MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today, we are talking about education just as students across the country are heading back to school and many are observing the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. One of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement has always been access to quality education. Martin Luther King Jr. himself touted the issue, and many political leaders, including President Obama, have called it the civil rights issue of our time.
So we're going to start off that conversation today with the nation's top education official, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and you. We've been asking for your questions and comments on Twitter. You can continue to join the conversation using the #NPRedchat. We will share as many of those questions and comments as we can over the course of the hour. That being said, welcome back to the program, Mr. Secretary. Thank you for joining us on this historic week.
ARNE DUNCAN: Thanks for having me again. I really appreciate the opportunity.
MARTIN: You reiterated this point that education is a civil rights issue of our time earlier today at an appearance you made at a local Washington school - a highly touted one. You used some pretty strong language to make that case. You said that civil rights is more than just the absence of chains, it's more than the power to vote, civil rights means having the same opportunities that other people do, regardless of what you look like, where you come from or whom you love. So having said all that, what grade do you give this country's schools in meeting that objective at this point in our history?
DUNCAN: Well, we've seen real progress, but we have, frankly, a long way to go. And so on the progress side, to see high school graduation rates at all-time highs, to see college-going rates increasing pretty significantly - and that's being led by more and more African-American, Latino students not just graduating from high school, but going to college - those trends are positive.
But by any measure, we still have huge achievement gaps. We have far too many African-American, Latino students who are still dropping out. If you look internationally at our competition, we used to lead the world in college graduation rates. Today we're 12th. There's nothing we can be proud of. So I feel, frankly, a huge sense of urgency, proud of the progress, but a long, long way to go. And we have to keep getting better, faster.
MARTIN: A lot of the comments that we've been getting from our listeners on Twitter suggest that some of these problems are self-inflicted, even that they are self-inflicted wounds even by well-intended programs like, for example, No Child Left Behind. That's - over the weekend, you wrote an opinion piece in the Post where you said that said No Child Left Behind is, quote, outmoded and broken. We got a lot of questions from listeners on this point.
For example, Melinda Solis reached out to us on Facebook. She's an education student at the University of Michigan, and she wrote, I'm so excited to become a teacher, but standardized testing makes many people shy away from this career field. I don't want to waste students' time by teaching them how to pass a test instead of actually learning something. Do you think that's fair?
DUNCAN: I absolutely agree with that concern, and one of the reasons I've been so adamant at pushing to fix what I think is a broken No Child Left Behind law is, there is an overemphasis just on a single test score. Let me be really clear. I'm all for accountability. We need to hold ourselves as adults and educators accountable for student progress. I do want to know how much they're improving each year, so their growth in gain, but we have to move way beyond test scores. And we wanted to fix the law. We wanted to fix it in a bipartisan way.
Unfortunately, Congress has been dysfunctional. They've been broken. So what we've done is we've provided waivers directly to states. And what you see states doing some, I think, really, really creative and courageous things - moving beyond the focus on test score, looking at our graduation rates improving, our dropout rates, you know, going down. Are more high school graduates actually going on to higher education? Are they doing that and not needing remedial classes? Are they persevering? And so when Congress gets its act together and wants to work together to fix the law in a bipartisan way, I desperately hope they'll take the best ideas from - that we're seeing coming from states. That could be a really exciting law.
MARTIN: Name one.
DUNCAN: Name one state?
MARTIN: Name one best idea from a state.
DUNCAN: Again, this idea of moving accountability from the focus on a test score to looking at improving graduation rates, reducing dropout rates and increasing the number of students going on to some form of higher education and being successful there.
MARTIN: One of the perennial questions about whether education still helps students advance is, what's most important? Is it what goes on at school or is it what goes on at home? And we got a number of questions on that score, as well. This one is from Maria Castro (ph). She's a literary specialist teaching seventh and eighth grade students in the Bronx. She says a lot of her students face problems that make it hard for them to learn. Let's play that clip.
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MARIA CASTRO: If the police was in their house last night or something happened at home, there is no way that they're going to be able to enter school in the morning and shut that off and just worry about academics. So how do we address that problem?
MARTIN: How about it?
DUNCAN: So as you know, Michel, I spent my entire childhood working in the inner-city on the South Side, Chicago as part of my mother's tutoring program. And when you have families that are plagued by violence, when you have children being shot and killed on a regular basis, as I have experienced for far too long growing up on the South Side, those can have devastating impacts. But it's incumbent upon us as educators to make schools safe havens. And so we need to do many things. If children need eyeglasses, we need to get them eyeglasses. If children need to be fed, we need to feed them.
When I led Chicago public schools, we fed tens of thousands of children three meals a day, and I got some, you know, criticism for that. But if children's, you know, bellies are growling, it's hard for them to learn. Social workers, counselors - we need to do everything we can to help those students overcome those very real obstacles of poverty, of violence, of hunger and then be successful academically. But I'm going to be really, really clear, those are very real challenges we need to address thoughtfully and systemically every single day, but poverty is never destiny. Poverty is never destiny. The way we break cycles of poverty is through high-quality education. That's the path to the middle class.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. You can join us on Twitter using the #NPRedchat. Speaking of the path to the middle class, I'm going to talk about an issue that has received a lot of attention locally, in recent weeks. We've been talking a lot about K-12. This is an issue that addresses higher education. As you know, the Obama administration changed the debt load standards for parents. And a number - you received a letter, I know from the heads of a number of the HBCU saying this is having a devastating effect on the ability of some of their institutions to enroll students who have already been accepted.
I mean, the president of one institution said he had as many as 300 students, out of an undergraduate student body of 6,900, who might not be able to reenroll because of very minor issues on parents' credit reports like, you know, an unpaid cell phone bill or, for example, the perennial issue affecting many low-income parents, which is unpaid medical debts. Now how do you justify this at a time when you're saying that higher education is the key to getting into the middle-class, making it harder for these parents to enroll their children in school?
DUNCAN: So where families had those grants or loans in the past and were denied, we have a number they can call to reapply again. The acceptance rate there is extraordinarily high. And what we want to do is find the right balance. So there's much more flexibility there than the past. But at the end of the day, we want to try, and as best we can, balance the interests of taxpayers and families, young people themselves, schools, and we have to think about all these things together. But where families have had access to loans in the past and were denied, we strongly encourage them to reapply and the success rate there is extraordinarily high.
MARTIN: I'm curious, though, about the priorities here. I mean, the administration has just unveiled a whole package of initiatives aimed at lowering the cost of higher education, encouraging institutions to take a hard look at their own costs, but a number of these require, you know, congressional effort, but this is a regulatory issue. Why is this your priority?
DUNCAN: Well, it's not the priority. The priority is making college more affordable and frankly, we worry a lot about the amount of debt that's out there. There's a trillion dollars in debt. One thing we worry a lot about is families getting buried in debt and if the young people aren't graduating from college you have all this debt and then, you know, don't have the ability to make a good income...
MARTIN: ...I mean, isn't that patronizing though? I mean, aren't you making a decision for the families that perhaps is theirs to make for themselves?
DUNCAN: No, the families can absolutely make that decision, but what we want to try and do - big picture - is make college much more affordable and that's what the president's challenged us to do. I can't tell you every time...
MARTIN: How does this make college more affordable - by making it more difficult for low-income parents to achieve loans to allow their children to enroll, thereby achieving the kind of education that is supposed to launch them into the middle-class?
DUNCAN: So, to be very clear, if they don't have access to the parent PLUS Loan there are other grants that they are automatically - have access to and in fact, those grants have gone up. So we want to make sure we're doing the right thing there, but again, don't want folks to be buried in debt that they can't pay back. A trillion dollars in debt out there, we have to make college much more affordable for the average hard-working American family who's starting to think that college is for rich folks, it's not for them. There's something fundamentally wrong with that picture.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, we talked to one of your predecessors as education secretary earlier in the week. Former Education Secretary Rod Paige, he served in the administration of President George W. Bush. And I asked him if he had a magic wand and he could wave it and move this country in any particular direction, vis-a-vis education, what would it be? And he said that he thought that teachers are just too caught up in bureaucracy and what they really need is time to connect with students. So if you could wave that wand, in what direction would you wave it?
DUNCAN: The fight we're having as a country right now, Michel, is - is education an investment or is it an expense? And I desperately believe education is an investment and the best investment we can make. But we have far too many political leaders who think education is an expense that we can cut in tough economic times. Every child needs access to high-quality early childhood education. Every child needs access to grade schools, K-12, and then again college has to be - higher education has to be affordable for them.
We have far too many political leaders who think we can cut back on early childhood ed, cut back on K-12, cut back on higher ed and that's a real problem. Two very concrete examples that are deeply troubling me today, you have hard-working teachers in states like North Carolina that are actually, you know, going on food stamps to pay the bills because their salary is so low. You have a city like Philadelphia where I'm desperately worried children are going to receive an inferior education because politicians fail to invest in public education.
So these are challenges, you know, today that we're struggling with and we need it at every level, local, state, at the national level. I think for us to strengthen families, for us to help young people, to help our country we have to invest in high-quality education from cradle to career.
MARTIN: We have only about a minute left, but do you wish that there were a March on Washington for education - just for education?
DUNCAN: Well, again...
MARTIN: ...Would you like to see that?
DUNCAN: Absolutely, and I've said that, you know, education is the civil rights issue of our time, and if you can ride in the front of the bus but you are poorly educated - you cannot read - you are still not truly free.
MARTIN: So much to talk about, Mr. Secretary. We hope you'll come back and speak with us again over the course of the school year.
DUNCAN: Would love the opportunity, thank you so much.
MARTIN: Arne Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Mr. Secretary, thank you again.
DUNCAN: Next time.
MARTIN: We're hearing from teachers, parents and students on Twitter. Ross Dunning Murray (ph) says, teachers should be evaluated by what they do, not how long they've done it. And Chad Lemon tweeted, education is more than a civil right, it's an essential foundation for a sustained democracy. You can add your voice at #NPRedchat. Stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.