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Arne Duncan on Waivers, Common Core, and Teacher Prep

By Michele McNeil — April 16, 2014 10 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sat down with me on April 11 for a wide-ranging interview, including a discussion of the waivers President Barack Obama’s administration has granted to states under the No Child Left Behind Act, criticism of the Common Core State Standards, and challenges involving the legacy of the administration’s Race to the Top program. He also outlined his agenda for the next couple of years. What follows is an edited transcript:

Q. [Health and Human Services] Secretary Kathleen Sebelius yesterday announced she is resigning. I just want to check to make sure you are still planning to stay for the long-term?
A. I’m here today. Hopefully I’ll be here tomorrow.

Q. So your plan still is to stick it out?
A. I’m here every day.

Q. I’ve been thinking about your legacy and what it might be, and what you might be making a priority in these last couple of years. So, what do you think your legacy will be?
A. I don’t spend any time thinking about that, so you can talk to other folks. The fair question for me is, what do we want to do in these next couple of years? Obviously, the early-childhood piece is huge, and if we could break through on that I think it could have a transformative impact for kids. And that’s clearly an uphill battle, but we’ve seen this incredible amount of movement in states over the last couple of years that no one saw coming. It’s not just states, but cities, San Antonio, New York. On the K-12 side, [there is] a lot of hard work now on the implementation of higher standards, new assessments, next-generation support for teachers and principals. Lots of change in a short amount of time; none of it easy. But the other side of this mountain, I think, changes education forever in some pretty extraordinary ways. Making sure we stay the course but continue to listen in very authentic ways. We come to this with real humility. Just seeing how much better instruction is for kids. How much happier teachers are. On the higher ed side, we’re proud of the Pell Grant stuff [stabilizing the college-grant program and increasing the size of the grants.] College is still very, very expensive for a lot of folks. If we can find ways through the rating system to start to reward excellence and challenge the status quo ... [that will] provide a level of clarity and transparency that’s never existed in this country. It’s a very ambitious agenda.

Q. I think there are some Democrats, especially in the civil rights groups, who are disappointed that you haven’t had much of an equity agenda. And even now there are questions about what in these last couple of years could you do.
A. We had them all in here a month ago talking about Race to the Top for equity. [Note: This is part of the Obama administration’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal.] And I don’t think we’ve done enough. There was a huge amount of excitement and interest. But that is one of the many areas where we have a lot of unfinished work to do.

Q. A couple of folks said to me today that they are beginning to wonder, from an equity standpoint, from a high expectations for all kids standpoint, from a subgroup accountability standpoint, if kids were better off under [President George W.] Bush than under Obama. What would you say to that?
A. You can listen to anybody. But if you look at Pell Grant recipients going from 6 million to 9.7 million, if you look at high school graduation rates at all time highs, if you look at Hispanic dropout rates cut in half, African-American dropout rates cut almost in half--it’s a huge, huge deal. If you look at how many states we are investing in early-childhood education from a department that historically did nothing. [There’s] a long way to go and we haven’t closed gaps ...

Q. Do you think programs like Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods will outlive this administration?
A. Absolutely. Four years in, if you look across the country at which states are moving the fastest, disproportionately it’s Race to the Top states. The real test for me isn’t now, but four or five years from now. And if the progress stops when the money stops then we would have failed. But if we’ve built something that’s sustainable and that has fundamentally transformed the opportunity structure in the systems in these states, then that’s a really, really big deal. It needs to stand the test of time. There’s huge interest and huge unmet demand.

Q. What if the GOP controls the House and Senate? What does that look like for your administration?
A. Nothing changes. We work with everyone the same way. What I say to my friends who are Democrats I say to my friends who are Republicans. We’ve been absolutely nonpolitical. We’ve been absolutely focused on student success and creating more opportunity. We’re fighting for our kids, we’re fighting for our country’s economy. And we should be able to work together.

Q. How dependent is the rest of your agenda on Congress giving you additional money?
A. If we want to want to do more early childhood, we need more money to do that. If we want to do more Promise Neighborhoods, we need more money to do that. But we’re not sitting around waiting on it. We can give you a list of the things we’ve done in just the first quarter of this year. Things like the Civil Rights Data Collection. The implications there are huge. Stuff we’re doing around technology and the FCC and the private sector. Stuff we’re doing with My Brother’s Keeper and philanthropy. [Note: This is a White House initiative to help boys and young men of color.] Love to partner with Congress. Love to get more resources. But we’re moving very, very fast.

Q. Your staff is working on recommendations for the 50-state teacher-equity strategy. Have you seen those yet?
A. No. That’s coming. But going back to the Civil Rights Data Collection and stuff we knew anecdotally, but stuff we’ve never real good evidence on--the fact that within thousands of school districts teachers working in high-minority schools are getting paid less than teachers working in whiter schools. That’s a really profound and disturbing fact. The fact that we are suspending and expelling 4-year-olds from pre-K in wildly disproportionate numbers for black children. We’ve got a lot of work to do. And we want to figure out how to do some things better.

Q. Do you think you can do that, from the federal level?
A. We’re going to do what we can. To date, 99 percent of the incentives are for great talent to not stay or not go to where it’s needed most. I keep saying we’re not serious about closing equity gaps or achievement gaps until we get serious about closing opportunity gaps. And can we have a coalition of the willing and a coalition of the courageous step up to change the opportunity structure? [Note: Secretary Duncan cited the Race to the Top work done in Delaware on teacher equity.]

Q. You’ve been talking about high standards. Before Congress, in your budget testimony, you were asked about the common core. You said you were for higher standards, common or not. Do you feel like you can’t say the words common core anymore?
A. I don’t feel that. I was in Massachusetts recently, which has helped lead that effort. I was in New York and Delaware, [which] are driving this hard. For me, the travesty of No Child Left Behind was seeing 19 states dummy down standards. And anyone who thinks that was serving poor kids or that was part of an equity agenda ... The fact that so many states have raised standards is a game-changer. ... That’s the easy part. The hard part is implementing them, and that takes time and how you support teachers and work with students and parents. It’s been uneven in places. We get none of the credit. All of the leadership and all of the push and the courage is coming from the state and local level.

Q. You talked about how implementation takes time. Do you think the department’s timeline for making the new common tests operational, to tying teacher evaluations to them, to tying personnel decisions to those evaluations, was too aggressive given what you’ve seen now?
A. We’ve tried to spend a huge amount of time listening. We’ve tried to provide some real flexibility to states. I’m interested in finishing at the right point. The path to get there is going to be very different. Some states are two or three years ahead of others, and are in great shape. Some are in the middle and some are further behind. We’ve been pretty agnostic on these things and tried to give people the flexibility to figure out what the right answer is in their local context. At the end of the day, we think having high standards is really important. At the end of the day, having assessments that move beyond fill-in-the-bubble tests and look at critical thinking skills, we think that’s really important. At the end of the day, having systems that do a better job recognizing teacher excellence and rewarding it and better supporting teachers and principals ... There’s no right or wrong answer. But the flip side of the flexibility is there’s always the tendency to stop and go back to the old days. And that’s one I’m not ever going to support.

Q. You have drawn a firm line in the sand, though, that you’ll give flexibility to a point. And I know that Washington state has forced you into a corner, and you will have no choice but to revoke their waiver. Right?
A. Washington state made some commitments. In all this stuff, what we’re trying to do ... we’ve entered into these pretty remarkable partnerships with states that, again, I think no one thought was possible. In any partnership, you agree to things on both sides in good faith. And I absolutely expect to be held accountable by states for our side of the bargain and for providing the flexibility and the chance to innovate. I think we’ve been a decent partner. But when we both make an agreement together, we both have to live up to it.

Q. Is there any more room for flexibility on your timeline? Does Washington state have any other options?
A. I don’t know the specifics, so I can’t speak to that one specifically.

Q. But I know you talked to their state officials just a few days ago.
A. I talk to them all the time. I talked to them a few days ago, I talked to them a few weeks ago. I spend a lot of time talking to governors and chiefs, that’s what I do. I can’t answer the specifics of that one. We’re always trying to listen and be as thoughtful as we can and walk that fine line of trying to provide flexibility and room for people to move and to also make sure folks are--where they made commitments that they need to fulfill them. It takes a little bit more time to get it right; we’re finding that. If you’re headed in the right direction, that’s something we absolutely want to have the conversation about. If the state decides they don’t want to do something, that’s different.

Q. Right, but I think you’ve still communicated that there’s still a sense of urgency. States can’t take forever, right?
A. If it’s with our Race to the Top resources, that’s correct. If it’s with our waivers, again, when they’ve made agreements in good faith we expect them to keep those agreements. If they choose not to, they absolutely have the right to not, for whatever reason. There’s no value judgment. This work is really hard. It’s not for the faint of heart. We might just have to go in a different direction.

Q. How important is it that you get the teacher-prep regulations done during the last couple of years?
A. They will get done. Very important.

Q. On data, some folks think FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) isn’t strong enough, and that the new privacy guidance is too little too late. What’s your response to that?
A. I’m happy to take any great ideas people have. Obviously, technology is changing much faster than any rules. We created a new Chief Privacy Officer. We’ve put out guidance recently, and where it needs to be strengthened going forward [we can do that]—and not just us but everybody, states, districts, schools, myself as parent trying to figure it out everyday with my kids. This is not one that you’re going to issue some guidance and that’s the Bill of Rights for the next 100 years. And so where people have good thoughts or good ideas, we have no pride of authorship. We have no ego. We just want to do the best we can.