What Does Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, Believe?

“Our country far too complacent. We can not have strong communities with an uneducated workforce,” said Arnie Duncan, Secretary of Education, in a recent speech to Parenting Magazines Mom Congress, April 2011.

My first encounter with Secretary of Education Duncan was an NPR Q and A with listeners. Folks were upset about the cuts in programs, very upset. I didn’t blame them.

During this same program, I learned that Duncan used to run the Chicago School District and that he had never been a teacher. While it was lovely that his mom was a teacher, I didn’t see how that qualified Duncan to become Secretary of Education for the entire United States.

So, I was very interested to hear from Duncan in person and see what I thought, a year after that NPR episode. He arrived in a flurry of excitement and protective service. I had a good seat and my computer ready to take notes. Here’s what I heard and my reactions.

I’d really love to hear what you think, too — please leave your thoughts by commenting below.

Duncan shared his four main priorities for educational policy changes.

1.Start in early childhood education

“I don’t think we need another study to tell us that in order to close the achievement gap, we need to make sure that our babies are ready to learn to read . . . We’re asking Congress for $250 million dollars to significantly expand access to early childhood education. Glorified babysitting doesn’t get us where we need to go.”

Yes, this is very important, if not the most important thing. I couldn’t agree more!

2. Massive effort of K – 12 reform

“Many states dumbed down standards but in the last 7 months, 42 states have raised standards. We’re raising the bar significantly.

We’re giving the bottom 5% of schools $4 million dollars in school improvement grants. We want to pay a great math and science teachers, they can use our resources to do that. If a student needs to stay after school 3 hours, use our resources to do that. We want to take the money excuse off the table.”

Okay, he’s not the first person I’ve heard wanting to “reform” education . . . more of the same rhetoric I’m afraid.

3. Parental engagement – double funding to get to $285 million dollars

I loved when Duncan said, “We’re not going to know what the best programs are; this can’t come from Washington, it’s to come from the local level.” He is seeking to double the funding for parental engagement saying that it’s currently underfunded. He says they want to “put a lot of money in places that are doing a greet job in engaging parents that improve student achievement . . . in meaningful and significant ways like higher graduation rates.”

Why reinvent the wheel? Good point. Let the programs that are working keep working.

But, he didn’t mention Race to the Top, a program that concerns me because it’s cutting funding for everyone and asking them to compete. I see what he is saying about making sure programs work but . . . there are a lot of amazing programs competing for this small amount of funding. I have doubts about this. Do you as well?

4. Fix the No Child Left Behind law

“We think it’s fundamentally broken . . . The law was very, very punitive; many ways to fail, there’s no reward for success. It’s very prescriptive, top down from Washington. It led to dumbing down of standards, the narrowing of the curriculum. We have to reverse all those things. We have to reward great principals, teachers, and district, states that are closing the achievement gap. We just haven’t taken to scale what works. . .  We want to shine a spotlight on success where folks are raising the bar. We want to give them much more flexibility – get Washington off their back. We want to give much more flexibility – hold people accountable.”

At this part of of the speech, I decide I like Duncan. I think No Child Left Behind was worthless from the beginning. It’s been devastating for children and schools.  I’m glad he recognizes that.

We have to reward excellence

” . . . great teachers, great schools, great districts, great principals, states that are raising the bar for all children and closing the achievement gap, we got to give them more resources . . . I’m wildly optimistic because we have so many places that are  beating the odds every single day. . . we haven’t taken it to scale.”

Have you been keeping up with the folks taking sides about this? Here’s what I think. It’s nice to be rewarded for a job well done – I loved the money for receiving Outstanding Teacher in Douglas County Public Schools. Would I still have done an outstanding job without the program? Of course. Did it motivate me? Not really but it made me feel happy, that someone recognized my hard work and skill.

We have to get back to the well-rounded curriculum

” . . . reading, math, science, social studies, foreign language,s history, drama, dance, physical education, art . . .  that give students self esteem and find their passion. Not just at the high school level. We’re asking for a billion dollars to invest in districts that want to do this.”

Sounds good, but that’s not enough money.

Schools Transformed to Community Centers

I think our schools should be community centers. Our schools should be open 12 – 14 hours, 6 days a week with a whole host of activities – GED, robotics ESL classes, yearbook, . . . Every single one of our schools has classrooms, almost all have computer labs, libraries, gyms, pools. They don’t belong to the principals, or to me, they belong to the community. . . . We need to be thinking differently about what a school building can be . . . We’re talking about attaching health care clinic to a number of schools.”

Creative – I like this idea.

Standardized Testing

“Where we are over-testing that’s a real problem but I think we should be evaluating students every year with formative assessments . . . we need to be figuring out what students are learning . . . It’s a fine line, we need to get to middle ground.

We’re going to keep funding the formula programs – Title 1, Title 2, Special Ed, ADEA, and also trying to put competitive money out there. What we’re looking for evidence that you are changing student outcomes. We’re fighting with Congress that we need to be in the business of rewarding excellence, that is not how politicians normally think, that’s a challenge for us.”

Again, not so sure about the competitive money. And, I’d really like to see high stakes testing gone from every grade. It’s a waste of money and time, among other things.

Q: Stem curriculum emphasis, where does that leave the arts?

A: “People love to pit them against each other. I just see that as false choices. It’s both and . . . ”

“. . . when we’re eliminating days out of the year, when states are eliminating or cutting back on early childhood, or cutting back on extra curricular, all those things hurt children, all those things hurt kids. That’s where you guys have to be out there pushing – not that any of these cuts are easy. There are smart ways to cut and dumb ways to cut. . .  How can any educator look themselves in the mirror and say we should go to school four days a week?

It’s a reflection of the lack of priorities, lack of values. Having you guys as advocates out there is very important. We are pushing these things but we are not going to solve the nations issues by ourselves.”

Q: Where in the budget is professional development for teachers?

A: That’s Title 2 money for us. We spend 3 billion dollars a year. That’s the money that I feel least good about the outcomes and lose the most sleep over, so we’re trying to radically rethink what we do. . . Very few teachers are feeling that impact. School budgets should be transparent. Find out what your state has, find out what your school has. If it’s not making a difference for teachers, that’s not money well spent. Particularly in tough budget times, we have to make every single dollar counts. As educators we are great at starting new things but not at stopping things . . . We have to be tough enough to stop doing and reinvest those dollars.

Hear, hear! Each reign of educator leaders wants to change everything and add new programs. (Even Duncan.) But, no one seems to stop the old programs, take things off the teachers’ plates.


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  1. Kim in AZ says

    How about cutting every penny from a ridiculously far away fairytale land called DC and giving it back to the states. Or, even better yet, letting the parents keep their own money and put their children in the best possible competing schools? People will move to the best states and the best districts.

    I, however, would never think to wait for this educational utopia. I have created one at home. Where I don’t have my babies learning to read at a ridiculous age. They read when they’re ready which might be 3 or 9. It absolutely doesn’t matter one bit. I spend less than $1000 to educate three boys who are beyond their ‘grade levels’ in every area and yet do formal lessons less than 10 hrs per week.

    Looking for a one-size-fits-all remedy won’t work. The best thing that parents can do is to do it themselves. It’s been Godsend for my boys and for our family. And no, we’re far from rich yet manage to eat organically, grass-fed meats and raw dairy while passing on a lot to make ends meet. It can be done. But not by a monolithic government.


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