Education secretary: 'No Child Left Behind' has led to a 'dumbing down'

President Obama placed special emphasis on education in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, mentioning it 10 times in all. With Congress set to renew the ‘No Child Left Behind’ law this year, The Hill’s Comment Editor Emmanuel Touhey sat down Thursday with Education Secretary Arne Duncan here in Washington, D.C. They discussed the approach Congress should take to overhauling the law, school vouchers, the DREAM Act and proposed rules governing for-profit colleges and universities. 

The Hill: ‘No Child Left Behind’ is up due for reauthorization this year. What exactly do you want to see fixed in the law?

Secretary Duncan: There are a number of things that I think are broken with the current law that working in a bipartisan way we can have common sense fixes. I think the law is too punitive, too prescriptive, it’s led to a dumbing down of standards, and it’s led to a narrowing of curriculum. We need to fix all of those things. We have to reward success, reward excellence, look at growth and gain, not just absolute test scores. We have to be much more flexible. When I ran the Chicago public schools, I almost had to sue this department for the right to tutor my children after school. It made no sense why I had to fight this department to help kids who wanted to learn after school, so we have to really get out of the way there. We have to continue to raise standards. We’ve seen 40 states provide leadership, and do that, and we need to provide a well-rounded curriculum, so reading and math are important, but science, social studies, dance, drama, art, music, foreign languages, physical education, all those things. We want the new law to be fair, to be focused to be flexible. And we think we can do these things working together this year. 

The Hill: You said recently that education reform is a chance for bipartisan governing. Education is something that both parties have rallied around, but in the current climate where there is a lot of talk about budget cuts, do you think that is possible?

Secretary Duncan: I do think it’s possible. It’s possible and we want to continue to invest in education, not in the status quo but in this new vision of reform in where we’re going. But I think what folks haven’t really understood is reauthorizing the law, that’s a legislative fix, that doesn’t cost a nickel. There is no price tag attached with that. So these are two separate conversations, and we need to have them both and we need to have them at the same time, but fixing the law, we need to do and we need to do now, and there’s no dollars attached to doing that.

The Hill: Are there any programs that you would like to see actually cut that you think are not necessary now?

Secretary Duncan: We’re making some very tough calls on our budget. We’re looking to consolidate 38 programs into 11. We’re trying to streamline, we’re trying to become much more efficient and focus scarce resources in those areas that are making the biggest difference. And we hope Congress will understand that while we’re looking for an increased investment in education, we’re trying to do business in a very tough way and make some tough choices ourselves. 

The Hill: Are you in favor of one single bill, or several small bills?

Secretary Duncan: I’m open to that conversation. What I’m interested in is getting to the right outcome, and whatever the best way to get to the finish line makes sense. I don’t think we need another thousand-page, thousand-pound bill. Maybe we do it in 100 pages, and do it in a way that folks can really understand it and be thoughtful on it. Whatever it takes to get there, what I want to get is to the right finish line. We did a national conference call Wednesday with Senator Harkin, Senator Enzi, Senator Alexander, they were very, very positive on this. And the goal is to get a bill to the President before the recess in August. And there are a lot of reasons why it may not happen, but if you ask me today, I’m actually very hopeful.

The Hill: As a practical matter, which do you think would be better, doing a number of small bills – John Kline in the House has talked about that possibility.

Secretary Duncan: Yeah he’s talked about that. I actually was in Minnesota with Congressman Kline on Friday and we talked about that. I talked about maybe the idea of maybe doing a smaller bill, he was interested in that, and I think that conversation will continue. So I don’t know if there’s an exact right answer on it. For me it’s been very clear about where we end up, and what’s the best way to get there.

The Hill: You did spend some time with him visiting some schools in Minnesota, what did you talk about in terms of education and moving forward? 

Secretary Duncan: We talked about a range of things. I just have so much respect for Chairman Kline. He’s thoughtful, he’s smart and he’s committed on this issue. We share fundamentally a need to fix the current law. He has about [200] schools in his district. Under the current law almost every single one is going to be labeled a failure in the coming year. And we went to some phenomenal schools, they’re not a failure by any stretch, any definition of what failure is. So schools that are being mislabeled, that are being stigmatized is very demoralizing to hard working teachers, very confusing to parents, and we need to work together to fix it and to do it now.

The Hill: Speaker Boehner has introduced some legislation regarding the school choice program here in the District. Are you in support of that legislation?

Secretary Duncan: I’m just really pleased that the Speaker’s really focused on education. I think the more we have these conversations that’s helpful. In the past as you know we’ve fought hard to keep children who are in those current programs, in them, not have them leave schools. We didn’t push for renewal of it. And what I’m really interested in is not just saving one or two or three children, but in turning around these chronically underperforming schools. And as you know, we’ve put $4 billion behind these efforts, these school improvement grants, and I don’t want to just save a handful of children and leave 500 in the school to drown. We want to fix the entire schools, turn them around, and that’s the focus of my efforts.

The Hill: Can you do both though? Allow his legislation, and Sen. Lieberman is also doing a similar bill, and your efforts side-by-side?

Secretary Duncan: Well I’m happy to have the conversation and continue to talk it through. Again I think the more all of us are focused on education that’s a good thing, and we’ll continue to talk with Speaker Boehner. As you know he was a real champion in the previous authorization of No Child Left Behind, worked very hard in a bipartisan way, and I think he’s going to be a crucial leader as we move forward this year. 

The Hill: The Cardinal Archbishop of Washington was his guest at the State of the Union, so this seems to be something that’s important to him, I just want to press you on it. Do you think that his piece of legislation should go forward?


Secretary Duncan: Well I haven’t read his piece of legislation, so I don’t know the specifics. I haven’t in the past supported the continuation of the voucher program. When I got here what I fought hard to do was to keep the current students in the program and what I’m most interested in is thinking about how we help every single student in this country be more successful.

The Hill: And new students maybe coming back into it, at the moment you’re not willing to go there?

Secretary Duncan: We hadn’t supported that in the past. Again my focus has been on these school improvement grants to significantly fix the schools here in D.C. As you also know D.C. is one of the places that won our Race to the Top grant, so we’re very heavily invested here in transforming the entire school system in D.C. Again not just saving one or two children.

The Hill: What do you say to the parents who have been invested in those programs themselves, that live in the District, that can’t because you don’t support that legislation as of now?

Secretary Duncan: Again, every family, every student that was in that program, we absolutely fought hard to keep them in that program.

The Hill: But new people that want to go in. 

Secretary Duncan: Right, well we want to, I’m repeating myself here now, fix the entire program to make the District a high performing District. 

The Hill: The DREAM Act almost made it in the last Congress, but didn’t. The president talked rather passionately about immigration in the State of the Union, you’ve also described it as personal to you. Can you elaborate on why the DREAM Act is personal to you?

Secretary Duncan: I will and I’ll also say how disappointed I am that it didn’t pass. I mean it was a big step in the right direction but ultimately this has to pass. When I ran Chicago’s public schools, I had about 400,000 students in my system. About a third of them, more than 100,000, were from the Hispanic community. Many of those were people who came to this country as 4- or 5- or 6-year-olds with their families, don’t have status. In my school system they worked extraordinarily hard. They got good grades, stayed in school, were often on the student council, were community leaders, played on sports teams, served in the neighborhood. And then when it was time for them to graduate, the dream of going to college wasn’t there for them. And that was just absolutely heartbreaking to me. That students who hadn’t committed any crimes, who had done nothing wrong, had done quite the opposite, quite the contrary, have played by all the rules, have been assets, for us to not take advantage of their skills and talents as a community and as a country, is absolutely backwards to me. And my wife and I set up a small, we don’t have much money, but we set up a small scholarship program to help some of these students. We had one young man who graduated from high school, was working 40 hours a week at a gas station trying to pay his tuition, the full freight at the University of Illinois-Chicago, it made no sense to me whatsoever. We should all work hard in college. I know I had a job in college, but you shouldn’t have to work 40 hours a week pumping gas to try and pay your tuition. And I just think as a country we’re leaving tremendous talent on the sidelines at a time when we need every smart, talented, innovator, entrepreneur, and to deny this community the chance to go to college is fundamentally backwards.

The Hill: So what happens now? 

Secretary Duncan: I’ll do whatever I can to help this come back. I don’t know timing, I don’t know what the next move is, but I was just deeply, deeply disappointed that it didn’t pass.

The Hill: Have you had any conversations with the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House, Lamar Smith or others on the Republican side of the aisle to moving this? 

Secretary Duncan: I haven’t had a conversation with him directly. I have had conversations with folks from both sides of the aisle, and I just think as a country we missed a real opportunity to strengthen our nation by helping more young people go to college.

The Hill: Final question for you is on the lawsuit from the Association for Private Sector Colleges. What’s your reaction?

Secretary Duncan: We’re happy to continue working with them, and I’ve said repeatedly that our ultimate goal in this country is to see many more young people graduate from college, the president has drawn a line in the sand, he’s said by 2020 we need to again lead the world in college graduation rates, and that’s really the north star of all of our work. We think the vast majority of for-profits do a very good job of helping people get back on their feet and retrain or retool and get skills to be competitive in the global marketplace today. We have unfortunately some bad actors that have taken advantage of folks and left them with tremendous debt and without the skills they need to be successful. And so as we work through all of this, we want to really draw that line in supporting those folks who are doing great work, but also letting those know that where they’re abusing this situation, that where they’re taking advantage of taxpayer money, that where they’re taking advantage of disadvantaged folks who are trying to better their lives, and leaving them in a worse position and not a better one, that we simply can’t tolerate that. 

The Hill: Any final words as we close on the possibility of cuts that are been talked about?

Secretary Duncan: These are very tough economic times, but there’s nothing more important than continuing to dramatically improve the condition of education. You saw in the State of the Union how passionate and how committed the president is on this issue. I don’t know if you’ve seen the president anytime ever talk so thoroughly and from the heart about education in a State of the Union Address. We want to work hard together and in a bipartisan, bicameral way, to improve the quality of education and to help our country get where we need to go.