Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, despite the Great Recession, has pushed an agenda that has created newsworthy change in K12 education, including the Race to the Top competition, which aims to raise teacher quality, challenge students and force several states to change education laws. What's striking about the competition, which awards millions to the states that best adopt Duncan-backed policies, is that the secretary arguably got more states to buy his brand of change in 18 months than any other U.S. school chief had in the Cabinet-level Education Department's 29-year history, according to news from mcclatchy.com. Education experts say Duncan's "boundless energy," his background as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools—where he raised teacher quality, transformed weak schools and shuttered failing schools—and his close relationship with President Obama have helped him expand the department's role, according to The New York Times.
DA Senior Editor Angela Pascopella recently caught up with the education secretary.
DA: You started this job in the throes of the Great Recession. Even though the Obama administration has allocated ARRA funds that have also helped education, how has the recession limited your agenda?
Duncan: Obviously, these are extraordinarily tough budget times. Educators who have been doing this work for three or four decades constantly tell me that this is the worst time they've ever seen. I don't think the public understands that the vast majority of districts have been cutting budgets for five, six, seven years. That's why I've been fighting so hard for this teacher jobs bill. We're ecstatic it has passed. There is desperate need out there. We can't afford to step backwards. Never have educators been asked to do so much with so little. Everyone is stepping up. But this is tough, tough work.
DA: If we're in the same economic situation next year, will you have to pass another educator jobs bill?
Duncan: I don't think we can count on that happening. We have to continue to find ways to be more creative, and be more efficient and do more with less, and that's easier said than done. And this has been a very, very hard bill to work through. The economy is starting to bounce back, but this is the reality that we all have to work with.
DA: So specifically, how did the recession affect your agenda?
Duncan: We wanted to drive dramatic reform and we wanted to save jobs. Some folks wanted to pit these two things against each other. I think that's absolutely crazy. We need to save jobs and drive reform and we've been absolutely consistent, and frankly, successful at doing both. at was a huge part of the agenda, which was not to take a massive step backward and doing things that were horrible for teachers, horrible for children, horrible for education. I lost a lot of sleep over it; it's been a huge concern for me.
DA: Many people argue that the move to charter schools is about privatizing education. Meanwhile, there is no concrete data that claims charter schools are better than traditional schools for student achievement. How can you justify advocating for more charter schools?
Duncan: Charter schools are public schools, they use public tax dollars and they are accountable to public school districts. I'm not a fan of charter schools; I'm a fan of good charter schools. I've spoken to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and I was very clear that they needed to be much less tolerant of low-performing charter schools—they need to close them down. The flip side is that when you have charter schools that are part of the answer, we shouldn't penalize them. We need more good schools and good charter schools. The vast majority of our children will go to traditional public schools, where a vast majority of our time, energy and resources are going.
DA:But why and how are good charter schools part of the solution?
Duncan: Those good charter schools have dramatically better graduation rates, they dramatically reduce dropout rates, and send many more of their students on to college and literally close achievement gaps. I was at the YES Prep charter school in San Diego, basically serving all low-income children and they had 100 percent of their graduates going on to college. At Urban Prep in the South side of Chicago, in the very poor Englewood community, the first graduating class had 107 young men. And 107 are graduating and going on to four-year universities. It's staggering. They are working longer hours. And at Urban Prep, on the first day of freshman year, they are already building a culture around college-going. So it's all about a culture of high expectation and putting in place the opportunities and supports necessary to help children from very disadvantaged communities beat the odds and be successful. Geoffrey Canada's work in Harlem Children's Zone and Urban Prep [in Chicago] have been pretty remarkable.
DA: The ESEA, or A Blueprint for Reform, is up for reauthorization this year. And various groups have criticized the new plan for being too reminiscent of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act— most notably by focusing too much on high-stakes testing and overreaching its role on school turnaround programs. The blueprint also allegedly lacks stressing more parental involvement, some have said. What is your response?
Duncan: First of all, we're asking for double the fund for parental engagement—$ 277 million. So that's [saying it doesn't stress parent involvement] just fundamentally inaccurate. A 100 percent increase is a massive investment because it is so important.
There is also much less emphasis on test scores; much more emphasis on graduation rates and having students go on to be successful, and much more focus on growth and gain, rather than absolute test scores. It's about how much students are improving every year.
Much of No Child Left Behind didn't work and we have a chance to fix it. NCLB was far too punitive, it was far too prescriptive. It led to a dumbing down of standards and it led to a narrowing of the curriculum. So we want to flip all of that. We want to reward success and growth. We want to recognize those teachers, schools, districts, states where students are improving year after year after year. There are 50 ways to fail under NCLB and very few ways to succeed. We want to put a huge premium on rewarding excellence.
We want to give much, much, much more local flexibility and get the federal government off of people's backs, be far less prescriptive, much more flexible. As I've said repeatedly, the best ideas in education will never come from me, they will never come from Washington—they will always come at the local level. And we want to empower great local educators, hold them accountable for results but give them the room to be creative and innovative.
Third, you know under NCLB many states lowered their standards, and they were in effect lying to children, lying to parents. And we're seeing great, great leadership at the local level. Governors [of the National Governors Association] and state school officers [Council of Chief State School Officers] have up to 48 states working together around college- and career-ready [Common Core State] standards.
And finally, one of the biggest complaints I've heard everywhere is about a narrowing of the curriculum. In our blueprint, we want to put $1 billion in what we call a well-rounded education. We want to make sure that yes, reading and math are hugely important, but so is science, so is social studies, so is financial literacy, so is environmental literacy, so is foreign languages, so is PE, and art and dance, and drama and music.
And that's not just at the high school level. For me, you have to do that for 6- and 7- and 8- and 9-year-olds so they have a chance to develop their unique skills and sense of self-esteem and figure out what they want to do in their lives and what they love to do.
So I think we can absolutely fix so much of what is broken in NCLB.
DA: You and President Obama have repeated that education is the civil rights issue of our time. We know your department reinvigorated last spring the Office for Civil Rights and at least 32 districts are under investigation for possible discrimination against specific groups of students that has resulted in persistent achievement gaps on standardized tests. Can you explain the "civil rights issue of our time" and explain what you are doing to address this?
Duncan: Everything we're trying to do is leveling the playing field and closing the gap. So you look at higher standards. Who do you think is most hurt by low and dumbed down standards? It's the children of the poor, the disadvantaged, it's children of color. So everything we're trying to put in place is trying to give children and particularly disadvantaged children a chance to fulfill their tremendous academic and social potential.
The Office of Civil Rights is doing an extraordinary job and the office is a huge piece of the answer, but so is every educational strategy we're looking to put into place. This is all about raising the bar, a well-rounded education, and how do we systemically get the hardest working and most committed teachers and principals to those historically underserved communities—inner city, urban and rural? Historically, there have been almost no incentives to do that and lots of disincentives and we're trying to flip that on its head and put a huge amount of resources behind that.
DA: Ironically, we have read in some news reports that seven leading civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, have allegedly asked you to dismantle core pieces of your education agenda, claiming that expanding charter schools, closing low-performing schools and using competitive funding rather than formula funding end up hurting low-income and minority students. What is your response?
Duncan: Have you talked to them? Don't be misled by headlines. We've had great, great conversations. We're absolutely committed to giving every single child in this country a chance to be successful. We've worked very, very hard with Ben Jealous at NAACP around parental engagement. Those conversations and his input are making us smarter and it's been really helpful.
We've had great conversations with Mark Moriel [president and CEO at National Urban League] around equity and how we make sure children have a chance to compete in a globally competitive economy.
DA: But what is your rationale to move from formula funding to competitive funding, in part considering that low-income schools often can't afford to pay a grant writer to even apply for funds?
Duncan: It's not about grant rights. Eighty percent of our budget is formula funding and 20 percent is competitive. There's been misinformation that we want Title I to be competitive. Never once ever, ever have we discussed that. Never. Anyone who is saying that is deliberately lying or absolutely misleading.
Race to the Top is worth $4 billion, but as a country, we spend $650 billion on K12 education each year. So it's less than 1 percent of total K12 spending. And I can give you a pretty compelling case that, for the less than 1 percent we've spent, we've seen dramatic change, dramatic reform across the country with Race to the Top. States raising standards is an absolute game changer.
DA: So in effect, you're putting a fire under these districts?
Duncan: It's a quiet revolution. We can't rest until that dropout rate gets to zero. And we can't rest until every high school graduate is college- and career-ready. You know that far too many students that do graduate from high school need remedial classes. We've been lying to them. They are not ready for college and half of them drop out.
The president has drawn a line in the sand. He is saying that by 2020, we have to again lead the world in the percentage of college graduates. A generation ago, we did lead the world and lost our way. We are 10th or 12th now internationally. We fundamentally believe we have to educate our way to a better economy.
DA: And lastly what about your push to prepare students for the 21st century, to ensure they are college- and/or career ready. Are your plans really going to make that much of a difference?
Duncan: We all have to work together. The reason I'm so optimistic is because there is so much innovation, creativity and so much passion I see around this country. I think that has all been out there, but it's been stifled. And I think we've unleashed this amazing, quiet revolution for reform.
In the Race to the Top, 46 states put together plans to drive reform. To see over 30 states actually adopt higher standards is game changing. To see 1,700 applications from districts, states and nonprofits and universities around the Investing in Innovation Fund—staggering. To see over 1,000 communities apply for the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative [which is the Obama administration's bid to break the cycle of inner-city inter-generational poverty].
Folks want to improve. Folks want to see better results. It's inspiring to me, that's why I'm so hopeful.
DA: So it is going to make a difference?
Duncan: It won't be because of us, it's going to be because of all the extraordinary hard work and commitment at the local level. As hard as we're pushing everyone else to change I want to be very clear that we're being very, very self critical and looking ourselves in the eye. I've said repeatedly, quite frankly, I think the Department of Education has been part of the problem historically. We've been this compliance-driven bureaucracy, focused on reports, and we want to become this engine of innovation and we want to scale our best practices and take to scale what works.
And that's the magical opportunity we have is to put unprecedented resources behind those places that have an absolute commitment to all children, but particularly disadvantaged children, and give them a chance in life.