Duncan: Better teachers trump smaller class sizes
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested in an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell last week that one thing that separates schooling in the U.S. from the top-performing countries is while the U.S. has focused more on smaller class sizes, other countries have zeroed in on teacher quality. "We spent billions of dollars to reduce class size. As a parent, we all love small class size," Duncan said. "But the best thing you can do is get children in front of an extraordinary teacher. So other countries have higher class sizes but extraordinary talent in those rooms."
Duncan also said in the U.S. "we desperately underinvest in great talent" and said starting pay for new teachers should be $60,000 to $70,000. The transcript for the full interview follows:
MITCHELL: Welcome, everyone, and thank you. Thank you all. And why don’t you, those of you who want to, move down and get a little bit closer? We are honored today to have the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. And we’re talking about international competition, and why our kids are failing when compared to their peers in other countries.
And surveys, as you know better than anyone, Mr. Secretary, surveys show that our children start off on, you know, an even level with children in other countries. And by the time they reach the fourth grade, they start falling behind. We are failing our children. And they are falling behind China and Singapore. What are these other countries doing that we are not?
DUNCAN: So I’m spending an increasing amount of my time looking at these international benchmarks, these comparisons, because that’s where the competition is. The competition isn’t in the district or in the state or in the country anymore. It’s global, global economy.
We actually did a conference recently with about 18 countries, either very high achieving or rapidly improving. And it was fascinating to see what they’re doing differently than us.
A couple things from the best performing countries: First off, they get their teachers from the top third or even the top
10th of graduating classes. Finland, 90 percent of folks who want to teach can’t teach. It’s only the top 10 percent.
So it’s doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers all at one level. We have to really think about that.
Secondly, in part to attract and much better pay this great talent are the countries that traded off class size. We spent billions of dollars to reduce class size. As a parent, we all love small class size. But the best thing you can do is get children in front of an extraordinary teacher. So other countries have higher class sizes but extraordinary talent in those rooms.
And then the final point, where we spend more than many countries per pupil, we actually spend less on the most disadvantaged children. So other countries do a much better job of closing achievement gaps and getting the resources to the children that need the most help.
So those three themes, I think, are fascinating ones that we need to learn from and replicate here in every way possible.
MITCHELL: And we’ll talk about budget cuts in a moment -- the real world. But in a -- an ideal world, what should we be paying a teacher, a teacher with a higher degree or advanced certification and perhaps working in a tough environment, in inner city, what would that salary be?
DUNCAN: So I think we desperately underinvest in great talent, and education is no different than business or non-profit or sports or music. Talent matters tremendously. Great teachers, great principals make a huge difference in students’ lives. And I say you pick a number. I think teachers should be starting at $60,000, $65,000, $70,000.
A great teacher is $28,000, $29,000, $30,000 should be able to make a hundred grand, more than that going forward.
Principals, pick a number, $150,000 $200,000. If they are changing students’ lives, if they are transforming students’ lives, the dividends, the benefits they’re giving to our country are extraordinary. Other countries are much more creative, much more thoughtful in this.
And the final thing, to your point, which so critical is not just every teacher, but those teachers that have proven to be extraordinarily talented in improving student achievement, driving students’ ability up, but also who are taking on those tough assessments, inner-city, urban or rural.
Today we have lots of disincentives, very few incentives, for our hardest working, our most committed, to work with students who need the most help. We’re trying to flip that on its head in a variety of different ways.
MITCHELL: Now the administration and many education reformers have focused on evaluating teachers as well as pegging their success or failure to the success or failure of their students. One particular program in Washington, D.C., IMPACT program, has shown that, in fact, some of the teachers complain. They are evaluated by these so-called master educators who don’t take into account the varying circumstances. They don’t take into account, well, how difficult it is to deal with the socioeconomic problems that they inherit in certain schools.
What are the problems, the drawbacks, to some of the evaluation message that we use now, that are the highlight of many reformers, that are not really looking at the individual teacher and taking everything into measure?
So I’ve learned a lot coming to Washington. One thing I thought was a joke, and, of course, it was true, that before we got here, we actually had states -- we had states in this country that had laws on their books where it was against the law to link teacher evaluation and student achievement. Think about that. It was against the law. Thanks, in part, to "Race to the Top" and other things, all those laws are gone. So now, as a country, we have to move to meaningful teacher evaluation in the vast majority of systems. Historically, they were broken. Ninety-nine percent of teachers are rated superior. So great teachers didn’t get the rewards and the incentives. We didn’t learn from them the way we should. Teachers in the middle didn’t get the help they needed, and teachers at the bottom that needed to go find something else to do, we didn’t move them out. So, historically, teacher evaluations weren’t benefiting any adult. I promise you they weren’t benefiting students.
What you have now, whether it’s D.C. or a whole host of states, are working very hard with common-sense teacher evaluations. We haven’t perfected this. You have to look at multiple measures. Student achievement, being an important part of that, but just one piece, looking at peer evaluation, looking at principal evaluation, looking at professional development, looking at leadership.
But what we’ve -- what we’ve done for far too long was we let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So we’ve had a dysfunctional system for 50 years. We have a whole bunch of folks, including D.C., who are moving the right direction. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But it is so much better than what existed before.
We’re going to be a lot smarter two years from now, five years from now. But we have to continue to move in this direction. And the best thing we can do to build a real strong, viable profession is to give teachers honest feedback, to help them grow, have great teachers mentor younger teachers and support them. When we -- when we treat teachers as interchangeable widgets, we do a grave disservice to the profession. We demean the profession. That’s what teacher evaluation historically did. That’s what we’re fighting against.
MITCHELL: And when you talk about evaluation and testing, there’s a new report from the National Research Council -- I know you’re familiar with -- it said that a decade of testing has shown little to no positive effect, and has not really increased student achievement enough to bring the U.S. even closer to the level of other countries, the levels that
will make us more competitive.
The bottom line is that we’re making it harder for kids to graduate in some cases. But we’re not educating them better. In other cases, the kids are gaming the system. I was getting emails from teachers who read that I was going to be interviewing you today. And one teacher in The Bronx suggesting that all kinds of special incentives are added in at the last minute, where kids are given extra credit just to get them to graduate in her school, which isn’t serving them or the overall.
DUNCAN: So when we socially promote children, we just move them along, whether or not they can read or they’re proficient, we do them a grave disservice. I think that’s like the worst thing we can do. We’re setting them up for failure long-term. What we’ve seen, thanks, in part, to "Race to the Top" is 42 states raising standards, college and career-ready standards for every single child.
This is an absolute game-changer. And for the first time in our country, children in Mississippi and children in Massachusetts are going to be held to that same high standard. So it’s going to take away the dummying-down. It’s going to take away the gaming. One of the biggest problems with the current No Child Left Behind law is it created incentives for states to reduce those standards, to dummy them down, made politicians look good, which is horrible for children, horrible for education.
Well, it’s going to be horrible for their state’s economy, but that was the norm. That is now changing, 42 states’ leadership purged at the local level. We’re in a new game as a country. We’re going to move in that direction absolutely as fast as we can.
MITCHELL: And I know you’re a basketball fan and, by all reports, a pretty good player yourself. But we’ve had now a breakdown in the labor talks with NBA. There’s a threatened lockout now, today, over the failure of a league to agree to a $7 million salary, minimum salary, $7 million for an average NBA player. We’re talking about valuing teachers. What does it say about our society that we’re fighting over $7 million for a basketball player and you have a goal of reaching $65,000 to $100,000 for teachers?
DUNCAN: Well, I think it says, as a society, we don’t value what’s truly important. We value celebrity, we value athletes, we value movie stars. We don’t value what I would argue are some of the most important, if not the most important people in our country, the -- those are the teachers who are teaching our children every single day. And my wife and I have a third grader and a first grader. They’re here somewhere and I do love watching basketball.
But I’ll tell you, I care a lot more about their teachers than I care about what’s going on in TV. And I think our society has their values wrong in some other ways as well, this being one example. But when you see those exorbitant salaries -- yes, it’s great to shoot a basket, shoot a ball in a basket. Yes, it’s great to score a touchdown. Are you really transforming society? Are you really helping children? Are you making a difference? I question that.
MITCHELL: You’re in a -- in a fight with House Republicans right now over waivers and No Child Left Behind. There are some governors, Republican and Democrat, who would like to see these waivers. How do you see that playing out?
DUNCAN: I don’t think it’s a fight at all. I have great, great respect for Chairman Kline. We have a great working relationship, or Chairman Harkin on the Senate side. I’ve said from day one, I desperately want us to fix No Child Left Behind as a country. I don’t want to go the waiver route. The current law, No Child Left Behind, is far too punitive, far too prescriptive, led to dummy-down as standards, led to a narrowing of the curriculum. We should fix it, we should fix it in a bipartisan way. We should do it together and we should do it now. So that is absolutely my plan A. And that’s where I’m spending 90 percent of my time, my staff. What I have said, though, is we got to do this in real people’s time, not in Washington time. This law should have been reauthorized four years ago. And right now, the law has lots of perverse incentives, lots of disincentives to get where we need to go.
And you started where I agreed it, I have this huge sense of urgency. We have to get better faster than we ever have. We can’t have a law on the books that’s holding us back. So if Congress doesn’t act, then I’m prepared to move forward waivers. And these two things don’t, you know, preclude each other in conflict. If I go in that direction and Congress comes back and reauthorizes, then I back off. Maybe waivers are a bridge to where we need to go. But just sitting back and accepting the status quo would be the worst possible thing. I’m not about to do that.
MITCHELL: I think you said that if there aren’t changes made, however it is, whether it’s reauthorization, waivers, rewritten, that 80,000 of the 100,000 public schools are going to fail by next fall.
DUNCAN: Well, they’re not going to fail. They’re going to be labeled as failures. That’s a big difference. And where schools are truly failing with their dropout factories, no one is challenging the status quo hard enough and trying to make radical, radical changes. But I fundamentally don’t think the vast majority of our schools in the country are failing.
And to label them as failures when they’re not is hugely demoralizing, hugely stigmatizing, unfair to teachers, unfair to principals, confusing to parents. Children struggle with that. So why are we going to do something that just makes no common sense whatsoever?
Let me speak for one more second why we either need to fix the law or do waivers. As I said, historically, most states dummy down standards to hit the phony No Child Left Behind cutoff score. So in Tennessee, for example, under the previous system, they said -- they said 91 percent of their students were proficient in math, because they had a low bar. They’re now raising the bar. They're showing courage that raise the bar for college standards. And the truth is, with this now said, not 91 percent of students are proficient but 34 percent are proficient. That's a brutal truth but it's the truth. And I give them so much credit to having the courage to do the right thing. We have to support those states that are showing that kind of courage but current law doesn't do that.
MITCHELL: Now, you have said on many occasions that the right to an education is a civil right. Now, the civil rights division of your department has issued a new report from its data collection showing that too many students are not getting that right. In particular, minority students, disabled students, schools serving African-Americans are twice as likely to have teachers with only one or two years of experience. Only 2 percent of students with disabilities or taking at least one advance placement course, I mean right down the list of potential minority status. These kids are not getting their civil rights. What do we do about it?
DUNCAN: So I think first of all, telling the truth and having transparency. We haven't had these conversations before. On the contrary, I really encourage people to look at this data that it's fascinating. All kinds of stories there but you have some states, they're doing a remarkable job of giving African-Americans, Latino students access to Calculus and AB classes. Other states would have it very rarely happening. So this isn’t about who the challenge is, it's all about the opportunities we have of providing them. Only about 22 percent of districts are providing early childhood programs for disadvantaged children. Then we wonder why we have achievement gaps, we wonder why we struggle to catch up.
So what we’re doing first and foremost is try to tell the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly, shine the spotlight on success, challenge the status quo where it's not working. But I think most importantly, this kind of data puts the line in any myth that poor children can't learn this and somehow poverty is destiny. This is all about opportunity and we go to have high expectations, we present those types of opportunities, students always rise to hit that.
When we don't provide those opportunities, we perpetuate drop-out factors, we perpetuate the status quo. It's a huge variation around the country. So by having these tough conversations, laying out the facts, the good, the bad and the ugly, I think we'll be seeing more movement than we've seen in a long, long time. And when we keep coming back with this kind of information, it's going to do so much power and having transparency and being clear about what's happening and what’s not for which students.
MITCHELL: I was recently doing an education forum in Philadelphia and that state and that city are facing hundreds of millions of dollars in a budget gap as states are around the country and it's all trickling down some problems at the federal level as you know better than anyone. What are you going to do about your goal, your vision in this climate where you've got the President and Congress fighting over really tough issues, entitlements, domestic spending, taxes, defense -- where does education fit into that mix in your priority?
DUNCAN: Well we have to continue to invest. Education's absolutely an investment, not an expense. But we also have to find ways during these tough economic times to do more of left. So if we sit back and wait for, you know, a better economy after the huge influx of resources, we're going to lose another generation of students. So going forth with
the economy to improve, should we invest more in education? Absolutely.
But we're being very clear with governors and state school chief officer in districts, when you have to cut. When I ran a Chicago public school, I had very tough budget and had to make decisions. You can cut in smart ways and you can cut in dumb ways. And budgets reflect our values. They reflect our priorities. The worst thing you can do if you have to
make a 5 percent cut is cut 5 percent across the board. Because what that tells you -- what that tells me is you have no idea which investment is making a difference. So if you have to cut 3 percent or 5 percent, you should be cutting 100 percent or some programs and you should be doubling down another that will really make a difference. That's the kind of conversation we're trying to push. You see some space and some districts that in these tough economic times to be very creative, doing some really innovative things. Others are like paralyzed in these tough times. So this is a test to leadership.
The other thing we haven't talked about all today is technology. I think education is always so slow to move. Technology has transformed how everyone interact socially, has transformed how we all do business, has led the democratic revolutions around the world -- technology has changed education about 2 percent on the margin. And again particularly
in tough economic times, how we deliver content 24/7, how we deliver content on cell phones, not just sitting down in a classroom. We have a long way to go there and sometimes, you have to use it. A crisis or tough time is an opportunity to break through and not that you want a crisis, not that we want to be in such dire economic straits, but it's often the times we'll behave in very different ways.
MITCHELL: Especially in this place, in this tent, at the Aspen Festival, I want to ask you about music and arts which are often the first things that are cut from many public schools, especially in the cities. When I was in public school outside of New York, I was six years old, someone handed me a violin and 10 years later, I was here in Aspen on this stage with (inaudible) playing and the young people string program, and it changed my life. And there are millions and millions of kids -- Wynton Marsalis is a passionate, advocate of the arts. He had tried to do as many musicians have for in their limited way in their cities. Why can't we have a better sense of the importance of the arts in public education?
DUNCAN: It's a great, great point in whether dance, drama, art, music, P.E., recess, the foreign languages -- the biggest complaint I hear as I travel the country is about the narrowing of the curriculum. And again, this I really thought that you know, the current law No Child Left Behind. Huge deficits in Reading and Math, yes they are fundamental,
they're foundational, there are children in need of what I call a world-class, well-rounded education, arts being an integral part of that. (inaudible) places we've walked away from that. I think we do a great disservice through our students, we need them to be engaged.
Not everyone's going to grow up to be a concert violinist or cellist but it gives them reason to go to school everyday, it keeps them motivated. For you it's the arts, for me it's sports. And we walk away from that, we give students less reasons to want to go to school. So we're out everywhere we can talking about a well-rounded, world-class education, we're trying to not just talk but walk the walk, we're putting a billion dollars and I have like 12 budgets behind what we call a well-rounded, world-class education. We want to invest -- and I will be very clear, this can't just be for high school students. This has to be from first and second and third and fourth graders. Our babies have to be able to understand, find their passion, find their sense of self-esteem to get what they want to do in their lives and if we don't do that, we do our children a grave, grave disservice.
MITCHELL: I have a same -- tell us, what about Math and Science? How can we do a better job of training teachers to teach Science and Math at an advanced level and how can we do a better job of exciting our children?
DUNCAN: Well, I think we'd have as insurance with Math and Science teachers for 25 and 30 years, and I keep saying we're going to keep ignoring the problem, we're going to fix it. Our children struggle with Math and Science because they don't have enough teachers who are comfortable with the content. And you can't instill in students the love of something that you don't fully understand yourself.
So I think there's lot of different things we can do. The President has challenged us to help train and recruit and track the hundred thousand Math and Science teachers to come in over the next decade, but I think and this is controversial, not everyone agrees, I think we should pay Math and Science teachers more money. But we have a shortage again,
pick a number 10, 15, 20 grand, we need to get those people who could be going into industry and do other things. We need to get them to come into our classrooms -- and like I said before not just at high school but the elementary grades. We will never get where we need to go as a country if we don't have more teachers who are proficient in Math and Science. One very positive development is we have cohorts, a coalition of groups around the country, nonprofits, universities, folks who are doing some real (inaudible) thing or for college students who offer mid career changes who are helping us going forth to (inaudible) this, and so I think we're moving in a very positive direction. But if we'll just sort of watch this for two and a half, three decades and not do anything about it -- that's what's staggering to me. We got to
behave in a very different way.
MITCHELL: You've got programs with excited young people and teach for America and other programs like it, who are reaching out and trying to serve that role, yet there are still a lot of restrictions and as budgets are cut, we still have the last-hired first-fired rule -- I know you've tried to work with the union -- how we can make some progress on that?
DUNCAN: So we're breaking through that. I encourage everyone here, everybody go on counting this, to look at the legislation that just passed in Illinois. This passed, they made it much harder to get tenure and have increased teacher evaluation. It basically got rid of last-in first-fired. If a teacher has two unsatisfactory evaluations in seven years, the state superintendent can basically remove their credentials so they can't teach in that state. This law passed almost unanimously through the help of Senate, the governor signed it, and this passed with the support of unions, the business communities, ed reformers, nonprofits -- this is the new way. There's no reason what happened in
Illinois can't happen across the country. So we have a lot of hard work to do with the model out there, just a tremendous courage, everyone moving outside their comfort zones. We should see that happen in state after state after state.
MITCHELL: One of the huge problems that we face in our schools is the effects of the immigration challenge, and you testified this week about the DREAM Act. What can you -- I mean the President spoke about it, you spoke about it. What can you do to try to make this a reality given what's happening in the House of Representatives?
DUNCAN: When we talk about our country's values, I'll just speak honestly, I think it's a country - we're crazy on this issue. First, it is an issue of fairness for me. We have all these young people who came here when they were six months old or two years old. This is the only country they know. They've gone to public schools all their lives, some
were valedictorians and worked extraordinarily hard. They've done good community service, they've been in student governments, they've been athletes, they graduate from high school and then we say "You can't go to college." We're crazy on this issue. How is that the American dream? How is that fair?
And then secondly, we talk about, you know, two million unfilled jobs in this tough economy. Two million unfilled jobs, high-skill, high-wage jobs that they young people can actually, you know, absolutely come in, help create jobs, be the entrepreneurs, be the innovators, and we say "No, you got to go work for under-the-table cash jobs." These don't lead anywhere. It makes no sense to me from the issue of fairness, makes no sense from an issue of what's our country's best economic interest. So I'm going to continue to push every single way I can. Secretary Napolitano testified with me, the Department of Defense would love to see these young people in voluntary military, you know, come in and help maintain our national security.
So whether you look at it from the point of fairness, from an economic imperative, from national security -- why we deny these young people the opportunity to go to college is absolutely crazy. And this one's very personal for me. I've worked with a number of students like this when I ran a Chicago public school. They played by all the rules, they did everything right, they were extraordinarily talented, wanted to continue their education and see them not have that chance, it's absolutely heart-breaking. That's fundamentally un-American.
MITCHELL: Similarly, I was talking to the CEO of one of our sponsors, one of the idea (inaudible) plant for Siemens, who said that they are trying to hire people for all sorts of new jobs, green jobs -- jobs in Charlotte, North Carolina at their new turbine plant there. They're finding that the veterans are better trained for some of these high-tech jobs than the kids coming out of our school system. We are training people in the military to be more adaptive in technology.
DUNCAN: So again, I think that goes back to this college and (inaudible) standards, the (inaudible) fields, making sure our students have those kinds of opportunities again from the ground going up. And the person I met with so many fields recently who again in these top economic times say, "We are trying to hire. We have high-wage, high-skill jobs. We don't want to send them overseas. You guys aren't producing the workers who can fill these job," so we have educated -- have to look in the mirror and say, "What are we going to do differently in this (inaudible) economy to give students the chance to be successful and to help keep our country strong, and we are really fighting to maintain our country's strength here. And if we don't educate, we don't do a much better job, I think our country is going to be in peril.
MITCHELL: In the few minutes that we have left, let me ask you a couple of personal questions. Who is your favorite teacher?
DUNCAN: I always talk -- wherever I go, my favorite teacher -- I went to an amazing school. I had fantastic teachers but my favorite teacher is my high school teacher Ms. McCampbell, and she was amazing. She really pushed us to articulate our ideas in class. There was never a wrong idea, especially viewpoints to send it. She pushed my writing to
a different level and back then, we didn't have computers so we'd hand in papers in blue ink, and I get back a lot more red in than blue, but she pulled things out me and my classmates that we didn't know we had in us. I think that's the genius of great, great teachers. They take students who are strong or weak or unpolished gems, but they get them to
do things and see things, and accomplish things that we didn't know we could do, and I owe her and so many of my teachers so much.
MITCHELL: What was your worst subject in school?
DUNCAN: I'm in trouble here. I always thought my worst subject was sitting still. I need to run around and have some recess but --
MITCHELL: You're not alone in that.
DUNCAN: I was strong -- the English and Social Science is not as strong as the Math and Science.
MITCHELL: And if you weren't secretary of Education, what profession would be your dream profession?
DUNCAN: Well, I've always been so lucky. I've had two passions all my life, one was basketball and one was education, and those are the only two jobs I ever had. I played basketball for four years once I graduated from college and since then, I've always been involved in education whether I was running I Have A Dream Program or starting my own public school on (inaudible) in Chicago, eventually working for the Chicago Public Schools and running it and now this job. So all my life, I've been able to follow my passions. I feel so lucky to have been able to do that.
MITCHELL: Who has a better game, you or the President?
DUNCAN: I plead the fifth.
MITCHELL: Who is your all-time favorite NBA player?
DUNCAN: It's tough, Magic Johnson.
MITCHELL: I think a lot of people would agree with that. Do you think the Bulls can make it to the finals next year?
DUNCAN: Yes, yes. My son says no. Yes, absolutely. My son is a die-hard Heat fan. So we have a family battle but I'm a big (inaudible) fan and -- a quick story. The new coach of Chicago Bulls was my coach in college, he was the assistant coach. And so I tried to work pretty hard behind the scenes to see him get the job in Chicago and see him be
coach of the year, Tom Thibodeau, it was amazing. So I feel there's ownership there and a little pride and I'd love to see the Bulls go to championships.
MITCHELL: Lebron or Kobe?
MITCHELL: And finally, your most important goal as secretary of Education.
DUNCAN: It's very simple. Simple (inaudible) hard to get there. The President is basically drawing the line with that. He said by 2020, we have to again lead the world in college graduation. So one generation ago, we led the world. It's not that we've dropped. It's really interesting -- we flat-lined, we've stagnated, nine other countries have passed us by. So everything we do, early childhood education which is so critically important, we didn't talk about that today, K-12 reform,
higher education, more active, more opportunities. All that is behind the goal of leading the world in college graduates by 2020. That's what I want to be held accountable for.
MITCHELL: Finally, Duncan, I just want to thank you. This has been more fun than anything I've done here, so it's a privilege.
DUNCAN: Thank you so much.
MITCHELL: Good afternoon. For those who are starting tomorrow, we do not have a session at 8 o' clock with (inaudible), but we have another session. Check your agenda and we'll look forward to seeing you for the next three days. Thank you.