Arne Duncan interview: best education ideas aren’t in Washington

The US education secretary’s approach involves finding and highlighting innovative solutions in schools around the nation.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Barack Obama sits next to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as he speaks about the importance of education while at an event at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, on September 8.

Arne Duncan, the US education secretary, is candid about his hopes for a major overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is overdue for reauthorization.

"The first thing that's got to go is the name," said Secretary Duncan, his face somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

Duncan was in Manchester, N.H., on Wednesday at a forum on President Obama’s Fatherhood Initiative. Afterward, he gave an interview to the Monitor in which he talked about plans for reform of America’s education system. One thing he stressed: The leadership may come from Washington, but the best ideas on which steps to take will probably be found somewhere else.

“When I worked in Chicago, I never imagined the best ideas came from Washington,” he says, referring to his years as CEO of the Chicago public-school system. “Now that I’m in Washington, I certainly don’t imagine that.”

In crowds, the former professional basketball player stands a few inches above almost everyone else. On Wednesday at the forum in Manchester, Duncan was the center of attention as he spoke for about 10 minutes, hoping to stir up interest in the Fatherhood Initiative. He also fielded a few questions and listened to commentary from a diverse group that included prison ministers and coaches for robotics teams.

Later, in the interview, Duncan turned to discussion of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB. He was generous in his assessment of what the Bush administration did well when it crafted the legislation.

"There is something very important that they did right," he stresses, "and that is the disaggregation of data" – the requirement that schools separate out the test-score results of minority students. A school whose minority students don’t make gains on standardized tests will ultimately face sanctions.

Duncan calls this focus on teaching to all students “a foundation” on which the Obama administration would continue to build.

He did not have many other kind words about NCLB, however, saying that he hopes to essentially turn the law on its head. The Bush administration's legislation, he says, kept the "goals loose but the steps tight." He hopes instead to see a law that keeps the "goals tight but the steps loose."

When Duncan speaks of “tight” goals, he’s also referring to his push for states to adopt national education standards. He sees the status quo – different states working toward “different goal posts” – as unacceptable. But he stresses that he is not interested in interfering with the ability of states and municipalities to create their own curricula.

“The steps to get there [to improved student achievement] can be flexible” once the standards are in place, he says. If anything, he argues, clarifying the goals will “create more space” for innovative solutions.

Indeed, the practice of finding and highlighting innovative solutions that exist somewhere outside Washington seems to be at the core of Duncan’s approach. It’s the rationale for the $5 billion “Race to the Top” stimulus money, which he hopes to use to reward schools that are centers of successful innovation.

Duncan’s vision for US education is at least partly fueled by optimism. “Never before have there been so many good teachers in so many [US] classrooms as there are right now,” he insists.

That’s not to say, however, that his take on the current state of schools is particularly sunny. “As a country we’ve lost our way,” he says. He points to the 1.2 million high school dropouts in the US last year, calling the figure “a tragedy.”

But he also shows pride in improvements already made. When a reporter remembers a visit to a large, failing Chicago high school a decade ago, Duncan notes that it now exists as three smaller schools. He says, “You should see it today.”

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