The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Days from leaving office, Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks about successes, failures

Arne Duncan, one of the longest-serving — and among the most influential — U.S. education secretaries, is preparing to step down at the end of the month. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Arne Duncan has been one of the longest-serving education secretaries and by most accounts, among the most influential. He oversaw a vigorous expansion of the federal role in the nation’s 100,000 public schools, largely bypassing Congress to induce states to adopt landmark changes, including new teacher evaluations and academic standards.

His tactics led to accusations of federal overreach. Congress reacted by passing a successor to No Child Left Behind that shifts power back to the states and places new restrictions on the authority of the education secretary, who would be legally barred from influencing state decisions about academic benchmarks, such as the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations and other education policies.

Duncan, who is preparing to step down at the end of the month and return to his family in Chicago, sat down for an exit interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Dec. 16. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

[Arne Duncan to step down]

Shortly after you took office, you said that American education needed “transformational” change, not incremental change. Do you feel like you’ve achieved that?

There’s clearly always a long, long way to go, but when you look at a billion dollars for early childhood education, when you look at 40-plus states adopting higher standards, when you look at yesterday’s high school graduation rates at record highs, the fact that we were able to put $40 billion behind Pell grants, 1.1 million additional students of color going to college than in 2008.

I came here unbelievably excited but also skeptical about what you could do. And if folks would have said you could do half of these things, I would have said sign me up in a heartbeat. The fact that the country has been able to do all these things, it’s stunning. No one would have predicted half this stuff.

Having said that, there’s a hell of a long way to go. And that’s always for me the challenge and the urgency. There are a bunch of areas I’ve been very public about where I think we failed.

What are those failures?

A lot, but I guess the three that are the hardest for me are one, that we failed to get Congress to actually invest at scale in early childhood education, and the unmet need is stunning. Put this in the other column, the successes, this has become a total bipartisan issue. We have all these Republican governors now — New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama — this wasn’t happening five, 10 years ago. They’re all investing.

So that’s great, but the fact that we have not broken through and been able to get some of our Republican friends in Congress — not as some mandate, just to partner with states that want to do more — that’s a total failure. We’re hurting kids who desperately need to get off to a good start in life and we’re hurting our country. That, I’m sick about.

We had so much success, traveling to all these states — maybe I was a little naive, I just thought that would — I saw it out there, i felt it.

[Arne Duncan works to sell Obama administration’s preschool initiative]

You kind of thought that momentum in the states would be enough to make it happen in Congress.

I thought that would be enough, I thought that would translate, and I’ve got to be honest, it wasn’t even close. We got three or four House Republicans and not one Senate Republican. I felt the momentum, I felt the movement, I saw the need.

So that’s one failure. Two, and I was hopeful on this too and it failed: Financial aid for undocumented students.

I meet all the time these amazing students who’ve worked hard, done great stuff and they’re looking at me, what are you going to do to help me in college? I basically say I’m so sorry, we’re crazy in this country, it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

But the hardest is the gun control issue and the violence.

Just the other day was the third anniversary of Sandy Hook. That changed my life, and the president has been very public — think about everything the president has dealt with and for that to be unequivocally the worst, the hardest day of his presidency. We have nothing, zero, in terms of legislation passed to keep kids safe.

[Obama vows to push for changes to prevent massacres]

We choose to let hundreds of kids die every year and that is a conscious choice. Today, that’s an acceptable loss of life and for other countries that have made a conscious choice to keep their kids safe, they say that is not an acceptable rate of loss. Other countries just value their kids more than we do, and that’s heartbreaking. I’m going to continue to try and work to change that.

My wife’s from Australia, from Tasmania, where they had that horrific Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Couple dozen people killed, an unprecedented, horrific disaster. A conservative government changed the laws and since ’96, there hasn’t been one mass shooting in Australia. They’ve raised an entire generation that never had a mass shooting and you think of what we have in the United States and it’s almost weekly now.

That’s the gift that Australia gave its kids, and what we’ve given our kids is a constant state of fear. It doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ve heard you talk passionately about this issue before. I know you haven’t said publicly what you’re going to do next, but I wonder if gun violence is an issue you might work on?

I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I haven’t had time or honestly the emotional capacity to think about it.

Education’s always going to be my life’s passion, I’m going to keep finding ways to do education, but it’s hard to educate a kid that’s dead. It’s hard to educate a kid that’s living in constant fear. So will this be a piece of what I work on? Absolutely. It’s a national issue and obviously it’s particularly acute back home in Chicago. I can’t go home and not try and help. I don’t have easy answers but I’m sure going to try.

Looking back again at your K-12 policy decisions, you made two big bets through waivers and Race to the Top: Pushing states to adopt new teacher evaluations and standards. And many states did. But in hindsight, considering the backlash from Congress and from parents upset about standardized testing, and looking at what the American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association and the National Research Council have said about the problems of using value-added models to make personnel decisions … do you feel like those were the right big bets?

[Education researchers caution against using test scores to evaluate teachers]

I think we made a lot more big bets than that, so I think you’re actually oversimplifying. Early childhood education was a huge bet. The biggest bet was actually the school turnaround stuff, that was more money than anything. That was arguably the biggest bet.

High standards were absolutely the right things to do. Thinking about the importance of linking teacher evaluation to student learning, there are a million ways to do it and it hasn’t been done perfectly anywhere. But if you’re trying to have a real profession, if you’re trying to value the extraordinarily hard work of teachers and shine a spotlight on success and excellence, you can’t divorce teaching from learning.

So many states are moving forward, everyone in an imperfect way, but you have to ask: Compared to what? We had a bunch of states where it was literally against the law to link student learning and teacher evaluations. What were we rebelling against, what were we challenging, what status quo were we saying was unacceptable?

But there’s a difference between the idea of linking teacher evaluation and student learning, which I don’t think anyone would object to, and the reality of how it has played out on the ground. It’s been really hard to get that right, and there are a lot of questions about whether it’s been done fairly.

It’s been really hard to get right, and I think people are struggling with it. But I think it’s a really important struggle. They’re in the game, they’re trying. They’re going to make adjustments. But again, was what was happening before — was it fair, was it reliable, was it valid? Did it identify excellence? None of those things. So struggle is good.

[New Mexico judge hits pause on controversial teacher evaluation system]

In a perfect world maybe you do this over a five- or 10-year period. Our kids have one shot at an education. We have so many kids who have been poorly served. The critique that many of us get, including us, is we are moving too fast, but the truth is we are not getting better fast enough as a nation.

We put out yesterday, high school graduation rates are at all time highs. I love that. I love that black kids are up and Hispanic kids are up and English language learners are up. But we still have about 750,000 kids every year, every year, dropping out of high school. What chance do they have?

[High school graduation rates hit all-time high]

So how do we get better faster? Hopefully what we’ve done is put a sense of urgency in here.

We still have 9 percent of low income kids who graduate from college. What’s it going to take to dramatically change that? High school graduation is up during your tenure, but results on NAEP — the National Assessment of Educational Progress — have been disappointing.

The good news on college graduation rates for black and Hispanic students is it doubled over the past 20 years. That’s the soundbite. The reality is Hispanic has doubled from 8 to 15 percent and black from 13 to 23. Are we going to sit here in 2035 and say yeah we’re heroes, we’ve doubled again and we now have Hispanic at 30 percent, and black still under half? We have to get better.

So what’s it going to take?

It’s not one thing. The building block of early childhood education is critically important. And we are not there yet. I think higher standards are hugely important. I think focusing on teacher excellence is hugely important. I think what No Child got absolutely wrong was this theory of change of being very tight on means and very loose on goals, for me that was always backwards. What we’ve been able to do is flip that in [NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act], so be tight on goals but give states and districts a lot more flexibility to hit them. I think that’s going to open up a lot more innovation and creativity.

I’m actually hopeful, I think we’re positioned to accelerate the pace of change in K-12. The early childhood piece worries me tremendously, that lack of investment in three- and four-year-olds you can draw a direct line from there to not increasing fast enough the number of 21-year-olds and 22-year-olds who graduate from college.

You believe in the power of the federal government to do good and make sure that disadvantaged kids get access to the education they deserve. So there’s this irony — you did what you thought was right for kids, and the backlash against that has produced this law that really constricts the federal role.

[Obama signs new federal education law]

It doesn’t, that much. The truth is very different than what some folks in the media have reported.

If you look at the substance of the bill — the focus on early childhood education, which never happened in the history of this law before. It’s now the law of the land to have high standards. A push on the civil rights side that is desperately important to focus on the bottom five percent of schools, focus on dropout factories, focus on achievement gaps. None of these things were in the law before. These are all huge steps in the right direction. Maintaining annual testing but also incentives not to overtest. For me, just the thread of tight on goals but loose on means.

So you feel like the department will still have the teeth it needs to protect the interests of all kids.

Absolutely. Our department absolutely has the ability to regulate, to implement the law. Every bill’s a compromise, and we are happy to compromise on surface-y soundbites and maintain our values on the substance.

We’ve had very close communications with Senator Alexander and Congressman Kline for years, and they were very clear the goal here was not just to play politics but to actually pass legislation that the president could be proud to support. They had to placate some to their hard right but they were also committed to walking away from their hard right, and that’s a difficult political thing to do. But what both committed to was they would not be held hostage by their far right, and they would produce a bill in conference that was dramatically better than both the House and Senate bill, and one the president could be proud to support. And for the last 18 months they have been more than true to their word. I give them tremendous credit for choreographing this to get to a very good outcome.

And to be clear, I absolutely believe in the power of federal government, but I believe in the power of state government and the power of local government. This is always going to be a local issue. I was a local superintendent, the federal government generally was not my friend. They were my enemy. I’ve always come to this with skepticism and I think we’ve moved this to a much better spot.

Do you wish you’d used that extraordinary power you had through waivers and Race to the Top to push for universal pre-k or for equitable funding?

You had to get stuff passed, so there were places you’d have like to have played but couldn’t have. You had to be real. Congress had to pass this stuff.

Not the waivers. 

You couldn’t do universal pre-k in waivers. You just can’t. Well I guess you could have, but in our calculation it wouldn’t have worked.

Give yourself a grade, A to F, for your work during the past seven years.

That’s for you guys to do.

Who’s the best 2016 presidential candidate on education?

I won’t answer you directly, I’m sorry.

What is heartbreaking to me is education is not talked about in presidential debates. A strong military is our best defense, but our best offense is a great educational system for every kid, and the fact that there is nothing going on, no conversation, no debate. And no one has a monopoly on good ideas, left, right, Democratic, Republican, but let’s have a debate on outcomes.

Let’s debate what’s your goal for early childhood education and why? What’s your goal for high school graduation rates and your strategy to get there? What’s your goal for reducing college remediation rates, what your goal for boosting college completing rates? If every candidate had to articulate their goals for those four things, and their concrete strategy to achieve those goals, man that would be great for the country. Regardless of who won.

I went to CNN’s editorial board a couple months ago and pleaded with them on these four questions. I thought there was interest, but last night [during the GOP debate on CNN], not one of them. That was really disappointing. I really tried on that one. Clearly I failed in that effort. Didn’t happen.