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Q & A: Arne Duncan's Big Mistake? 'I Should Have Done Waivers Earlier'

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's back-to-school bus tour took him through the heartland—Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania—and through the entire education spectrum, from preschool up through college.

I sat down with him on the bus somewhere between Champaign, Ill., and West Lafeyette, Ind. to ask about No Child Left Behind, waivers, School Improvement Grants, and what he sees as his biggest mistake.

What follows is a transcript that's been edited for clarity and brevity:

Accountability

My first question is on ESEA reauthorization and accountability. Obviously, that's the big issue going in to [the conference committee to combine the House- and Senate-passed versions] and you've been a real champion of accountability publicly and in talking to lawmakers. But folks in the civil rights community have really been critical of the way that the waivers have, in their view, really weakened accountability, through things like super subgroups and the accountability pause. Do you think they're right?

Accountability means different things to different folks. What we're asking for in the bill is not just data, which some would say is accountability, and not just transparency, which some would say is accountability, but actual action. And I think what we've been focused on the whole time with waivers is trying to transform low-performing schools. ... So what I'm interested in is not just data, not just transparency but taking action when there are massive achievement gaps.

But what folks are saying is that the policies you've put in place, things like supersubgroups, are masking the achievement gap. So you've arguably lowered the [accountability] bar from the original law.

Look at the options, look at what happened. Low-performing schools are being turned around. ... We put $5 billion into turning around low-performing schools and that's an impressive investment ... It all hasn't all gone perfectly, but we have high school [graduation] rates at all times highs. 

You mentioned the School Improvement Grant program, and yes, two thirds of the schools did improve some, but some of those schools were already on a trajectory to improve before they got money from the Education Department. And another third of schools slid backward. We also haven't seen the latest data from the SIG program. When are we going to see that data? And do you think the results so far support your argument when a third of schools actually got worse?

So these are all long-term plays, so one or two years ... doesn't make or break [the investment]. ... You would like every school to be improving but ... that's not realistic. Everywhere I go I see firsthand the difference it's making. For decades these schools were just left to flounder and these children to drown, the fact that folks are encouraged to try and do this really important work, I think that's a really huge deal that frankly the media hasn't focused on.

Waivers

You pulled Washington state's waiver because of teacher evaluation, but now you've allowed a lot more flexibility on teacher evaluation. And Texas, which has asked for waiver renewal, has made it clear it wants to go its own way on evaluation. Will you pull Texas' waiver too? And if not, how will you handle any pushback about inconsistency?

[Duncan said that question was premature, since the department is still working on Texas waiver.]

Priorities

What's the number one thing you want to get done before leaving office?

I'd love to see Congress [invest more] in early childhood education, fix No Child Left Behind. I would love to continue to see college become more affordable and accessible.

Do you have a number one?

I'd love to see high school graduation continue to rise. [Here Duncan noted that rates have risen not just overall, but for every subgroup of students over the past few years.] The challenge is how do we get better faster.

ESEA Reauthorization

You mentioned ESEA reauthorization. What's the latest this bill can pass and you can still implement it and regulate on it?

You're getting ahead of us. We don't know if there will be a bill.

Watching the debate on ESEA in both houses, we heard a lot of criticism of your agenda: teacher evaluation, common core, a lot of the things that you have pushed through as part of waivers, as part of Race to the Top. Why do you think those things have become so unpopular on Capitol Hill?

That's a Washington perspective. ... It's very important to actually talk to real teachers, that's why we do these bus tours to get out and see the impact of this stuff. ... You have to talk to real teachers, real students, that's why you have to travel and get outside of the sound bites.

But a lot of real students and real teachers support opting out of tests, a lot of states are scaling back their ambitions on evaluation and Common Core, so it does seem to me that there is opposition out in the field as well.

The vast majority of states have raised standards ... The implementation of that is hard and difficult and rocky, but the fact that the nation is saying it's unacceptable to have so many students unprepared for college [is powerful].

Both the ESEA bills would take aim at the Secretary's role. The House bill would even put restrictions on the number of people who can work at the department. It will really affect your successor more than you. Can you make your case why that role needs to be so strong?

It's just so silly. The goals here for me are always, what are we doing to increase access to high quality early learning? What are we doing to raise graduation rates? ... That's sort of the heart of this, and everything else is sort of noise and distraction.

[And on the Secretary's role? He referred me to a piece by Kevin Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, that was published in the Washington Post this month.]

Mistakes and Regrets

What's your biggest regret? If you could go back and redo something, what would it be?

Lots of regrets. I have not been able to get [a major investment in] early childhood education [to gain much traction] in Congress. There's still tremendous unmet need. ... Another regret is the whole issue of gun violence which has haunted me since I was a little boy. The fact that we failed, that we utterly failed, to get Congress to do anything...Japan, Europe, Australia, you just don't have the level of devastation and trauma and destroyed families. ... Third is just to get financial aid to undocumented students. That there are just these kids who've worked so hard and played by all the rules and gotten good grades and been community leaders, and we can't offer them federal financial aid ... It's heartbreaking. ... I feel like I failed.

What about your biggest mistake? Something that the department could have done better?

One huge mistake was we spent a year and a half two years trying to finish No Child Left Behind in 2009 and '10 and '11. We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours. And we knew the law was hurting children and hurting teachers. And we would have been crucified by Congress, saying we bypassed them if we hadn't spent that time, and so we thought we were doing the right thing. So at the end of the day, that was a big mistake. We failed. ... We let schools, we let kids suffer for another year. So, in hindsight, we should have done waivers earlier.

Done waivers earlier? Would you have done in the same way? Would they have looked the same?

I'm not sure that they would have looked identical, but I think [overall] waivers have gone pretty darn well. You guys don't cover it much. But we have 44 pretty happy customers across the political spectrum. To be more helpful to children and more supportive of teachers and schools, we should have known Congress was good at talking but not good at acting, and the fact is that we hurt kids and hurt teachers and wasted so much of our time. That was a big mistake.

Duncan had something to add here on something he wishes he'd handled differently: regulations stepping up oversight of for-profit colleges. It's been a protracted fight with Congress.

I didn't realize how hard the gainful employment stuff would be. It was totally the right fight, but I just underestimated the pushback ... and how many guys in Congress, both Republican and Democrat that their guys would buy off. We spent so much time, and that was painful and no fun. I love working on the early childhood stuff, that's fun. ...  No regrets, we just underestimated the amount of pushback and how much money talks in this town.

The scores coming got back from the Common Core tests in many states don't look great. Are you worried that this could fuel the pushback on the standards?

What we're getting finally for the first time in decades is the truth, and we're assessing more critical-thinking skills . ...The fact that the truth hasn't been told for so long, and the fact that kids and parents have actually been lied to is one of the most insidious things in education. No one is that focused on scores, and we know this is going to be rocky or bumpy, but folks are trying to do the right thing. Folks are doing stuff that they've never done before, teaching to higher standards and trying to assess in different ways. Through that change, if we can keep high school graduation rates going in the right direction, if we can keep reducing drop-out rates, that's a huge thing.

Believe it or not, Duncan and I had an even longer (and wonkier, deeper-in-the-weeds) discussion of waivers, No Child Left Behind and accountability more generally. We also talked about how the back-and-forth with states on their flexibility plans has improved over time, in his view, thanks in part to feedback from chiefs. And he praised the states' teacher-equity plans which he said included a lot of creative ideas that might have been politically dicey years ago, like paying teachers more to work in low-performing schools.

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