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July 26, 2014

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SUNDAY CONVERSATION:

U.S. schools chief seeks big changes, has money to spend

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Tiffany Brown

We’re trying to fundamentally change the business we’re in, from a large institution that worries about audits and reports … to one that’s really the engine of innovation and best practices,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, on the kind of dramatic change he envisions for public education during an interview in the offices of the Las Vegas Sun.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan holds a press conference with Sen. Harry Reid and Congresswoman Dina Titus at Harley Harmon Elementary School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009. Launch slideshow »

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Arne Duncan, appointed by President Barack Obama to be his secretary of education, knows he better do something about the state of public schools.

His predecessors had less than $20 million in discretionary funding to help the nation’s struggling public schools. Duncan has $10 billion.

“Unprecedented resources need to come with unprecedented reform,” Duncan says. “We see this as an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference at a time of extraordinary need in public education.”

Before his appointment, Duncan served seven years as superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest district. Since January he’s visited schools in nearly 30 states, talking with thousands of educators, students and parents about the best way to improve access, opportunities and results.

During his visit to Las Vegas last week, he announced $3.5 billion for school improvement grants -- with $546 million to be awarded in the first year -- to push districts to turn around their worst-performing schools. Nevada is eligible to receive about $23 million for the program, provided that districts follow one of the approved “turnaround” blueprints, which include replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff and starting over with a new philosophy, turning over the school to an outside operator or closing the school outright and providing students with transfers to more successful schools.

Duncan sat down with the Las Vegas Sun for about an hour last week, shirt sleeves rolled up and talking at the speed of light about the challenges, opportunities and excitement of improving the level of public education in the United States, from kindergarten through college and including schools in Clark County. Here is the gist of the conversation.

With the nation’s economy still struggling to rebound, why is this the right time to target a massive overhaul of public education?

Crisis can be time for reform that’s harder to get done in easier times. We need to seize this moment and this chance. At every level — local, state, federal — this is really a test of leadership. The programs and initiatives we’re talking about are going to help kids graduate high school. It will help them prepare for jobs in high-tech, health care and the new green jobs. These are opportunities that will get families back on their feet and help the country as a whole.

The stakes have never been higher. In Chicago 30 years ago, you could drop out, get a job at the stockyard or the steel mill, and you would OK. Today, if you drop out, you’re condemned to a lifetime of poverty and failure. If we fail our children when it comes to their educations, they don’t have a chance.

We have 2,000 high schools across the country that account for 50 percent of our nation’s 2 million dropouts, and 75 percent of the African-American dropouts. Last year Nevada had 22,000 high school seniors — a class that, four years earlier as 9th graders, totaled 35,000 students. They didn’t all move out of state. They didn’t all leave early to join the NBA or get jobs at Microsoft. Those are devastating numbers.

How are circumstances different from previous attempts to overhaul public education over the decades?

Education secretaries under the previous administration had something like $18 million in discretionary funds. We’re looking at $10 billion of new money — $7 billion for K-12 and north of $3 billion for higher education. That has never happened in our lifetimes and may not happen again.

It’s personal for this president. He didn’t come from a wealthy family or privilege. He is who he is because he got a great education. We have a bipartisan Congress that’s been unbelievably supportive of what we’re doing, and it’s all about what’s right for kids. We’ve got great ideas, unprecedented discretionary spending and real leadership. I don’t know that all those things have existed at the same time. We’re in a different ballgame.

You’re offering $546 million to force districts to turn around their worst-performing schools. That’s a pretty big carrot.

The best schools in this country are among the best schools in the world. There are schools that aren’t among the best in the world but they’re getting better every year. And then we have a set of schools in the bottom that are disasters. We’ve lacked the courage to talk about that honestly. Those schools are perpetuating poverty and social failure. If we focused on the schools that are truly at the bottom and transformed them, in three or four years that bottom 1 percent would be eliminated — think about what that would mean for those kids’ chances.

Some of the program’s requirements, such as replacing staff, have teachers worried. How are you addressing that?

I’ve had long conversations with the leadership of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. What the teachers unions have asked is that these ideas and reforms happen with them, not to them, and that’s absolutely fair. There are examples of real innovation and ideas coming from local union leaders. Albert Shanker (former president of the AFT) is considered the godfather of charter schools.

Are we asking unions to move outside their comfort zone and do things differently? Absolutely. But we’re asking everybody to do that. It’s not just unions that have to change. We’re pushing parents harder than ever to step up. Students have to do more. Principal leadership is hugely important.

The program Teach for America has had strong success recruiting and training recent college graduates who commit to spending at least two years teaching students in at-risk, urban schools. What lessons do you take away from their model?

Without paying their recruits a dime more (than standard district salaries), Teach for America is getting the best of the best. One out of every nine Ivy League graduates is applying to Teach for America. They’ve added huge prestige to teaching, and that’s something we have to do as a country. In education, talent matters. How do we recruit the next generation of teachers and principals? How do we support them? How do we place great teachers and principals into historically underserved schools?

If you were principal of a school that needed to be turned around, would you want to start with 100 veteran teachers or 100 Teach for America recruits?

It’s a false choice (laughs). We need both. It’s not young and old. It’s about talent, heart and courage. Any good sports team has some veterans and rookies. I don’t think education is any different.

Because Nevada statutes don’t allow student test scores to be used in measuring a teacher’s job performance, the state appears to be ineligible to compete for $5 billion in so-called “Race to the Top” grants that will reward districts and schools that demonstrate innovation and commitment to reform. What are the state’s chances of getting a waiver?

I would encourage Nevada to put its best foot forward. There are going to be two sets of allocations for the Race to the Top. If Nevada doesn’t qualify in the first round, there might be another opportunity.

Why is it so important to use test scores to evaluate teachers? Is there a way to do it that’s fair to educators who work with students facing significant disadvantages?

I’m a big believer in looking at gains. There are sophisticated ways of doing this, and comparing similar student populations. But very few schools are tracking academic growth at the individual student level. Let’s say the kids in a class are three years behind. If they show 1.5 years of growth with one year’s instruction, that teacher’s a hero, doing unbelievable work. Unfortunately, very few places right now can tell you who those students and teachers are, and that’s a great tragedy.

We need to have transparency. If we have teachers and grade levels and schools moving the bar, reward that. Where schools are falling further and further behind with similar kids, we have to say that’s unacceptable. And we have to know it’s unacceptable because we have the hard data showing other schools are doing better with the same challenges.

The process is broken for every teacher at every ability level, and if it’s broken for each of them, it’s broken for every student, too. Good teachers don’t get recognized and rewarded. We don’t learn from them. Teachers in the middle don’t get the support they need. And teachers in the bottom who, frankly, shouldn’t be teaching, don’t get identified.

There are plenty of parents who blame their child’s poor performance on inferior instruction. How might schools, districts and states improve the support and training that teachers receive?

If you, the teacher, don’t know the content, you can’t teach it to the kids. This is where the need for comprehensive data systems comes into it. (The Education Department is awarding tens of millions of dollars in grants to help states develop such systems. Clark County has had its version in place since 2004.) We need to track student achievement back to the teachers, and then track the teachers back to their colleges of education, to see who is doing the best job at preparing their graduates to be successful. Some states are already doing pretty well at this. Louisiana has found that at certain universities, graduates of their education schools are doing a phenomenal job of teaching reading, but their success is math wasn’t as strong. When you have that data in front of you, that’s when you can start really driving change.

Many educators complain that President George W. Bush’s education reform initiative, No Child Left Behind, has only made their jobs more difficult and that there hasn’t been enough help at the federal level in managing the accompanying red tape. Would you agree?

We have been historically a compliance-driven bureaucracy. We’re trying to fundamentally change the business we’re in, from a large institution that worries about audits and reports and lots of paperwork, to one that’s really the engine of innovation and best practices. As hard as we’re pushing everyone in education, I promise you we’re pushing ourselves even harder. We all have to think differently, we all have to work together.

The challenges can seem overwhelming. Where is the starting point?

We have more good examples of great teachers, great schools and great districts than at any time in our country’s history. Every single day they’re beating the odds. We know what works — we have living, breathing examples. What we haven’t done in this country is taken those to scale. We need to use new resources to build capacity at the schools that are working and turn around the ones that aren’t.

We talk a lot about the achievement gap. I try to also think about the opportunity gap. In schools where there has been chronic underperformance, change around the margins simply isn’t going to get us where we need to be.

Turning around schools can be a lengthy endeavor. Are there smaller steps that might yield benefits?

Schools being open six hours per day, five days per week, nine months per year is an outdated model. It’s based on an agrarian calendar. Our kids aren’t working in the fields anymore. Kids in India and China are spending 25 to 30 percent more time in school than our kids are. The best use I can think of for the additional Title I money that’s been allocated (for schools that serve large populations of students from low-income households) is buying more instructional time. Our kids are smart, talented and committed to learning. I just want to level the playing field. If one sports team practices three times per week and another team practices five days per week, which team do you think is going to win most of the time?

Schools, districts and states are facing significant budget cuts. How do they pay for the kind of wraparound programs and services you are advocating?

This is really about schools becoming the heart of the community, and that’s going to require partners in the public and private sectors. Every poor neighborhood has a school. Every school has classrooms, libraries and gyms. Some have computer labs and pools.

These are phenomenal assets that belong to the whole community, so let’s open the doors and create access. If the school day runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., let the nonprofits and the Boys & Girls Club or the YMCA take over until 9 p.m.

The old model is based on moms being home with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at 1:30 p.m. That is not the reality anymore, but we haven’t adjusted.

The Clark County School District is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in career and technical education academies, which combine rigorous academics with specialized classes in a wide range of fields. How does that fit in with your vision?

Career and technical education is another thing we did pretty well in the 1960s, but we lost our way. The programs offer huge benefits to students, to families and ultimately, to our economy. Asking whether high schools should prepare kids for career or college is a false debate. A lot of young people work a few years and go back to school. We’re not doing a good enough job preparing kids for both. Let’s give them options, and opportunities to find out what their passions are and what they love to do.

The stimulus plan also included unprecedented funding for community college systems. Is this their chance to break out from the shadow of four-year universities?

This is their day in the sun. They are a hugely undervalued resource that can do some great things. There’s huge demand. What we need to do is make sure they’re ready to handle that demand and prepare people for jobs. The best community college systems are the ones that have good collaboration with business and industry, and are updating the curriculum to make sure students are being prepared for the jobs that are out there.

There’s been considerable debate over whether the best way to address the dropout crisis is to reach children in the younger grades rather than reaching out to at-risk students in high school. Where do you stand?

You’ve got to do it all. It’s overly simplistic to think otherwise. You need great early childhood programs, but that has to be followed with great elementary, middle and high schools. The earlier you get to children, the better success you’re going to have, but if you send them off to a horrendous primary school, all those gains disappear.

At the same time, trying to tackle dropouts in their junior and senior years is too late — they’re already gone. In Chicago we put huge amounts of resources into helping students make that transition from middle to high school. We brought them back a month early to start classes. If they have a successful freshman year, most of them stay.

Some people believe there’s too much celebrating that goes on when students finish eighth grade and that it undercuts their motivation to complete high school. Do you agree?

We ought to celebrate success. Good things come in threes — so let’s have eighth grade, 12th grade and college graduation ceremonies.

What about incentive programs that reward students with car raffles and big-ticket prizes for perfect attendance or finishing an important exam? Should students have to be bribed to work hard?

Give them a Hummer (laughs). We’re not advocating putting any stimulus dollars toward these kinds of initiatives, but if some local businesses want to step up and donate, I’m all for it. (In Chicago) we gave away family vacations, cars and tickets to the ball games. We don’t do enough to highlight effort among teachers, students and schools. We have kids dealing with unimaginable things in their homes and their communities and they still come to school every day for 12 years in a row. Don’t you think they’ll make incredible employees someday?

No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization. How would you rate the law’s effectiveness after seven years?

The upside is that we really do focus on every child, and we’re collecting valuable data that in a lot of places didn’t previously exist. We’re no longer sweeping those tough conversations under the rug. But there were problems, including being seriously underfunded.

What changes are you recommending?

The law is a blunt instrument. It labeled lots of schools failures that weren’t failures, and in actuality were improving.

With No Child Left Behind we have 50 sets of standards. The goal posts — what each school has to achieve — are different in every state. But the law also set very prescriptive measures on how those goals could be met. From a management perspective that’s fundamentally wrong. I want us to focus on a high bar, and let states decide independently how they get there.

We’re challenging districts and states to talk about common standards that demonstrate our students are ready for college, career and to compete internationally.

In many states, the standards have been dumbed down so far that schools are lying to children. When we tell a family their child is meeting the standards, we’re telling them their child is on track to be successful. In many cases, that’s just not true.

Much of the general public believes we still lead the world in public education. In fact, we last led the world in education about 25 years ago. It’s not that we’ve dropped — we’ve stagnated; the rest of the world has improved and passed us by.

One criticism of No Child Left Behind is that it penalizes schools for low performance without addressing family factors that play a significant role in whether a student does well in school. Are you considering adding a parental accountability component?

We don’t have an answer yet on how to hold parents more accountable. This is absolutely something we have to think about. For us to get dramatically different results we all have to do things differently, and that includes parents. That means turning off the TV at night and reading to your kids, creating a quiet space in the house for homework, it means feeding your kids nutritious foods.

Schools need to help teach parents who don’t have those skills how to do that. You need to communicate with your kids’ teachers and volunteer when you can. We are looking at ways to get parents more involved, especially pushing more fathers to step up and be part of their kids’ lives.

But in many schools the culture is to actively discourage parental involvement — drop your kids at the door, pick them up at the end of the day and leave us alone to do our thing. That has to change.

We had schools in Chicago in some of our toughest areas where the parents came to school every day not for their children, but for themselves. We offered job services, resume writing workshops, English as a second language. Many of our parents had failure experiences themselves in school, and needed to have someone knock on their door and reach out. It’s not easy for schools, maybe it’s harder than it should be. But there’s a huge amount of interest when we work hard and go that extra mile. It’s easy to blame parents. But schools really need to take a hard look in the mirror and see if they’re really building a campus culture that welcomes parents.

What do you say to people who argue that schools shouldn’t be spending time and money on students whose families might have entered the country illegally?

I reject that. These are all our kids, in our country. We want them to be successful. The best thing we can do is to educate them.

The 2009-10 academic year started this week. What are your hopes for this year’s students?

First of all, I want them all to graduate (laughs). Whatever the number of kindergarten students today in Clark County, I want that many to graduate as successful 12th graders. I want every student to be able to communicate, to work independently and be lifelong learners. They should have a chance to not just do the basics, but to have exposure to music, art, athletics, chess and debate. I want public school children to have the kinds of opportunities that private school children have always had.

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