Newly minted Education Secretary Arne Duncan has big plans for improving the nation's schools. His first order of business is drumming up support for a stimulus measure that includes an unprecedented $140 billion for education. The 44-year-old former leader of Chicago Public Schools says the money will modernize schools, help stave off teacher layoffs, and spur meaningful reforms. "The fact is that we are not just in an economic crisis; we are in an educational crisis," he says. "We have to educate ourselves to a better economy."
The subsequent item on his agenda will be fixing the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind law. His opinion of it: "I think we are lying to children and families when we tell children that they are meeting standards and, in fact, they are woefully unprepared to be successful in high school and have almost no chance of going to a good university and being successful."
But Duncan is also interested in other people's opinions. He's meeting with the heads of the two national teachers unions and, if and when the stimulus passes, he plans to travel the country to gather input from school officials and families about ways to improve the federal testing law. Duncan also says he is in the market for ideas to rename the law.
He discussed some of those plans in an interview with U.S. News. Below are highlights of that conversation.
On a federal stimulus for schools:
Duncan says a large chunk of the $140 billion destined for education will help states maintain and create jobs. "My concern is that hundreds of thousands of good teachers, not just bad teachers, are going to go, and that would be devastating," he says. "It is to no one's advantage if class size skyrockets or librarians get eliminated or school counselors disappear."
Duncan says the federal stimulus for schools would give him unprecedented leverage to innovate and improve schools. The stimulus provides for $15 billion in discretionary funds that he says he will give to states that agree to implement the following three pieces: expanding early childhood education, creating better student assessments, and improving teacher quality. "If we can bucket all these together and work with set of states with significant resources to make this happen, I think it's a game changer."
On fixing No Child Left Behind:
As the former leader of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan lived through what he called the unintended consequences of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. Duncan supports the focus on accountability for student achievement, but he wants to make the law less punitive. "I know there are schools that are beating the odds where students are getting better every year, and they are labeled failures, and that can be discouraging and demoralizing," he says.
Duncan also wants states to adopt academic standards that are more rigorous and aligned with those of other leading nations. "The idea of 50 states doing their own thing doesn't make sense," Duncan says, referring to the current patchwork of standards and tests. "I worry about the pressure because of NCLB to dummy those standards down."
Duncan says he is concerned about overtesting but he thinks states could solve the problem by developing better tests. He also wants to help them develop better data management systems that help teachers track individual student progress. "If you have great assessments and real-time data for teachers and parents that say these are [the student's] strengths and weaknesses, that's a real healthy thing," he says."
Asked if he will push for passage of a new version of NCLB, Duncan says that he first wants to go on a cross-country listening tour and that he hopes that Congress will reauthorize a new version of the law late in the year. "Having lived with this, I have a good sense of what makes sense and what doesn't," he says. "But I want to be clear that I want to get out there and learn from people. And I think ultimately we should rebrand [the law]."
Asked what he would call a new version of the law, Duncan answered, "Don't know yet. I'm open to ideas."
On higher education:
Duncan did not offer too many concrete ideas on higher ed. He says community colleges will play a vital role for an extraordinary number of adults who need training for new jobs in the health, technology, and green sectors. That's why he wants to make sure that more students are prepared for college and leave college with a degree.