Published Online: December 2, 2009

An Interview With Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sat down with Education Week reporters on Nov. 30 for a wide-ranging interview. Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, also attended. What follows is an edited transcript of the hour-long interview, including the secretary’s opening remarks:

Race to the Top Fund

Mr. Duncan: Obviously, Race to the Top, it’s coming. It’s interesting to me that you have folks out there that don’t quite believe that we’re going to keep a high bar. It’s sort of amazing to me. The more explicit you guys could be would be helpful. It’s going to be a very, very high bar. People won’t believe it until we do it. Obviously, hold us accountable for sticking to that. I can’t be more clear or explicit about it.

Folks that are ready that’s great, folks that aren’t there will be two rounds. States that don’t get any [will get] clear feedback. Some folks may choose to sit out the first round and that’s great too. We’re going to have a lot of money left in the second round.

This is not about the money. This is really about transformational change. While it is obviously a huge amount of money, this is money is going to be gone in the next two, three, four years. The question is, can we use this money to leverage change for the next two, three, four decades?

There’s been lots of movement to get into the competition, which has been extraordinarily encouraging. Now it’s about winning the Olympic medal. It’s one thing to get on an Olympic team. It’s another thing to actually win, and this is what this is about now.

It’s also, to me, much less a competition between states. We’re looking for ... folks with a real commitment, folks with the actual capacity to deliver results. This is not going to be about the fanciest power point. Is this literally going to lead to change at the classroom level? Do you have the courage to do things dramatically different?

See Also

It’s that intersection of courage, capacity, and commitment. We have to be able to be the best of the best in all of those areas.

We’re trying in every way we can to signal that this is a very different way [for the] federal government’s role. We have been extraordinarily encouraged by the amount of change and momentum [and] folks haven’t spent a dime. We absolutely hope that continues to accelerate when we actually start spending money. But I think the country doesn’t understand how differently we’re looking at this.

No Child Left Behind Act Reauthorization

Mr. Duncan: We’re really thinking about NCLB reauthorization. We’re not there yet. The only thing I’ll say is we really want this to be a bipartisan effort. We’re spending lots of time in the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle. We’ve seen a country struggle to get bipartisan support for things like health care. I continue to think that education is the one area that has to rise above politics. Everyone feels a sense of urgency we feel. Everyone sees this as an issue they can come together on. The goal isn’t to get to 100 percent consensus. There’s got to be a body of substance that folks can come together behind. I think we have an opportunity to do that. Conversations on both sides of the aisle have been very, very encouraging.

Ms. Martin: I think some of our big-picture goals are, first, to carry through the reform agenda that we see in Race to the Top and other [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] programs to carry that forward through ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act]. Continuing a strong focus on teachers and leaders and talent more generally. To continue to focus on college-ready common standards and assessments matched against those standards. Continuing the focus on the lowest performing schools, how we’re going to take aggressive action to turn them around. And continuing the focus on the data … shifting from an ESEA context to how we’re going to ensure that federal funding supports the use of data. The focus to date has been on the systems.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discusses the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act during an interview with staff writers from Education Week on November 30, 2009, in Bethesda, Md.
—Video by Charlie Borst/Education Week

Another big goal for the reauthorization is to improve the accountability system. Again we’re still working on the details, but some things we know we want to do. Arne often talks about raising the bar and closing the gaps. So [we’re interested in] helping to create incentives to move towards this new higher college- and career-ready set of standards. Current law is in some ways a disincentive to that. Creating incentives to encourage states to reach that higher bar but continuing to focus on closing the gap. Continuing this disaggregation of data and looking at how the subgroups are doing. Also moving toward the growth model which you see in Race to the Top. So how do you make status but also the growth an integral part of the accountability system? As Arne has said many times, we want to be tight on goals but loose on the means of getting there, so wanting to give greater flexibility at the state and local level over what happens to schools when they miss the performance targets. But continuing to have a strong focus on the bottom-performing schools and seeing greater and more aggressive intervention at that level.

Having a much stronger focus on rewards for high-performing schools, high-performing districts, high-performing states. Under current law it’s a basic pass-fail test. There’s not much incentive to go beyond the performance targets. We’re trying to find ways to create incentives and rewards for high performers at every level. A few other things I’ll describe: how can we improve teaching and learning so there’s federal funding for literacy, for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] programs, how we can make those more effective tools for improving student outcomes, how can they be used to help states translate college and career ready standards into instructional materials and professional development to help deliver those higher standards at the classroom level. Also looking at how we better address the nonacademic needs of students, how can we create schools as centers of the community, ensuring that students’ health and safety is also being addressed?

Finally having a big focus on innovation in evaluation so continuing with a type of i3 [innovation fund] model where we’re asking states and districts and schools to look at the evidence to evaluate what they’re doing so we can do a better job of determining what’s working and what’s not for kids.

Q: What kind of changes do you envision to [Adequate Yearly Progress] , would you consider moving back the 2013-14 [deadline]?

Ms. Martin: We’re still working on the details. I would say we’re looking at having a much stronger focus on progress and growth, which would be embedded in a new definition of performance targets for schools.

Mr. Duncan: What I worry a lot about is the focus on kids at or above that level. A lot of folks teach to that 5 percent that are within striking distance of the mid-point. We want some sense of status, but also how much are students improving each year? Everybody should be improving each year. A child comes to you at 6th grade, two grade levels behind, and leaves a grade level behind, that child’s improved. That teacher’s done a hell of a job. That teacher is a superstar. Under the current system there’s no recognition, no reward, no anything. If you come in above grade level and gain a half a year, you’re behind. That teacher gets the credit. [We’re] really trying to look at how much students learn.

Q: How strong is competition for money going to be as ESEA is reauthorized? Will Title I even be competed out?

Mr. Duncan: I think it’s going to be a piece; it’s not black-or-white. The only reason you’ve seen this kind of [education reform] movement is because of competition. It’s not because people love us. So you want to make sure it’s not only competing, you want to make sure it’s fair. You want to make sure rural communities and others have a chance to compete. It’s sort of analogous to the teacher evaluation, which is now pretty much totally divorced from student achievement. It shouldn’t be 100 percent based on a test score, but it shouldn’t be zero either. There’s a middle ground there. Right now the federal government is basically all formula based. And you don’t want it to be all competitive. There’s a middle ground there. I’ve said repeatedly the best thing the previous administration ever did for me was the Teacher Incentive Fund. That changed our behavior in Chicago in ways we wouldn’t have talked about for the next 30 years because there was an opportunity to have exponentially more resources at hand.

The final thing is we need to reward excellence. We treat everybody the same. So we have some people who are really willing to do some things very differently and challenge the status quo. We need to give them a pat on the back, we need to learn from them, we need to share their success, we need to give them some resources. ... Directionally, are we going to do more competition? Yes.

Teacher Quality Grants

Q: In Title II there’s $3 billion annually for teacher quality, which you never hear anything about. Do you have any idea what you’d like to do with that? Race to the Top has $4 billion, but there’s $3 billion that you put out every year that people don’t talk a lot about.

Mr. Duncan: We’re right with you. I think anyone in this country who would argue that we’re giving great value for that $3 billion, I’d love to see that analysis. I think you’re exactly right. What we’re trying to do is look at these things holistically. I think you’re right, if you’re lowering class size from 28 to 26 is that really breaking through? And you’re sending teachers to fancy conferences all over the country … are you really making a difference there? We think that we could get significantly more bang for the existing resources. Your larger point is going forward, and tracking, and can we have an honest assessment of is [the money] driving student achievement? And there’s not a lot of good research. We’re going to try some things, hopefully we’re going to get more right, but we’re going to get some things wrong.

Q: Do you think you’ll make them competitive grants instead of formula?

Mr. Duncan: We’re looking at other stuff but moving more broadly to competition. And focusing on areas that we know make a difference. For example, if you’re going to lower class size, what if you went from 26 to 15? If you’re going to do something, do it.

Charter Schools and Turnarounds

Q: Given the feedback in the months since you called on the charter sector to play a major role in doing some of that work, what is your sense of the willingness of the sector as a whole to play a major role in school turnarounds?

Mr. Duncan: Let me back up. I never called them to play a major role. I called them to play a role.

Q: OK.

Mr. Duncan: I called on everybody to play a role. So I called on unions, I called on charters, I called on states, I called on districts, I called on universities. I didn’t call on ourselves; I don’t think the feds can touch turnaround schools. There’s actually been a tremendous outpouring of interest. New Schools Venture Fund has pulled together a couple of conferences, where you had a couple hundred people from different sectors around the country come together behind this and so I’ve actually been very impressed by the seriousness, the commitment , the interest. As a country we don’t turnaround schools. We’ll learn, and folks have said, there’s not a huge evidence base, and they’re right. We haven’t been doing this for 20 years. But the only way we start to learn is if we start to do it. Perpetuating the status quo of not doing anything is not acceptable. My goal is three or four years from now as a country we’ll know a heck of a lot more about what works and what doesn’t and we’ll see some dramatic, dramatic changes.

I’ll argue in virtually every case we’re going to see improvement. And this is tough, tough work. I would argue the high school level is the toughest in the country. But you can’t be scared of it. Probably the most inspiring visits I’ve had (in schools around the country), is talking to kids and talking to parents at these schools. It’s both very hopeful and inspiring and also very heartbreaking about what wasn’t happening before. It’s pretty deep stuff.

Q: We hear trepidation…most of them [the turnaround experts] have a very specific model for opening up new schools. But going into an existing school with the existing kids and the problems that are there, not too many folks have taken that on.

Mr. Duncan: That’s right.

Q: What have people expressed to you ... ?

Mr. Duncan: Some still have lots of trepidation. This is not for the faint of heart. This is not for everybody. But there are a set of players who have not done this historically who are very interested. That’s very encouraging. And again, we’ve never said we want everybody to do it. This is extraordinarily hard, and for whatever reason if folks feel this is not for them I more than respect that. I’m just very pleased there are lots of different sectors, not just charters, who are very, very serious about getting into this work. I think you’ll see fall 2010 a set of schools being turned around that you’ve never seen before, ever, in the history of education. That’s a pretty big deal.

Also, I want to say I’m much more interested in quality than quantity. I’ve talked about ... 1,000 a year. There are two sides to that. One, you could say that isn’t ambitious enough, that’s 1 percent. I would tell you that 1,000 for fall 2010 would prove absolutely impossible to do well. So whatever the number ends up being, 153, or 287, or 328, that’s irrelevant to me frankly. Let’s do the best we can, let’s learn from it, and then let’s ramp it [up] and grow it. I’m much more interested in quality than quantity. If someone wants to do it, don’t take 10 schools next year, take one. Take two. As a country, it’s morally unacceptable that we don’t do this. This is a big, big one that you guys could track and watch. And get out and talk to the before and after stories of students and parents—about the most compelling I’ve heard in education. It affected me a lot, personally, and that’s why I feel this is so important.

Evidence and Policy

Q: To pick up on that evidence base, there are a lot of policies and strategies that the department seems to endorse or favor that don’t necessarily have a strong evidence base for them. President Obama has talked about restoring scientific integrity in the government decision-making process. How much of a role does the evidence play in setting policy in the department, and in things like charter schools and teacher evaluation?

Mr. Duncan: I would challenge your assumption a bit. So I would argue the whole turnaround stuff is relatively new but I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work and that’s the evidence that I’m looking at. I’m looking at places where 70 to 75 percent of kids aren’t graduating and somehow that’s been okay for the country. People don’t expect anything different. I would argue that all of these things there’s lots of evidence that the current thing doesn’t work. Teacher evaluation is broken. Teacher evaluation in this country is fundamentally broken. And if someone wants to make the case that it’s good, I would love to have that debate. But there’s nobody making that case. Nobody. So let’s try to fix it. Let’s not use the excuse that we don’t have all of the answers to continue to do nothing.

We’ve tried not to be very specific. We’ve said a couple things matter: data matters, we’ve said that talent matters, we’ve said having high standards matter, and turning around things matter. How you do those things, how you get there, [there’s] lots of room to play, to get creative. No one by themselves is the answer. I’ve never said that. But again, I’d love to argue or counter anyone who says data doesn’t matter, that talent doesn’t matter, that turnarounds don’t matter, that a high bar doesn’t matter. That’s a debate I’d love to have. I think there’s pretty compelling evidence of what hasn’t worked as well as what’s possible. In a country where teacher evaluation is largely divorced from student progress, student success, how do you defend that? Again, there’s lots of gray. We’ve talked a lot about multiple measures, and not one thing. As a country we’re at zero. That’s wrong; 100 percent is wrong. There’s a big middle ground there that we got to find. Anyone who would argue that where we’re at now is good or has evidence that that’s the right thing, I don’t buy it. No one is. I went to the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] conventions, I went to the NEA [National Education Association] convention, I said teacher evaluation is broken, guess what, all the teachers cheered.

Q: In reading a lot of the comments, some say you’re asking for more evidence from school districts and others that are vying for i3 grants than exists for the department’s innovative strategies.

Mr. Duncan: Give me an example. I challenge the assumption.

Q: I think they brought up charter schools. You already addressed that [in the other] question. My question is are you asking for too much evidence from district for their i3 grants?

Mr. Duncan: Let me back up. I just want to make this clear. We’ve never said charter schools are the magic answer. I went to the charter school community and said third-rate charter schools are part of the problem. But successful charter schools are part of the answer. And lots of places they don’t exist. But where the right infrastructure, the right set of authorizing questions, the right set of accountability, where those things come together, they’re actually pretty compelling.

Ms. Martin: If you look at Race to the Top, it doesn’t say you have to have charters. You have to put in place conditions for good charters, if that’s what the community has decided to be an option.

Q: I didn’t mean this to be a charter school question. I meant this to be an i3 question.

Ms. Martin: We can’t really speak to what we’re going to do until we respond in a very public way to those comments [from the public, on still-pending i3 regulations].

Performance Pay and Collective Bargaining

Q: The teachers’ unions think that performance pay programs should all be collectively bargained. Are you going to put that in the applications for the Teacher Incentive Fund?

Mr. Duncan: We’re not there yet so I don’t have an answer. I will say that I’ve said repeatedly, and again, this is a big one so I want to make sure to be real clear, I think in education we’ve been scared to reward excellence, we’ve been scared to reward improvement. If this is top down it won’t work. The only way it works is to involve teachers, if you involve the union. It’s clear where this has succeeded—in places where you’ve had this real collaboration. I will tell you that this has to at every level be driven by teacher voice, by their desires, and not just have their quote-and-quote “buy in” but their stamp on it, and have them give this real form. That’s hugely important. Where we’ve seen this work successfully you’ve had the best teachers in the system driving this thing. That’s exactly what we want to have happen.

Stimulus 'Funding Cliff'

Q: Even as money is still rolling out, states’ and districts’ recovery from the recession lags behind the nation’s. ... Given that situation, would you consider urging the president to consider seeking a second round of stimulus funding for education and other areas, or do you think that perhaps states and districts need to get better at doing more with less?

Mr. Duncan: It’s all hard. This is a really tough time. It’s tough for states, it’s tough for districts, it’s tough for families. It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. Can I sit here today and say we’re going to have a second round of this? No, I can’t begin to say that. When times are tough, you often have the kind of fundamental breakthroughs you need, that are sometimes easier to get than when times are easier. What’s been interesting to me is that in these real tough times you’ve seen a tremendous diversity in responses. You’ve seen some folks, governors, districts, superintendents absolutely paralyzed, ‘I can’t make it. What do I do?’ You’ve seen some folks do some unbelievably creative things and really using the crisis as an opportunity. You never want tough times, but if you’re stuck with them for better or for worse, it really is a test of leadership. You’re going to see some folks maximize the opportunity, and you’ll see some folks throw up their hands and can’t see the tough times for the opportunity it is. So to answer your question directly, is there going to be a second run at this? No guarantee whatsoever. I worry about the next couple of years, not just next year. It’s hard out there. We recognize that.

Teachers at the Policy Table

Q: My sense is there’s a growing concern among teachers that they feel discouraged by current policy trends. They worry about NCLB, pay tied to testing, they worry about one-size-fits-all instructional models. They want a place at the table. How would you respond to that?

Mr. Duncan: Every school I go to, I’m always sitting down with teachers. What do you think? What’s working? What not? We have a team of teacher ambassadors that are full time in our department every single day. We have folks who are ambassadors that are still in their classrooms across the country, who are in constant communication with. There are a lot of teachers in this country, and you can’t reach everyone as much as you’d like to. I’d tell you it’s been an unprecedented commitment and effort to get out there on a daily basis and ask teachers what’s working and what’s not. You have three specific concerns.

One-size-fits-all curriculum, I couldn’t agree more with that [concern]. We’re really, really clear. Tight on goals and loose on how you get there. We need a much higher bar. I do think the best answers for hitting that bar are going to come locally. And we’re going to give maximum flexibility, and again there are lots of ways to get there. Where there’s creative or engaging or innovative curriculum, where folks are using technology, you’re going to see great results. I think there’s going to continue to be a huge opportunity for local innovation and a chance to hit a higher bar.

In terms of testing, I do think that a piece of this has to be based on how students are doing. To say there’s no correlation there, or there shouldn’t be correlation there, defies logic. I’ve also said it shouldn’t be the only thing, that also defies logic. I’ve said repeatedly you have to look at multiple measures. One of those measures has to be student achievement. That’s a change in some places, in many places that’s already happening. This is the Louisiana example. This is not a “gotcha” thing. What happened in Louisiana is hundreds of thousands of students, with tens of thousands of teachers, and students being tracked to teachers, and teachers being tracked back to their schools of [education], is you’re actually seeing real changes in schools of [education] curriculum based upon the results of their alumni’s students. That’s a pretty big deal. My question is why is it only happening in one state? This is not solving a technological miracle. This is about having the courage that great teaching matters, that adults have a huge influence on students, and how teachers are prepared has a real bearing on student outcomes. There are real schools of education making real changes to their curriculum based upon what students are learning. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think that’s something we should be scared of.

On NCLB, there are lots of lots of concerns, and frankly, I share a lot of them. Carmel [Martin] talked about where we are going. I think one thing that I’ve heard universally from teachers is that they love the idea of growth and gain rather than absolute test scores. It levels the playing field. No one’s saying don’t hold me accountable. Everyone’s saying I want to be held accountable, but I want it to be fair. The idea of measuring how much students are improving each year, teachers absolutely love that. There’s a real courage there. They want a level playing field. There are lots of other things we want to change. That’s one of the things of particular concern.

I’m also interested in graduation rates. You can have great 3rd grade test scores, but if 60 percent of your students are dropping out, you can’t go get a job with your 3rd grade test score. This is really about outcomes. If we can dramatically increase high school graduation rates, if we can dramatically increase the number of graduates who are college and career ready, that’s what this is about. Everything’s a means to that end. That’s the holy grail here. Are our students being prepared to be successful?

National Education Technology Plan

Q: I think many teachers are feeling they are expected to do more and more. Ed-tech advocates say using education technology can really help teachers balance these demands. But they need the tools. The national ed-tech plan being put together, many people feel could really offer some substantive guidance. How much do you think that plan will beef up the vision of using technology? Will it have the influence to drive change throughout?

Mr. Duncan: I think there’s huge potential there, but I’ll be honest, there’s not just that plan. It’s got to be sort of everything we do. To me technology should be infused in everything we’re doing. You talk to all of these great young teachers and they love it, the ability to differentiate instruction. What they’re all furious about is none of them is learning this in their schools of education. They’re all learning it on the job. They’re saying “Why?” These are great teachers already who are taking their craft to a whole different level. I’ve almost talked to no teachers who’ve said they learned this before they started teaching. Why? This goes back to having this clear and honest feedback. So yes, those tools are out there. These grants can be a huge piece of that but this has to be how we’re using formative assessments and real-time data in everything we’re doing.

Q: But do you see that the national ed-tech plan giving some of that guidance?

Mr. Duncan: I think it can give guidance. But it has to give more than that. This new formative data can be really game changing. You have all of these teachers who are absolutely thrilled to have access. It’s still sporadic, it’s not systematic. I hope there’s continued development of these tools so that five years from now they’re much more sophisticated.

Education Department Bureaucracy

Q: Regarding the department’s change away from the compliance-oriented bureaucracy, in which ways have you all started to move that way, starting to be more resource-based rather than compliance-oriented?

Mr. Duncan: There’s a huge higher ed piece we haven’t talked about. I’ve met with university presidents, I’ve been asking them what are those things we’re asking you to do that don’t have value. What things should we stop asking you to do? So I think it’s two things. It’s trying to do some things very differently, and frankly trying to stop doing things. Frankly in education we’re better at doing more things than we are stopping doing things. We’re trying to be pretty conscious about how we stop doing things.

Finally, I’ll say it’s not just how we behave, but how we behave with other folks. So obviously the relationship with HHS Department of Health and Human Services], particularly on early childhood, is hugely important. That relationship has been pretty dysfunctional historically. We have a chance to change that. It’s still early. Not surprisingly, dysfunction at the federal level is often replicated by dysfunction at the state level, at the local level. If we can lead by example, if we can walk the walk, then you start to change those dynamics a little bit.

I’m really interested in getting better food for our kids. We don’t control that. That’s Department of [Agriculture]. So I’m spending a ton of time with [Secretary of Agriculture] Tom Vilsack and his team. I don’t own that, I don’t want to own that, but I do want us to break through there. Kids, nobody knows where the money comes from, they don’t care. So far, the level of collaboration and thoughtfulness and the lack of egos has been really, really encouraging.

Q: Anything in particular you’ve stopped doing so far?

Mr. Duncan: There’s not a ton we’ve stopped doing. There are little things … as we get into NCLB reauthorization you’re going to see some things pretty differently. As you look at the higher ed side you’re going to see things differently.

NCLB Reauthorization

Q: Regarding NCLB reauthorization, what might these incentives look like that you would give to states and districts? What’s on the table?

Mr. Duncan: Everything. This is going to be a huge, huge deal. [Currently] there are basically no incentives. There were 50 ways to fail, and if you succeeded there was nothing there for you. A lot of the best principals in Chicago practice what they call creative insubordination. If they were to succeed, they were doing things despite the bureaucracy, despite the infrastructure, in fact in direct opposition, and so a lot of what I tried to do [as Chicago superintendent] was give them space, to get the bureaucracy off their back. It wasn’t about the money; it was about the freedom to be creative and innovative. They earned autonomy. That was like a game changer. It was, to me, sad that it was such a low bar. The benefits were so disproportionate.

As a country, there are so many extraordinary schools and school districts and states that we don’t do anything, we don’t learn from them, we don’t replicate, we don’t give them the space to move, we don’t give them flexibility to be more creative. And so, whether it’s additional resources, whether it’s additional flexibility with existing resources, whether it’s shining a spotlight on them and having everybody go visit their school and find out what’s working, there’ s a whole package of things.

To your question about NCLB, if we can really change and create an up-side that people would love and they would kill themselves to get to, that to me is one of the biggest places we can break through. So we’re really trying to push our own thinking as to how creative we can be. What can we do very differently to reward excellence? As a country we have missed the boat there.

Q: Do you see these incentives at the state, district, or school level?

Mr. Duncan: Everything. State, district, school, teacher, grade. I mean, we’ve been scared to talk about excellence. Where in every state is the best English department, and what is that department doing? Where is the best science department? What if we found the best of 5th grade teachers? What are they doing? Why can’t we have these conversations? You’re talking about [professional development], that it doesn’t mean anything, what if we find all of the best folks in all the best areas and let them do all of the PD? We can cut these things a million different ways. It’s raising the bar for everybody and closing the gap. You have 50 states. What are the top two, the top five, the top 10? Where are the places where the most kids are graduating from high school college- and career-ready? There are great schools out there, and nobody pays them any attention. There are great teachers and nobody pays them any attention. We need to fundamentally change that. I think this will be really uplifting and let excellence shine through.

Vol. 29, Issue 14

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