U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s sixth annual back-to-school bus tour took him through a swath of the nation’s heartland—Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania—with stops that showcased the education spectrum from preschool to college.
Education Week Assistant Editor Alyson Klein sat down with Duncan on the bus somewhere between Champaign, Ill., and West Lafeyette, Ind., for a conversation that touched on a range of issues, from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act renewal and low-performing schools to what he sees as his biggest regrets. Here are some excerpts, edited for clarity and brevity. A more complete transcript is available on the Politics K-12 blog.
Accountability means different things to different folks. What we’re asking for in the [ESEA renewal] bill is not just data, which some would say is accountability, and not just transparency, which some would say is accountability, but actual action. And I think what we’ve been focused on the whole time with [No Child Left Behind Act] waivers is trying to transform low-performing schools. ... So what I’m interested in is ... taking action when there are massive achievement gaps.
On School Improvement Grants
We put $5 billion into turning around low-performing schools, and that’s an impressive investment. ... It hasn’t all gone perfectly, but we have high school [graduation] rates at all-time highs. ...
Everywhere I go I see firsthand the difference it’s making. For decades, these schools were just left to flounder and these children to drown. The fact that folks are encouraged to try and do this really important work, I think that’s a really huge deal that, frankly, the media hasn’t focused on.
On NCLB Waivers
One huge mistake was we spent a year and a half, two years trying to finish No Child Left Behind in 2009 and ‘10 and ‘11. We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours. And we knew the law was hurting children and hurting teachers. And we would have been crucified by Congress, saying we bypassed them if we hadn’t spent that time, and so we thought we were doing the right thing. So at the end of the day, that was a big mistake. We failed. ... We let schools, we let kids suffer for another year. So, in hindsight, we should have done waivers earlier.
On the Common-Core Scores
What we’re getting finally, for the first time in decades, is the truth, and we’re assessing more critical-thinking skills . ...The fact that the truth hasn’t been told for so long, and the fact that kids and parents have actually been lied to is one of the most insidious things in education. No one is that focused on [Common Core State Standards] scores, and we know this is going to be rocky or bumpy, but folks are trying to do the right thing. Folks are doing stuff that they’ve never done before, teaching to higher standards and trying to assess in different ways. ... If we can keep high school graduation rates going in the right direction, if we can keep reducing dropout rates, that’s a huge thing.
On His Priorities and Wish List
I’d love to see Congress [invest more] in early-childhood education, fix No Child Left Behind. I would love to continue to see college become more affordable and accessible.
I’d love to see high school graduation continue to rise. [Duncan noted that rates have risen not just overall, but for every subgroup of students over the past few years.] The challenge is how do we get better faster?
On Criticism of His Record
That’s a Washington perspective. ... It’s very important to actually talk to real teachers, that’s why we do these bus tours to get out and see the impact of this stuff. ... You have to talk to real teachers, real students. That’s why you have to travel and get outside of the sound bites.
On His Regrets
I have not been able to get [a major investment in] early-childhood education [to gain much traction] in Congress. There’s still tremendous unmet need. ... Another regret is the whole issue of gun violence which has haunted me since I was a little boy. The fact that we failed, that we utterly failed, to get Congress to do anything ... Japan, Europe, Australia—you just don’t have the level of devastation and trauma and destroyed families. ... Third is just to get financial aid to undocumented students. That there are just these kids who’ve worked so hard and played by all the rules, and gotten good grades, and been community leaders, and we can’t offer them federal financial aid. ... It’s heartbreaking. ... I feel like I failed.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as In Wide-Ranging Discussion, Duncan Mulls Issues, Agenda