Arne Duncan: 'We've Been Very Complacent'

With President Barack Obama poised to announce alternatives to states' compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act on Friday, the role of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be under scrutiny.

In August, Duncan and the president announced they would waive components of NCLB -- at least for states that agree to pursue reforms mandated by the administration. Duncan has since faced criticism for exceeding the bounds of his power. Less than a month later, he embarked on a bus tour in early September to discuss with education leaders both the waiver plan and the economic hardships many districts face.

After watching Obama's Sept. 8 jobs speech on TV on the road between Merillville, Ind., and Milwaukee, Wis., Duncan spent an hour with HuffPost Education, answering questions about everything from his tenure so far to standardized testing.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What did you think this job would be before you took it?

I didn't know. I had talked a fair bit to [George W. Bush Education] Secretary [Margaret] Spellings so I had some sense, but you honestly don't know.

What surprised you most?

How much we could get done. The U.S. Department of Education hadn't necessarily been my friend in Chicago. So I had a healthy skepticism about what was possible. My job is to support, to shine a spotlight, to replicate success, to talk about excellence, but also to challenge the status quo.

You talk about the status quo a lot, without describing who's keeping it that way. Who are you targeting?

In this country, we've been very complacent. A lot of what drives me is anger, is frustration and real dissatisfaction with the status quo. There are far too many children who we aren't getting real opportunities for. I've seen that my whole life, so that's really personal.

How can we fix education?
It'll take another four hours to talk about. There isn't one thing. I wish there was one simple thing we can do. It starts with really high-quality early childhood education. Raise standards. Think about how we get more great teachers into the profession. For post-secondary, we retained the Pell grant and simplified the financial aid application form. It's about all those pieces.

A major change your administration has promoted is changing teacher evaluations. Do you have a prescription on how teachers should be rated?

I don't. And frankly no one does.

Teacher evaluations are largely broken in this country. We've had a system that doesn't reward excellence, doesn't support those teachers in the middle that are trying to get better, that doesn't weed out the teachers who are unfortunately not improving. If it doesn't work for any of the adults along that continuum, I can promise you it's not working for children.

You said in Pittsburgh and elsewhere that people are "scared" to discuss teacher excellence. Is that really true?

Everyone is scared to say that great teachers matter, and that's been a great impediment to reform. There's been this tendency to treat everyone the same. It masks a tremendous richness and potential of nurturing amazing work and not tolerating failure when it impacts children. Don't you think that's vitally important to figure out how to get talent where you need it most?

Then on what system are you grading them?

On whatever system they have. You're right, they've got to have a thoughtful system. But let's have that conversation.

What do you see as your role in these conversations?

My role is to shine a spotlight on folks who are showing real courage, doing tremendous work to support students. My role is to challenge folks where I don't see that happening.

So many states have dummied down standards. I tried to talk about this today in Detroit and pumped them up -- Michigan is raising their standards. They're getting huge pushback. I have to give them political cover, because there's lots of forces, lots of pressure to continue to lie to themselves, to continue to lie to parents.

How do you know that tests are measuring teaching?

Are they measuring some things? Yes. Are they doing it perfectly? Of course not. Again, that's why it's so important for me to have multiple measures.

When did you realize when NCLB reform was something you would take into your own hands?

I was always aware of that possibility. It wasn't something that I wanted or welcomed. We've been very clear for awhile that so much of the current law is fundamentally broken. I have this huge sense of urgency. I can't see doing nothing.

Were you surprised when the news about teacher cheating in Atlanta broke?

I was disturbed, angry to hear about it, to get the full report. I'd had some sense that you had a culture there that was morally bankrupt. Nobody goes into education to hurt children, but that's exactly what happened there.

Why do you think some teachers are angry at you?

I want to challenge that assumption but I want you to characterize it yourself as you see it.

Well, there were angry teachers at the Save Our Schools march this summer.

This is a really tough time to be in education. Teachers are massively frustrated with No Child Left Behind. That's why we're acting. This is a time of very significant budget cuts, the likes of what we haven't seen in decades. Teachers have to do more with less. They're seeing their colleagues laid off, they're seeing class sizes increase. It's frustrating. I share that frustration. We're doing everything we can from trying to fix NCLB's waivers to saving 300,000 teacher jobs with the Recovery Act to the announcement tonight of a huge part of $60 billion from the president's speech used in education.

How can unions be a contributing force to your plans?

Collective bargaining itself must be a tool not to protect adults, but to protect student achievement. That's got to be the purpose of all collective bargaining activity.


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