Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks STEM, education priorities

April 9, 2009

By hammersmith

Science 10 April 2009:
Vol. 324. no. 5924, p. 159
DOI: 10.1126/science.324.5924.159

An Interview With Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former head of Chicago public schools, has big plans–and billions of new dollars–to improve U.S. education from preschool through graduate studies. On 25 March, he sat down in his Washington, D.C., office with Science to discuss his plans for the department and for the country.

What do we know works to improve student achievement in K-12 STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education?
A.D.: I’d say great teachers, who know the content.


How do we know that?
A.D.: I think that’s true in any subject area. If you get outstanding teachers, kids learn.


What’s the evidence for that?
A.D.: Lots of evidence points to the fact that great teachers have an impact.


What is it about effective teachers that makes a difference?
A.D.: Lots of factors. It’s not one. In this area, it sounds like common sense, but still, having teachers that truly know the content is critically important. You can’t teach what you don’t know. So that’s a starting point. Beyond that, what do great teachers look like? They are passionate, they have high expectations–this is a calling, not a job. They go way beyond the call of duty to make sure that students are getting what they need. And they are really able to differentiate instruction, to work with kids who are struggling and those who are on track to becoming the next generation of chemists and physicists.


You mentioned content. But there are studies that have found what teachers majored in in college doesn’t necessarily affect their ability to improve student achievement.
A.D.: You’re right. I’m not talking about what you major in. I’m saying that you can’t teach physics if you don’t know physics. You don’t have to have majored in physics. Maybe you come out of industry, or out of some other place. I worry a lot about how many folks are teaching classes in which they are not experts in the content. To me, that’s a big part of the problem. We don’t have enough teachers today who are experts in math and science. This is not just high school, it’s also fifth, sixth, seventh grade.


What can the federal government do to change that situation?
A.D.: A lot. We have very significant resources that can go to professional development, that can go to sending folks back to universities to get endorsements in math and science. As you know, I’m pushing hard to pay math and science teachers more. We need to give them professional opportunities to build skills when they don’t have them. In Chicago, we sent hundreds and hundreds of teachers back to get endorsements.
I think we also have to think about compartmentalization in the middle school level, getting folks that really know the content. We have a national shortage, and we need to think differently about how we close that gap.


With regard to professional development, a new report concluded that we are still predominantly doing spray and pray. Why is it, after so many years and so many studies about what constitutes good professional development, that it’s still not happening?
A.D.: I think that’s the easy way out, and people tend to do what they’ve always done. This goes back to getting endorsements and acquiring the content knowledge. It’s going to require a change in culture.


What can the federal government do to change that culture?
A.D.: We are going to put an unprecedented amount of money on the table to encourage folks to think differently about these things and give them the resources to do it.


Are you worried that the stimulus will preserve the status quo, since it’s focused on preserving jobs?
A.D.: Yes. So we wanted to make it very clear that’s not where we are aiming. Maybe there’s an inherent tension, but I don’t see it. We’re trying to avoid two things. You don’t want to see class size go from 25 to 40. There’s no upside for anybody there. So you need to keep teachers, you need to keep counselors and social workers.

But you also need to use an historical level of investment to work with those teachers, send them back to school and get the proper level of training. You can also use the money to pay math and science teachers five or 10 grand more. Pay folks who are going to the toughest schools extra money. So you can do really creative things that haven’t happened before.

And we’re trying to incent that by telling states that a big piece of how we’re going to evaluate those states who compete for the $5 billion in the Race to the Top funds is to look at how they spent their stimulus money. And if all they are doing is investing in the status quo, then basically that will disqualify themselves for the Race to the Top money. We want to see folks innovate with existing resources, to give them incentives to do the right thing.


What evidence do you have that higher pay will attract better STEM teachers?
A.D.: I don’t think money alone is the answer. We’ve had shortages for decades. So let’s do something different. When you have an imbalance between supply and demand, let’s do something to create larger demand. I think that one of the few benefits of the current economic recession is that more folks may start to think about alternative certification. It’s a chance for us to get some really smart folks to come in from industry.

They aren’t going to do it for the extra five to 10 grand, but it doesn’t hurt. That’s another piece of the equation. I don’t want to be saying 30 years from now that, guess what, we’re still short on math and science teachers. That doesn’t make any sense.


But professional development is for teachers who are already in the system. They haven’t left, but they aren’t performing at the right level.
A.D.: Yes, you need to do two things. You need to strengthen the existing pool, and you also need to increase the size of the pool coming in.


You’ve talked about the value of alternative certification. But there are different approaches. Attracting midcareer professionals is one approach. But then there’s the Teach for America model, and the UTeach [at the University of Texas] model. What are the strengths and weaknesses of those different approaches?
A.D.: I love ’em all. I see them as three different buckets. You have the young guns, the Teach for America students who are right out of school. Then you have the midcareer changers. Then you have a set of folks in their 50s and 60s, moving toward retirement. But they still have a good 10 to 15 years in them. I think we need to work very aggressively in all three areas. The important thing is to collect the data and track them over time, to see who’s achieving the best results for children.

You have folks coming out of Motorola, who are phenomenally talented. Motorola is laying off thousands of people, and why don’t we open the door to them?


But are they talented in being a high school chemistry teacher?
A.D.: I think those who want to do this, and who have a heart for it, will be phenomenally talented. Will they all be A-grade? No. But at home [Chicago], we found that among the midcareer changers, the retention rates were phenomenal. It wasn’t a passing fancy. Now, maybe it was different a few years ago. They weren’t getting laid off. They were making a decision to leave a job and take a 70% pay cut, because they always had a desire to teach but they had pursued something that was more lucrative but, frankly, wasn’t as fulfilling as they thought it would be. They had been successful in their jobs, but something inside them was missing. I just think they represent a huge pool of talent that could be of great benefit to our schools.


Why can’t they just do it on their own? What’s the federal role?
A.D.: Yeah. There are some places that really encourage alternative certification, and there are other places where these guys are just locked out, where the schools of education have a monopoly. So I think we can challenge that. We can also use these dollars to send people back to get their master’s. We want to play heavily in the area of talent. Talent matters tremendously. There may be lots of folks who want to do this. And we should be doing what we can to help them grow, to take it to a whole ‘nother scale.

We don’t have to create models. We just need to invest in what works and build upon what is successful.


What are your criteria for measuring what works? Is it a randomized control trial, which some people have criticized as not being appropriate for measuring school outcomes?
A.D.: I’m looking at where we can see demonstrable gains in student achievement, where we see students performing better than they have done in the past.


On standardized, end-of-the-year, tests?
A.D.: That’s a piece of it. But you can go beyond that. You can look at [Advanced Placement] results, you can look at teacher attendance, student attendance, graduation rates. You can look at a reduction in violence. There is a range of indicators. But at the end of the day, it’s about student achievement.


Who’s going to decide that balance?
A.D.: I think you need to have a comprehensive set of factors. We’re still trying to determine how we will issue the [Request for Proposals] and the guidelines. But at the end of the day, I’m going to be looking at student achievement.


Another approach that the government uses is loan forgiveness, based on the idea that it’s a cost-effective way to entice students to become teachers. Is there any evidence that it works better than just raising entry standards or paying them more?
A.D.: Yeah. Again, these aren’t choices. I think we need to be doing all of these things. We need to raise standards for teachers and send them back to school. But I also absolutely think we should be doing loan forgiveness.

Again, it’s changed a little bit because of the economic times, which are playing in our favor right now. But historically, we’ve lost lots of great talent to our sectors because students couldn’t afford to go into the classroom and still pay back $60,000 in loans. They desperately wanted to teach, had a passion for it, but they literally couldn’t afford it.

So would loan forgiveness increase the quality and the size of the pool? Absolutely. People tell me all the time that they aren’t happy. They’re making a lot of money, but they say they would have loved to have taught but they couldn’t afford it. And many of them are the midcareer changers.


In the 2010 budget, you have requested a $2.5 billion fund for college completion. Leaving aside the cost of tuition, what are colleges doing wrong, in your opinion, and why is there so much attrition?
A.D.: I think it’s because, as a country, we haven’t shone a spotlight on this issue. It’s interesting to me that in recent years we as a country have become very aware of high school graduation rates. But nobody really knows what college graduation and dropout rates are. And there are very few incentives for universities to graduate students. They get money based on kids coming in the door. There’s no back-end incentive. And I think colleges are like high schools are like elementary schools: You have some schools that do a phenomenal job with this, some are in the middle, and some do a very poor job.

We saw this at home. We tracked how different segments of kids (3.0 kids, 3.5 kids, 20 on the ACT, and so on) did at different universities in our area. And there was huge variation. In fact, we started to steer some kids toward some schools and away from other schools. So I think we need to take those best practices with certain kids–whether it’s first-generation kids, or kids coming from poor communities, or whatever–and apply them more broadly.

So what were they doing right?
A.D.: It’s the same thing that works in high school. It’s a strategy, it’s a culture, it’s a set of supports. It’s a commitment to working with those students. It’s looking at kids, one by one, and figuring out who’s at risk, and who’s not, and what adults are available, and what types of supports that we’re going to put around them to make sure they come out the back end.


Historically, most universities haven’t seen that as one of their roles. And in science, there’s actually a culture of weeding kids out, so that only the strongest survive. Sounds like you’re talking about changing an entire culture.
A.D.: We’re trying. But the president has drawn a line in the sand and has said that by 2020 we want to regain our place internationally as the country with the highest percentage of college graduates among the population of 25- to 34-year-olds. It’s not so much that we have dropped but that we’ve stagnated and other countries have passed us by. So for us to get where we need to go, we need to dramatically increase the number of students who graduate from high schools, with the skills to go on to college–in other words, that the diploma means something–and that creates the base. But then we need to have universities working hard to make sure they graduate. And this is for both 4-year and 2-year schools.


Do calculators hinder a student’s ability to reach automaticity in basic arithmetic? The National Math Panel addressed that issue.
A.D.: Ask them. (He turns to aides Pat Johnson and Steve Robinson.) Any opinions?

I think the research suggests that students need to be automatic with their facts, and if calculators hinder that, then it’s a problem. But otherwise, there’s no evidence that it interferes with their ability to perform high-level math.


Is there a policy in Chicago schools?
A.D.: We allow them. Students have to know the facts. But as far as graphing calculators, we felt that the more kids have access to technology, that’s a good thing.


Do you think we have clear definitions and agreement on what students should know about science before they leave high school?
A.D.: I would say that, across the board, we need to get clearer, higher, fewer standards. We talk a lot about internationally benchmarked standards. And I would argue that in many places around the country, our standards are far too low.


How will we get there?
A.D.: There’s a growing national wave that’s propelling all of us in that direction. You have governors who totally understand it, you have the state school chiefs, who are clearly on board, you have the business community that’s begging for higher standards and a more qualified work force. You have nonprofits, like Achieve, Gates, the College Board, who are on board. And in the past several weeks, you’ve seen both national [teachers] unions–the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] and NEA [National Education Association]–come on board. So there’s a fascinating confluence, all saying that what we’re doing now hurts children and our economy.

So I think we have a terrific opportunity at this point in time, where we don’t need to create them, we just need to be a catalytic force, so that we can not just keep talking about them, but we can make it happen. There’s an absolute consensus that what we’re now doing isn’t good enough and won’t take us where we want to go.


You’ve said we’re lying to kids by having these different, low standards. And you’ve also said you want to do what works. If we know what works, why don’t we mandate it?
A.D.: You could, although I think that would ultimately fail. This isn’t federal standards.


Why would it fail?
A.D.: Because there would be such a backlash. The goal here is to get it done and not create a lot of drama. We’re all aiming for the same goal, so the question is a strategic one of what it takes to get there. And what I’m convinced is that, because there’s so much passion, for so many years–this isn’t my idea–and folks much smarter than I who have been driving this and making extraordinary progress. By supporting their work, and by being the catalytic force, this thing has momentum of its own. And having it come from the states, and from the community, rather than top-down, is much more powerful. And it will give us something at the end of the day that has much more buy-in.


But the states were the ones who created a system that is lying to our kids? Why do you think they will finally do it right this time?
A.D.: Because they have finally figured it out.


What changed?
A.D.: Go ask them. I think they realized that what’s happened in the past is not in their state’s best interest, nor in their children’s best interest. Often, what is the right thing to do takes political courage, and it’s easier to do what is not the right thing. So a lot of what we can do is provide the resources and the political cover for folks who are making tough, hard decisions that are ultimately in the best interests of their children and of the country.


You’ve talked a lot about the impact of mentors. But your decision to play ball in Australia seems like an exception, an example of going it alone. Why did you go there?
A.D.: Because I wanted to play ball.


Were you disappointed when you got cut by the Eastside Spectres?
A.D.: Well, I got cut here–I had a tryout with the [Boston] Celtics, and then I got shipped over to the other side of the world. I played for 2 years for the Eastside Spectres, and then 2 years in Tasmania.


Why did you decide to stop?
A.D.: It sounds corny, but I was really close to staying there forever. I was making lots of money, doing something I loved. They gave you a house and a car. I met my wife–she wasn’t my wife yet. And had I stayed another year or two, I would still be there.

I had been given extraordinary opportunities, growing up in Chicago, educationally, socially, and athletically, and I felt I owed something to the community. So I stopped. It was always my dream to be a pro player, so yeah, I had accomplished my goal. It was a phenomenal opportunity. It’s a very seductive lifestyle. Australia is a very fun country. It was a dream. I loved it and missed it. But it was the right decision. In my personal life, I was hitting a fork in the road. There were a lot of people who had given me the opportunity to get somewhere, and I wanted to come back.


What did you learn while you were there?
A.D.: Yes, it was a huge learning opportunity. I worked with Aborigines, that was fascinating. I worked with kids who were wards of the state. Seeing how Australia dealt differently with disadvantaged kids, with poor kids. It was a phenomenal learning opportunity. We’ve been back six or eight times. My wife’s family is there, and we go back every few years.


A new study in Chicago found that requiring algebra in eighth grade led to more failures and no increased ability by students to do higher-level math. Do we need to rethink that strategy? Is there a flaw in that approach?
A.D.: Not at all. I think we need to dramatically raise the quality of teaching at the elementary level. When you face a challenge, you don’t lower the bar. I’d argue that the percentage of teachers in grades six, seven, and eight who are math-endorsed is far too low. We’re sending hundreds and hundreds of teachers back to school. But there’s not yet a critical mass. So I would argue that high school students who struggle did not have the opportunity earlier in their careers to study with teachers who were masters of their craft. And if we can dramatically increase that pool of talent, all the way down to pre-K, where we have teachers who know the content and have the ability to teach it well, you’ll see those numbers go up dramatically.

So you don’t drop the bar when you hit a bump in the road. You just have to figure out how to fix the pipeline.


Will Race to the Top have a special emphasis on middle school?
A.D.: No, we’re going to look at the entire spectrum. I wish we could focus on one thing and call it a day. But this is a very ambitious agenda, and we have to push really hard on all aspects. If there was one magic bullet, I’d love to pull it out. But this is much more complex, and we need a more comprehensive approach.


As the second education secretary with school-aged kids, where does your daughter go to school, and how important was the school district in your decision about where to live?
A.D.: She goes to Arlington [Virginia] public schools. That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.

Would you like to see such geographic disparity disappear?
A.D.: That’s why we all come to work here. That’s what drives us.