Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - December 7, 2010

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: A new global survey of school achievement shows U.S. students falling behind much of the rest of the world in reading, science, and math. The daunting results found in the Program on International Student Achievement, or PISA, test showed 15-year-olds in more than a dozen countries, including South Korea and Poland, outperform American students.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a massive wakeup call. I spoke with him during an education town hall today at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

You're very blunt in describing our deficiencies. How does that square with Americans' desire to think of themselves as exceptional?

U.S. EDUCATION SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: I think it's my job to tell the truth.

And whether you look at these recent PISA results, which we are mediocre at best, whether you look at a 25 percent dropout rate in this country, whether you look at, in one generation, that we have fallen from first to ninth in the world in college graduates, by any measure, we're not doing what we need to be doing to keep America great.

And I'm just absolutely convinced we have to educate our way to a better economy. That's the only way we're going to get there. This is the best long-term investment we can make. And so I think it's my job to be the truth-teller.

And the only way we get better is to look in the mirror, assess our strengths and weaknesses, and figure out where we need to go. But if we run around saying, we're number one, we're number one, and we're not, that doesn't help us get where we need to go.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Let's move on to a different question, this college completion rate. By 2018 -- I know you know this -- America is going to need 22 million educated workers.

It's on the trajectory to be three million workers short of that number.


GWEN IFILL: How do you begin to close that gap? And explain a little bit more fully exactly how we got to this point, where so many people are going to college, and so few are leaving college with a degree?

ARNE DUNCAN: If the goal is to dramatically improve college completion rates, not college-going rates by itself...


ARNE DUNCAN: ... but college completion, it's not just a college problem. I will get there.

You have to, again, in all these things, look at the whole continuum. So, we need a big focus on early childhood education. Our early childhood education system is pretty good in this country. Not enough students have opportunity. And, very discouragingly, they lose their advantage because they go to poor schools after that. So, let's focus on our babies.

Secondly, we have had this massive effort on K-12 reform, raising standards, great teachers, great principals, turning around chronically failing schools, raising the bar, huge amount of progress. Let's continue that.

Finally, we have to build a culture around college completion at the -- at higher education, both at four-year and two-year institutions. To tell you exactly what we're doing, we're going to every single state. We're looking at every single four-year and two-year school in those states.

We're telling them what their college -- what their graduation rates are now, and to hit the president's goal, how much each of those universities has to contribute in terms of improving outcomes. We can tell every single institution of higher education what they need to do to contribute.

I just want to say that they can't do it alone. We have to fix the pipeline. So, a huge amount of work has to be to increase the quality of student going into higher education. Far too many of our children today, our students, need remedial education. We have been lying to them. They're not really ready for college. That's not higher education's fault. That's our fault K-12.

GWEN IFILL: So, the stagnation is because we have not prepared these students about what awaits them in college; this confidence or this just being admitted to college, which is where our focus has been, has been the wrong one?

ARNE DUNCAN: Gwen, we have just -- as a country, we have been complacent. We have been complacent.

And we have -- other countries have outeducated us. They have outinvested in -- us. They have made this a priority. And a big part of what I'm trying to do, frankly, is raise the profile of education and get America to wake up.

And I think you're seeing lots of signs that America is starting to wake up. It's not so much -- it's interesting. College graduation rates, we have gone from first to ninth. It's not that we dropped. We're exactly where we were nine years ago -- I mean, sorry -- sorry -- a generation ago.

We have just flatlined. We haven't moved. Other countries haves passed us by. They're outworking us. They're outcompeting us. We have got to wake up and we have got to start moving.

So, my interest is, what do we do starting today as fast as we can to get to the next level? And I think we have a really clear game plan of K-12 reform, much better college graduation rates, invest in early childhood education. We have a cradle-to-career strategy to dramatically change those numbers.

GWEN IFILL: Now, there are some people who say that part of the stagnation in U.S. test numbers has to do with -- they call it the diversity excuse, that there is a preponderance, especially in a public school system, of immigrants or people of color who are not performing.

What's your response to that?

ARNE DUNCAN: Well, it's fascinating, Gwen. That's probably the biggest -- one of the biggest fights I fight every day is, I have a set of folks who want to tell me that poverty is destiny.

And what you see around the world is that poverty is not destiny. In other countries, much more systemically, student after student, school after school, year after year, educate poor and disadvantaged young people. And, so, anyone who says that you can't overcome these battles is a huge part of the problem.

Now, having said that, we need to invest much more. These students need more help. They need wrap-around services. They need the best teachers. There's so much that we're doing wrong today. And studies show we're one of three countries that doesn't invest more in disadvantaged communities.

So, folks who say you can't do it are wrong. Folks that say keep doing the same thing is wrong. We need to invest in very different ways. Get the students the support they need, get them the best principals, get them the great teachers, and I promise you those students would do extraordinarily well. I have seen it all my life.

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