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Arne Duncan Hopes To Overhaul Education System
Ohanian Comment: I've made a few running comments throughout Duncan's speech---in red parenthetical expressions. Not many because I'm already tired out by his simplifications, pontifications, and absolute lies. I paid for this transcript because I feel it's critical for us to keep a record. This website was launched 7 years ago on this premise and I'm still clinging to it: keep a record of what the bastards say.

Duncan repeats all his scripted messages in this talk. I would just say I'm really tired of the hypocritical call for recruiting "the best and the brightest" to enter teaching. No, Mr. Duncan, those are not the people we need in our schools: We need the savvy, rock steady, dependable, loving, forgiving people who have an enormous capacity for wait time and the psychological equilibrium to be able to enter the classroom every day not holding a grudge for what happened the day before.

That said, I hold a hard grudge against a Secretary of Education who can say that teachers perpetuate poverty and we perpetuate social failure.The Fortune 500 hundred perpetuate poverty. The U. S. Congress perpetuates poverty. Get off teachers' backs, Duncan.

And speaking of the "best and brightest"--take a look at the job qualifications of those appointed to the top job in embassies around the world.

Notice how many times this guy says he's "a fan of" (I also highlighted these in red). How many educators do you know who say things like, "I'm a real fan of Dewey? I'm a real fan of Frank Smith's books? I'm a real fan of Maxine Greene? Such talk is an indicator of simplistic, knee-jerk thinking, of somebody who wants to be careful not to go off the script that's been delivered to him. Keep it plain and simple, black and white, unadulterated by serious consideration.

Somehow, it's fitting that Arne Duncan shares Talk of the Nation airtime with comic Zach Galifianakis, one of the stars of a new movie "The Hangover." After all, a schoolteacher figures in the plot: But that's not really the tie-in here.

Two days before his wedding, Doug (JUSTIN BARTHA) drives to Las Vegas with his best buddies Phil and Stu (BRADLEY COOPER [his girlfriend's a teacher] and ED HELMS) and his future brother-in-law Alan (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS), for a blow-out bachelor party they vow they'll never forget.

But when the three groomsmen wake up the next morning with pounding headaches, they can't remember a thing. Their luxury hotel suite is beyond trashed and the groom is nowhere to be found.

But when the three groomsmen wake up the next morning with pounding headaches, they can't remember a thing. Their luxury hotel suite is beyond trashed and the groom is nowhere to be found.

With no clue about what happened and little time to spare, the trio must attempt to retrace their bad decisions from the night before in order to figure out where things went wrong in the hopes of finding Doug and getting him back to L.A. in time for his wedding.


Aha! Movie tie-in: No Clue.

from Talk of the Nation, NPR, June 9, 2009

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. If the news is to be believed, then American education is in a bad way. Our schools are failing, our children aren't learning, our teachers are burned out, and the physical infrastructures are crumbling. But with the change in the administration there's been a new sheriff in town, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has big plans.

Secretary Duncan says no issue is more pressing than education. It is the civil rights issue of our generation. Today he joins us to share not just his vision but what specifically he hopes to do, how he plans to put those--how he can put those plans into effect to improve America's public schools.

And as always, we want to hear from you, especially if you're an educator, a school administrator or a parent. What, if anything, has changed with the new administration? What's the biggest challenge you face in your school?

800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, indie comic Zach Galifianakis breaks out in the new movie "The Hangover." But first, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joins us here in Studio 3A, and this is the first time you've been able to be with us since you came with President Obama from Chicago. Congratulations on the new job. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (U.S. Department of Education): Thanks so much. Thanks for having me, Neal. I appreciate the opportunity.

CONAN: And I wanted to begin with the second part of that question. What's the biggest challenge you face?

Sec. DUNCAN: We have lots of challenges, but I'm unbelievably excited and hopeful about where we can go. And you mentioned some of the real issues that we have to deal with, but we have a number of things going our direction. Let me talk about that first.

We have a president and a first lady who are the living embodiment of what a great public education can do for you.(But not for their children.) They were not born with silver spoons in their mouth. They are the leaders of the country, the leaders of free world, because they worked so hard and got--and received a great education.

We have a bipartisan Congress that's supportive of what we're doing, (Because Paul Wellstone is dead and Ted Kennedy and George Miller can't admit they were wrong and Democrats in general are just like Republicans--gutless pawns of corporate America.) and if there's no other issue that folks can agree on, I think everyone agrees as a country we need to continue to improve educationally.

I would argue we have more good ideas, more good schools than ever before, and yes, there are pockets of failure, and we need to absolutely challenge that, but in the past five, 10, 15 years, there's been this flourishing of innovation, and we can go to any rural community, we can go to any inner city community and find great, great schools and great ideas that are working every single day.

And then finally, as you know, we have unprecedented resources. We have $100 billion to spend on education, (The scary part about all this is how loudly money talks. And now the fellow who trashed Chicago neighborhood schools now has $100 billion in his pocket to carry the Chicago Plan nationwide.) and if we can spend it wisely and use those resources to drive reform, not just invest in status quo, I'm convinced we can dramatically improve the quality of education in our country at every level: early childhood, K-to-12 and higher ed.

So the challenges are real; the challenges are profound. I feel a real sense of urgency. I'm convinced we have to educate our way to a better economy. That's the only way we're going to get to there from here, but we have a chance to make a huge, huge difference, and I feel so lucky to be a part of this.

CONAN: What specific innovations do you hope to put into effect?

Sec. DUNCAN: There are a number of things I'll walk through maybe at each level. On the early-childhood side, I'm a big believer--this actually might be the best investment we can make. We have to give many more children access to early-childhood problems and not just access, but access to high-quality programs.

When our children, particularly from disadvantaged communities, have a great opportunity to go to a program at three years old and four years old and hit kindergarten ready to learn and ready to read,(Look at what they actually did in Chicago--privatized pre-K programs.) it makes a tremendous difference, and I really worry about how the best kindergarten teacher in the world can teach children, some of whom come to school reading fluently and some of whom don't know the front of the book from the bank [sic] of the book. The tremendous disparity. So the more we can work hard on the early-childhood side, the better our students are going to do long-term.

Secondly, on the K-to-12 piece, we're looking at a couple things. We have a baby-boomer generation moving towards retirement. We need to recruit as many as a million teachers over the next four to six years, presents some challenges, I think presents a huge opportunity. I just-- fundamentally great teachers, great principals make a huge difference in our students' lives.

How do we recruit the best and brightest? How do we retain them? How do we reward excellence? How do we shine a spotlight on that? How do we dramatically raise expectations? Our dropout rate as a country is unacceptably high, and we have to continue to push to reduce that as much as we can and drive up graduation rates.

And then finally on the higher-ed side, over a $30 billion investment to increase access and opportunities, the biggest investment in higher education since the GI Bill, and at a time when going to college has never been more important, it's never been more expensive, and as you well know, families have never been under more financial duress.

And so it's a huge chance to make sure children that are working are hard, and even if mom or dad is losing a job or taking a 30-percent pay cut, that they will still have a chance to go to college.

So we're pushing very, very hard at every single level. Some folks have said that agenda is too ambitious, and I wish we could just focus on one thing, but I think we absolutely have to focus on all three areas, and if we do it well, we do it comprehensively, and we stay the course, again, we can fundamentally change what's going on in education in our country.

CONAN: You mentioned that $100 billion. How's the distribution of that money going? How much has actually been spent?

Sec. DUNCAN: We're putting money out there as we speak. I want to give our career staff so much credit. We promised folks we would turn around applications in two weeks. We've done much better than that. We're approving the applications from states in about four days.

We've put approximately $20 billion out to 25 states (states that toe the line). We have a July 1st deadline for everyone to apply, and what we're able to do here is literally stave off an education catastrophe. We were worried about as many as 600,000 teaching jobs being lost. That would have been absolutely devastating.

CONAN: Because of cutbacks in state government.

Sec. DUNCAN: Exactly, and you know, if class size would have gone from 25 to 40, and if we would have laid off thousands of librarians and social workers and counselors, obviously we would have gone backwards, and at this point we can't afford to go backwards. We have to get dramatically better.

So I really think we are staving off an education catastrophe. With the stimulus money we're going to save a generation of children, but at the same time we're pushing a very strong reform agenda. We're saying, you know, investing in the status quo (This info from Wikipedia seems apt here: The original phrase from 14th-century diplomatic Latin was in statu quo res erant ante bellum, meaning "in the state in which things were before the war") isn't going to get us where we need to go. We need to use this fascinating intersection of crisis, of opportunity, to drive a very strong reform agenda.

CONAN: Our education reporter, Claudio Sanchez, tells us that little of that money is going anywhere because states and the federal government can't agree on how to distribute it.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, that's actually not quite right. Again, we've had 25 states apply. We've turned those applications around in four days, and we had $20 billion out the door.

CONAN: All right. Let me ask you. As you try to push these reforms through on a national level, is it fair to say that these are the same kinds of reforms that you brought to the schools in Chicago when you were running them there?

Sec. DUNCAN: They're a piece of the answer, and obviously I learned lots of lessons in Chicago, but you know, some are applicable at the national level and some aren't, and what we're trying to do - and maybe I'll take a minute walk through on the K-to-12 side, what we're talking about.

First of all, we want to have comprehensive data systems so we can really track children throughout their educational career. Secondly, we've been arguing very vigorously that we need to raise the bar. We need to raise standards and raise expectations and think about college-ready, career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards. (Does anybody know what this means--other than rhetoric to flim flam the public?

When Duncan says he's "learned from Chicago, does this mean that since he didn't attend the hearings about school closings and other "modifications," he has found time to read the 30 volumes of hearings filled with the voices of parents protesting the destruction of their neighborhood schools? If he needs them, those volumes sit in the Substance editorial office.)


Third, talent matters tremendously. Great teachers, great principals, as I said earlier, make a huge difference in our students' lives, and so thinking systemically about how we bring the best and brightest into education, how we retain them, how we reward them, how we learn from them, a big spotlight there.

And then finally, we're really going to challenge states and districts to think about how you turn around schools (Subscribe to Substance and learn that "turn around" is the weasel word of the Obama/Duncan regime. Parents, teachers and students were marching in Chicago streets in protest of "turn around" of their neighborhood school at the very moment Duncan was blathering on about his bait and switch maneuvers.) that have chronically underperformed, and we have so many extraordinary examples of schools beating the odds, where you have a small, a small percent-- we've argued - just take the bottom one percent of schools nationally, schools where, particularly at the high-school level, they become dropout factories where 50, 60, 70 percent of students are dropping out in any given year. Can we fundamentally think differently about that?

So we think that package of reforms, not any one in isolation, but collectively, will help us improve dramatically, and we're challenging states to use stimulus dollars to do this, and as you know, we also have unprecedented discretionary dollars, the $5 billion Race to the Top Fund (So we get teaching and learning as not just a race but a race up a mountain.), $5 billion in school improvement grants, $517 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund. We have unprecedented resources, north of $10 billion, to invest in states, in districts, in nonprofits that are committed to getting dramatically better, to both raising the bar nationally and to closing the achievement gap.

CONAN: Just the other day, the Supreme Court in South Carolina forced the governor there, Mark Sanford, to accept the stimulus money. He was reluctant to accept, and he wrote you a letter, and it's a long letter, but part of it is about his objections to deficit spending, which is one issue, but I wanted to read a portion of the letter that he addressed to you yesterday.

Second, I want to be clear that while I'm signing these documents under duress, I have no ability to promise that many of the mentioned conditions and guarantees will indeed be met. For example, this application requires the state to, quote, take actions to improve teacher effectiveness and comply with federal law to address inequities in the distribution of highly qualified teachers, between high and low-poverty schools, to establish a longitudinal data system and to comply with all the accountability, transparency and reporting requirements that apply to the stabilization program.

Our general assembly may or may not choose to meet those conditions at a later date. I, the governor writes, I have no way of knowing if they will and no way of compelling them to do so.

How would you answer the governor?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. DUNCAN: That's more than a mouthful. I'll just say the governor appears to be clearly very disconnected from the state legislature, from the state assembly, and I would argue he's been--appears to be disconnected from the children of his state, and the children in South Carolina in far too many places have been desperately under-served.

There are huge inequities in opportunities in that state, huge disparities in funding, and for him to say that the state doesn't need help, or the children don't deserve a better education in South Carolina, it's absolutely staggering to me. And I'm not someone who has a lot of, you know, tolerance for politics and for ideology. I just want to give every child a chance to fulfill their tremendous potential, and I could tell you, absolutely matter of fact, that far too many children in South Carolina have been poorly served by public education there, not due to lack of effort but because of lack of resources.

And so his push not to bring resources into the state didn't make sense. I have a lot of confidence in the general assembly there. We've developed a good partnership. They want it to get better. They're committed to helping those children improve, and we're going to continue to work together to dramatically improve the quality of education for the children of South Carolina. They deserve the best, and right now, honestly, they're not getting it.

CONAN: Are the kinds of results that you got in Chicago good enough for you to go to South Carolina and say to the governor, look, here, here's the proof.

Sec. DUNCAN: Oh, absolute - no, we all have a long way to go. I'm absolutely proud of the progress in Chicago, (emphasis added) but they're far from done there. You know, everyone has to continue to get better. But there are lots of proof points. Whether it's Chicago or, you know, rural communities or other big urban cities, you know, around the country, there are so many examples of success when children aren't given an opportunity, when there are tremendous disparities in funding, when you have buildings that are absolutely falling apart, facilities as they are in South Carolina, to say that we shouldn't invest in those children, shouldn't invest in those communities-- and ultimately to me this is the best investment the state could make in its own health and vitality long-term - to say we shouldn't do that just doesn't make sense to me.

CONAN: Our guest is the new secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Up next, your calls and emails. Parents, teachers, school administrators. What, if anything, has changed with the advent of the new administration? What's the biggest challenge you face in your school? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about American education and the new administration's plans to make it better. Arne Duncan is our guest, United States secretary of education. No secret after his days in Chicago - the secretary is a fan of charter schools, that he believes in early education, that teachers should be judged on student performance, among other things. We'll talk about all of that and how he plans to turn those visions into reality for your public schools.

If you're an educator, a school administrator, a parent, what if anything has changed? What's the biggest challenge you face? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, at npr.org/talkofthenation. And we'll begin with Jack, Jack calling us from Lynchburg, Virginia.

JACK (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, Jack, go ahead.

JACK: I'm a former teacher. In fact, at the present time I'm looking for another teaching job because I got down-sized from a public education job I was doing for a national social change group. and it's very difficult to locate jobs, even as a certified teacher, because of the archaic way school systems have of controlling who knows about their jobs and how you register for them.

I mean, you could spend your hours doing nothing but sitting at a computer, filling out forms and sending them to local school district after local school district. It's time we--with computers, there's no reason we couldn't have a national teacher database, where people could be registered and we'd find out about jobs.

Sec. DUNCAN: It's a great point, Jack, and first of all, I wish you the best of luck returning the teaching profession. I will tell you long term there is tremendous hope for you and others like you. It's really a fascinating time.

We have a baby boomer generation that's moving towards retirement, and over the next four to six years we anticipate as many as a million teachers retiring, and that presents some challenges. It presents some huge opportunities as well. So our ability to attract and recruit the best and brightest to come into teaching over the next few years will literally shape public education for the next 25 or 30. It's a generational change.

And so there are going to be-- one of the few downsides of a tough economy is more and more folks are looking at teaching, and there are jobs around the country that are available now. There are some places that are, you know, making some cutbacks, but again, with stimulus dollars we anticipate saving hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs.

To your question, to not have sort of a basic database and a data system, an HR Web site, doesn't make sense. Many, many school districts have that. This should not be pen and paper, and you should be able to not just look at the jobs online but to apply online. And then the big thing we're pushing for is to make sure the hiring's done not just at the central office but at the local school level.

This idea of mutual consent, so that Jack, you as a teacher could interview with some principals that have openings. For you to get that job, they'd need to want you to come to that school, and for you to take the job, you're going to need to want to go to that school. And the more, you know, principals and teachers are working together to make sure, at the local school level, that the right people are in the right jobs, we think that's very important.

So I'd absolutely encourage you to hang in there, and for you and others like you, there's an unprecedented opportunity to come into teaching over the next couple years and make a huge difference in the lives of our children. It's really a call to service.

JACK: Well, thank you, but one thing I would say is the local stimulus money does not appear to be trickling down in terms of, like, Wake County School District - you know, there's a job freeze.

Sec. DUNCAN: No, I understand. We're tracking this very, very closely. Again, we have about $20 billion out to half our nation's states, 25 states. Every state will apply to us by the end of this month, and we're going to track very closely this money getting out to school districts around the country. So I absolutely understand that concern.

CONAN: Has Virginia applied?

Sec. DUNCAN: I don't know off the top of my head whether Virginia is one of those 25.

CONAN: Okay. Jack, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

JACK: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Jim, and Jim's with us from Massillon in Ohio.

JIM (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JIM: My bona fides here: I left industry to begin teaching seventh-graders in 1976. I'm still teaching. I taught science, math, adult basic ed, and now I teach college physics and math. So I've sort of taught the spectrum.

My comment is that I don't believe there has ever been such a thing as a third- grader. I don't think there ever was a third or fourth or fifth-grader, and I think that the sea-change that we really need, the audacity, if you will, of change that we really need in schools is to get away from grade levels altogether and go to subject levels so that a nine or 10-year-old student might be in, say, Math E and Science, you know, F, and Reading J or something, if they were very proficient in language. And to me this is-- you know, this would take a lot of the stigma away from both ends, the students in so-called gifted programs versus the students in so-called special programs.

Yes, it requires some reorganization, but again, our schools have a big problem, and this to me would be the most efficacious role for what Secretary Duncan mentioned earlier, the comprehensive data acquisition that he mentioned. ;And if this doesn't happen, I foresee e-learning to pretty much take over and have teacher facilitators rather than the personally interactive classroom that we all grew up with, and I think that's the way charter schools will head in the future as well.

So I was wondering if Secretary Duncan might respond specifically to this idea of subject levels as opposed to age-based grade levels.

CONAN: You might want to stay away from those letter groupings, though, because I think I spent my life in Science F.(Cute. Would that National Propaganda Radio could spend some host time asking tough questions, insisting on specifics rather than "international benchmark" foo-foo. Notice to Mr. Conan: It is no longer politically correct to profess ignorance in math and science.)

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Secretary Duncan.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, Jim, thanks. Two things. First of all, thanks for the thoughtful question. Secondly, I'm a huge fan of alternative certification and getting folks like you coming out of industry and into teaching. I think it's a phenomenal talent pool, and we want to do a lot more of that.(Didn't he just acknowledge that lots of teachers are losing their jobs because of economic meltdown?) And I also want to pay math and science teachers more money. We have a national shortage of math and science teachers. We want to make sure our children are being taught by people who really know the content and are passionate about it. (span class="red">Like ex-military and people who've lost their jobs in Wall Street and newbie graduates from the Ivy League who want to build their resumes before law school?)

What you're really getting at, and I've thought more about it at the high- school level, and your thought of pulling down to the elementary is interesting. It's really this idea of seat time versus competency, and you know, should a 10th-grader be in 10th grade if they are taking all college-level classes, and how do we really know when students have mastered the content and helped them move to the next level?

Pulling that down to, you know, eight, nine and 10-year-olds is something I will continue to think about, but this idea of less focus on time and more focus on really mastering the material, and for some students that's going to happen very quickly, and we need to accelerate their learning.(Wrong. We don't need to accelerate anybody. We scrap the useless term 'mastery' and deepen children's understanding and appreciation of the world around them. And this might well include ungraded elementary schools. That he is unaware of this longstanding practice shows Duncan's ignorance of education. This concept wasn't in his script.) Other students are going to need additional help and additional time, and we want to really make sure we're meeting and addressing their needs as well. (And many of their huge needs are caused by poverty. This is not an excuse; it is a grim reality.)

So it's an interesting debate and we want to see--there's some very significant innovation going on in a few places around the country in this area, and we want to continue to foster that and learn and perhaps move more in this direction going forward. (span class="red">George Schmidt, editor of Substance, reminds us that whenever Arane talks of "significant innovation" or "desperate failure," ask him to name three specific examples, places, people. He can't do it. "Where? Arne." should be our theme song.

JIM: Okay, now, I do want to also say that since the host indicated you're a fan of charter schools, they have a rather poor record of achievement in northeastern Ohio, compared to most of the public schools, in terms of standardized testing. So I just-- I can't extrapolate from that to country-wide, but that's been the situation where I live.

Sec. DUNCAN: That's exactly right, Jim. I'm very familiar with the situation in Ohio. and just to correct Neal slightly, I'm a big fan of good charter schools, and let me tell you, we don't need more of anything. We need more good schools of any form or fashion.

Let me just take one quick second on the charter-school idea, and some of these things haven't happened there in Ohio, Jim, and I think that's been part of the challenge.

For charter schools to be successful, you need to have three things in place. First, you need to have a very high bar (Block that worn-out metaphor that was always lousy. Teachers and students as race horses? Pole vaulters?) You should only be taking the best of the best and allowing them to open new schools. That's a really sacred opportunity and obligation to educate our children, and this cannot be let 1,000 flowers bloom. It should be the best of the best. (If you didn't already looked at the best and brightest hot link above, do it now. ANY use of this term by corporate-politico hacks is behond hypocrisy.)

Once you've had that high bar and picked the best of the best, you need two things. You need to give these charter schools real autonomy. These are, by definition, innovators and social entrepreneurs (Yuck!) and educational entrepreneurs (@#*^%!) who have a different vision. So you need to give them room to move. And secondly, you have to tie that autonomy with real accountability. And I'm a big fan of performance contracts. And again, I'm a fan of charter schools, but I closed three of them for academic failure in Chicago. (Name those schools, Arne.)

And so where those three things happen--a high bar to entry, real autonomy coupled with real accountability--then you have success, and some of those conditions haven't been met in Ohio and other places. (Name three places, Arne.)

JIM: Thanks for allowing me to participate.

CONAN: Jim, thanks for the call. Here's an email from Josh. I was wondering what's being done to address the loss of art and music education.

Sec. DUNCAN: That's a great question, and part of what I worry about, we're going to try and build on what worked with No Child Left Behind and try and fix what didn't work.

One of the things I'm really struggling with, Neal, is I fear that the huge emphasis on testing, particularly in math and in reading and English, really led to a narrowing of the curriculum. So whether it's art or dance or drama or music or sports, these things that aren't tested, I think many districts and many schools walked away from them, and this narrowing of the curriculum more broadly I think really hurts children, and whether it's before school, whether it's during the school day, whether it's after school, I think we have to bring these things back and give our children these opportunities. {This is Arneian for "No comment.")

And there's all kinds of data. The reason to do it is for their own benefits in and of themselves, but there's all kinds of data that talk about the link between music and math. And so really, if you want to drive up math scores, you know, expose students to music. (You bet. That's why I go to concerts--to improve my scorable math proficiency.)

So I think as we go forward, we really want to find ways to broaden the curriculum, to give every child a chance to find their passion, to find their interest, and get away from what I've seen as a real narrowing of opportunities, way too much so over the past few years. (And how did this play out in Chicago, Arne?)
CONAN: Vicki's next, Vicki on the line from Cleveland.

VICKI (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. Mr. Duncan, you've really got a long road ahead of you. I was wondering: Are you going to work with any of Geoffrey Canada's ideas, you know, to reach out to new mothers to try and get their children a boost?

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah. You're talking about Geoffrey Canada's Baby College.

VICKY: Right.

Sec. DUNCAN: I'm a huge fan of...

CONAN: This is in New York and Harlem.

DUNCAN: Yeah. The Harlem Children's Zone. I'm a huge fan of Geoffrey Canada. Actually, what we're looking to do is to replicate what he has done with the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 areas, 20 communities around the country. So we absolutely want to take to scale what works in the Baby College. And a piece of it, as you know, he's got great schools. He's doing stuff for adults. It's really a comprehensive approach to creating a climate, an environment both in schools and in the surrounding community where children could be successful.

I think he's done a phenomenal job. We're going to, over the course of the next year, start to work with a set of communities to plan how to replicate and how to scale up what he's done so well in Harlem. And I think there's some real magic there that we want to see spread around the country.

CONAN: And Vicky, stay tuned. Geoffrey Canada's agreed to be our guest on the program some time soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Couple of weeks - soon. But we'll let you know when it's going to be coming up.

VICKY: Great that you're going to be using him. I think that's good. Okay.

CONAN: Part of our series called What Works, as a matter of fact. Here's an email that we have from Anacostia from Ellen(ph). Anacostia is not too far from here-- a neighborhood here in Washington, D.C. I taught in Washington, D.C. Anacostia High School in 1969. I could see the capital of the U.S. from my classroom window. I had 150 seniors, a textbook Chaucer to T.S. Eliot, and most of my students, all smart, were reading at the third grade level on average.

I described the school as a crime against humanity. I am still waiting for it to be fixed. This school is my litmus test. Let me know why anyone should send their child there.

Sec. DUNCAN: It's a great, great question. And I think she's exactly right. There are so many great examples of schools that work in the toughest communities like Anacostia around the country. But where we have schools where children cannot be successful, I think we, as educators, quite frankly, are at fault. We perpetuate poverty and we perpetuate social failure. [emphasis added.](This is an outrageous statement, and let's make it come back to bite him again and again.)

So at the top of the program, Neal, I talked about turning around low performance schools. That's exactly what I mean. Absolutely challenging the status quo, no more tinkering around the edges, no more incremental change, fundamentally doing something dramatically better. (By this he means kicking all teachers out of building and bringing in new blood, be it Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, retired generals, whatever. Out with the old, in with the new. school reconstitution is passe. The new term is turn around.)

You also have to look at the entire systems of schools. I would ask, how can you have a high school - and I know this happens, but how is it allowed to happen that you have a high school filled with children that read at third grade level? That's a broken system, not a broken school. And we have to address these challenges openly and honestly, and have the courage to do the right thing by children in those communities that have been historically desperately underserved. (The children in those communities are poor. Desperately poor. Try giving their parents a living wage and reading scores would skyrocket. Try fixing their teeth, getting the lead out of the buildings they live on, making sure they have an iron-fortified diet, etc. etc. There's lots of data on all this, Arne. Trouble is, it isn't produced by corporate-politico spinmeisters and their work-for-hire professors.)

CONAN: Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Stefanie with us. Stefanie with us from Cincinnati.

STEFANIE: Hi. I work in a public high school here in Cincinnati. And I also am a --I'm a college advisor. I'm also a literacy teacher trainer. But I'm wondering about the role of our teachers' unions in all of this. I see - I understand unions and their benefit, but I also see some problems that come up around unions in the school system.

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, that's a great question. I will tell you that I'm absolutely convinced that - particularly at the national level, we have more enlightened leadership at the top of both unions than we have ever had. (Because our union leaders, in insisting they need a place at Duncan's table, refuse to fight for worker rights and needs.) And for us to get as a country where we need to go educationally, we all have to stretch outside our comfort zones. I've been talking a lot about what we at the Department of Education are doing to fundamentally change the business that we're in and to move from being this big compliance-driven bureaucracy to really being the engine of innovation and skill and I hope it works and investment works. (Wouldn't you love to get Arne outside his comfort zone for 15 minutes? Maybe with a class of 32 7th graders? Half a dozen parents from one of those turn around schools in Chicago? Three teachers?)

So before I'm going to be critical of anyone else, I'm going to be very self-critical of myself and look in the mirror everyday and say, what can we do to get better? (Laugh out loud! Sometimes cliched metaphors do bite the speaker immediately. Arne's problem is he already looks in the mirror too much!) But just as we try and move outside our comfort zone and do a much better job of serving our nation's children, we're going to challenge everyone else, union, teachers, principals, parents, probably most importantly, students themselves to take their education seriously. There's a saying that I like to quote that the definition of insanity is when you continue to do same thing over and over again and expect different results.

STEFANIE: Yes.

Sec. DUNCAN: So we want to get fundamentally different results, if we want to break through and take advantage of this historic once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, all of us have to behave differently. All of us have to move outside our comfort zone. And very importantly, all of us have to interact differently with each other. I will tell you, at many levels, adult dysfunction has hurt children at many levels. And we as adults need to sort of put aside our petty differences, our, you know, our little, you know, pet peeves, whatever it might do and come together behind our children.

CONAN: Is merit pay one of those petty differences?

Sec. DUNCAN: I think that's one that I just firmly believe that in every other sector of our country, we reward excellence. (So the Wall Street crooks and the bankers deserved their hundreds of millions in bonus money?) And I think when we don't reward excellence in education, whether it's great teachers or great principals or great administrators, I think we do our children and our profession a grave disservice.

Now, it's very important that these kinds of programs be set up with teachers, not done to them. We put in place a merit-based plan in Chicago that 25 of the best teachers in Chicago - they set up the plan. And their ideas were much, much better than anything I would have begun to come up with by myself. And so, I think rewarding excellence is very important both at the teacher level but also at the school level. (Name those 25 teachers, Arne.)

In our program, we rewarded every adult, not just the teachers but the principal, but also the custodian, the security guards, the lunch room attendants. And where you see high performing schools around the country, it's every adult in that building contributing to that culture of high expectations and challenging students to be successful.

So, yes, I absolutely think we need to reward excellence. We need to work with teachers, with unions to establish those programs and think about how we build teams of people, not just individuals, teams of folks that come together to make a difference in our children's lives.

CONAN: Stefanie, thanks very much.

STEFANIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an idea proposed by Bruce in Louisville, Kentucky. He emailed us. You mentioned at the top of the show that the president and the first lady are examples of what can arise from good public education in this country. Have the president and the first lady thought of having fireside chats with high school freshmen and sophomores to deal with some of the problems faced by teenage boys and girls in the educational system, e.g. dropping out, early pregnancy, watch too much TV, et cetera?

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah. It's a great idea. And one of the - in the president's first State of the Union speech, the line that actually gave me the chills is when he talked about when students dropped out, they don't just give up on themselves, they give up on the country. It's a really profound statement. And again, this is a president who, you know, half this battle I think, Neal, is intellectual, the other half is sort of heart and passion. This is a president with tremendous passion for education.

So whether it's talking to teens, whether it's helping to lead a national campaign to recruit this next generation of a million great teachers, we're going to work very, very closely with the president, with the first lady, with the vice president, the vice president's wife, Jill Biden actually continues to teach at a community college today, which I think is amazing. We have leadership at the top who are living and breathing this. And we're going to do everything we can to help them drive the country where it needs to go. And they are passionate about this issue. We're lucky to have them at the top.

CONAN: Secretary Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education. We hope we can invite you back for progress reports from time to time. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Sec. DUNCAN: Thanks so much. I'd love to come back.

(One final note: Arne's use of the time-worn politico technique of staring his non-answer with "That's a great question.")

— Arne Duncan
Talk of the Nation
2009-06-09


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