Video: Arne Duncan: Give schools flexibility to hit high bar

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    >> us now, the secretary of education, arne duncan on our set.

    >> thanks for having me.

    >> and that was the president on changes to no child left behind . what specifically will the changes be?

    >> we basically want to get out of the way of the states. while the law has good intent, there are fatal flaws today. far too punitive. many ways to fail, no we wareward for success. our children need a narrow curriculum and we will fix those things and have a high bar . we have to give great teachers and educators room to move and can't keep beating down from washington . that's what will change.

    >> what changes will they make that you hope will change the overall negative impact of no child left behind .

    >> we encourage states to raise standards not dummy them down from no child left behind we regarding great teachers and principals and incentive to take on great assignments and make sure districts are turning around chronically under-performing schools dropping down 40, 50% of students. that's gone on too long. in exchange we will get out of their way and give them more room to move. the trade-off is a higher bar and give them flexibility to hit the higher bar.

    >> one of the headlines that came out of this, mr. secretary, you're eliminating a law that says children have to show performance in science and math by 2014 and that seems counselor intuitive to what we are trying to do.

    >> growth and gain and progress and how much better students are getting each year. if you're a great teacher and i come to your classroom three grade levels behind and leave your classroom one grade level behind. under current law, you're a failure and school labeled a failure. i don't think you're a failure. i had two years of growth for one year of instruction. we want to see how much every student and district is improving.

    >> you're not de-emphasizing math and science?

    >> far from it.

    >> let's hope not.

    >> how do you make sure she states are compliant measure up?

    >> they will have a high bar and apply for a waiver and flexibility. if they're dummying things down, we won't give them a waiver and prove we're serious about this. you have seen a huge amount of courage and innovation, 44 states raising standards and working together on next generation of assessments. the federal government has been an inhibitor and stopped the kind of innovation and progress we need. when i ran in chicago public schools , i had to come to washington and beg them to allow me to tutor 25,000 students after school. washington was trying to tell me i couldn't tutor my children after school. it was a huge battle and luckily, i won.

    >> get government out of the way. kind of sound like a republican.

    >> i think there are great teachers, great principals, great educators at the local level. we can't micro-manage 95,000 schools or 15,000 districts. great local educators know what their children and communities need. i travel around the country and see what they need every day. we want to support them.

    >> we're about 30 years from a nation at risk, the reagan era report how public schools were failing. when you look at this historically, was there a moment before '83, where you would point to, as a country, we were educating folks well, and what are the lessons from that moment, if there is one?

    >> it's really interesting. the reason i feel such a huge sense of urgency, today, we have many countries outeducating us. a generation ago we led the world in college graduates. we've not dropped, we flatlined but have 16 countries that passed us by, outeducating us, outinvesting us, and they will outcome pete us tomorrow. and we have to keep jobs in this count country. we are to push hard and look at ourselves in the mirror being critical. we have to get better faster than we have, not because we dropped, we got stagnated and other countries are doing a much better job than we have today and that's unacceptable.

    >> would you argue '50s and '60s because of the cold war investments and science and math?

    >> i think the sputnik moment created a sense of urgency and we're trying to create a sense of urgency now and things happening internationally pushed our country to go further faster. we have to regain that momentum and sense of urgency. it's an inner city issue, rural issue, across the country. our dropout rate is unacceptably high. we have to get that down to zero and make sure high school graduates are college and career ready. a huge emphasis on early childhood education , reform, record increases in pell grants . you can't just have access to college, it's about complete and attainment.

    >> i have a really good friend just laid off, laid off and now has to reapply for her job like so many teachers cross the country do. what do you say to her, someone who wants to teach, young person dying to get in the classroom and because of slash and burn at state houses may not have a job?

    >> it's brutally tough out there, talked to veteran educators teaching, this is the toughest i have ever seen and why the american jobs act is so important. $30 billion to save and restore teacher jobs and $30 billion to rehab schools around the country, so many buildings crumbling, roofs leaking, windows you can't see through and have to make sure teachers are in the classroom and not unemployment line. this is a significant investment and investment in education. we have to make that investment. other countries are doing it where we're seeing class sizes skyrocket and art and p.e. and music and other programs going away, that's not good for our children and the country. we have an opportunity and i desperately hope congress passes this bill.

    >> to rebuild our education system for the future is what you're talking about, that means children entering school this year and next year and years to come might have a chance to do better if you're even halfway successful. not to give you more problems to deal with but how are we accommodating the millions of young people who have dropped out of high school right now? this lost decade?

    >> it's hugely important they have an opportunity to come back to school. as you guys know, if you drop out today, if you don't have a minimum of high school degree , there are basically no good jobs, nothing in the legal economy.

    >> nothing.

    >> why high school programs are important and the economy, making a massive investment there hand folks 38 or 58 going back to retrain, retool, green energy jobs, technology, alternative settings, it can help people get back on their feet and the economy. as as people do that, i think the country will get back on its feet. a big investment in the community college .

    >> you're optimistic. we all have young children around this table. do you feel good about the future of exhibitions?

    >> my wife and i have a fourth grader and second grader. this is personal. we have to get much better. i am wildly optimistic. the hard work i see going around the countries extraordinary. we have to empower those great educators and encourage them to do more. if we as adults do our job, our children will more than meet us halfway.

    >> secretary arne duncan , good to see you again. and NBC News
updated 9/30/2011 8:24:17 AM ET 2011-09-30T12:24:17

States are lining up to drop out of No Child Left Behind, the education initiative that was promoted as a historic achievement of the Bush administration.

Since President Barack Obama announced last month that he would sign an executive order allowing states to request waivers from mandatory participation in the program, at least 27 have signaled that they will ask to opt out, and most others are reviewing their options.

Obama said states could seek waivers as long as they adopt higher standards than those mandated under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as No Child Left Behind is formally titled. The Education Department said most states had already done that, presumably making them eligible for waivers.

Story: Obama lets states opt out of federal school rules

Education Secretary Arne Duncan — who himself had to follow No Child Left Behind when he was chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2008 — isn't just offering the waivers. He's actively encouraging education officials to apply for them, he said, because "No Child Left Behind is fundamentally broken."

"It's far too punitive, far too prescriptive," Duncan said. The 2002 law "led to a narrowing of the curriculum. None of those things are good for children, for education or, ultimately, for our country."

In a letter to state education officials, Duncan cited "innovations and reforms" at the state and local level that "were not anticipated when the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was enacted nearly a decade ago."

Story: Education secretary's letter to state education officials

That's why, he said in an interview with NBC News, "I'm actually giving away the power. ... We are giving the power to states and districts."

Video: Arne Duncan: Give schools flexibility to hit high bar (on this page)

Critics — including many educators — have long said No Child Left Behind locked states into inflexible standards focused solely on reading and math, neglecting subjects like social studies, the arts, health and physical education.

"There's only two things that have been tested as it was, and we know that we want to produce students coming out of high school with a well-rounded education," said Lonny Lemon, school superintendent in Quincy, Ill.

Teach kids to be 'critical thinkers'
Reno Holler, a social studies teacher at Summit High School in Bend, Ore., said No Child Left Behind had created "a culture of 'we need to teach to the test,' rather than teaching to our children and teaching them to be critical thinkers."

Indicating the unpopularity of the testing standards, few critics of Obama's action have emerged, and their objections rest more on his decision to bypass Congress by issuing an executive order.

"The federal role in K-12 education is not working nearly as well as is needed. It must be seriously rethought and restructured," Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit policy institute, wrote Thursday. But, he added, "Congress is about this work" — not the executive branch.

Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit institution promoting higher public education standards, blamed "political problems," noting that Congress has ended its last three sessions without revamping the law to address educators' widespread concerns.

Video: Fixing the country’s education system (on this page)

"On the House side, the Tea Party members don't believe there should be a federal role in education," Jenkins said. "But when the Democrats controlled both houses earlier in the Obama administration, the education problem slipped right off their radar screen."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed that there was "frustration with Congress, and with the Republicans in Congress particularly."

She said No Child Left Behind was a matter of "good intention and bad implementation," and that as a result, "we understand the need for doing the waivers."

Video: Fixing ‘No Child Left Behind’ (on this page)

What officials want to fix is the rigidity of the current law, which set standards so restrictive that entire schools are deemed to be failing if only a relative few students don't meet test standards.

Under current rules, a school's success is based on a statewide test that assesses 40 categories. If just one subcategory — such as students with disabilities or those who are economically disadvantaged — doesn't make its federal Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark, then the entire school fails.

Video: Closing ‘achievement gaps’ in the US (on this page)

That's what happened to two Roanoke County, Va., middle schools in 2008, when one subcategory of math didn't meet the standard. Both schools were categorized as failing overall.

Story: Classroom 'crisis': Many teachers have little or no experience

Jack Padgett, a member of the Richmond County (Ga.) School Board, said the rule also led to some of his county's schools being branded as failures even though "we'd made 93.7 percent of all the criteria."

"It's kind of hard to tell a kid or school or teacher you're failing when you're making good improvement," Padgett said.

Education Department outline of NCLB changes (.pdf)

By doing away with the federal Adequate Yearly Progress standard, "You would not have one disaggregated group dragging an entire school down, which is what happened in No Child Left Behind," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who has unsuccessfully sought to pass legislation to do away with the test standards.

"Instead, the school would be evaluated in its totality," he said.

Public backs reform of law
Such complaints resonate loudly with the public.

In a Gallup poll in January, 53 percent of respondents said No Child Left Behind needed "major revisions," and 21 percent said it should be eliminated completely.

Those results were distributed fairly evenly across respondents who identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans and independents. (The poll of 1,032 adults reported a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)

But the standards still have some defenders, among them Margaret Spellings, who administered No Child Left Behind as President George W. Bush's education secretary from 2005 to 2009.

She said waiving the requirements could lead state and local officials to try to "game the system" if they're allowed to measure their progress themselves.

"They talk a good game, but when it comes time to deliver for students, they rarely perform," Spellings said. "That's why we're in this mess in the first place."

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