Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

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

After a school board in Rhode Island fired all the teachers at a struggling high school earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised officials for doing the right thing for the kids.

The Obama administration has committed billions of federal dollars to help turn around chronically troubled schools like Rhode Island's Central Falls High but only those ready to take drastic measures: fire teachers and principals, start over as a charter school or close the worst performers entirely.

And schools are being asked to implement these and other reforms just as cash-strapped states contemplate deep budget cuts, which could mean four-day weeks in some places, massive layoffs in others.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined us last June to share his vision for America's schools. He's back with us today. And we'd like to hear from teachers, school administrators, parents. What would you like Secretary Duncan to do to improve education? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Secretary Duncan, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): Thanks for the opportunity. Good to see you, Neal.

CONAN: And last week, you were up on the Hill to urge Congress to approve $23 billion in emergency aid to help schools nationwide avoid layoffs this summer. Is that money going to be tied to reform?

Sec. DUNCAN: We want to make sure we save jobs and drive reform. And this past year, as you know, Neal, we just had an amazing year. We were lucky enough to be able to save over 300,000 teacher jobs around the country. The worst thing that could have happened was to see class size skyrocket and hardworking educators being laid off.

We need to continue to get better. And I worry that out there, as I travel the country, states and districts, as you know, money's never been tighter, and so we really want to stave off another education catastrophe. We want to make sure we have the resources. We hope we have the resources to do that. So we're asking Congress to act on an emergency basis.

We absolutely see this as an emergency to save jobs around the country as we go into fall, 2010.

CONAN: But again, would this specific money be tied to reform, or would it just be dispersed on the basis of you've got X many kids in New York state or California or wherever?

Sec. DUNCAN: It doesn't exist now, but the goal here would be to save jobs.

CONAN: Save jobs, so across the board and not necessarily targeted to schools that adopt reforms.

Sec. DUNCAN: No, this is to save jobs, as it was the first go-around. Having said that, going forward, we need to continue to do both. We need to continue to make sure, you know, we're not getting worse, but at the same time, we have to continue to get better and drive a reform agenda.

CONAN: And we're having you're having some difficulty with your headphones? Is that what you're trying to tell me? Okay, he's trying to tell me off the air, we'll see if we can get that addressed. Is it sounding better?

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah, we're good, thanks.

CONAN: Okay, good. As we look ahead, there seem to be three different policy charges: One, the $23 billion we talked about to save teachers' jobs, should Congress go ahead and approve that. There is then the Race to the Top money. This was already allocated. You've got that in your hip pocket, and already, some of that money has been allocated, but there is another round that comes up on June 1st?

Sec. DUNCAN: Correct. The applications for the second round of Race to the Top are due June 1, and we have over $3.4 billion still available for states, so a huge opportunity there.

CONAN: Opportunities there. Delaware and Tennessee already got the word that they will get part of that money. Then there is another overall, overarching policy issue, and that's the rewrite of No Child Left Behind. And is that really to put in policy law some of these ideas that you've been talking about for the last few years?

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah, there are a number of things we want to do as we authorize ESEA, and there's much about No Child Left Behind that was, frankly, broken, and it was far too punitive. Everybody was going to be labeled a failure eventually. It was very, very prescriptive. It led to the a dumbing-down of standards so that, again, in no child's best interest, not in the state's best interest, not in the economy's best interest, just due to political pressure, standards got reduced.

And I heard throughout the country about huge concerns of the narrowing of the curriculum. And we think we have a chance to fix all of those. We think we can raise the bar, high standards, college and career-ready standards for everyone.

We have 48 states working on that now. We want to reward excellence and growth, how much are schools improving each year, how much are we increasing graduation rates, and we want to make sure that every single child has a chance to receive a well-rounded education.

So those things that were broken about No Child Left Behind we want to fix, and we want to do it in a bipartisan manner working with Congress this year.

CONAN: One of the things that was - criticisms leveled at No Child Left Behind was its reliance on high-stakes tests. As I understand it, your policy would continue to put a lot of emphasis on these tests and would indeed put teacher measure teacher performance on how well their students did on these tests.

Sec. DUNCAN: We need the next generation of assessments. So part of Race to the Top is an additional $350 million for states in collaboration to develop much better assessments.

That's going to be a piece of what we look at, but there's so much more we want to look at. The big change that we want to do, Neal, is look at growth and gain, not just absolute test scores, and let me give you an example.

Under No Child Left Behind, if you are a sixth-grade teacher, Neal, and I came to you three grade levels behind, reading at third-grade level, if I left you a year behind, you would be labeled a failure, and ultimately your school would be labeled a failure.

I think not only are you not a failure, you're not just a good teacher, you are an amazing teacher. I had significantly more growth than a year. You know, I gained a couple years' growth for one year's of instruction. We need to be learning from that teacher, we need to be recognizing it, we need to be rewarding that, cloning that kind of teacher as much as we can. That teacher is an absolute hero.

And so if we focus on growth and gain rather than absolute test scores, that really levels the playing field.

CONAN: All right, we want to get a lot of listeners involved in this conversation because, well, there's a lot of listeners involved in education one way or another, as parents, teachers, administrators, whatnot. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is our guest. You were about to say something?

Sec. DUNCAN: This issue unites all of us. We all have to work together with a real sense of urgency to get dramatically better results for our nation's children.

CONAN: 800-989-8255 is the phone number. You can also email us, talk@npr.org. And we're going to start with Tom(ph), and Tom is on the line with us from Owasso in Michigan.

TOM (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

TOM: I'd just like to ask the secretary, especially in regards to, I believe it's Central Falls High School: I don't understand why firing all the teachers was such a great thing to be applauded. I have seen in the past, especially with my children, I've had special needs children, that parent involvement is always the number one pressure on making a good student.

You can have the best teacher in the world, but if you don't have parent involvement, then you're stuck, and you're not going to get anything going.

At Central Falls, they had a transient population. If some kid was this was on the news. If some kid came in as a freshman and didn't graduate because he wasn't there anymore, well, they still counted that as a non-graduation.

We're losing, at Owasso High School, the finest, one of the finest choir teachers we've ever had. She's being laid off thanks to budget cuts. We're going to be losing sports programs. This is I mean, this is not acceptable. I mean, come on, we...

CONAN: These are really two different issues. We'll ask Secretary Duncan to address them one at a time.

Sec. DUNCAN: Let me answer the second one first, Tom, and thanks to your hard work. So yes, we are absolutely critically concerned, gravely concerned about potential teacher layoffs for this upcoming year, and where we lose art and music and after-school activities and extracurriculars, where we see schools going to four-day school weeks, that makes no sense at all. That's very, very bad for children.

So we're working very hard with Congress, and we I desperately want an emergency jobs package to be passed to support educators and to stave off those kinds of devastating layoffs. Again, we have to get much better.

In Central Falls, no one applauded the firing of teachers. That's never something, you know, you want to see happen. I'm actually very pleased to report that the union and the school board there at Central Falls are working hard at the table together, and we are very hopeful that's going to come to a good resolution, and those conversations are ongoing.

We still have to, with parental involvement, without parental involvement, parental involvement is hugely important, but great teachers, great principals make a huge difference in students' lives.

We think Central Falls will come up with a good solution together. Folks have to work together, but whether it's Central Falls or anywhere else in the country where you have dropout rates of 50, 60, 70 percent, where you see those numbers not getting better, where you see students falling further and further behind each year, we have to challenge that status quo.

Our children have one chance to get a great education. We all have to work hard together to give them that opportunity.

CONAN: And let me just follow up on both of those questions. You obviously can't guarantee, even should Congress pass this $23 billion emergency aid program, that the choir teacher in Owasso High is going to get her job back.

Sec. DUNCAN: That's absolutely correct. And is that even enough money? You know, it may or may not be, but this past year, we were so fortunate to be able to save, conservatively, 300,000 teacher jobs around the country. We were very, very proud of that. And things are extraordinarily hard out there, but we don't want to see our country take a step backwards educationally. We have to keep moving forward.

CONAN: And you said the union and the school board are working at Central Falls in Rhode Island. Those teachers are still fired. They can apply for their jobs back, as I understand it.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, that may or may not happen. Again, they may come up with a more innovative solution working together. And so none of this stuff is cut and dried, and they're having great conversations, don't know where that's going to land. That's one potential, but there's a real potential that that might not happen, as well.

CONAN: There's a time limit. I mean, they have to make a decision. The school year is ending now, and obviously, they've got to make plans for next year.

Sec. DUNCAN: They do, and it's important they get this right. And so, you know, it is April, and they need to be working this through as we speak, but there is sort of a breakdown in communication, and when adults stop talking, bad things happen for children. Adults are back talking, back communicating. That's a very encouraging step in the right direction.

CONAN: Okay, Tom, we...

TOM: I do want to hear one thing, though. I want to hear him say that we're going to start working with supporting parents because, I mean, the parents who the single parents who can't make it to school I was a single parent with three children and a special needs child, and I had to move heaven and earth. Granted, I was willing to do that, but there's some people who can't. How are we going to support those parents so they can support the kids? That's where the groundwork starts.

Sec. DUNCAN: No, it's a great point, and I appreciate your commitment to your children's education, and I know those challenges when you have three children, special needs, working by yourself. This stuff is very, very difficult. So we absolutely have to support parental engagement.

Parents are always going to be our students' first teachers. They're always going to be their most important teachers. That's never going to change. We have to make sure the schools are opening their doors to parents, making them feel welcomed.

Parents who are working two and three jobs, trying to make ends meet, we still have to meet parents halfway and challenge parents to step up and take responsibility.

Great teachers, great principals, can't do this alone. Parents, the broader community nonprofits, social services, the business community, religious community, everyone has to rally behind the children in each neighborhood, in each community, to give them a chance to be as successful as we know they can be.

TOM: If I see that support, I applaud you.

CONAN: Okay, Tom, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. And we just have a few seconds left before the break, Secretary Duncan, but why is this, such a drastic measure as firing the staff, why is that one of the recommended turn-around options?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, again, we're just looking, Neal, at that bottom five percent of schools in the country, not the 95 percent but that one in 20. And that's never a first option. That should always be a last option. There are many different ways to do this.

But we have to be willing to challenge the status quo when it's not working. And if I give you one example, when I ran the Chicago Public Schools, we closed a school in the heart of the South Side, the Englewood community, historically a very high dropout rate, approaching 60 percent, I think about four or five percent of students were reading at grade level. When we closed that school, lots of pushback, reopened it with three innovative, small schools. One of them, an all-boys school, just graduated its first senior class, 107 young men graduating and all going to four-year institutions.

We have to, we have to be willing to challenge the status quo to get dramatically better.

CONAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. If you'd like to talk with him about what you think would make schools better, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. 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.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has put failing public schools on notice. Those that accept a portion of the billions in federal aid set aside for low-achieving schools now have less than six months to show they are not among the worst performers in their state. The bottom five percent will be forced to take on one of four turnaround strategies laid out by the federal government.

He's targeting chronic underachievers on other fronts, as well, with a revamp of No Child Left Behind and another coming round of the Race to the Top school reform programs.

Arne Duncan was confirmed as U.S. secretary of education in January of last year. He's with us today in Studio 3A. We'd like to hear from teachers, school administrators, parents. What would you like Secretary Duncan to improve education? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go next to Dawn(ph), Dawn with us from Iowa City.

DAWN (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead.

DAWN: Secretary Duncan, I am the spouse of a teacher, and I just have to say that I really don't think that the program that Obama's administration, under your leadership, has initiated is effective. I think it essentially scapegoats teachers and some principals, but it doesn't look at the much broader issues that affect how teachers do their job. And specifically, those are finances.

And if you don't look at the tax bases that are financing teachers and schools and look at school boards and how they choose or choose not to spend those funds and look at the tax breaks that are given to businesses that often bring people into an area but then are given tiffs so that they don't have to pay taxes to support the children of the people they bring into the area, you're not solving anything.

Sec. DUNCAN: Dawn, those are great questions and I'm really aware of those inequitable situations in terms of funding and a lack of resources. Let me just say I lived on the other side of that.

When I ran the Chicago public schools, I had a 90-percent minority district. Eighty-five percent of my children lived below the poverty line, and yet children who lived five or six miles north of Chicago had twice as much money spent on them every single year relative to my children in Chicago.

And so we have to think of education as a shared responsibility, not just teachers, not just principals but parents, school boards, superintendents, states. We have to look at what everyone's doing to give every single child a chance to be successful.

And as we look at, you know, Race to the Top, when we look at other things were trying to do, we want to reward places that are taking on these challenges and thinking about not just the financial resources and how they're distributed but also teacher talent, and how do we get the hardest working, the most committed teachers to go into the underserved communities, be that inner-city, urban or rural? Historically, there have been very few incentives to do that hard work, lots of disincentives, and that has to change.

But the playing field is not even across the country. That's something I'm acutely, acutely aware of. And we have to make sure that every child, regardless of zip code, regardless of neighborhood, regardless of where they live, has a chance to get a world-class education.

CONAN: You were talking earlier, even with all of this money the federal government gives to education, what percentage of the Iowa City Schools comes from the federal government?

Sec. DUNCAN: Very little. At its top, it's around 10 percent. Education is always going to be a local issue, should always be a local issue in our country, and those state and local district or local community resources will always account for between 90 and 92 percent. So the overwhelming majority, the lion's share of resources are going to come at the local level, which is appropriate.

The federal should always be limited, and the best education ideas, the best education innovations never going to come from Washington. It's going to come at that local level.

DAWN: Can I just say one last thing? Id really urge you to read this article called "In Defense of Public School Teachers In a Time of Crisis." And it's by Henry and I'm going to probably massacre his last name Giroux, it's G-I-R-O-U-X, and it was in Truth Out.

And I'd really urge you to read that and incorporate into your planning and even these changes that you have to make that public school teachers should be respected for the hard and invaluable work that they do. And right now, I'm afraid that your program disincentivizes children to respect these people who go out into the trenches every day and do this really hard work for minimum amount of money.

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah. No, I absolutely hear that concern. I just want to assure you that I have unbelievable respect for teachers and principals, and we need to do everything we can to support them. No one goes into education to make a million dollars. They always go into education because they're committed to making a difference in students' lives.

As part of our proposed FY11 budget, we want to invest unprecedented resources, $3.86 billion into teachers and leaders, a $350 million increase. And so, in everything we do, we want to shine a spotlight on excellence. What I've said repeatedly is that talent matters tremendously.

Great teachers, great principals make a huge different in students' lives. Under No Child Left Behind, again, theres almost no way to recognize success, recognize that hard work. We want to absolutely change that and support the unbelievable commitment and effort of great teachers around this country, in every state, in every community.

CONAN: And Dawn, as somebody who's butchered more than a few names myself, it's I'm told pronounced Henry Giroux.

DAWN: Giroux, thank you.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much for the phone call.

DAWN: Thank you very much.

Sec. DUNCAN: And Dawn, please thank your husband for his hard work.

DAWN: Thank you.

CONAN: Speaking of recommendations on teachers, recently we had a teacher named Doug Lamov(ph) on our program, a teacher, founder of Uncommon Schools, a network of college prep schools in New York and New Jersey. He says: Most schools and teachers don't focus enough on using proven teaching and classroom management techniques. I wonder, did you read the article about him that was in the New York Times magazine?

Sec. DUNCAN: It's phenomenal work, and I'm a huge fan of what's going on there. And this is where, you know, we all have to challenge each other and be very self-critical, and we're trying to look in the mirror and fundamentally change how the Department of Education does business. Everybody else has to be willing to challenge themselves, as well. Schools of education have to challenge themselves.

What Doug pointed out in terms of common-sense, basic teaching techniques, my simple question is: Why aren't those being taught in schools of education? Why are teachers having to learn that on their job? Why isn't that, from day one, being instilled in our future generation of teachers when theyre a freshman and sophomore and junior and senior year in college?

There's great, great ideas there. Teachers aren't just born. Great teachers can improve every single day, but they need common-sense techniques. They need real feedback, and I think Doug is providing that kind of common-sense, in-the-trenches support that teachers desperately need and deserves. Districts and schools of education, I think, have a lot of learn from that work, quite frankly.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from E. Witherspoon(ph). Please stop the obsession with testing. Get back to basics. My kid's teacher actually said: We don't have time to teach spelling.

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah, again, I couldn't agree more that there's been this real narrowing of the curriculum, and we're absolutely focused on making sure students have a well-rounded education. We want to invest a billion dollars in that, a 10 percent increase.

Yes, reading and math are important, but so is science, so is social studies, so is spelling, the foreign languages, art, dance, drama, music, PE. Everywhere I've gone, people have talked about a narrowing of the curriculum, too much time spent practicing filling out bubble sheets. We have to make sure children get, receive a well-rounded education.

Guess what I'm convinced, if we do that well, all the test results, all those things will take care of themselves.

CONAN: Yet, we still have a lot of reliance on standardized tests.

Sec. DUNCAN: I think, again, the best way to get results is to have students have the content knowledge and be comfortable and confident in that situation. I've always argued, if you want to get better math results, do you know one of the most important things you can do? Expose students to music. And we see huge correlations there.

And so, we want students to be successful. We want them to be comfortable and confident. The best way to do that is through a well-rounded education, and we need to focus on a lot more than tests. We need to focus on graduation rates. We need to make sure students are actually college and career-ready once they graduate from high school.

CONAN: What are the criteria for falling into that bottom five percent, at which case dire recommendations come into play?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, those criteria are determined at the state level. They determine who's on that list. But the things that I worry about, Neal, is where you see dropout rates that are unacceptably high, you know, 50, 60, even 70 percent, where those dropout rates are getting worse, not better.

Again, I'm always looking at growth and gain and improvement. So if you're improving, you shouldn't be on that list, but if you're flat-lining or getting worse, again, I worry a lot about growth and gain. If those students are falling further and further behind each year, then we have to do something much better, and we have to do it with a sense of urgency.

CONAN: Let's go to Bill(ph), Bill with us from Little Rock in Arkansas.

BILL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure.

BILL: I'm really excited about the emphasis that the administration is putting on education reform, and I really appreciate your efforts. I have some concerns, though, that with the challenge to the states to improve education grants and also with the new authorization. I'm concerned that there's some emphasis on some unproven strategies that haven't really beared the results that we need, like charter schools, when there's a lot of proven strategies that still aren't getting enough attention, like improving teacher development or preschool for even younger children, especially in low-income areas, or improving the cultural competency of teachers so theyre more accustomed to the backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds of the students theyre teaching.

And I'm wondering if you could just address how we could move education reform, really to follow the data of following what's proven to work and getting out of some of the ideological struggles that dominate so much of education.

Sec. DUNCAN: A really thoughtful question, Bill. And I think we have to pursue multiple strategies at the same time. And I wish there was that magic solution, that one thing we could do in education to get where we need to go. But I think everything you mentioned, we need to do.

First of all, that investment in preschool, I can make a pretty good case that that's best investment we can make in a long-term basis, that if our children hit kindergarten ready to read and ready to learn and with their socialization skills intact, they're going to be in great shape.

As you know, so much of our time in education we spend playing catch-up. I keep saying we have to get out the catch-up business and making sure those three and four-year-olds have a high quality, early childhood experience, really thinking through what are we doing for our one-year-olds and our two-year-olds and three-year-olds so that they enter kindergarten ready to learn and ready to read, absolutely the right thing to do.

We were hoping in higher education, Bill, to have a significant influx of resources for early childhood education. That didn't happen. But we're going to actually going to reconfigure our proposed FY11 budget to put a lot more money in there. So I agree with you on that.

Secondly, better teacher training. I couldn't agree more. We recently put out significant resources in teacher quality partnership grants, going out to universities, $100 million to better train teachers, more focus on practice, more focus on reality rather than theory, cultural competence being hugely important. And so we're investing there, as well.

And then I'd argue, last point, I think good charter schools are part of the solution. Bad charter schools are part of the problem. We just need more good schools of every form and fashion around the country. And where you have successful schools, we need to replicate those, whether those are charters or traditional district schools or magnet schools, whatever form it might be. Where schools aren't successful, we need to do something very, very different.

CONAN: Bill, thanks.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: And there's a tweet from garystager - and I hope I'm getting that name right: If the goal is to raise opportunities and achievement for all kids, isn't Race to the Top an unfortunate metaphor - one winner, many losers?

Sec. DUNCAN: It's not. And what we have to do is we can't just perpetuate the status quo. We have to get dramatically better. And, Neal, we have to be able to look in the mirror and be very honest about the facts. The facts are, today, we lose about 27 percent of our children to the streets, about 27 percent dropout rate. That's about 1.2 million students each year leaving our schools for our streets. That is economically unsustainable, and that is morally unacceptable. Of those who do graduate from high school, far too many - in some places, as many as 40 percent - have to take remedial classes in college. They're not really ready for college. Standards have been dummied down. We have to educate our way to a better economy. We have to get much better.

CONAN: But by rewarding the best achieving schools, the best state systems, aren't you increasing the divide between the best schools and the worst?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, we need to do both. So what we had in the Recovery Act, as you know, is unprecedented increases in Title I money for poor children and unprecedented increases for students' with special needs, IBA, $22 billion. We saved 300,000 teacher jobs. And so we need to continue those formula grants. And the vast majority of our budget, about three quarters of our resources will always be formula-based. But we can't just invest in a status quo. We have to invest in breakthrough strategies and demonstrate to the country what's possible.

Let me make you - one interesting fact on Race to the Top: We invest about $650 billion each year in K-12 education, $650 billion. Race to the Top was $4 billion. That's less than 1 percent of the overall spending on K-12 education. The amount of reform we saw - we've seen in one year, 48 states' governors and states school offices(ph) working together around higher standards, about 26 states eliminating barriers to innovation and improvement. The kinds of changes you're seeing around the country due to that less than 1 percent (unintelligible), I think is absolutely extraordinary.

CONAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

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

Florida was one of the finalists in the competition. Last week, Florida Governor Charlie Crist vetoed the controversial bill that would have linked teacher pay to student achievement. Does that veto make their chances for an award in the next round better or worse?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, I can't comment on any particular state because we're in the middle of a competition. But we had encouraged Florida and we'd encourage every other state to come back in in the second round of Race to the Top, and again, over $3.4 billion available. And I think that, you know, we're try to be absolutely transparent on this. The winning states' applications and comments are all online. The losing states' applications and comments are all online. Everybody can learn from each other. And I anticipate and hope that this next round of applications will be even stronger than the first round.

CONAN: But isn't linking teacher pay to student achievement a fundamental aspect here?

Sec. DUNCAN: That's a piece of it, but it's much more complex than that. There are many different factors - again, a 500-point competition, many things we're looking at, and there was no perfect application. The two winners we funded - Tennessee and Delaware - actually got about 90 percent of the points. And so no one is a - has sort of mastered this yet. And again, we look forward to great, great ideas coming forward in round two.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to Paige(ph), Paige with us from Charleston.

PAIGE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PAIGE: I am currently in a master's program getting a master's in career counseling. And I'd really be interested to hear how we could focus more on vocational training, which I feel has really taken a backburner, especially in recent years. All of our assessments seemed to be so focused on academic achievement, especially in South Carolina, where we fall so far behind, you know, in those types of rankings, where we're gearing so many students to be college bound. What about the 60 percent of students in our state, for example, that really need to graduate with job skills, but perhaps don't have, you know, the type of - don't need to be in the type of academic rigor that, perhaps, a college-bound student is in?

Sec. DUNCAN: And a great question, Paige. And first of all, I want to thank you for your personal commitment here. And these conversations, to me, are so interesting. I think these are often presented, Neal, as choices you have to make. So are you going to invest in jobs? Or are you going to invest in reform? And I think we have to do both. We have to both save jobs, but also drive reform.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Sec. DUNCAN: And there's this often, I think, this false tension between college and careers. I would argue that in far too many places around the country, we aren't preparing enough high school students to be successful in either situation: going into the world of work, or going on to further education in college.

I do think - Paige, I agree with you. I think we have lost our way in terms of vocation and technical training. And we want to make sure that we have a variety of choices for students. We want to make sure that if they want to go to college, they have the skills to do that. If they want to work, they have the skills to do that.

CONAN: You also have to make sure the poor kids don't get trapped into vocational training.

Sec. DUNCAN: It's exactly right. What we want to do is give every student options and choices. And what we know again is so many students will both work and go to school - in part-time, full-time, whatever that might be over time. And if we're serious about reducing dropout rates, if we're serious about better engaging students and increasing graduation rates, I think the vocational and technical training at the high school side, but also at the community colleges, is hugely important.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Paige. Good luck to you.

PAIGE: Thanks.

CONAN: We're talking with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Teachers, school administrators, parents, this is your opportunity to weigh in on the conversation. He's going to stay with us the full hour. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. What can the secretary of education do to make your school better? Join us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Normally at this time, the Opinion Page. Today, we're dropping it because we're continuing our conversation with Arne Duncan, secretary of education. What would you like the secretary of education do to improve education? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Secretary Duncan, the controversial health care bill now passed into law, but part of that legislation included an overhaul of the student loan program, this for higher education. What does that mean for college students?

Sec. DUNCAN: This is a huge deal, and we are so thrilled to see this pass. What this means is simply by ending the subsidies to banks - which I don't think we should be putting more tax dollars in - and changing that and investing in students, we're able, over the next decade, to invest an additional $36 billion in Pell Grants for students who are struggling to pay for college. It's our biggest investment since the GI bill. There's a $2 billion investment in community colleges. And we haven't talked enough about that, but they're really this unrecognized gem along the education continuum. And we want to put a huge amount of money behind them, about $2.5 billion for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. And we want those colleges not just to survive, but thrive.

And then at the back end, once students graduate, something called income-based repayment, IBR, where loan repayments will be indexed to your income. You won't pay more than 10 percent of your income. And if you serve in the public sector, if you become a teacher, if you work in a nonprofit or social service agency, if you work in a legal aid clinic or medical clinic, after 10 years of that service, any loans you have will be forgiven, will be erased. So this is a huge breakthrough. It's going to make college much more accessible and affordable for literally millions of students. And we did this without going back to taxpayers for another dime, simply by subsidizing - stopping the subsidy to banks.

CONAN: As I understand it, the reason this was in the health care legislation, though, is to make the money add up a little bit better because of those savings, because of those reduced payments. How much of this money is going to actually end up back in education?

Sec. DUNCAN: The overwhelming majority - again, over $60 billion. And again, over - approximately $40 billion in Pell Grants, money for community colleges, money for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, and making the chance to go into the public works that much more affordable once you graduate.

CONAN: Can you give us a dollar figure? How much of those savings are going to go to back at education?

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah. It was a small amount going into the health care savings.

CONAN: All right.

Sec. DUNCAN: The vast, vast majority go...

CONAN: 90 percent?

Sec. DUNCAN: At least that.

CONAN: Okay. All right. Let's see if we can go back to another caller. And this is Michael, Michael with us from Greenwood in Mississippi.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yeah. Thank you for taking my call, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MICHAEL: Okay, yeah. My question is my wife teaches school. She's a 30-year teacher. And I often hear her and other coworkers - and I'm a truck driver. I travel around the country. I seem to think, myself, discipline in the classroom is the problem. I keep hearing this national conversation about teacher ability, which nobody ever mentions the student's aspect or part of it. I really think the dog is wagging the tail. I'll take my answer off air. Thank you.

CONAN: Just to clarify, Michael, your wife has to spend too much time disciplining students?

MICHAEL: Exactly. Everywhere, everybody I've talked to, I mean, that's the main issue there. It doesn't - well, that and a lack of parent participation.

CONAN: Well, we've mentioned that - that came up earlier in the conversation here, about the security problems.

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah. And, Michael, please thank your wife for her long-term commitment to education. I can't tell you how much I appreciate that. These are very real issues. And engaging with parents we talked about, making sure parents step up and take responsibility, but most importantly, making sure students take their own education very seriously.

And the president and I have repeatedly looked students in the eye and challenged them, saying this is the most important thing they can do. We have to work together. They have to understand those decisions they make in elementary school and high school as a 14, 15, 16, 17-year-old is going to shape their lives forever. And they have to take their education very, very seriously. And we want to make sure students understand the responsibility they have. All of us have to step up: parents, students, teachers principals - let me broaden that out: the community.

I worry more a lot about students, Neal. I was very lucky to grow up in a two-parent family. Both my parents were well-educated. As we know, that's often not the case. And those students, they may not have the support they need at home, may not have the parents who are forming real strong partnerships with teachers.

What are we going to do? Are we going to just let them sink or are we going to step up as a community? Nonprofits, churches, community service agencies, those students need mentors, they need role models. We cannot let any child fall through the cracks, regardless of what is happening or not happening in their homes.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Michael. Drive carefully.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. An email from Mena(ph) - or Mena, I'm not sure which -in St. Charles, Minnesota: I may have missed it on his bio. I cannot find out how many years the Secretary actually spent in the classroom. As a secondary math teacher, it's extremely frustrating to work for and follow policy from those who have spent little to no time in the trenches. Teaching is not a business. Until policymakers realize that these programs are destined to fail.

Sec. DUNCAN: So I've been teaching not formally in a classroom but teaching all my life. I grew up as a part of my mother's after-school program that she began in 1961. And her philosophy, the 10-year-olds taught the 5-year-olds and the 15-year-olds taught the 10-year-olds. So, throughout my upbringing, I was both being taught and teaching others.

When I came back to Chicago after playing basketball in Australia, I helped start a small public school that's done extraordinarily well in the south side of Chicago and then went on to join the management team of Chicago Public Schools before coming to Washington.

CONAN: All right. Let's go next to Donna(ph). Donna with us from Cleveland.

DONNA (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Donna. You're on the air.

DONNA: Well, hi. First of all, I want to say thank you so very much for this opportunity to hear a dialogue with the Secretary. And the other thing, I'm obviously from Cleveland but originally from Baltimore. And both of those cities have struggling graduation rates.

And my question is, there's a pilot program that our CEO here in Cleveland for the school district, he's actually for the past four years, started with pre-K and initially pre-K to third grade, now it's pre-K to sixth grade - they're segregating the boys and the girls. And I'm not sure how many other school districts or, you know, other places around the country are doing that, but do you see success in that?

And then the second part, I guess, of my question is, if they're proven to be successful, at least in increasing graduation rates and people, you know, them staying in school and involvement and everything, how do we - how do we bring the boys and the girls back together?

CONAN: They usually find a way to do that themselves, Donna. But, Secretary Duncan?

Sec. DUNCAN: Great question. And we need to be - this is where, again, Neal, just - we need to challenge the status quo. It's not just a Baltimore and a Cleveland problem. It's a Chicago and New York and L.A. and D.C. and every other big city in this country - no one's graduation rate is high enough, no one's dropout rate is low enough. Lots of progress, lots of momentum, lots of encouraging signs, but none of us can sit back and say, we've got this problem mastered.

And why I feel such a sense of urgency that today when a student drops out of high school, they're basically condemned to poverty and social failure. There are no good jobs out there.

And so what we want to do, whether it's through Race the Top, whether it's through the Investing in Innovation Funds, $650 million, we want to simply invest in what's working out there. And again, there's no magic wand solution. So much of this is about the implementation and implementing these strategies very well. But where we're seeing real results, where we're seeing graduations grow up - go up, where we're seeing dropout rates go down, we're going to put more resources behind and help take those innovations to scale.

And that's the unique opportunity we have. The best ideas are never going come from us in Washington. They're always going to come from innovative educators at the local level. And we want to put unprecedented resources behind those places that are demonstrating an ability to get much better results for students.

The example I gave you of that high school in Chicago that graduated a hundred percent of its students and all are going on to 4-year colleges, that was an all-male high school. And so, that can be a piece of the solution in some places, absolutely.

DONNA: Well, one more quick thing is, I'm a 22-year Marine Corps veteran. And I found that even though a lot of our - should I say soldiers, sailors, Marines and all that, they graduate high school and come in to the service, they're ill-prepared.

And I'm wondering if even with the No Child Left Behind or any of those programs, if - how can they graduate - how can our schools, you know, be permitted to graduate a student who cannot read and/or do simple basic math skills, let alone have a full, broad, you know, spectrum? And I'm wondering if that's going to be addressed as well.

CONAN: Tell me about the airmen and the coasties, but go ahead.

Sec. DUNCAN: You know, Donna, that's so important. That's one of my biggest frustrations, one of my greatest source of anger with No Child Left Behind is it led to a dumbing down of standards. Many states, including the state I'm from, from Illinois, actually reduced standards under No Child Left Behind not because it was the right thing educationally, not because it's the right thing for those children or for the state or for the state's economy but due to political pressure.

And what we have now is we have 48 states, 48 governors, 48 state school chief officers working together to create a high bar, high expectations, college and career readiness standards for everybody. So we have a chance to fundamentally break through and reverse what was a major problem, a perverse incentive, actually, under No Child Left Behind.

CONAN: Donna, thanks very much.

DONNA: Thank you very much.

CONAN: So long. When you came on with us last January, you said you hoped to find the things that worked and promote those and find the things that don't work and flush those. In the more than year you've been, have you found some things that don't work and you say, all right, let's abandon that?

Sec. DUNCAN: There are lots of things that work and there are lots of things that don't work. And it's - the opportunity we have, again, is just to put a huge amount of resources...

CONAN: Examples, if you would.

Sec. DUNCAN: Of things that don't work?

CONAN: Yeah.

Sec. DUNCAN: Many examples. Where adults sit around and blame each other. And I've seen repeatedly silos. I see colleges blaming high schools because the students aren't ready. I see high schools blaming the elementary schools because the students aren't ready. I see elementaries blaming the early childhood programs, and then the early childhood programs blame the parents.

And so, what we have to do is we have to get out of our silos. We have to stop playing the blame game. I've seen places where people tell me that poverty is destiny, that poor children can't learn, that somehow it's impossible. We have to eradicate poverty before we educate. I couldn't disagree with that more. The only way we end poverty, the best anti-poverty program in the world, and the president said this, is quality education.

So, where folks are making excuses, where folks feel it's impossible, where folks refuse to say these are our children, we have to stop pointing fingers, those are places that unfortunately we're never going to see the kind of breakthroughs that our children desperately need and deserve. That does not work.

CONAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Stephanie(ph). Stephanie with us from Conway, Arkansas.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hi. Yes, I am calling in reference - I'm concerned about the new administration's proposal to eliminate funding for programs that already work and have proven to be scaled up such as RIF and the National Writing Project, which I'm a part of. These are programs that already work and they do work for educators...

CONAN: RIF is Reading Is Fundamental?

STEPHANIE: Yes. RIF is Reading Is Fundamental. To take money from these programs that are already working and to redistribute them to brand new programs in the states that we don't even know, you know, we don't even know what they are yet or whether they do work.

Sec. DUNCAN: Great question. And we're not redistributing that money. What we've done is we've sort of taken away earmarks and created larger pots of money that great programs can compete for. So in literacy, and obviously that's hugely important, we've had increase, a nine percent increase in funding up to $450 million. Great programs have a chance not just to receive the historical amounts of money but, frankly, receive significantly more money.

But what we want each program to do is demonstrate the ability it's making in the students' lives. So its going to be no just sort of set asides. Theyre great programs. We're not going to fund them directly through an earmark, but they have a chance to compete. In every single one of these situations we actually increased the pot of money. So this idea of a well-rounded education we talked about, that's up to a billion...

STEPHANIE: ...that funding because we are national programs and that money is going to the states.

Sec. DUNCAN: National programs can come in with states to fund that money.

STEPHANIE: No. We can't do that because we have national infrastructure, the same thing with RIF, the same thing with Teach for America. We have a national infrastructure. If you take the money away, we will no longer exist. And these are proven programs that work.

Sec. DUNCAN: Again, I think you're selling your ability to compete for this a little bit short and you have a chance...

STEPHANIE: No, we cant - we cannot legally compete.

Sec. DUNCAN: I think you have a chance to come back in and to...

STEPHANIE: No. In fact, some member of your administration have finally admitted this. And I can't...

CONAN: Which ones would those be? You can't remember them right now.

STEPHANIE: Yeah.

Sec. DUNCAN: Okay. Well, we're happy to look at it. But again, great programs, they have a chance to absolutely demonstrate the difference they're making and to take to scale what's working.

CONAN: And one other clarification, you said the word earmark. I hear that - most people hear that and say, this is a congressional earmark set aside for money in a - pork in a congressional district.

Sec. DUNCAN: And again, it's not just for one district, some are local, some are on a broader scale. But what we want to do is have every program demonstrate the difference its making in students' lives. Very, very simple.

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

STEPHANIE: Go to our website. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Let's see if we get one last caller in. Let's go to - maybe we get two - Renee(ph). Renee with us from Thomasville in Georgia.

RENEE (Caller): I am so thrilled to talk to Arne Duncan. Way to go. Keep at it.

CONAN: We knew we had to have one out there. Go ahead, please, Renee.

RENEE: A third of the teachers in the United States will not interview with the principal that they go to work for. I see struggling school districts who have started leadership academies as opposed to going out and hiring proven leaders. This mismanagement of human capital from how superintendents are selected to the fact that in the state of Florida, schools don't have to even be fully staffed until October, this mismanagement of human capital seems to me to be one of the real criteria to effective or ineffective schools. And I wondered if you could comment about what - the federal government is doing about this and what state governments are doing about this.

Sec. DUNCAN: I couldn't agree more that great talent - I can't say enough, great talent matters tremendously at every level - the teacher level, the principal level, the superintendent level, the school board level, the state department of educations, where we have passionate, committed folks working together, that makes a huge difference in students' lives.

The fact that you can start a year not fully staffed, start a school year with teachers changing into September and October, you know, it doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Where teachers and principals don't agree to work together, being forced to work together, how is that an optimal situation? And so we can be so much more creative. Theres some really thoughtful progressive labor agreements that we're starting to see emerge around the country, places like New Haven, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia...

CONAN: Washington, D.C., we're not so sure about.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, I think there are some really interesting ideas there. They're having some financial things they have to work through, but I think you have a much better system of supporting great teachers and empowering real principals. I think our Department of Education nationally had underinvested in principal leadership. We're looking for a five-fold increase there. The biggest thing teachers look for is real leadership at that school level.

And so, your fundamental point that we have to be much more thoughtful, creative, proactive in identifying talent, supporting that talent, getting that talent where it's needed and making sure students have that stability of talent starting with the first day of school, not come in October, is absolutely the right thing to do.

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

RENEE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

RENEE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Secretary Duncan, we got lots of people still pouring in the lines and emails coming in. I'm sorry we can't get to them all. We hope you'll be able to come back with us at some point.

Sec. DUNCAN: I'd love too. You have an unbelievably thoughtful and committed audience. And these are great, great questions. I really enjoyed my time with you.

CONAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan here with us in Studio 3A.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.