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Q&A with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Question and Answer

Will He Score?

President Obama’s new Secretary of Education has played basketball against Michael Jordan, but his new job is much tougher.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan grew up in Chicago in a family focused on education. After running a program to improve education for low-income children in Chicago, he joined the Chicago Public Schools in 1999 and served as CEO of the school system for seven and a half years. Six feet, five inches tall, Duncan has played basketball with Michael Jordan, a professional team in Australia, and Barack Obama. He spoke recently with NEA Today about his experiences, ideas, and plans.

On his start in education:

Arne Duncan

Courtesy of Arne Duncan

I got a very early introduction to education. From the time I was born, my sister, brother, and I all attended my mother’s inner-city after-school tutoring program. She started it in 1961. I was born in 1964. We were raised as part of her programs. She had a philosophy that the 10-year-olds taught the five-year-olds. I was taught by a remarkable teenager for most of my early childhood, a guy named Kerry Holly, who had a big influence on me. And I remember washing tables as a young child, and just being around remarkable children who happened not to come from a lot of money and who often had very tough situations at home. But many went on to do remarkable things because my mother and others really believed in them and stayed with them through good times and bad.

On great teachers:

Arne Duncan

Courtesy of Arne Duncan

I’ve met thousands of phenomenal teachers. In Chicago, I was in schools almost every morning, seeing the remarkable commitment and passion and hard work.

What do you look for? You look for great heart. You look for people who are tough, who cannot give up. They have to truly love students. It’s a calling. And the best teachers change our students’ lives forever.

On making more great teachers:

Arne Duncan

Courtesy of Arne Duncan

We’ve never seen better talent coming into the teaching profession. We have to have better mentoring induction programs and better support of great teachers.

People go into teaching, not to make a million dollars, [but] because they want to make a difference. [We need to] provide meaningful professional development. I’m a big fan of National Board Certification. Our students listen to what we say, but they spend a lot more time watching what we do. When you see your best teachers continuing to learn and grow, and taking on things like National Board Certification, they’re really walking the walk. And the difference that makes in our students’ lives is extraordinary.

On “No Child Left Behind”:

Arne Duncan

NEA/Sewell Johnson

I’ve lived on the other side of the fence of No Child Left Behind for seven and a half years and have my own strong opinions. But despite my opinions, I want to get out and listen to teachers, to students, to parents and principals. I want to take some time and travel and get the pulse of the country and come back with something that’s very pragmatic. What’s working? Let’s build upon it. What’s not working? Let’s fix it.

And there’s a level of nuance here. What works in one community may not work in another situation.

On using student test scores to      measure a teacher:

Our students are competing against the best and brightest, not just here, but in India and China. So we have to challenge all of us to do more. We need a high bar, and we need to help folks get there. You need great assessments: good, useful information for teachers and students to understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. We need to measure growth.

We [have seen] teachers doing a remarkable job: Students that were very far behind and coming in very under-prepared, who may not hit some absolute benchmark, [but] gaining two years of instruction in just a year. So how do we find those examples and learn from that? How do we spotlight and reward excellence? That’s a big focus of what I think about every day. 

On pay for performance:

There are tough questions around pay for performance. [The program] we put in place in Chicago was put together not by me, but by the best teachers in the system. They worked very hard—partnered with me, partnered with the union. We only went into schools where there was significant teacher turnover. We wanted to build a different culture and really support those tough schools. We went to schools where the vast majority of teachers wanted the program. Test scores are a piece of it. We look at growth—not just absolute test scores, but how much are students gaining each year.

We tried to put in place a real career ladder. So, we had master teachers working with teachers. We really built lots of time where teachers could work together and learn from each other and get into the data.

At the end of the day, we saw significant increases in achievement. We saw teachers staying in the schools. And you know, teachers weren’t doing it for the money. They were doing it because they believed in the children. But it was our way of recognizing and rewarding that.

The other thing we did that I felt was important [was] to incent everyone in the building. It wasn’t just the teachers. It was the principal, the custodians, the lunchroom workers, the security guards. When you go into high-performing schools, it’s not just the teachers working hard. It’s everyone building a culture where academic excellence is celebrated: The lunchroom attendants asking, did you get your homework done? And the security guard on the way home saying, do you have your backpack, and what are you going to do tonight?

On basketball with Obama:

The last time I played with the President was Election Day. We tried not to foul him. We played hard, but none of us wanted to be the one to give him a black eye or a bloody nose the day he was making history.

On a favorite book:

There’s a book I read in high school called 36 Children by a teacher in New York, Herbert Kohl. [I] wrote about his book in one of my college essays, and talked about both the tremendous hope that I feel [and] the challenges that teachers in tough communities face. That book had a big impact on me.

On the “Obama Effect”

Never before has being smart been so cool, so hip. You don’t see children today just talking about “I want to be the President” or “I want to be the First Lady.” They’re saying, “I want to be smart like the President. I want to be smart like the First Lady.” And every child in America—White, Black, Latino, doesn’t matter—can look at those two and say, “You know, if I work hard, if I really challenge myself in school, there’s a world of possibility out there.”

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