New Voices of Power: Arne Duncan

INTERVIEW OF ARNE DUNCAN, Secretary of Education

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

MS.ROMANO: Welcome, Arne Duncan, President Obama's new Secretary of Education and his longtime friend from Chicago and his pick-up basketball pal. Tell us what did President Obama--or then-President-Elect Obama tell you that he wanted you to do when he offered you this job.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: He wants to change the world.


MS. ROMANO: Well, what did he want to do with education?


You know, he--he wants us to get dramatically better and do--you know, we have been lucky to work together for years at home, and so I knew his values. I knew how critically important this was to him, and I just feel so lucky to have this opportunity. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of education in this country. It's something we have to do, and, you know, with his leadership and his moral authority--and not just his leadership, you know, the First Lady's, the Vice President and his wife, you just have this absolute alignment at the top.

MS. ROMANO: So, specifics? Did he give you some specifics that he wanted you to tackle?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes. We need to dramatically drive up the high school graduation rate. He wanted the opportunity to drive up college graduation rates, and we just want to give every child a chance to be successful.

MS. ROMANO: What did you--what do you take here or bring here from Chicago where you were the--the head of the school system there, third largest in the country for seven years, that enhances your understanding at the district level?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, there are great lessons from Chicago, but there are great lessons from around the country, and so I've really tried to reach out and learn, but there are a couple of things that matter. You have to have the highest of expectations for children. You have to really challenge them and believe in your heart that they can do well. I think we have to really raise the bar in terms of standards. I think we've been aiming far too low, and it does our children a great disservice. Great talent matters in education, getting great teachers, getting great principals, supporting them to be successful, and thinking differently about time. Our children need more time. They need longer days, longer weeks, longer years.

So people always say is there one simple thing, one magic bullet. I wish it was that--that simple. It's complex, but really high standards, great talent, doing more work with children, engaging families, really working with parents as well, all those things ultimately lead to children doing remarkably well, even if--even when they come from very, very tough communities and families.

MS. ROMANO: Have you been able to have a pick-up basketball game with President Obama since you've been here?


MS. ROMANO: You have? All right. Where? You guys have played at the White House, I take it?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: No. We played someplace else.

MS. ROMANO: Oh, you did? Can you tell me where?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Undisclosed location.

MS. ROMANO: Oh, come on.


MS. ROMANO: So--so--so you know him on the court. So how is he on the court? How does that relate to how he governs?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: What I think folks are--are starting to realize is how competitive and how tough he is, and he's a super nice guy and a great smile, but he plays to win. He's a competitor, and he's not out there just to get a workout or get a few shots up. He--he wants to win, and I think people are seeing how--how tough and how much courage he really has.


MS. ROMANO: The Department of Education has been given an unprecedented amount of money. The budget's been doubled to $100 billion; is that right?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: That's correct.

MS. ROMANO: Where do you start?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Where do we start? We want to do a number of things. First and foremost, with the stimulus package, we want to save hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs, and we're at a time of economic crisis in this country. We're also at a time of educational crisis, and we were teetering on the verge of what would have been an education catastrophe. And if class size would have gone from 25 to 40, if we would have laid off, you know, lots and lots of social workers and counselors, that would have been devastating.

And we're at a point where we just can't maintain the status quo. We have to get dramatically better. We definitely couldn't afford to take a step backwards.

So we want to save and create, literally, hundreds of thousands of jobs around the country, and I was in New York recently with Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein. In New York City alone, there are going to be 14,000 teachers who will continue teaching because of this stimulus package, and so it's a huge deal.

But secondly, we want to drive a very strong reform agenda. As I said earlier, simply maintaining, simply investing in the status quo isn't going to get us where we need to go. So this jobs-and-reform message is hugely important, and we have to push very, very hard on both sides.

MS. ROMANO: So you have all this money, but, in a sense, aren't you a little bit powerless because, in the end, the States are going to decide how to spend the money?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, we're going to work very, very closely with those states, and we've given out--we will give out over the next couple weeks billions of dollars, but we're going to keep billions of dollars here to really watch and monitor how states do in terms of implementing these reforms.

Secondly, there's unprecedented discretionary dollars, a $5-billion Race to the Top Fund where we're going to work exclusively with those states and those districts that are really willing to challenge the status quo and get dramatically better.

So we've never had greater resources, more carrots, but also some sticks to make sure that we're doing the right thing by children around the country.

MS. ROMANO: On that $5-billion discretionary fund that you have, do you see the Department spending that on schools that are lagging behind or as a reward for schools that are achieving?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, we're actually looking much, much more broad than that. It's not just on schools, but we're looking at school districts and entire states.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: We want to--we want to work with a set of states that are willing to collectively embrace college-ready, career-ready, internationally bench-marked standards, much more rigorous standards.

We want to work with states that are going to have great assessments behind those, so that children know all the way along, their education career, how they're doing.

We want to have great data systems, so that children can be tracked throughout their educational career.

We want to challenge states to think very difficulty about talent, how do we reward the best and brightest teachers and principals, how do we get those best and brightest to go into historically under-served communities, inner-city urban, rural, whatever it might be. And what are districts and states doing where schools are struggling and not getting better? Are we willing to make the tough calls and dramatically transform what's going on?

So we want to put, literally, hundreds of millions of discretionary dollars into states that are willing to challenge the status quo and push very hard in all of those reforms.

MS. ROMANO: You talked about carrots and sticks. What are your sticks going to be?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, again, if states aren't doing the right thing with the stimulus package, basically they're going to disqualify themselves from even competing for the Race to the Top Fund, and so there's a huge financial incentive.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: And secondly, where again with the second half of the stimulus package, we're going to look at are states really pushing on both, to do the right thing by children and to save jobs, and if states are playing shell games or doing other things like that, they stand to lose billions of dollars.

MS. ROMANO: I've read that you are prepared to go around South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford to get $700 million into the hands of those school districts. How can you do that? How are you going to do that?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, we want to continue to work very, very closely, but to me, in a state where so many children aren't getting the quality education today and where there's so much unmet need, to turn away money for whatever political reason there might be doesn't make sense to me. So we want to work with folks in the state, and I'm happy to, you know, meet with the governor or talk to whoever, but we want to really help children in that state who--where there's desperate need, and so we're going to work with--with folks who have a real heart and passion for children, see the tremendous need, and see a chance to get dramatically better with these resources.

MS. ROMANO: If the governor has said he's rejecting the funds, how do you get around that?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yeah. Well, there--there's a number of different ideas we're looking at, but, at the end of the day, we want to help those children, and we're going to push very hard to do that.

MS. ROMANO: What is Representative Clyburn helping you with?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: He's helping me do just that.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: We're--we're strategizing is--to find the best way, the most effective way to help children there.

ROMANO: How are you going to resolve differences with other governors as you move forward and--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, we're going to talk, and we're going to have an open dialogue--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --and we're talking to governors and state school chiefs on literally a daily basis.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --and we're all learning together. This is a really collaborative process, and what I'm--actually been very, very encouraged, if you have governors who see this as an opportunity to get dramatically better and, again, not just invest in the status quo. So there's a level of creativity, of innovation, of hopefulness that's been very, very encouraging to watch, and we want to continue to do everything we can to help governors and state school chiefs do the right thing.

MS. ROMANO: There's also a lot of concern, though, on the district level that a lot of these funds are going to get held up at state capitols.


MS. ROMANO: How do you push that along?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: We're going to push very hard--

MS. ROMANO: Mm-hmm.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --and again, you know, the action is at the local level here, and again, we're not going to educate one child sitting here in this--this office-

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --here in Washington. The real action is between children and teachers and classrooms around the country, and we want to make sure that these desperately needed, scarce resources get where the action is.

MS. ROMANO: And can you tell me how, how can you--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, there's going to be un--you know, unparalleled transparency, and we're going to watch this very, very closely--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --to see how every dollar is spent, and we're going to have a clear series of metrics.

We're going to hold ourselves accountable, and frankly, this is one where I think there needs to be sort of mutual accountability and responsibility.

We're going to work with parents. We're going to work with the media.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: We're going to work with local school boards, and we're all in this together. It's not us versus them. This is all of us pushing very, very hard to do the right thing by children, and, you know, ultimately, we're going to do--you know, be accountable and have a series of metrics that's going to measure how folks are doing and, again, unparalleled transparency

But we really expect everyone out--out there, you know, with a real stake in the local communities, making sure that these taxpayer dollars, every single dollar, is spent wisely.


MS. ROMANO: You're about to make your first allocations, correct, or announcements, which is $44 billion of the Stabilization Fund? Can you just tell us really briefly what the Stabilization Fund means?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: This is designed to do exactly the two things we talked about: to save literally hundreds of thousands of jobs--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --around the country and to really drive a strong reform agenda.

MS. ROMANO: So we have all this money, but we've seen in certain districts that even tons of money doesn't help.

Where would you like to see these underachieving schools in four years when you look back after having spent hundreds of millions of dollars?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: It's a great question. I think we have to be really smart about this, and let me be clear.

I put schools in a couple of different categories. You have extraordinary public schools around the country, and we really want to invest in those, help them replicate, grow more of those--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --and where there's great demand, we have parents looking for more, where there are more applicants and seats available. We need to create more of those schools, and we need to be much more entrepreneurial that way.

Secondly, there's a group of schools in the middle that are--are struggling but are getting better, and we need to reward that. We need to continue to--to encourage them to improve, help them, and support them, but where you have schools that are really at the bottom, where you are seeing not just low absolute test scores--and I paid some attention to that. I am much more interested in gain and growth and how much a school is improving each year.

And where you have schools that are both absolutely low performing but also where the growth is going south, it is getting worse and worse, where students aren't gaining, I think money is not the answer there. I think we need to be willing to have the political courage to start over and really do something dramatically better for those children.

How can you ensure that these dollars are spent on, as you say, sound policies, long-term policies, building blocks, and not just treated like lottery winners?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: We're laying out clear recommendations as to how we want this money spent, and we want to do two things. We want to save jobs, and we want to drive a very strong reform agenda.

And let me just give you an example. We have over $10 billion going out in additional Title I dollars. Title I helps poor children. You never had this kind of--you know, money go out for children who need it the most.

What I think so many of our children need is they need to be taught more. They need more time in school. So can we use those Title I dollars to really invest in doing more over the summer that's coming now, you know, opening schools on Saturdays, keeping schools open longer hours? Can we use dollars to dramatically increase the amount of time that we're working with children? And I'm convinced if we do that well, we'll dramatically help improve those--those--those children's academic achievement and their educational outcome

MS. ROMANO: How many months a year should children be going to school, in your view?


SECRETARY DUNCAN: Now, in all seriousness, --I--I fundamentally think our children are at a competitive disadvantage. The children in India and China who they are competing with for jobs are going to school 25, 30 percent more than we are.

And I don't--I worry less about, you know, middle class children who are going to summer camps and enrichment activities and going to the library. I worry a lot about children who might not have any books in the house, who aren't being read to at home.

I worry a lot at home about what we called "summer reading loss." We documented children would get to a certain point by June, and they'd come back to you in September, and they're further behind than when they left you.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: It's heartbreaking.

And so I think we can be really creative in how we use time, just not, you know, be in a class 12 hours a day. But can we do a lot more in terms of academic enrichment and arts and sports and music after school and in the summers? Can we really engage parents during that time as well, GED and ESL and family literacy nights, and keep our schools open longer hours? Can we get not just our juniors and seniors, but can we get fifth and sixth graders onto college campuses so they can really see what that world looks like and feel they could maybe aspire to do that?

I think we have to be very, very creative in how we use time, and again, these--these resources, Title I dollars, other resources, give us a huge chance to dramatically improve what's going on now.

MS. ROMANO: So you would like to use some of this money for parent accountability, to try to bring parents into the system.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Absolutely. I think we all have to do more.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: So I think we have to challenge ourselves to behave very differently. All of us are going to have to stretch.

Parents need to absolutely step up, and the President has been relentless in challenging the parents to be part of the solution.

One of the most powerful parts of his speech to Congress a couple weeks back was when he talked about when students drop out, they're not just giving up on themselves, they're giving up on their country. And so we're going to challenge ourselves. We're going to challenge parents. We're going to challenge teachers. We're going to challenge our students, most importantly, to think what's at stake here. It has never been more important for our students not just to graduate from high school but to go on to some form of higher education, four-year universities, community colleges, trade or vocational training, whatever it might be.

We have 30--over $31 billion on the table to dramatically increase access and affordability to higher education. At the end of the day, we want to remove those financial barriers and challenge students to take advantage of that opportunity that's there.


MS. ROMANO: Let's talk about teacher pay. One of the hottest issues right now and highly contested issues, I'll say, are merit raises, and how do you--and you and President Obama have both talked about this, that, A, you need a vehicle for giving good teachers raises, and B, you need a vehicle for getting rid of poor teachers, and the union has resisted this.


I think sometimes people like to sort of paint these things as black and white. I think there's lots of gray there.

So let me just say, fundamentally, that I think we have to do a lot to reward excellence. We--there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of teachers around the country who I think are absolutely unsung heroes, who go way beyond the call of duty every single day, that are making extraordinary differences in students' lives, and we don't begin to do enough to shine a spotlight on them, to reward them, to create incentives to keep them teaching. I think we need to be creative about how we do that.

What's very important is that you don't just create these programs in isolation, but you do these programs with teachers, teachers help to set it up.

So we started a performance-based pay program in Chicago that wasn't my idea. It was 25 of the best teachers in the Chicago Public Schools came up with the idea. They actually helped to draft the--the--the response to the RFP that came from the Department of Education.

We got the largest competitive grant in the history of Chicago Public Schools because of the teachers' hard work, and we went to schools where teachers really embraced the idea.

So I think we're all aiming to go the same direction, but you have to do it with people, not to people. I think that's a really important distinction.

MS. ROMANO:Do you want districts to have the ability to fire teachers?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Absolutely. So you want to reward excellence, and if, you know, again, you want to--let me say a couple things really clearly.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: You want to reward excellence. You want to reward those excellent teachers or principals who take on the toughest of assignments, inner-city urban, rural. I think we need to pay folks differently where we have areas of shortage, math and science teachers, foreign language.

MS. ROMANO: But you're--you're talking about the carrots here. What about the firing?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: And--and on the flip side--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --if teachers aren't--aren't getting the job done, if you work with them, they're not making it, they need to find another profession, and our children-

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --deserve the best. We can't wait. I think the vast majority of teachers, again, are doing a great job. We need help to support them, but where teachers aren't making it, why do we keep them in the system for 25, 30 years? That doesn't make any sense. I don't think it's fair to them personally, frankly, and I know it's not fair to the children who they are poorly serving.

MS. ROMANO: Who--who ultimately has the power to fire a teacher?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: It varies different places. In many places, it's principles. In some school districts, they actually have peer review, peer evaluation, and I would tell you where teachers are doing peer-review and peer evaluation, they are very, very tough because they want to keep a standard they can be proud of.

MS. ROMANO: So do you favor peer evaluation over principle firings?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: No. No. I think, again, there's lots of creativity out there--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --and I think there are lots of ways to do this. It needs to be done fairly.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: It needs to be done with due process. It needs to be done with support, but at the end of the day, there needs to be a clear bottom line. That has to happen.


MS. ROMANO: No Child Left Behind. Teachers have soured on it. They say it's too rigid, that they're teaching to the test, that they have no room for creativity. What can you do to this mandate to make it more palatable?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yeah, a couple of things, and let me start--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --with what I support with it, and then I'll go to where I have some real problems.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: So what I--what I don't want to lose as we go into reauthorization and why I think Secretary Spellings and the former President and Congress gets--will get credit for forever is for shining the spotlight on the differences in achievement between white children and African American, Latino children, and other--other children from the minority community. That's--that--that disparity in outcomes is something none of us can be proud of, and I think it will forever--never again can it be swept underneath the rug, and so we want to continue to disaggregate data and take a hard look at where we're seeing improvement and increasing achievement and where we're not. So that part, we want to keep.

What didn't work and I think hasn't worked is this idea of 50 States doing their own thing, and the idea of 50 States setting their own standards and bench marks, what that led us, to what I call a "Race to the Bottom," where a lowering of standards due to political pressure, and I think in far too many States today, because of that low bar, we are basically lying to children and parents.

And let me explain what I mean. If in a State, a child receives their report card and is told they're, quote/unquote, "meeting standards" as a child, as a parent, I think I'm probably doing a good job if I'm meeting standards.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: But again, in way too many States today, because that bar has become so low, that child is at best barely able to graduate from high school and is totally inadequately prepared to go to college. So that has to change.

So we talked about college-ready, career-ready, internationally bench-marked standards. We need to raise the bar and do it collectively.

Where I think we need to provide much more flexibility is how teachers and schools and school districts hit those higher bars, and what I think was--got--what was wrong in the--in the first iteration of No Child Left Behind is in any management system, you have to debate what you managed loosely and what's tight.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: What they did is they were very loose on the goals, on the bench marks, but very, very tight in how you get there. I think we need to reverse that.

I think we need to have a tight clear bar that we are all shooting for, again, not in the national standard, internationally bench-marked, so that our children can compete against India and China, but provide much more flexibility and the ability to innovate and be looser in how folks get there.

MS. ROMANO: What do you say to the professors in college now who are now seeing the first crop of kids who have gone all the way through on NCLB? And they're not happy. They're seeing kids who do not have analytical skills--


MS. ROMANO: --that have been learn--that have been taught to memorize, that don't know how to think.


MS. ROMANO: What do you say to those teachers now?

SECRETARY DUNCAN: I think standards have been too low, and I think we have to teach children to think critically. They have to be able to analyze. They have to be technologically literate and capable. They have to be able to work in groups, and we have to think about 21st-century skills.

I also think we need to really encourage universities going forward. As we raise the bar in high schools outside and have more prepared students going onto college, we want to see college graduation rates go up as well.

And I worry a lot about children who might be first generation going to college or English language learners, and we want to put in place a series of supports to really incentive universities to not just get students in the front door--

SECRETARY DUNCAN: --but to help them graduate in the back end. Part of the--the stimulus package, I talked about $31 billion in new access and opportunity, dramatically increasing Pell grants and Perkins loans.

We also have in our FY10 budget, $2.5 billion, $500 million a year to work with colleges and universities around the country to dramatically improve completion rates, and that to me is so important, that we have many more students going forward, graduate, whether, again, from a two-year university, four-year, whatever it might be, but with that diploma in hand. They desperately need that to be successful in today's economy.


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