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Education Sec. Duncan on 'Face the Nation'

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Sunday, September 6, 2009; 12:44 PM

BOB SCHIEFFER (Host): The president is planning to speak to the nation's school children Tuesday by C-Span and the Internet. I think it's fair to say the White House was blindsided by the reaction that has blown up, a real fire storm. Conservatives are in a rage. Glenn Beck spoke for many of the talk show people when he said, these are his words, "They are capturing your kids. Stand guard, America. Your republic is under attack."

Jim Greer, the chair of the Florida Republican Party, complained that "taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology."

Even one of the usually moderate voices of the Republican Party, Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, said "It is disruptive. I don't think he needs to force it upon the nation's school children." I guess my question to you, Mr. Secretary, what is going on?

DUNCAN: It's been pretty interesting. The whole message is about personal responsibility and challenging students to take their education very, very seriously. We have some important goals for the country. We want to see more high-performing schools. We want to see more students improving their academic achievements. We want to see more students going to college and succeeding in graduating. None of those things happen, it's impossible, if students aren't working hard every single day.

And it's amazing to me the last time the president spoke to the nation's children was in 1991. The real question I have is why has it been 18 years since a president has addressed our nation's youth? And schools can do this. They can not do it. They can watch it during the school day. Children can watch it at home with their families. They can watch it a month from now. They can never watch it. It's purely voluntary. But I think all the drama, all the hoopla, at the end of the day if the president motivates one C-student to become a B- student, one B-student to become an A-student or one student who is thinking about dropping out to stay in school and take their education seriously, it's all worth it.

SCHIEFFER: What about the -- we hear that some parents are going to keep their kids at home.

DUNCAN: Again, that's just silly. They can go to school, they can not watch. It's just going to be an 18-minute speech. And so that just doesn't make any sense.

SCHIEFFER: And I understand you have decided now to make the text of the speech public tomorrow.

DUNCAN: The text will be available tomorrow on the White House Web site and people can look. Again, this is all about the president challenging our young people to take responsibility for their education. We can have the hardest-working teachers. We can have the best textbooks. We can have the most modern buildings. If students aren't committing to work hard every day to have a good work ethic, to set goals, to really aspire for something, it's all for naught.

SCHIEFFER: And you're not going to cancel -- the president is not going to cancel the speech.

DUNCAN: Oh, no, sir.

SCHIEFFER: There was one question that I did have. In some of the study materials that you sent out to some of the schools to accompany this, at one point they suggested they write letters to the president about how they can help him. I understand you have changed the wording in that.

DUNCAN: This was guides that were put out by teachers, for teachers. And there is one that wasn't worded quite correctly. It was talking about helping the president hit his goal of having the highest percent of college graduates by 2020. He's drawn a line in the sand in that. We just clarified that to say write a letter about your own goals and what you're going to do to achieve those goals. So again it's really about personal responsibility and being accountable, setting real goals and having the work ethic to see them through.

SCHIEFFER: Were you surprised at this reaction?

DUNCAN: It's the kind of things I frankly don't pay any attention to. We have major problems, we have major challenges in this country, Bob. We have more homeless students than we've ever had. We have teachers and social workers and counselors working so hard to bring them into school and keep them there and I want to thank them for that effort.

We have a drop-out rate that is staggering, 30 percent of our students don't graduate from high school. That's 1.2 million students every single year in 9th graders that don't complete 12th grade. We have to educate our way to a better economy. This is about global competitiveness. So I don't spend any time on the silly stuff. I try and stay focused on really dramatically improving what's going on for our nation's children.


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