Education Secretary Arne Duncan: 'We don't just want status quo'

  • Article by: Denise Johnson
  • March 25, 2009 - 9:14 AM
President Obama's pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education came to the job with a reputation as a reformer. Before becoming secretary of education, Arne Duncan had been school chief for seven years in Chicago, the nation's third-largest district. He did not shy away from controversy during his tenure. He closed failing schools and used unconventional methods to increase academic performance. Duncan supported charter schools, performance pay for teachers, single-sex and residential schools, paying students for good grades and a proposal for a high school catering to gay students. Last week Duncan visited the Star Tribune to speak with a group of editorial writers and reporters. The following excerpts of his remarks were compiled by editorial writer Denise Johnson.


Minnesota will get $1.1 billion -- about $300 million in Title I, more for IDEA [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] -- about a 36 percent increase. That is a staggering amount of investment. I feel very good that in really tough times we're able to support what you are doing here in Minnesota.


There are several buckets of work. One is early education; we must increase the number of seats and the quality. Make sure this is not just glorified babysitting.

Though there has been lots of [educational] progress in lots of places, we have a very, very strong K-12 reform agenda. We don't just want status quo. It's important to keep teachers on the job, but we want more than that. We want states to use this money to leverage fundamental change. I've met with all the governors, all the school chiefs, and I haven't yet met one who is satisfied that they've done enough about graduate rates. No one is happy.

We want folks thinking about comprehensive data systems so we can track students from age 3 to 23 and measure where we are improving. Another huge focus is on teacher quality -- the caliber of teaching matters tremendously. And we have the most money going into higher education through Pell and other sources than we've had since the GI Bill -- $32 billion. College has never been more important or more expensive. We will do everything we can to remove the financial impediments. Whether you are 18 or 28 or 58, whether you are starting school or looking for retraining, there should be opportunities for you.

Our plan is to incent states to think differently, not only about how they spend the stimulus money but also encourage them to do creative, innovative things through our Race to the Top program. We're going to put hundreds of millions into some states to challenge the status quo. Then other states will follow.


What's worth preserving is shining a light on the achievement gap. We want to shine that spotlight even brighter and reward places where they are closing that gap.

But what doesn't work is when improving schools are labeled as failures. That is wrong and absolutely demoralizing. Where schools truly are low-performing, we should close them down. We closed many in Chicago. But when schools are getting better, we should recognize and reward it.

NCLB is desperately underfunded; it has been an unfunded mandate. So we're also trying to alter that math. We can be pragmatic about fixing it. With Race to the Top, we can lay the foundation for where we want to go with NCLB.


I'm a fan. They need to have autonomy and very clear accountability. I'm a fan, but I closed down three charter schools in Chicago that failed. You've got to watch that. Create an environment to innovate, but have a tough front-end process.


That's a no-brainer. It's a great move.


By the time I left Chicago, we had hired 1,200 teachers under alternative licensure. There is extraordinary talent out there that didn't happen to major in education when they were 18. One of the advantages of this economy is that there is great talent coming out of other industries, other places.

We have the young guns coming out of college, the mid-career types in their 30 and 40s and people closer to retirement in their 50s and 60s who have a good 10 more years to work. We need to open the doors to get more of each of these groups into classrooms.


Our school days and years are too short. Schools being open six hours a day doesn't work for anyone. With the day being so short, our kids are at a competitive disadvantage with kids in India and China who spend 30 percent more time in school. We have to level that playing field.

I worry in particular about poor kids. They suffer from lots of reading loss over the summer. How do we think more about academic enrichment? More time doesn't necessarily mean spending more for teachers. We had schools in Chicago that operated from 9 to 3; then from 3 to 6 the Boys or Girls Club came in. Nonprofits are hurting, too. We have the building for them to use for free. That can get them out of the bricks-and-mortar business to focus on mentoring kids.


The business community, school chiefs, nonprofits and -- guess what -- teacher unions are coming on board. We have a common recognition that what we're doing (with 50 standards) doesn't make sense.

I think we're doing too much testing and with bad tests. We need fewer tests with higher and international standards. When a child takes it in any state we should be able to look them in the eye and tell them how they compare to kids in other countries.

There is an economic imperative -- we HAVE to do this. And there is a moral imperative -- this is a civil-rights issue. When we don't educate and we have substandard opportunities, we [educators] perpetuate poverty; we perpetuate social failure. This is really the fight of our generation.

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