With billions in stimulus funding, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has more power to create change in the nation's schools than any of his predecessors. Before taking his current post, Duncan was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. During his tenure there, reading and math scores set new records, and the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement courses more than tripled. Now he faces the challenge of prodding school districts around the country to improve student performance while local school budgets are tanking. U.S. News Senior Writer Kim Clark asked Duncan how leadership will help him reform American education in the midst of a recession. Listen to a podcast of this interview. Excerpts:
You're spending $5 billion on educational innovations at a time when states are slashing their budgets and firing teachers. How are you going to make sure that money isn't used just to maintain the status quo?
Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, has this great line: "Never waste a good crisis." We actually have two different crises here. One is educational, and the other, the toughest economy since the Depression. Sometimes the nexus of crisis and opportunity leads to the kind of dramatic reforms that we need, that frankly are more difficult to accomplish when times aren't so tough. So yes, it presents us with some real challenges. But what we are going to see is that this is a huge test of leadership. Some folks will be paralyzed by the challenges they are facing, and others will see this as a chance to fundamentally break through and challenge the status quo. And those are the type of leaders that we are going to invest in.
The great ideas always come locally, from great teachers and great principals. We want to take those good ideas to scale.
There's an argument that principals are the key to education reform: Better principals would hire better teachers and make teachers better. What are you doing to make principals better?
There are no high-performing schools without great principals. As a country we have absolutely underinvested in developing the next generation of great principals and really thinking about principal preparation and pipeline programs. We have to focus and put more resources behind principal leadership and development.
What qualities do you seek in principals that make them effective leaders? Principals today are CEOs. We have to treat them as such, and we have to train them as such. Principals have to be first and foremost instructional leaders. They have to be able to manage multimillion-dollar budgets. They have to be great in terms of HR. They have to work with the community. They have to be savvy with the media. We have to find those principals, and they are out there, those potential and future principals, and give them the range of skills and the range of training so that they can drive the kinds of dramatic change that we want.
The issue of merit pay for teachers is very controversial. A lot of people complain that basing merit pay on the scores of students just rewards teachers who happen to teach in rich districts. How can schools really measure student growth?
I am not a big believer in looking at absolute test scores. I think they tell you some things. There is a lot they don't tell you. I am a much bigger believer in looking at growth and gain and how much a student is improving each year. So, the more we can identify not just the teachers but the schools and the entire school districts that are accelerating student achievement and are accelerating student progress, those are the individuals and the teams and the schools and districts that we need to reward and shine a spotlight on, and most importantly learn from and replicate that success.
What techniques work to improve student performance in high school?
A couple things are of huge importance. First, making sure you have high expectations, that the work is very, very rigorous. We have to raise the bar. In far too many high schools, we've really dummied down expectations, and that actually increases student apathy. It doesn't increase success. It increases dropout rates.
Secondly, we have to build a culture in which every student, every teenager in high school, has an adult who they can go to in good times and bad who will be there for them. Having meaningful adult relationships is desperately important. Our high school students are looking for mentors.
Third, they want to understand what the relevance of their schoolwork to the world of work and the world of higher education. How we make those connections—from what we teach in the classroom to how the students understand how it will benefit them as they move on—is hugely important. When you see those things happen collectively and comprehensively, you see great outcomes for high school students.
We need to get the country into the business of turning around chronically underperforming schools. We are challenging everybody: states, and districts, and nonprofits, and unions and universities to think about turning around schools. We have some extraordinary examples of that around the country. But we don't begin to do it at scale or with the sense of urgency that we as a country need.
Some folks predict that you're going to have a hard time sticking to your guns about giving out only a few federal grants, and you'll have to give money to every single state to make friends. How you are going to be the leader who sticks to your guns on this?
Don't just listen to my words, watch my actions. I'm here for only one reason, and that is to help the country get dramatically better, and that is what we are going to do.