Back-to-School Special: Arne Duncan Goes Off Script

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Kris Connor / Getty Images

Arne Duncan speaks during the 2011 AAPD Awards Gala at the Ronald Reagan Building on March 15, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

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How durable are the Administration's initiatives? If the President is not reelected, will they survive?

What we've tried to do very strategically is empower local leaders to be creative. When you see 45 states raise standards, that's not because of a mandate from the federal government. That's because governors and state education chiefs finally were honest that they've been lying to children and families for a long time.

You've seen more change on education in the past two and a half years than you have probably in the past two or three decades. We have a long way to go and we have to keep pushing, but for all the challenges, I'm extraordinarily optimistic about where we're going because of the courage and because of the leadership and the creativity, not here in Washington but out around the country.

Using stimulus money, you've been getting states to compete for grant money through the Race To The Top reform initiative. How's it going? What are you excited about? Worried about?

The amount of change we've seen around the country is breathtaking. We've seen as much change if not more in states that did not receive funding as in states that did. So as much money as it was, in the end it wasn't about the money. It was about creating the space and the opportunity for folks to do what they knew was the right thing for children — and for whatever reason historically just didn't get done.

The hard work is obviously still ahead of us, and we're going to challenge ourselves to be a better partner to states.

What about states like Delaware that are pushing back timelines on Race to the Top goals?

You have to watch that carefully, but these systems have been broken for 30, 40, 50 years, and what I'm most interested in is fixing that. If it takes another three months or six months, I'm open to that. But I'm not open to it taking forever.

So would you pull Race to the Top money from a state?

Absolutely. No question. But as long as folks are working hard in good faith, I'm good with that.

How should Americans think about teachers' unions and ways they're an asset or a hindrance?

What I think people don't understand is that when you look this as a monolith, you really miss the complexities. There are places doing amazing work, and there are other places that need to push harder. But I'm not just asking the unions. I'm asking management. Superintendents in too many places have been part of the problem, and school boards in too many places have been part of the problem. Does student achievement have to be at the heart of collective bargaining in union leaders' minds? Absolutely. But it also has to be at the heart of school boards' and superintendents' minds. The lack of courage and leadership on the management side has been as big a problem, if not bigger. The average length of [an urban] superintendent is two and a half years. I was in Chicago for seven and a half years and was the longest serving big city superintendent in the country. That's not a problem with the union. That's a problem with school boards that don't know how to attract and retain talent. We have to challenge everyone and get everyone to move.

You're a former college athlete. College sports scandals are in the news lately, Ohio State and now Miami. How big of a problem do we have in college athletics?

You have to have consequences. And not only historically has there been no consequence for bad behavior, there has actually been lots of incentives for bad behavior. If you do the wrong thing, you hurt kids but you win more games and leave a program in ruins as you catapult to the next job and get a salary increase.

The NCAA recently passed our recommendation — it's frankly a low bar — that if you're not graduating half your players, you can't compete in the [post-season college basketball] tournament. Everyone goes to a Division I school because they want to compete in the tournament. If you take that away, that opportunity and that revenue, it goes a long way to checking some of this.

In college sports, the only people who aren't making money are the athletes. Should student athletes be paid?

I don't think so. They are getting a $20-, $30-, $40-, $50,000 scholarship to get a great education. Where they are taking advantage of that opportunity, where they have adults who actually care about helping them do that, then that education for the rest of their lives is worth millions of dollars. So I don't think they need to be paid. They need to be getting their college degree. And they need to have adults around them for whom that's important.

There is a raging debate in education about the role that the substantial levels of child poverty in this country play in education. How should Americans think about that?

I come from Chicago where 85% of our students live below the poverty line. If children can't see the blackboard, they're going to have a hard time learning so we have to get them eyeglasses. We used to get literally tens of thousands of kids eyeglasses every year. If children aren't fed and are hungry, they're going to have a hard time concentrating, so we fed tens of thousands of kids three meals a day. We had a couple of thousand kids we were particularly worried about so very quietly we would send them home Friday afternoons with a backpack full of food because we worried about them not eating over the weekend.

Should schools have to do that? No, in a perfect world they wouldn't have to do that. But we have to deal with reality and whether it's eyeglasses, food, or physical and emotional safety, we have to address all of those things. And schools can't do it alone. Non-profits, faith-based institutions — all of us have to work together.

All else equal, should we expect more of schools?

We should expect more of society.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.

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