Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

By The Situation Room - September 14, 2010

BLITZER: President Obama is putting students front and center on this day in the second back-to-school address. He's pushing the nation's kids to work hard and stay focused on their education even when it gets tough.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And my grades were slipping. I hadn't started my college applications. I was acting, as my mother put it, sort of casual about my future. I was doing good enough, you know. I was smart enough that I could kind of get by. But I wasn't really applying myself, and so, I suspect there's a conversation that will sound familiar to some students and some parents here today. She decided to sit me down and said I had to change my attitude.

My attitude was what I imagine every teenager's attitude is when your parents have this conversation with you like that. I was like, you know, I don't need to hear all of this. I'm doing OK. I'm not flunking out. So, I started to say that, and she just cut me right off. She said, you can't just sit around waiting for luck to see you through. She said, you can get into any school that you want in the country if you just put in a little bit effort. She gave me a hard look, and she said, you remember what that's like, effort?


BLITZER: Education is certainly a major priority for the Obama administration. A $117 billion already been spent, invested in programs under the American recovery and reinvestment act. And there's a big focus on early education and holding teachers accountable. Accountability is undergoing a critical test today right here in the president's backyard where the incumbent mayor is fighting for his political life.

And joining us now from the White House, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: The education policy is that the current mayor in Washington D.C., Adrian Fenty, and his education chief, Michelle Rhee, they tried to do the best they can. They were implementing policies that you and the president support. The president is obviously very much onboard. Why didn't the president endorse the incumbent mayor?

DUNCAN: Well, I think the president had elections all over the country, and I don't know if he can endorse in every situation. But speaking personally, we've been extraordinarily pleased with the progress here in DC. As you know so well, Wolf, for probably decades, the school system here on the nation's capital was frankly an embarrassment, horrendous results for children. And over the past three years, we've seen remarkable progress. And I give the mayor and the chancellor -- chancellor re tremendous credit for having the courage to move the system in the right direction.

BLITZER: Listen to what our education contributor, Steve Perry, said earlier today here on CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) STEVE PERRY, CNN EDUCATION CONTRIBUTOR: I am disappointed that the president has not come out in favor of Mayor Fenty as well as Michelle Rhee. She was someone who he used as a point of credibility for his own plans. Now that the house is on fire, he's not there to speak loudly or throw a bucket of water on the fire.

BLITZER: You know Steve Perry. He's really disappointed in the president because Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee are about to lose, if you believe the polls. And the president, if he had gotten involved, presumably could have helped them.

DUNCAN: I don't know the politics. I don't know what will happen today. But, again, the courage showed by Mayor Fenty and Michelle Rhee have been fantastic. Their reforms have to continue here. D.C.'s made tremendous progress. Clearly has a long way to go. And that progress cannot afford to stop. There's no reason this school system should be one of the worst in the country. It has the chance to be one of the best. We want to work very, very hard. As you know, D.C. is one of the winners of the race to the top competition in the second round, one of the 11 winners, we're investing $75 million in the district because we believe so strongly in the direction it's going and the reforms have to continue.

BLITZER: If they lose, if Mayor Fenty loses and as education policies go down, won't that send a disturbing signal to other mayors, other education chiefs around the country -- you know what? You better not tamper with the status quo because you could be going down? The powerful special interests might take you down?

DUNCAN: I don't think so. There's been tremendous interest shown here. What you've seen Mayor Daley do in Chicago since 1995, what you see Mayor Bloomberg doing in New York. And stepping up saying we can't have a great city if we don't have a great public education system. Continuing to drive education reform is hugely important. School systems can't do it by themselves. Everyone has to rally behind that effort. The business community, the philanthropic community, the not for profit, the social services agencies, everybody has to work together to give our children the chance they need to fulfill the academic and social potential.

BLITZER: Let me read to you a line for that foundation for public education report that came out not that long ago. "The American educational system is systematically failing black males. Out of the 48 states reporting, black males are the least likely to graduate from high school in 33 states and black and Latino males are tied with the least likely in four states." Why have we failed the black young man in the country?

DUNCAN: I think there's a multitude of reasons why. I think we have to start much earlier, great early childhood programs, making sure that students enter kindergarten, ready to learn, ready to read. The young black boys who don't have a strong father figure at home need a mentor or role model at an early age to support them. Give them a vision of what success looks like. What's possible? For all of the devastating statistics nationally, we have more and more high poverty, high performing schools where 99 percent of black males are graduating, going to college. We have to build upon the successes. Finally, Wolf, one of the challenges is across the country now, less than 2 percent, less than 1 in 50 of our teachers is an African- American male. Something is wrong with that picture. We want to help recruit that next generation of black male leaders to come to the classroom and make a difference in the life of our children.

BLITZER: This other line jumped out at me, I'll read it to you. "The great variation of the factors among districts and states indicates it drivers are not individual students but the adults responsible for the policies and practices of the educational systems in which they study." You agree, the adults are to blame, not the kids.

DUNCAN: Absolutely. Poverty is not destiny. Social challenges in the community are not destiny. We can take you to school after school in some of the toughest neighborhoods in urban areas around the country where, again, every single student is graduating from high school and the overwhelming majority is going to college. We, as adults, have to lift our game. If we don't do it, we perpetuate poverty and social failure. It's incumbent upon us to give our students the opportunities they need to fulfill their god-given potential.

BLITZER: The education secretary. Good luck, we're counting on you, Mr. Secretary.


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