Education Secretary Arne Duncan is confident he'll have bipartisan support for reformed NCLB act this year

April 13, 2011

CityRoom and Eight-Forty Eight

(File/Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan returned to Chicago on Wednesday to support increased funding for early childhood education. While in town, Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago's Public Schools, spoke with Eight Forty-Eight host Alison Cuddy about the reform and reauthorizaiton of the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as standardized testing and the future of Chicago's schools under Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:

What's your vision for your hometown?  We are still struggling with school reform in this city.  Where do you think we should be headed? 

Absolutely, Chicago like probably every other big city - New York and LA and everyone else - has a long way to go, but I’m really hopeful about where Chicago is going to go. I’ve worked obviously over the past two years with Rahm Emanuel, who is the upcoming mayor. He has a huge passion for this work.  He is going to spend a tremendous amount of his time and political capital on improving the quality of education. I think he is going to build a great management team and, you know, Chicago is not unique in having some real challenges and having a long way to go, but I think there is a real huge opportunity over the next couple of years for Chicago to go to the next level and, again, I’m going to do whatever I can to support the local leadership once that team's in place.

In terms of what the next level is for Chicago, do you envision a system largely driven by charter schools?

That's never the magic answer. For me the goal is: How do you significantly reduce the dropout rate? How do you increase the graduation rate? How do you make sure your high school graduates are college and career-ready?  Great charter schools are part of the solution, and bad charter schools are part of the problem. Great traditional schools are part of the solution, bad traditional schools are part of the problem. And how do you improve great teachers and principals? How do you better engage parents? How do you create school as a community centers with the wrap-around services they need? And we just need more good schools in Chicago, and we need outcomes that continue to help students have an opportunity to fulfill their dreams.

One of the ways we have measured success in schools is testing.  And President Obama said recently that testing and too much teaching-to-the-test is punitive.  It makes school boring for students.  He'd like a scenario in which tests are given every few years to establish a baseline of student performance.  That's not the plan under your educational model.  What do you think about his comments?

No, the President and I are absolutely consistent: where you have folks that are being overtested and when people are teaching to the test, that’s not helpful to students at all. Having a well-rounded curriculum is something that we want to invest a billion dollars in - not just reading and math, but in science, social studies and P.E and art and music and financial literacy and foreign languages and environmental literacy.  We want a well-rounded curriculum.  Many schools have walked away from that, in part, due to No Child Left Behind.  We want to fix that law, and we want to do it in a bipartisan way and we want to do it before the students go back to school this Fall.

We have done recent reporting that suggests many classrooms are really driven by testing at this point.  So, how do you decide where over-testing is occurring?  And how do you change that?

Well, we do have districts where there [are] state tests, local tests, district tests - and when that kind of thing happens, that's when folks are getting carried away. For me, the point is not just an annual assessment, but formative, ongoing assessment - no stakes at all, but really giving teachers, students and parents real, concrete feedback to what they are learning, where they are struggling, [and] helping teachers differentiate instructions. [When] I look at high-performing schools, they are almost routinely using that kind of information to help students who are having a hard time either during a school day or after school or at home.  And I think being much more thoughtful [with] this stuff is absolutely the way to go.

How is ongoing 'formative assessment' different from testing?

There are no stakes involved in it.  And so there's [nothing] punitive...it's simply giving information to teachers as to what their are students learning so they have a real concrete sense on an ongoing basis [of] not what they are teaching, but [of] what the student is actually absorbing, what are they learning.

As you mentioned earlier, we're overdue for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.  In terms of reforms, what do you think should stay? And what do you think should go?

I think that aggregating data and looking at achievement gaps is hugely importantI think the country used to try and sweep those difficult conversations under the rug, and we need to have those tough conversations.  But I think so much of the current law is broken.  It's far too punitive. There are about 50 ways to fail and no rewards for success. The only reward for success is that you're not labeled a failure. That makes no sense whatsoever. The law is very, very prescriptive, very top-down from Washington. That’s crazy to me. 

I always tell the story that when I ran Chicago Public Schools I almost had to sue the Department of Education to tutor our children in Chicago afterschool.  That's crazy.  Why should I have to fight the Department of Education to do that? 

The law led to a dumbing-down of standards around the country, and it led to the narrowing of the curriculum that you and I talked about.  That's by far the biggest complaint I’ve heard as I've traveled throughout the country from students and teacher and parents. So we have to fix all of those things.  We have to make sure that we are rewarding great teachers, great schools, great districts, [and] great states that are raising the bar and closing the achievement gap. We have to shine a huge spotlight on success.  We have to provide much more flexibility, not trying to trying micromanage things. 

My grand bargain is that you hold people accountable to a high bar, but give them lots of room to create and innovate - and to let local educators make a difference in lives. So again, yes, reading and math are fundamental and foundational, but science, social studies, history, foreign language, dance, drama, art, music, physical education has to be the norm - and not just to high school students, but for young children.  So, we think we can fix this law and do it in a common sense way and work in a bipartisan manner to get it done.

How confident are you that you will have bipartisan support for (the) reforms you just outlined?

I’m hopeful. From Day 1, we have tried to work in an absolutely bipartisan way and I think the country feels a sense of urgency. We just have many other countries that are out-educating us. We have a 25 percent drop-out rate in this country. That’s a million young people leaving our schools for our streets. That’s just not sustainable. And we have about two-thousand high schools that are producing half of our nation's drop-outs. They are producing 75% of our drop-outs from the minority community - our African Americans, Latinos, young boys and girls.  We can't have a strong country if that continues to be the norm, so I think everyone shares my sense of urgency.  We are continuing to work together and to put in place common sense solutions: rewarding excellence, more flexibility, trying to make sure many more students graduate from high school and that they graduate college and career-ready. These things don’t have a political tone to them whatsoever.  It's the right thing to do for our children, and the right thing to do for our country.