As part of our 10 Most Influential People in Family Life gallery, we spoke with Arne Duncan about his role as the United States Secretary of Education. Below, he addresses promising ideas and methods in K-6 education, reveals his favorite books to read with his kids, and explains why teachers can’t do it alone.
“I think that so often politicians talk the talk but don’t walk the walk,” Duncan says. "We should all be held accountable. But I think people need to be more active citizens, using the power of the voting booth to support education.”
Arne Duncan: I think No Child Left Behind is just fundamentally broken. It was very, very punitive; there were many ways to fail. It actually reduced standards. It leads to a narrowing of curriculum. We really hoped that Congress would fix NCLB, and go about it in a bipartisan way. Unfortunately, Congress is pretty dysfunctional these days. So while that didn’t happen, we’ll partner directly with states to provide relief and possibilities for NCLB. We’ve had 11 states apply in the first round and we’ve granted those states much greater flexibility.
If you’re willing to raise the bar and have high standards, and you’re ready to better support teachers and principals, we should give [states] a lot more autonomy and flexibility. Over time, the best ideas in education are never going to come from me and are never going to come from anybody else in Washington. They’re always going to come from the local level.
P&C: We’re approaching springtime, when most states administer standardized tests. How will standardized tests differ for the states that received waivers for No Child Left Behind or grant money from Race to the Top?
Duncan: First of all, we’ll stop folks from using the test scores exclusively. Tests tell you some things, but they sure don’t tell you everything. We’ll have states looking at a much broader range of metrics, like how kids are doing in art and music. There is much more to a well-rounded curriculum. I’m much more interested in growth and gain, with every child improving — whether it’s a gifted child, or a child in the middle, or a child with special needs. I want to know, are they improving this year? (Editors' Note: the new national standards are called Common Core.)
P&C: For the most part, our readers have children in elementary schools. When will those children start to see different tests?
Duncan: What you have is a consortium of 44 states working together on the next generation of assessment, moving way beyond the fill-in-the-bubble test and looking more at critical thinking skills. Those won’t come out until 2014.
P&C: If you could wave your Secretary of Education magic wand and fix one thing in education in the United States right now, what would it be?
Duncan: I think our biggest challenge is complacency and our acceptance of the status quo when we are no longer the world’s leader in education. We were first in the world in college graduation rates a generation ago, and today we’re sixteenth. We’re stagnating and other countries are out-investing us. People gasp — they have no idea [that we are sixteenth].
P&C: Do you think that the U.S. needs to put more money into education?
Duncan: Resources are part of it, but we have to educate our way to a better economy.
P&C: Have you seen any really great grassroots examples of cities or states reaching out to their governments and raising awareness of their needs?
Duncan: I’ve been to almost every state in the country, and I see the tremendous challenges we face. I’m actually extraordinarily hopeful because of the great work I see in communities across the country. Louisville, Kentucky has made a commitment to graduating 50,000 more young people from college. Boston has Parent University, in which parents themselves are taking a variety of courses at their children’s schools to enhance their own educations and find out how they can partner with their children’s teachers.
P&C: What are some of the most promising ideas and methods in K-6 education?
Duncan: Just this week here in [Washington] D.C., we had a City of the Future Competition, in which middle school students from around the country designed what cities would look like in the future. I love that kind of work. We had robotic competitions, where students build and design robots. Great teachers use hands-on active learning in class and on an extracurricular basis, integrating technology to help students build upon strengths and overcome weaknesses. Then I love when students get out in the community and understand the relevance of what they’re doing.
P&C: How can parents ensure their children thrive academically? Sometimes, you're just stuck with a bad school or a bad teacher.
Duncan: My wife and I have a fourth grader and a second grader in public schools here. We are doing everything we can to support great teachers and great principals, but they can’t do it by themselves. Parents have to be full and active partners. Every night, we try to read together as a family and stay in close communication with our children’s teachers. Parents can’t abdicate their responsibilities and just turn their child over to teachers and say, they’ll figure it out.
P&C: You say you try to read with your kids every night. Do you have any book recommendations?
Duncan: We’ve read all the Harry Potter stuff, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Charlotte’s Web. We just finished The Wind in the Willows. [Reading together] is a good time to unwind, and that quality time together is something we treasure. It’s something that is really important for us to try and build into our own family’s fabric.
P&C: On a personal level, can you tell us about a teacher you had who made a difference in your life?
Duncan: I was lucky; I went to an amazing school and had fantastic teachers all the way through. But the one that stood out in my mind was Ms. [Darlene] McCampbell. She was this amazingly creative [high school English] teacher. You would hand in something with blue ink, and it would come back with a lot more red ink, but she challenged us to speak up and find our voices both in class and in our written work.
She encouraged us to have vigorous debates, to sharpen our viewpoints, and to articulate why you believed something and defended it. But she also taught us to listen non-defensively if someone challenges you. That’s how I define a great teacher: someone who sees gifts in children that they don’t even know exist within themselves.
P&C: How can parents advocate for their children on a local level?
Duncan: There are lots of levels to be engaged at. Parents are under a lot of stress; sometimes they are working two or three jobs, or looking to find work. Every parent has to create the time and space to be supportive in the home, but for me, that is sort of the starting point. Volunteer in your child’s class or with an after-school program, or run for school board, or challenge political leaders at the local and state levels to put policies in place. Parents’ voices have to be heard.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Photo: P. Kevin Morley/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP Photo