Q-and-A: Back to School with Arne Duncan

With back-to-school season in full swing, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently sat down to respond to some pressing education questions from SmartBlog on Education. Below is the full Q&A:

What is the biggest challenge that teachers face as they go back to school this fall? What guidance would you give them to help them meet the challenge?

Back to school stampThe large majority of states are now making the shift to the Common Core State Standards, a state-led effort to raise standards for which the U.S. Department of Education has provided some support. Educators across the country have embraced the enormous, urgent challenge that goes with this transition to more rigorous academic standards, new assessments, and updated teacher evaluation systems. Teachers are faced with a level of change and reform in schools and districts that is unprecedented.

Overwhelmingly, I’ve heard teachers say that it’s the professional challenge of a lifetime to raise standards so every American student can compete and succeed in the global economy. In discussions with more than 4,000 educators, my team at the U.S. Department of Education and I also have heard teachers say that it’s imperative that we, as a nation, get this right for our kids.

The  Common Core State Standards focus on college- and career readiness and have been adopted voluntarily by a majority of states. The new standards set the bar for student performance high. But they also give teachers the opportunity to go deep into content and innovate. In surveys, three out of four teachers say these standards will help them teach better.

At the same time, I’ve heard that teachers need time, models, and quality professional development so that they may effectively teach to the new standards.

To make this transition, states, districts, and schools should do as much as possible to provide teachers with support for professional learning tied to the new standards. It’s also critical for teachers to connect with and learn from each other.

In states where there is a strong commitment to collaboration, teachers generally feel more empowered and positive about education reforms. I look forward to working together with educators to ensure that all students learn at their highest level.

How can we prepare, support, and retain individuals who will become excellent teachers? What do you see as exemplars in traditional and alternative models?

Every teacher should receive the high-quality preparation and support they need, so that all students have the effective teachers they deserve. Unfortunately, across the U.S., the quality of teacher preparation programs is uneven. Almost two-thirds of novice teachers feel unprepared for the realities of their classroom. That, to me, is unacceptable. Teachers often tell me that they didn’t have enough hands-on experience or time to practice their craft during their initial training.

I’m a big fan of preparation programs that include internships where novices work with master educators in their classrooms over an extended period. Data shows this approach can yield increased teacher retention rates.

Many education schools run exemplary programs rooted in clinical experience, including Emporia State University in Kansas and Hunter College in New York City. The nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago provides a great “alternative” route to the classroom, in which participants complete a yearlong residency working with effective mentor teachers.

Across the country, our schools and districts also have to do a better job of supporting teachers at every stage of their careers, which means providing teachers with a continuum of professional growth. Educators deserve a full career’s worth of opportunities to teach, mentor, and lead. I’m encouraged by “hybrid” positions for teacher leaders in which effective educators work with students and help to strengthen instruction across an entire school.

I believe that many of the answers for continuing to build and nurture our country’s teaching workforce lie with educators themselves. The Department of Education recently released A Blueprint for RESPECT, a framework for elevating the teaching profession developed through discussions with thousands of educators. Their thoughtful recommendations give me great hope for the future of teaching and learning in this country.

The U.S. Department of Education supports Connected Educator Month, slated for October. How can being “connected” help educators navigate the beginning of a new school year?

Online communities and learning networks can help teachers gain new skills and instructional techniques. They also provide “on-demand” access to knowledge and opportunities for collaboration and mentorship.

For new teachers, learning and problem solving with other educators through an online forum can reduce feelings of isolation and anxiety they may experience in their first days and months in the classroom.

But many educators aren’t “connected” yet because they haven’t taken advantage of opportunities for professional learning online or they aren’t realizing the full benefits. Many districts and states also haven’t done enough to recognize this essential learning as legitimate professional development.

For these reasons, the Department of Education convened the first-ever Connected Educator Month last August. Due to demand from educators, we’re organizing this year’s event in October, with an emphasis on helping districts to promote and integrate online social learning into their plans for formal professional development.

Technology has enormous potential for providing teachers with targeted support when and where they need it. Technology also can help to personalize the learning experience for students. By blending face-to-face and online learning, for example, students can work at their own pace and teachers can receive “real-time” information about student performance. Yet, today, fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs.

That’s why I’m excited about President Obama’s call in June for a five-year effort that will provide high-speed broadband and wireless to 99 percent of students. The ConnectED initiative also aims to improve the skills of teachers, providing educators with support and training to integrate technology into their classrooms.

I hope that every educator will take full advantage of Connected Educator Month and — as the new school year begins — establish connections with colleagues that will support their teaching practice all year long.

What can educators expect from the U.S. Department of Education this school year? What new initiatives are on the horizon?

This school year, educators and families may hear a lot about the transition to more rigorous academic standards and assessments. Achievement of these standards will help students to thrive in an increasingly competitive, global economy. But, we will do little to put our students on a path to success if we do not make a concerted effort to help every child start out with the same basic competencies through high-quality early learning programs.

Research supports this notion. High-quality preschool can lead to higher graduation rates, less likelihood of being involved in crime or relying on public assistance, and better jobs at higher salaries. These are benefits for kids, families, and our nation.

But, among 4-year-olds in the U.S., fewer than three in 10 attend a high-quality preschool program. This opportunity gap confronts far too many American children — particularly those living in low-income communities. We need to work hard to reach many more students.

President Obama has put forward a plan to make high-quality, full-day preschool available to all 4-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. This plan will help Americans struggling to balance work and family responsibilities and the cost of child care. And, states would receive incentives to provide voluntary, high-quality preschool with qualified teachers, low class sizes, and stimulating learning experiences.

All children deserve the best shot possible to succeed. So with the start of this new school year, I want to encourage every educator to be an outspoken advocate of quality early education programs that can continue to close achievement gaps and provide life-transforming opportunities to our children.

Last week, President Obama also announced an ambitious new agenda to keep college affordable. Through a focus on both ends of the education pipeline — early learning and college — we hope to ensure that education continues to be the ticket to the middle class in this country. The President’s plan will tie federal financial aid to college performance, so colleges must demonstrate that they provide good value to students. The Obama Administration is going to continue doing everything we can to make college affordable, and we’re looking forward to seeing colleges and states do their part as well.


  1. “Teachers often tell me that they didn’t have enough hands-on experience or time to practice their craft during their initial training.”

    I was fortunate to complete my student teaching 26 years ago when my sponsoring teacher handed over his classes and told me to go for it. He was always there offering feedback and guidance, ready to jump in if I really screwed up, but he provided me the opportunity to find my “teacher” self. I’ve had student teachers in my classroom and approached their interning the same way. BUT…now that my evaluation will be based on a huge chunk of student achievement, there is no way I’m handing my class over to someone else. I doubt I’m alone, and not being willing to relinquish control is part of the training problem. Experienced teachers simply cannot afford to take a chance.

  2. Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education, and he has no classroom experience. He has been appointed to different roles of administration. Thanks President Obama for appointing someone to lead our nation’s public schools who has no experience in the classroom.

  3. More incentives need to be given in order for individuals to enter the teaching profession. Servicemen are given discounts with military identification. The same should be done for teachers. A once highly respected profession should be given the same benefits as military.

  4. The assessment of our students’ achievement of standards is a vital issue, and one that is now being designed, precariously, by the state consortia. At the same time, President Obama has rightly determined to address college affordability, at a time when far too many young people are being encouraged to enrol in college by well-meaning counsellors in spite of their poor preparation, are accruing thousands of dollars in debt, and are dropping out of college without a degree and without any way of discharging that debt that is usually owed to the collective connivance of people of higher social classes than the debtors. This new form of entrapment might be obviated by introducing an American baccalaureate certificate similar to those used in countries with greater social mobility than ours, one that would enable any thus certified baccalaureate holder with the right to a free three-year bachelor’s degree course in our public universities (the scholarship would also be redeemable as a similarly valued tuition reimbursement at a private college if the bac holder so chose to enrol there instead).

  5. I agree “all children deserve the best shot possible to succeed.” So with the start of this new 2013-2014 school year, I am helping an 8th grade student locate a new lap top computer so that he can complete his homework, applications for high school, etc. Do you know of an agency, company, or organization that is helping students obtain new lap top computers (such as Dell Inspiron, Acer Aspire 1-562-6870, or an HP (all with MS Office 2010))? One new lap top computer is needed by this 8th grade student. Thanks.

  6. For many years now I have felt that School should be ALL YEAR ROUND. I know that raises eyebrows BUT how about a system where you go to school for say 8weeks and then have a 2 week break. This keeps the brains in gear and allows families to take vacations at all different times of the year. We utilize the buildings and now teachers are seen as working as much as the rest of society. The economy stays strong as people are buying all year round. I have several articles that you can refer to supporting this idea. This Week Aug 9 by Matthew Yglesias Let’s abolish school vacation AND Baltimore Sun Aug. 28 by Elizabeth Heubeck Make school year-round

  7. The department of education talks a good talk but the policies you promote do
    the opposite of what you say you want to achieve. Race to the top is a testing machine that is chasing away many good teachers and creating a robotic education system focused solely on testing. Stop the madness!! VAM and SGP are a sham and you know it. All this testing to evaluate teachers is a waste of time, good principles and good schools know good teachers. Please go into good public schools in the suburbs and see what real education looks like before it disappears. Stop
    listening to TFA and other like
    minded “data-driven” organizations because all
    they are doing is creating churn and instability in urban schools.Talk to real educators not just Harvard grads with no real

  8. Making higher education more affordable for inner city high school graduates is a great idea! Also, why not let them serve as interns within Community Services and Health & Temperance Ministries of congregations endowed with “Outreaching Capacity?” This in turn will reinforce their will to become maybe the first generation in their poor families to go and finish college or an university. A certain percentage of the chronically under performing high schools that Secretary Duncan refers to frequently should be targeted for this proposed Initiative which should include schools in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sacramento.

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