Education Funding

Q&A: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

By Alyson Klein & Lauren Camera — March 31, 2015 3 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has less than two years left in office with the Obama administration, and a number of big issues still on his plate, including school turnarounds, teacher evaluation tied to student outcomes, and a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act). Education Week Assistant Editor Alyson Klein and Staff Writer Lauren Camera sat down with Mr. Duncan on March 23 for an interview that touched on those issues and others such as testing, NCLB waivers, and the Race to the Top competitive-grant program.

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation. (A few lines have been slightly paraphrased for clarity.)

Education Week: The waiver renewals you’re working on now will extend beyond your administration, and I know you’re hoping for a reauthorization of the law. But are you worried, if that reauthorization doesn’t happen, that you have opened the door to the next administration coming in and putting their priorities in place in exchange for getting out of the mandates of No Child Left Behind—for instance, expanding school choice?

Arne Duncan: We have tried to put our best thinking forward. ... I know we’ve done this imperfectly, but I think we’ve done a really good job. ... We try to, as best we can, have the principles of being very tight on goals, but much looser on how we get there, and we’re learning every day how to be a good partner. ...

The easiest [thing] to do would have been to not do waivers. And just [to have] lived with a broken law, and our jobs would have all been a lot easier here. But we would have hurt kids, and we came here to help kids, and we feel really proud of what we’ve done. ... Again, the law needs to be fixed. And if somehow the law isn’t, then you hope the next administration builds upon things we did well and corrects some things, does some things better. ...

Obviously, during your first term, standardized tests really formed a backbone of your agenda in policies like teacher evaluation and dramatic school turnarounds, and now you’re talking about paring back the number of tests. Did you have a change of heart here?

I think you’re, I want to say, misremembering. A big thing we did in the waivers from the start was to reduce the focus on a single test score. ... What we did was move away from proficiency, we moved to growth and gain, and what you see in so many state accountability systems is going way beyond a test score and looking at improvements in graduation rates and reductions in dropout rates. Some states look at college-going rates. ... And so, I think, we’ve been actually pretty consistent from day one that assessing kids annually we think is important, but it should be a piece of anything and just a piece, and these longer-term indicators we think are hugely important.

But you were the first administration to have a federal mandate to require teacher evaluation through test scores, and so that’s obviously taking high-stakes tests to another level.

I think, again, you’ve got to look at the context. We think the goal of great teaching is to have students learn; and to have student learning be a piece of teacher evaluation, I think, actually gives the profession the respect it deserves. ... Anyone who says that student learning shouldn’t be a part of teacher evaluation actually demeans the profession. ... And again, different states have done this different ways, so we’ve never said there is one way to do this but, yes, we have absolutely said that student learning is the goal of great teaching and great teachers, and that that should be a piece of [evaluations]. ... The real point is better support and feedback for teachers.

Race to the Top was obviously your signature program in your first term. But in some places it’s become a somewhat tarnished brand. Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina have either rethought or changed their standards or tests. And some states are making changes to teacher evaluation, Tennessee being an example. How much influence do you think the administration has in states that got this money, how much influence do you continue to have?

Influence isn’t the goal here. The goal here is increased student achievement, and you see, what I’ve said from day one, is that you see as much reform and progress in states that didn’t get a nickel as states that got hundreds of millions of dollars. .... The goal is raising the bar for all kids and seeing those gaps close.

Last question (asked off the cuff, after the official conclusion of the interview): You going to stick around for the end of the [Obama administration]?

(Laughs). Day at a time, baby, day at a time.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2015 edition of Education Week as Q&A: A View From the Top as the Policy Clock Ticks

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