Arne Duncan: 'No Child' is 'toxic'

The education world is now listening carefully to the words of President Obama's point man, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and trying to figure out how exactly the administration might reform No Child Left Behind.

The basic question on everyone's mind now: What would a "No Child 2" look like?

Today on our show, Secretary Duncan shared his views on No Child Left Behind. To begin with, it "has to be rebranded," he said. "No Child Left Behind has become toxic." He said the way it had labeled some schools as failures was “demoralizing,” especially for  schools that were actually improving. Here he expands:

What No Child Left Behind did right was it put a spotlight on the achievement gap.... So it gets great credit for that. It did other things very poorly. I think the idea of moving children around before you offer tutoring in school doesn’t make any sense....

We are putting dramatic money behind our children, which didn’t happen before, it was largely underfunded.... But in this [stimulus] package there are over $10 billion in additional money for children in poverty, Title 1 dollars, over $10 billion through IDEA [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act]. So dramatic funding that was never there before. We want to be much less punitive and reward excellence and really again spotlight those schools and those districts that are beating the odds every single day. So what we want to do is take what’s working and build upon it. Those things that aren’t working we want to fix.

And I think it ultimately has to be rebranded. No Child Left Behind has become toxic. And we need to come up with something that’s much more inspiring, something that appeals to the best of us rather than pulls us down.

Just the business of renaming No Child Left Behind has led to much speculation, as The New York Times points out.

On the question of standards, Duncan seemed to suggest a more aggressive federal role. The National Governors Association and the American Federation of Teachers have recently come out strongly for national standards of some sort. No Child Left Behind left individual states to formulate their own goals. Secretary Duncan disagrees with that approach. Here he is:

Whenever you’re managing something large, Tom, from an organizational standpoint, from a management standpoint, you have to think about what you do loose and what you do tight. And I think No Child Left Behind got this a little backwards, and let me explain why.

They were very, very loose about what the goals were, what the goalposts were, the benchmarks. Fifty states did their own thing. That didn’t make sense to me. But they were very tight about how you got there. Again, moving children around between schools before you improve the schools and offer tutoring.

I want to try and turn that on its head. I want to be much tighter about what the goal is. We want our students again competing – our students today, whether we like it or not, are competing not down the block or in the district or in the state, but they’re competing with children in India and China. And they need to know whether they’re going to be successful or not. So I want to be tighter on the goals, but be much looser and give states the ability to create and to innovate and figure out how they get there.

Does being “tight about what the goal is” mean national standards? Unclear. Duncan has indicated elsewhere that he’s interested in national standards. But how that would work remains to be seen.


More from On Point

Listen Live