Duncan Underlines Top Federal Education Priorities

By Alyson Klein, Michele McNeil & Stephen Sawchuk — March 31, 2009 7 min read
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As the U.S. Department of Education prepares to disburse billions of dollars of economic-stimulus aid to states and school districts under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sat down with Education Week to discuss the stimulus package, the 2010 budget, and his plans for implementing President Barack Obama’s education agenda. Questioning Mr. Duncan were reporters Alyson Klein, Michele McNeil, and Stephen Sawchuk. Here are some excerpts from the March 24 interview.

Q In the next couple of weeks, we are going to see the first chunk of stimulus money going out, and we are already starting to see reports of local school districts—even local governments—starting to question how states are going to use this stimulus money, particularly because it seems that some states are interested in plugging their overall budget deficits with education dollars, maybe shortchanging schools. How concerned are you about this trend? And what, if anything, can you do from your office?

A This is education money that is supposed to go to education. And we are going to work closely with states to make sure that the right thing is done. At the end of the day, we are putting out literally billions of dollars. We are also holding back billions of dollars, and if we see states doing things that don’t make sense and aren’t in the spirit of what this is about, they would put themselves at jeopardy in receiving that second set of money.

And then, as you know, we have an unprecedented amount of discretionary money that we are going to put out on a competitive basis. And if states are doing things, again, that are not in the best interest of children, I mean they are simply going to just disqualify themselves and put themselves out of the running for billions of dollars.

Watch the Entire Interview

Q Would you ever ask for money back if you found that states didn’t use it in the way you think was intended?

A We want to be very, very clear: If things are not going the way we like, we are going to challenge that. But ... I’m much more interested in getting it right the first time, and it is absolutely in states’ best interest ... to get it right the first time.

Q There are a couple of states [Alaska and South Carolina] that made news because they want to reject stimulus money, especially education money. Are you working with people in those states to figure out how to possibly still get some of that stimulus money into those states, or is it going to be a dead end for you all?

A We are absolutely working with folks in those states who care passionately about the care of their children’s education, and there isn’t a state in the country [that] doesn’t have tremendous unmet educational need. ... And so we are actually looking to be creative and work with people who have a vision and a passion for this and want to do the right thing by children.

Q What can you do?

A Stay tuned.

Q President Obama made a very big deal about graduating from college. And, of course, before you can do that, you have to graduate from high school. [The No Child Left Behind Act] focuses a lot on the earlier grades. ... Are we going to see anything ... to tackle that problem of ... how do we get more kids to graduate?

A While 3rd grade test scores are important, I would argue that they’re at best a leading indicator. ... At the end of the day, we need to push as hard as we can to dramatically improve high school graduation rates. ... That’s the steppingstone to dramatically improve college graduation rates.

The president has drawn a line in the sand that, I think, is remarkable. He’s said that by 2020, we want to go back to leading the world in the percent of our young folks ... that have a college degree. That’s the goal. ...

If you simply have a high school diploma, there are basically no good jobs out there for you; you have to think of some form of higher education, community college, four-year university, technical, vocational training. ... If you drop out of high school, you’re basically condemned to social failure. There are no good jobs out there if you don’t have a high school diploma. ...

One of the best parts of the [proposed fiscal 2010] budget is dramatic expansions of access and affordability to higher education. At a time when going to college has never been more important, unfortunately it’s also never been more expensive, and our families have never been under more financial strain and pressure. ... There’s a historic amount of money, over $30 billion, going into increased access to college, increased Pell Grants, dramatically increased Perkins Loans, ... tax credits for the middle class. There’s more money coming into higher education than any time since the GI bill. It’s a staggering resource.

Q You and the president have both talked about removing teachers who, after being given multiple kinds of professional development and support, simply do not improve and are not effective with students. Given that state and local policies mostly dictate the removal of teachers, how do you want to move forward on that front?

A I think the best teachers in the country are like our unsung heroes, and we don’t do everything we can to reward them and incent them. For teachers that are struggling, we need to help them improve.

But, yes, I do believe at the end of the day if a teacher is just not making it and, despite help, despite support, despite mentoring, is not improving, I think we owe it to our children to make a change there. And quite frankly, it’s better for the teacher to find another line of work where they can be more successful.

Q Will you use the bully pulpit or use other leverage points at your discretion or try to close down [teacher education] programs that don’t seem to be producing very good teachers?

A We have to, we have to challenge the status quo. ... This goes back to having data, that this shouldn’t be my opinion or somebody’s opinion. ...

Where you have phenomenal schools of education that are producing great, great teachers every single year, we need to shine a spotlight on that and help them produce more teachers and support them in their efforts. And we see places where teachers are making an effort and it’s just not working—I think we have to challenge that status quo. I’m also a big believer in alternative certification; I think there is lots of great talent out there who happen to want to teach but didn’t major in education when they were an 18-year-old undergrad.

Q Can you elaborate on some of the strategies that you’ve seen that have really worked well [to turn around low-performing schools]?

A This is tough, tough work. It’s hard and it’s controversial. … Where we’re not seeing that kind of progress, I think we need to come with new teams of adults and really take on the status quo, and we did this over the past six years in Chicago.

And we saw children in schools that historically had heartbreakingly low results, those same children, same families, same socioeconomic challenges, same neighborhoods, same buildings, ... we saw dramatically better results. Some children were performing two or three times better—not 2 or 3 percent, two or three times better with a new team. So talent matters tremendously.

Q The stimulus package asks states, in order to be eligible for the stabilization funds, to make progress toward four assurances [including data systems]. Can you sketch out how the department will determine whether states are making progress [on that front]?

A Data systems to me are at the heart of this reform effort. We have to know what the data tells us. Where we can’t track students, where students get lost, how can you begin to know whether they are improving or not? So we need comprehensive data systems that do three things.

One, track students throughout their educational trajectory. Secondly, track students back to teachers so we can really shine a spotlight on those teachers that are doing a phenomenal job of driving student achievement. And third, track teachers back to their schools of education so ... over time we’ll really understand which schools of education are adding value with their graduates.

Q What are you looking for [in a deputy secretary of education and an undersecretary of education]?

A I’m trying to build a really really strong team, and what we have is a couple folks who are great managers, and I think again, this is an absolutely historic opportunity, this hundred-billion-dollar stimulus package, but it is so important that we execute impeccably against this.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2009 edition of Education Week as Duncan Underlines Top Federal Education Priorities


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