Q&A with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

At a Sept. 22 Monitor Breakfast, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about youth violence, performance-based teacher salaries, and rising college tuition.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said No Child Left Behind created a "dumbing down of standards."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan was chief executive officer of Chicago's public schools for 7-1/2 years, the longest-serving big-city superintendent in the nation, before taking up his current post in January 2009. He was a guest speaker at a Sept. 22 Monitor breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Response to critics who say "shrunken student motivation" makes it tough to improve the performance of US high schools:

"Are there students who struggle? Yes. Is every student ... highly motivated? Of course not. The biggest challenge is working with children where ... Mom got beaten up last night or Dad got locked up for something.... But to act like [it's] the students' fault that we are not doing a good job educating them, I just couldn't more vigorously disagree."

How to improve high schools' performance:

"The lessons are it's hard work, but the lessons aren't that difficult. It's a lot more time for students; it's very high expectations. It's building a culture around college completion from Day 1. It's very strong adult relationships, no excuses, saying no child's going to fall through the cracks."

How to tell if colleges deliver value for the money:

"Where there isn't academic rigor, where there are escalating costs, I think those universities are going to lose out over time. The marketplace is going to play there."

Dealing with youth violence:

"The violence in Chicago and other places around the country is devastating, and I thought it couldn't get much worse than when I was there and ... in fact it has gotten worse. It's staggering; it's absolutely unacceptable.... That was by far, by far the toughest issue that I dealt with."

Changes needed in the No Child Left Behind law:

"It led to a dumbing down of standards in many states ... to a narrowing [of] the curriculum.... We want to reverse all of that in reauthorization. We want to make sure we're rewarding excellence.... We want to shine a spotlight on places that are raising the bar and closing the achievement gap. We want to be much more flexible from Washington...."

The debate over paying teachers for student performance, including on standardized tests:

"If we're serious about recruiting this next generation of great talent, that great young talent wants to know that if they do a good job, they can make some real money.... If you're recruiting into a factory model, where everybody's paid the same ... that's not going to motivate the folks you want to come into education. [In recruiting top talent, it's] a piece of that package."

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