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Arne Duncan: Need To Address The Opportunity Gap


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today we want to bring you into one of the most important conversations we are having in this country. It's about our schools. Welcome to our Twitter Education Forum. Today we are broadcasting from member station WLRN in Miami, but the conversation has actually already started.

For the past month on Twitter, using the hashtag npredchat, we've already been hearing from our radio audience and from our digital audience.

NANCY EVANS: Technology and education is so important, but the most innovative tool is the child's mind. How do we help students to integrate all that they learn?

MARTIN: That is scientist and educator Nancy Evans and she is reading just one of the hundreds of tweets that we have already received from around the country. And in fact, many of the issues you raised have helped shaped today's Twitter Education Forum. We're going to pose as many of these questions as we can to our guests so please continue to submit your comments using hashtag npredchat.

And we are going to begin today with two newsmaker interviews. In a few minutes we'll hear from the former education secretary Margaret Spellings who served in the administration of George W. Bush, but first current Secretary of Education appointed by President Barack Obama, Arne Duncan. Welcome back to the program, Mr. Secretary. Thanks for joining us.

ARNE DUNCAN: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

MARTIN: The question we asked to get our listeners started in the conversation was: Are America's schools broken? So I'm going to ask you that question.

DUNCAN: We have many schools that are extraordinarily high performing, so I think that's an overly harsh statement. Having said that, Michel, we have a long way to go.

And when I look at a 25 percent dropout rate, a million children leaving our schools for our streets each year, when I look at the percentage of high school graduates that are having to take remedial classes in college, they're not really prepared, and then when I ultimately look at a college graduation rate where the United States is 14th in the world, used to be number one a generation ago, we have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

MARTIN: Now, we didn't just hear complaints from listeners, as you might imagine. We heard a lot of people who had some specific and constructive ideas for what they think the solutions are. I just want to play a tweet that we got from Rowena Lee. She's a recent college graduate in Grand Island, Nebraska. Here it is.

ROWENA LEE: Money needs to be redirected to education. There are too many unqualified teachers. And unfortunately, the highly educated often won't go into teaching because they can work in much higher paying industries.

MARTIN: True or not, Mr. Secretary? Should it be a priority of this administration or the next to make teaching a more attractive career option?

DUNCAN: Absolutely. First of all, education in the best investment we can make. Others see education as an expense and something that we can cut. That makes no sense to me whatsoever. But we absolutely have to elevate and strengthen the teaching profession. We have launched what we call the Respect Project, which is actually being led by classroom teachers around the country.

Our teacher ambassador fellows have done hundreds of roundtables and we want to attract and retain the next generation of talent. How we recruit that talent, how we keep that talent in the profession for the long haul, is going to shape public education for the next 30 years.

MARTIN: You know, many people of course appreciate the administration's focus on education, but you do have your critics as, of course, you know. And that criticism is very similar to the criticism that people had of the prior administration's education initiative. Yours is called Race to the Top. Theirs was called No Child Left Behind.

But the core of the criticism of both is that there's just too much emphasis on testing and that it puts too much pressure on teachers and it doesn't account for other factors in others kids', you know, lives like poverty, for example. I mean, how do you respond to that?

DUNCAN: Well, first of all, no one should have to teach the test. Where we differ tremendously from No Child Left Behind is, I agree, I think there was far too much emphasis on one test and getting students to a proficiency cut score that in many states actually got dummied down.

So I think No Child Left Behind is fundamentally broken. We wanted Congress to fix it. Unfortunately, Congress has been pretty broken. So we've been able to provide flexibility - provide waivers to about 33 states with another 10 or so that we're looking at to allow them to build much more thoughtful accountability systems.

Looking at growth and gain, rather than an absolute test score, but looking, Michel, our high school graduation rates going up, our dropout rates going down. And so, through the waiver process you're seeing, I think, a huge move away from a focus just on a test score to long-term indicators.

And I always say if you have the best third grade test scores in the world, but you have a 50 percent dropout rate, you're not changing your students' lives.

MARTIN: Last week you tweeted this: If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we have to get serious about closing the opportunity gap, and as a country, we're not even close. Now, that was re-tweeted more than 200 times, so obviously that's something that a lot of people are thinking about. But what does that actually mean? And what does it - what is the single most important thing you think the country needs to do to get there?

DUNCAN: Well, there's a lot there and there aren't simple answers for this. These are complex questions and issues. But, Michel, that's something I believe passionately. And if we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we have to stop admiring the problem and we have to close what I call the opportunity gap.

So my question is, Michel, in how many communities - be it inner city, urban, or rural or remote - are we systemically identifying the hardest-working, the most committed teachers and principals, and putting them in the schools where the children need the most support?

In how many of those communities are we making sure that children have access to a great school 10, 11, 12 hours a day six, seven days a week, with a rich array of after school programming, programs for parents, GED, ESL, family literacy nights? What are we doing around technology to make sure those children in those communities have access to learning 24/7?

And, quite frankly, Michel, I don't think we've been serious enough as a country in closing the opportunity gap. And I'm going to continue to push very, very hard to do that.

MARTIN: Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education, and he was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Thanks again, Mr. Secretary.

DUNCAN: Thanks. Take care, now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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