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Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

The Situation Room - March 10, 2009

BLITZER: He wants schools open almost year round and he wants to fire teachers who don't meet standards. President Obama today unveiled another ambitious and very controversial blueprint. This one would overhaul the nation's educational system.

And joining us now, the Education secretary, Arnie Duncan.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming in.

ARNE DUNCAN, EDUCATION SECRETARY: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

BLITZER: The president has drawn a line in the sand with a traditional ally of the Democrats, teacher unions, right now. They don't like several parts of what the president is proposing, do they?

DUNCAN: Well, I actually disagree. I've talked to Dennis Van Roekel, from the president of the NEA today. Randi Weingarten is actually in Angola, but we talked to her. They actually were thrilled with his speech and...

BLITZER: Thrilled about the fact that teachers could be fired for merit?

DUNCAN: I think they realize the president is not some wild ideologue, that he cares passionately about children. He wants us to get dramatically better and that we all have to work differently, so.

BLITZER: Haven't they always opposed merit pay, for example?

DUNCAN: Well, we worked in Chicago with the union, with great teachers to create a merit pay proposal. But you have to do things that make sense. You have to do it with teachers, not to teachers, which is a very important distinction.

But people know collectively that we have to get better. And I think they sense, more than anything, the president's passion and his extraordinary commitment to getting better.

BLITZER: Who determines when a teacher should be fired?

DUNCAN: I think ultimately the principal needs to.

BLITZER: The principal of the local -- of the elementary school or middle school or of the high school?

DUNCAN: Sure.

BLITZER: And the labor union should have no say in that?

DUNCAN: Well, you have different situations in different places. You have some places where there's peer review. And guess what, we have strong peer review programs. Those other teachers -- those union teachers have a very high bar. And sometimes they're much tougher than a principal on...

BLITZER: Do these teacher unions like the fact that a good teacher, an excellent teacher, would be allowed to get more money, surpassing the money, for example, of a more veteran teacher?

DUNCAN: Yes. We have to reward excellence. You have...

BLITZER: But do the unions like that?

DUNCAN: I think, again, you have variations there. And I can't speak for the unions, but you have, again, great, great teachers throughout the country who go way beyond the call of duty every single day. We can't do enough to award excellence, incent it, put a spotlight on it and let the country know how much great teaching matters. The president talks about that all the time. There's nothing more important than getting great teachers in every classroom.

BLITZER: And should the principal be responsible, primarily, for who determines a good teacher versus a bad teacher?

DUNCAN: No. I think there are different ways to do that. Again, you -- a principal can be part of that. I think we need to look at how students are performing. We need to look at student results to see who's really making a great difference in students' lives.

BLITZER: The unions traditionally -- the teachers unions didn't like charter schools because they were afraid it would take money away from regular public schools.

Are they on board with you now on the whole charter school proposal?

DUNCAN: Well, let me be clear, charter schools are our schools, they're our children, our tax dollars.

What people may forget, do you know who started talking about charter schools originally?

Albert Shanker.

(LAUGHTER)

DUNCAN: Charter schools...

BLITZER: He was one of the leaders of the teachers' union.

DUNCAN: He came out of the AFT.

BLITZER: Yes.

DUNCAN: And, you know, you have great teachers who are leading -- great unions who are actually running charter schools. In New York, Randi Weingarten, the now head of the AFT nationally, had a series of charter schools that he was running.

So this is really time to get past sort of the old ideologies, the old status quo where, frankly, we weren't doing enough for children. We have to behave dramatically different. And if innovation is working, we need to do more of it.

BLITZER: I didn't hear the president say much, if anything, about vouchers if there is a crummy school and the kids there have an opportunity, let's say, to go to a good Catholic school, they would get a voucher to help pay for private school education.

Is that something the president is in favor of?

DUNCAN: Well, I can't really, you know, speak for the president on that. I will tell you what I personally believe is that we need to fix the public school system, that we should not be satisfied. Vouchers, to me, aren't the answer. We shouldn't be satisfied with getting, you know, 1 percent of kids, say, 2 percent. We need to change entire systems and get dramatically better and help 100 percent of children. And we have to have the commitment to challenge the status quo to do that so that every child has a chance to a great public education, not just a handful. That's not good enough.

BLITZER: But what if, in the short-term, there's -- that's not going to be possible.

Should the kids have a voucher?

Because there have been some experiments around the country with vouchers and many of those experiments have turned out to be pretty good.

DUNCAN: Actually, the results have been pretty mixed. And, ultimately, again, I think we have to be more ambitious than that. I -- again, I'm just speaking for myself personally, I don't think that's the answer. The answer is to really dramatically change what's going on in public education so that every child -- not just a few, not a handful, every child has a chance to get a great education.

BLITZER: The president was intriguing, also, in speaking about an all year round school system...

DUNCAN: Yes.

BLITZER: ...and longer hours to compete with kids elsewhere around the world, whether in India or China or Japan or elsewhere.

What do you believe?

Should there be school for kids all year round, no summer vacations?

DUNCAN: Well, there were a couple of huge themes in his speech. One, he talked a lot about talent and that talent matters tremendously. Getting great teachers, great principals into our schools and into the schools that have historically been under served is hugely important. So talent matters tremendously.

Secondly, guess what?

So does time. And he talked a lot about our academic calendar is based upon the agrarian economy. Most places around the country today, children are not working in the fields in the summer. And relative to other countries, we're in school 25, 30 percent less. You know, a huge (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: So how long of a school year do you think would be good for public school in the United States?

DUNCAN: Well, I think we need to be much more creative in the use of time. And let me sort of walk you through, because it can be a little bit complex there.

I think our schools should be open long hours after school. They should be open until 8:00, 9:00, so it's not just the school day but...

BLITZER: For extracurricular activities.

DUNCAN: Extracurricular, drama, art, academic enrichment, sports...

BLITZER: What about -- how many months out of the year?

DUNCAN: I think our schools should be open 11 or 12 months out of the year.

And what we need to do in the summer is give poor children the chance to have all the enrichment that middle class children do. So I would love to see all of our children have a chance to go visit a college campus. I would love to see them do academic enrichment. I would love to see them do outdoors programs.

I'd love to see them develop their skills and interests. If they need more help in reading and math, get that.

So it's not just extending the traditional school day, it's really being creative in the use of time. And why this is so important is that we see all the time across the country, we see poor children who aren't lucky enough to be read to every night at home, who get to a certain point in June, they progress throughout the year and they come back in September and guess what?

They're further behind in September than when they left. It's called summer reading loss. We have to combat that and we have to give our children a chance to continue to improve and compete with the children in China, in India. They are working harder, longer hours than we are and our children are at a competitive disadvantage.

BLITZER: Nothing is more important than the education of our young kids.

Mr. Secretary, you've got a huge challenge ahead of you. Good luck.

DUNCAN: This is an historic opportunity. And we think we can dramatically improve the quality of education around the country. It is a remarkable chance to do the right thing by our children.

BLITZER: Thanks for coming in.

DUNCAN: Thanks for having me.

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