Yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a major override of the No Child Left Behind accountability law for schools. Duncan's proposal will mean that states can apply to bypass performance requirements in the law. One of those requirements is that 100 percent students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Arne Duncan talks about about the overhaul in the law and how it will affect students and schools. (Transcript available after the jump.)
HOCKENBERRY: Can you explain, in detail, what this means for schools? Let's say I'm a principal, and we actually talked with a principal earlier this morning, and I am going to be declared a failure under No Child Left Behind, first of all, what waiver am I offered, and what sort of accountability would then I have to show to the federal government or to the state to maintain my status as a public school?
DUNCAN: Sure. Let me just sort of kick it up a notch first. I just think the current No Child Left Behind Law is fundamentally flawed and, frankly, broken. It is far too punitive, it is far too prescriptive, top down from Washington. It led to a dumbing down of standards in states around the country, and it led to a narrowing of the curriculum. And at a time when we have to get better, faster educationally than ever before, when many other countries are out-educating us, we can't affor to have the federal law, the law of the land, have so many perverse incentives and disincentives. So we definitely wanted Congress, in a bipartisan way, to pass and to fix No Child Left Behind. That hasn't happened yet, so we are moving forward ourselves, the partners of education, actively, to provide waivers to states. And what we want to do is where states, so this wouldn't be for individual schools, but for states. One of the biggest problems I've had with the law is exactly where you hit on, that a school could be making real progress, year after year after year, doing really hard work, great work, and often in tough neighborhoods, often without enough resources. And those schools are making progress, are somehow labeled a failure under No Child Left Behind. I think it's dishonest. I think it's demeaning to the hard work of teachers and principals. It's confusing to parents. And where we're seeing progress, we're seeing growth and gain and we want to celebrate that. So basically where we're at, we're going to go to states. And this will not be a pass on accountability. We're going to maintain high standards, but where states are raising standards, college and (inaudible) standards, where they're being thoughtful around teacher and principal evaluation, where they have new and improved accountability systems that focus much more on growth and gain and improvement, rather than absolute test scores, where they're willing to challenge the status quo on the lowest performing schools, then we want to give them much more flexibility than the current law provides.
HOCKENBERRY: Some will say that this is just another way of saying, by the Department of Education, that 100 percent of students are not going to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, and that was the original goal of No Child Left Behind. Is that sort of the fine print here?
DUNCAN: It's not. What I want to say is that if one child — right now the law's what I call a blunt instrument. If you have one child in one subgroup not making it, that school is treated as a failure just as a school that has 1,000 students not making it. And we just think the story's much more complex than that. And where you have significant growth and gain, we should be recognizing that, rewarding that, celebrating that, learning from it, incentivizing that. Where schools are legitimately struggling, we absolutely need to deal with that. But what we want to do is take a much more thoughtful approach to this, and much fairer, frankly, in how we evaluate schools and districts and ultimately states.
HOCKENBERRY: Alright, well this is a conversation we've had going all morning on our program. We're speaking with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I want to get you to respond to a comment that was made earlier this morning by Diane Ravitch, who you know very well, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. You couldn't find a more bitter critic of No Child Left Behind, but here's what she had to say about your decision to change the law, and she described it as unilaterally, listen:
Diane Ravitch [CLIP]: "Does the secretary have the right to nullify the law? And, personally, I don't think he does. I don't think a secretary, a cabinet member, can say, 'I don't like this law.' He's saying, 'If you don't like the law, I will give you a waiver, but you have to do what I say, and what I say is you must evaluate teachers by their student test scores,' and virtually every testing expert in the country has said you cannot do that with individual teachers. It doesn't work."
HOCKENBERRY: Arne Duncan, what do you think, secretary of education?
DUNCAN: Well, just as Secretary Spellings did prior to me, we absolutely have the ability to waive pieces of the law. And again, we'll maintain high standards. This will be — we'll have clear accountability there. But to maintain a law that is so fundamentally broken that teachers and principals and students reject and are rebelling against because it doesn't make sense, to just sit here passively in Washington and do nothing, to me, would be the height of arrogance or the height of tone-deafness. I travel the country — I've been to 44, 45 states, urban, rural, and suburban communities — everyone is clamoring for us to step up. And if the rest of Washington won't work and is dysfunctional, we need to do the right thing for children, the right thing for education. And frankly the feedback we've gotten from governors and state school chief officers has been overwhelmingly supportive for us stepping up to do the right thing.
HOCKENBERRY: How do you respond to the criticism, before we go, that the Obama administration is focusing very much on the Race to the Top kinds of stand-out schools, and running the risk of leaving the rest of the schools, and the ones that maybe will be getting these waivers, behind in terms of accountability and performance?
DUNCAN: No, again it's just fundamentally not true. Every single state can apply. I haven't talked to a governor yet, and I've spoken personally to over half the nation's governors over the past three or four days. Every state can apply. There's no competition here among states. Every state that's willing to have high standards and do the right thing — we want to work with them and we want to be a much better partner here in Washington. We want to be much more responsive to teachers and principals and see the great work going on at the local level.
HOCKENBERRY: The control of the tests under No Child Left Behind is over?
DUNCAN: Well, students will still be evaluated 3rd-8th grade, so that won't change. But again, we want to look at growth and gain, much less on absolute test scores. I want to know how much a student's improving each year, whether it's test scores, whether it's graduation rates, college going rates. I want to look at those long-term trends.
HOCKENBERRY: Alright. Good luck. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the changes to No Child Left Behind. Thanks so much.
DUNCAN: Thanks for having me. Have a great day.