I'd love to see for the country, is that every single student, 100 percent of students in this country, have an after-school - an extracurricular that ties into the school.

And if we're serious about reducing dropout rates and we're serious about giving students a chance to fulfill their potential, if every single student was doing something connected to that school after school, I think that would be a dramatically better place.

So formal teams, intramurals, whatever you name it, the more we have a rich array, you know, 20, 30, 40 different options. And I worry that when, you know, budget times, tough times like this, often those extra curriculars get cut. And I think we cut those things at a grave - it would do our students a great disservice.

CONAN: When I went to school, I also had a passion for basketball, but I was not only short, I was really, really slow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So I managed to find out other activities in drama, and poetry, and debate. And those come in handy, it turned out. So...

Sec. DUNCAN: You found your way.

CONAN: I found my way.

Sec. DUNCAN: You found your way.

CONAN: Good luck to you.

Ms. SAFRINI: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. We've gotten - we're talking mostly about high school, but we're getting a lot of questions on this subject. Here's an email from John(ph) in Kansas City. I'm a student - university. It seems to be getting harder to fund my education rather than easier. What's being done to make college more affordable?

Sec. DUNCAN: So, a couple of things. First of all, all of our goals are towards dramatically increasing the college graduation rate in this country. And this is a really interesting one.

Neal, just a generation ago, America was first in the world in college graduates. Today, you can't answer - anybody else? Today, what's the country? Relative to our international competition, we used to be first. What are we now?

Unidentified Female #1: (Unintelligible)

Sec. DUNCAN: Third?

Unidentified Female #2: (Unintelligible)

Sec. DUNCAN: Twelfth. Twelfth.

Unidentified Female #3: Oh, no.

Sec. DUNCAN: We've gone from 1st to 12th in one generation, and I think we're paying a real price for this, educationally. And the president has drawn a line in the sand. President Obama has said, by 2020, we have to again lead the world in college graduates, so all of our activity is towards that end.

What do we try to do? We dramatically simplified the financial aid form, so as you guys start to fill those out this year and next year, hopefully, it won't be like rocket science anymore. And is a much, much easier - so that's not a barrier.

In terms of actual aid, Neal, we stopped subsidizing banks. We're doing lending ourselves. And without going back to taxpayers for a nickel, in this country, we increased Pell Grants by over $60 billion...

CONAN: But...

Sec. DUNCAN: ...over the next decade.

CONAN: ...Pell Grants are for lower-income people. What about for the middle class?

Sec. DUNCAN: For middle class, we quadrupled the American Opportunity Tax Credit, from $2,500 to $10,000, so four times increase in that. And then at the back end - so huge increases to make college more affordable. But then in the back end, there's something in place that you guys should follow very, very closely called Income-Based Repayment, I-B-R. We need to come up with a better name for it and have a...

CONAN: Hmm.

Sec. DUNCAN: ...national marketing campaign. What this does is once you graduate from college, it reduces your loan repayments to 15 percent of income. And then if you go into public service, you either become a teacher, if you work for a nonprofit, if you work in a legal aid clinic or medical aid -medical center in a disadvantaged community, 10 years of public service, all your debt is erased, forgiven, will be gone. And so it's going to remove those financial impediments from bringing that generation of talent into public service, including teaching.

CONAN: We have about a minute left. Secretary Duncan, you have another question for the audience?

Sec. DUNCAN: I don't have a question. I just want to thank these students for their tremendous commitment. Our country faces huge challenges, you know, two wars, a tough economy, oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, you name it. I think you guys are going to be the greatest generation we've ever seen.

And so for all the challenges we face, you guys have been tested by fire. You guys make me unbelievably optimistic about where we're going as a country. And I thank you for your commitment, not just to your own education, but I thank you for the difference you're making now in your communities and what you're going to make for the country going forward. And you inspire me.

CONAN: Thanks, everybody, for coming in. We really appreciate your taking the time to join us here today in Studio 4A, students from Virginia and Maryland and the District of Columbia. We'd also like to thank, of course, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Last spring, he promised to come back and talk to students, and well here he is. We appreciate that.

Sec. DUNCAN: We'll do it again.

CONAN: We'd also like to recognize a lot of help here within NPR and thanks to everybody who helped to organize and booked today's show. And thanks to our studio engineers here in Studio 4A. Chris Nelson and Kevin Wait, we could not have pulled this together without them.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here for a discussion on organic fruits and vegetables. They may have fewer pesticide residues, but are they any more nutritious? Jennifer Ludden will be in for me next week. I'll be in Wyoming. I'll see you in a week and a half. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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