Educator-in-chief Arne Duncan on the stimulus bill

Monday, March 02, 2009

Congress took a potentially transformative step when it devoted $100 billion in the stimulus package to education—the money could revive the reform efforts that began promisingly with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, joins John with details on how the dollars will be spent.

Click through for the transcript.

John Hockenberry: In a moment, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, will join our provocative conversation on education in the 21st century. But Alyse Barr, good morning.

Alyse Barr: Good morning

John Hockenberry: You are principal at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, is that right?

Alyse Barr: I am.

John Hockenberry: You called our program earlier and said if you could take someone in educational policy or something in educational policy to the principal’s office, it’s an easy answer you would have to that question.

Alyse Barr: Yes, I suggested that I would take the entire United States Department of Education to the principal’s office for relying too heavily on excessive use of high-stakes tests, which are tests of low-level thinking. They’re commercially made, they cost lots of money, and they are creating a system in which we are teaching children to learn for tests and we are not teaching children to think. So we need to move to real-time assessment, in classrooms with real teachers speaking to real children about real things, watching children learn, asking them how they think, studying their errors, and going deeply into the process of teaching and learning through actual educational research.

John Hockenberry: Alright, that’s fine. Stay with us, Alyse Barr, that’ll be the first question I’ll put to the Secretary of Education who joins us in just a minute. Will you stay with us?

Alyse Barr: I will.

John Hockenberry: I notice that you have a snow day today, correct?

Alyse Barr: That’s right. Otherwise you would not be hearing from me.

John Hockenberry: So the snow in New York is an advantage to us here in our conversation about education. Joining us now is Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education. He joins us from Washington where there is some snow there. Secretary, thanks for joining us.

Secretary Arne Duncan: Good morning. Thanks so much for having me, John.

John Hockenberry:I’m familiar with your work in Chicago where I went to college. A challenging school system there where you were the head. Lets start with the question that Alyce Barr raised here at the beginning: Is it time to leave No Child Left Behind behind? Or is it maybe a moment to re-brand No Child Left Behind as you referred to on the Department of Education web site a week and a half ago?

Secretary Arne Duncan: A couple thoughts. First of all, I agree with her, I think the bar is too low. That in too many states we’ve sort of dummied this thing down to the lowest common denominator. And I think we need to raise the bar, our students today are competing for jobs not down the block or within the state, they’re competing for jobs with children from India and China. I think we need a higher bar, we need better assessments so children have a way to learn what their strengths and weaknesses are along the road. We talk about a higher bar, I mean, internationally benchmarked, college-ready, career-ready standards. We need to really tell the truth to our students and to our parents about what students’ strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and we need real-time assessments. She talked about, to really give our students the ability to improve where they need to.

John Hockenberry: Alright, Secretary. Part of our excitement is we get to put to you directly some provocative comments that were made on the program last week when we spoke about what education for the 21st century really means. Bob Compton, an educational entrepreneur, who was commenting on the stimulus package, says if we refund simply the status quo we might not achieve the radical vision that he thinks we need. Listen to this, Secretary.

Bob Compton: President Obama hired the right man, but now he’s given him the wrong mission and he’s loaded him with $100 million to spend fast. This money is going to go into the states along traditional channels and it’s going to cement American education firmly in the 20th century.

John Hockenberry: What do you think of that? Right man, wrong mission, do you agree?

Secretary Arne Duncan: I don’t. And this is obviously an extraordinary, once in a lifetime, historic opportunity to make things dramatically better. We need to push very hard for reform. I agree with the caller that the status quo isn’t good enough that we need to get dramatically better. What we can do with these new resources are a few things. First of all I talked about raising the bar, raising the standards, college-ready, career-ready, internationally benchmark standards. We need to develop great assessments behind that, so you can tell a second-grader, a third-grader, are they on the road to go to college, are they successful or are they not. You need great data systems, you need to be able to track student achievement year after year, track students against teachers, and track teachers back to student educations to see which teachers are making a difference in student lives. Finally, we have to think very, very differently about how we reward teachers and principals. As you know, in education, talent matters tremendously. We have to get the best and brightest into education and we have to keep them there. We have to reward them not just for success in students, but for taking on the toughest assignments, whether that’s inner-city urban or rural. With the resources we have, we can dramatically challenge the status quo, not just invest in the status quo.

John Hockenberry: You already alluded to something that came up last week on the program, and that is monitoring students on a more or less continuing basis using some data systems that are being tried out in New York and some other urban centers. But let’s move on to the question of early childhood education. There was a question last week about where the money for early childhood education is really targeted.

Cornelia Grumman: In the recovery package there’s a $5 billion investment in early childhood, because he realizes this is important not just in the short term for the economy, but for the nation’s long-term economic health, that you really need to invest in these years.

John Hockenberry: Now, Secretary, that’s someone you really know, Cornelia Grumman, who’s talking about the First Five Years Fund. She appeared on The Takeaway last week and talked about whether the money from the stimulus package is going to go to early childhood education in the 0-3 years, extending Head Start, or basically re-funding the existing Head Start. Which is it?

Secretary Arne Duncan:It’s actually going to go across the board. We need to do two things in early childhood. As you know, this is arguably the best investment we can make. There’s nothing more important we can do than get our students off to a great start. In my mind, this money is going to accomplish two things. First is to increase access to early childhood seats and there’s a shortage of seats available. The second, equally as important if not more important, we need to increase the quality of these seats. So if this is just glorified babysitting, we’re really not changing our students’ lives and the students need the most help. If our students have great teachers who have had professional development and they can enter kindergarten with their socialization skills intact, their literacy skills intact, then they have a chance to be very, very successful. This is an extraordinarily important part of the recovery package.

John Hockenberry: Our listeners are definitely responding to your presence on the program. Here’s a statement, a message, that came in just earlier this morning. Listen to this, Secretary Duncan.

Takeaway Listener: Hi, this is a message for Arne. I’m a teacher in New York, and what would really make a difference would be to make class sizes smaller. Anybody who thinks that class size doesn’t matter is crazy and doesn’t know anything about teaching.

John Hockenberry: Secretary Duncan, can the federal government do anything about that?

Secretary Arne Duncan: I can tell you what we’ve been able to do, we’ve been able to stave off a catastrophe. As you know, with the recovery package, we’re going to save hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs. I think the caller is from New York, I was with the mayor and the chancellor and Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, in New York about two weeks ago, and they estimate that due to our state stabilization fund, we’re going to save 14,000 teaching jobs in New York alone. What I was really worried about, is what I think would have been an educational travesty, where we would have seen class size around the country go from 25 to 38 or 40. And with the funds in the recovery package, we’re able to save many, many of those jobs. There’s an estimate of as many as 580,000 teaching jobs being lost. So at this point, we’re not able to reduce class size, but we’re able to make sure things don’t get dramatically worse, which would have been a terrible, terrible blow to children around the country.

John Hockenberry: Secretary Duncan, before we go, a teacher emailed us and said “We need a new school equipped and designed for high school students that are pursuing professions in the arts.” Tip of the hat to arts programs?

Secretary Arne Duncan: It’s very, very important. We need to think about schools around the country. We have to get dramatically better. The more students have a chance to pursue their skills and their interests and dreams, whether it’s the arts, whether it’s trades, whatever it may be, the more our students have a chance to really chase those things that they want to be successful long-term, and we provide many more concrete opportunities for students to pursue those dreams. Also, to make real connections with adults. Our teenagers need adult mentors, role models, more than ever before. We need to be sure we’re creating high schools where students have the opportunity to really connect in meaningful ways to adults and not get lost, not to be anonymous in big schools, which I think is a recipe for disaster.

John Hockenberry: Secretary Duncan on his way from one meeting to the next. U.S. Secretary of Education, thanks so much for joining us on The Takeaway.

Secretary Arne Duncan: Thanks for having me.

John Hockenberry: Alyse Barr, principal at the Brooklyn Collaborative Studies School, did the Secretary have anything to say to you there?

Alyse Barr: I wish he would have addressed the re-segregation of American schools. And I’d like to suggest to him also that we launch a national reading campaign inspired by the fact that we have a president now who is an intellect and a reader and he actively shows us his reading life. So let’s start a web site where we can get volunteers like myself to kids’ posts about reading. And let’s have them be able to download certificates that celebrate them as readers. And let’s not forget about Brown v. Board of Education. It was the best federal work we did in education.

John Hockenberry: Ideas popping out of the woodwork. Alyse Barr, principal at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, thanks for joining us in the conversation.


Alyce Barr and Arne Duncan


Sitara Nieves

Comments [14]


Excellent parsing.

Mar. 06 2009 07:44 AM
Bob Compton

I'm sure Secretary Duncan wasn't expecting a challenge from me at the start of his interview.

First, I misspoke in my quote - the money that is being "re-invested" in America's 20th century education system is $100 BILLION. I stated $100 million – a smallsplash as Washington is sloshing BILLIONS all over the economy.

Sadly, Sec. Duncan's reiterative response "I talked about raising the bar, raising the standards, college-ready, career-ready, internationally benchmark standards" -- is just that: talk.

If you follow the money in the "stimulus" bill and read its purpose and principle, Sec. Duncan is being disingenuous. The overwhelming majority of the $100 BILLION is “saving jobs” and “renovating schools”. It is NOT bringing U.S. K-12 education into the 21st century.

I admire Secretary Duncan and President Obama, but to cast this $100 BILLION “stimulus” as “an extraordinary, once in a lifetime, historic opportunity to make things dramatically better” is hyperbolic at best.

Mar. 02 2009 03:57 PM
Liza Dittoe

FYI - Bob Compton is the creator of the documentary film Two Million Minutes (, which follows six high school students from the U.S., India & China.

If you want to see how U.S. education compares to that of our biggest competitors in the 21st century, check it out.

Mar. 02 2009 02:37 PM
Amy Sumner

I'm the parent of 3 NYC public school children and a parent coordinator at an elementary school. The effects of NCLB are all too visible. I see many parents, out of fear and self-interest, supporting the two related trends covered in today's program: the increasing resegration of public schools and the growing reliance on test scores as a means of evaluating students, teachers and schools. Parents can support alternatives to evaluation by tests and to segregation by raising questions at their PTA and other community meetings. We can choose and support schools that practice assessment that encourages real learning (performance based assessment), and we can support admissions policies that integrate schools rather than segregate by test scores, which is too often by race and class. I hope that the new administration in Washington will rethink NCLB and its trickle down effect on our local schools.

Mar. 02 2009 02:26 PM
Julian DiChiara

I am perplexed by Take Away's misuse of the opportunity they had this morning. In facilitating direct dialogue between the two educational authorities the show could have helped Americans to think beyond the vague rhetoric of NCLB. Instead, John Hockenberry allowed Secretary Duncan to outline a vague educational platform that has become synonymous with presidential politics.
It is unfortunate that the format of the segment polarized Ms. Barr’s opinion from that of Secretary Duncan while insulating him from her criticism. Like Duncan’s confirmation, this interview is an illustration of America’s disregard for the experience of those who devote their lives to education. Secretary Duncan was never a teacher or a Principal and still he has been entrusted to guide a nation of educators. If the Obama administration truly wishes to recruit and train a generation of new teachers it is important that they have leaders that have spent years in and around classrooms: not boardrooms.

Mar. 02 2009 02:24 PM
Alyce Barr

There is a critical role for the federal government in creating an equitable and thinking education system that is a model and an inspiration for our schools. NCLB has eroded the progress our nation made as a result of Brown v. BOE and the civil rights movement; more than fifty years later federal education law punishes diverse schools in its analysis of the performance of "subgroups." The more uniform a school's population is, the fewer subgroups and the less scrutiny.

In addition to our essential need for performance based assessment that helps us understand the nature of intellectual development and learning – in which we gather our data in the realest of realtime – in classrooms with teachers observing, recording, listening and questioning students about what they know, how they approach problems - not with shallow surface level multiple choice tests made by for-profit corporations. In life and work there is no multiple choice.

Mar. 02 2009 11:07 AM
Blaine Yesselman

The current discourse surrounding public education excludes a fundamental idea: as public school teachers, we teach PEOPLE. Young people walk into classrooms bringing with them their life experiences. It is not accurate to say that all public school students come from difficult backgrounds, but it IS accurate to say that public schools in urban areas are serving many students faced with all of the issues that come along with poverty-all being exacerbated by our current economical climate. When we talk about testing, we conveniently forget that students aren't machines, aren't all equal in life experiences and opportunities. Where is the bubble on the answer sheet for having survived living in a shelter, for hearing gunshots at night outside of your bedroom window? Until we are ready to talk about the reality of poverty in our country, we're not ready to talk about creating a public education system that will meet the needs of all of the PEOPLE this system is meant to serve.

Mar. 02 2009 10:41 AM

The caller's question is not being answered. How is there going to be movement away from high-stakes testing to one-on-one child assessment, with the greatest attention paid to individual child development?

Also, I would wish the Secretary follow through on the president's address to congress when discussing post-high school education: it's not just about *college*--vocation education is equally valuable and important. We need *plumbers*! We need *electricians*!

Mar. 02 2009 10:05 AM
Gabriel Reich

You put it a lot better than I did. Right on.

Mar. 02 2009 10:00 AM
Gabriel Reich

He says some nice things. I'm glad there will be more than just a rhetorical investment in education and I support his focus on teacher talent and poor urban and rural schools.


He's either misinformed or lying when it comes to testing. The state of the art in testing technology makes the kind of worthwhile exams that test thinking out of the reach. Good tests cost a lot and teachers and students have gotten used to the lowest common denomenator. A good teacher can be more effective at assessing students than can a high stakes test. The high stakes will ALWAYS distort what they are support to measure. That's as close to law as social science can get.

Mar. 02 2009 09:59 AM
Bella Smith

When a word is used as frequently as the word "accountability" is being used, it is a sure sign that it is being used to mean different things and to advance different agendas. Assessing student need and designing schools to actually educate real, as opposed to theoretical, students is a phenomenally important and difficult task. Assessing student progress is necessary for effective teaching and learning. It is also challenging to do well. At the same time, if standardized tests are overvalued and used to both threaten and reward, it the lowering of standards and cheating. In the words of an honest colleague, "I can get most of my students through the test. Then we go back and make sure they understand what they've 'learned'."

Mar. 02 2009 08:58 AM
Jennifer Dominguez

Thank you for reaching out and giving us the opportunity to be heard. I am a first year Teaching Fellows in a high needs school in Brooklyn. I have been fortunate to secure a position in a diligent school. However, amongst the guidance and support offered to me by administration, colleagues, and mentors, I also encounter questions. I question the wisdom of current teacher preparatory programs and the long term effects they have on our students' education. Would it not be more effective to create residency programs for first year teachers, must like medical students must complete in order to practice medicine? Because, ultimately, are we not performing an equally needed service? While teachers do not hold scalpels, we do help improve the quality of life of our students. Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.

Mar. 02 2009 08:02 AM
Steven Birkeland

Good morning. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to speak with you. I am a school counselor in the South Bronx working for the New York City Department of Education. This is my third year. I am also working on my advanced master's degree in Educational Leadership on scholarship at Bank Street College of Education. My professional goal is to positively impact and support our students socially and emotionally and ensure proper curriculum mapping in all areas of instruction while supporting professional development for staff and colleagues. Do you favor policy legislation that might secure permanent NATIONAL STANDARDS to provide for consistent delivery of knowledge among our 50 states? What is your view on classroom size?

Looking forward to your response.

Educationally yours,

Steven Birkeland, M.S.
New York State Certified School Counselor
New York City Department of Education
New York State School Counselor Assosication (NYSSCA)
Board Member
Governor 10C

Mar. 02 2009 07:15 AM

I'm a teacher at Gotham Professional Art Academy, a new, small academy high school in bedford-stuyvesant, brooklyn with about 165 students. We have an incredibly dedicated principal and staff. The DOE placed us on the top floor of an elementary school. actually, we don't even have the entire floor. The school is already too small having been designed for elementary school kids and the Dept of Ed is adding 180 additional students. the halls are already congested, and classrooms are ill equiped for high school students - Arne we need a new school equipped and designed for high school students that are pursuing professions in the arts.

Mar. 02 2009 06:48 AM

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