Outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivers remarks after President Obama announced his nomination of Deputy Education Secretary John B. King Jr. to be the next head of the Education Department in October. Obama praised the work of Duncan, one of the few remaining members of the president's original cabinet.
Outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivers remarks after President Obama announced his nomination of Deputy Education Secretary John B. King Jr. to be the next head of the Education Department in October. Obama praised the work of Duncan, one of the few remaining members of the president's original cabinet. - 

President Barack Obama signed this morning the biggest overhaul to federal education policy in a decade or more.

The Every Student Succeeds Act will replace the much-maligned law known as No Child Left Behind. Arne Duncan, the outgoing Secretary of Education, spent years working on the new act. We chatted with him ahead of his departure next month.

The president signed the big education bill this morning that you guys have been working for years on. Let me ask you this though, if I am a 6th grader, or even the parent of a 6th grader, which I happen to be, what’s gonna change in the classroom?

First, it’s a little bit late for your sixth grader, but for the first time in the nation’s history, early childhood education is involved in this bill. It’s in the law. The goal is not simply to have students graduate from high school. We want them being able to go onto college and take college-level classes, not have to take remedial classes. That costs parents billions of dollars each year, so now the law of the land for the first time ever is that students need to be taught to high standards.  So many of the things that we care about made it into this bipartisan compromise, and I was very very pleased and happy to be there with the president today when he signed it.

One of the other things that’s not in this bill, sir, that you mention though is a pullback I think, it can be fairly said, from some of the testing requirements in No Child Left Behind that you have allowed through waivers over the past number of years, different measures of success that that White House and the Department of Education have required in the past. I have to wonder whether you were wrong in insisting on testing and some of those metrics.

To be very clear, it was important to us that students be assessed annually and that remains in the bill, but both the president and I have also been equally clear that in many places there’s over testing, there’s excessive testing. There’s always a common sense middle ground here. This law built upon our values of yes, students should be tested annually, but it also challenges districts and states to reduce testing if there’s too much or if there’s too much teaching to the test.  We’re hoping to put some dollars, some resources behind districts interested in that. We are hugely supportive of those ideas and candidly, those came from us.

You have been prevented by law in this law, he says redundantly, from requiring states to do certain things. You’re not allowed to offer incentives, you’re not allowed to mandate certain curriculum. I wonder about what that says for the need for a federal Department of Education, anyway. I mean you have said, and this was just you the other day that it’s the height of arrange for Washington to think it can manage education in this country. Why do we have your job, sir?

We think about that every day, what is the appropriate federal role? One is a focus on equity and what we have done is put more than a billion dollars behind early childhood education. This department spends billions of dollars each year to help students with disabilities, to help homeless children, to put resources behind the most impoverished children and communities, and we think that’s a critically important federal role. Secondly, the goal is not just equity. The goal is excellence. You don’t want equity around a low bar, you want equity around a high bar. That’s why getting enshrined into this law for the first time ever the necessity that states have high standards, college and career ready standards is such an important step in the right direction. 

You know, I appreciate all of that and with all due respect though you kind of didn’t answer the question. I mean you said yourself a mere minutes ago in this interview that you want states and localities to have more influence and yet here you are running this giant bureaucracy that’s trying to tell schools across the country what to do.

Again, I beg to differ. What we’re trying to do and what we are doing every single day is getting desperately needed resources to the communities that need them the most. So I think there is a very appropriate federal role, there’s also a very appropriate state and local role and the idea here is partnership, this is nation building. I would say a strong military is the best defense, the best offense for our nation is to have the best educated workforce in the world and we all need to work together there. The final piece that we haven’t talked about is we put around $175 billion in grants and loans every single year to help make college more accessible and affordable and while college is still more expensive than any of us would like, that investment opens up the doors for college for so many students who simply wouldn’t have the opportunity without those federal resources. 

I’m glad you mentioned higher education. As you know, sir, affirmative action was back in front of the Supreme Court yesterday in the case out of Texas. There are protests of all kinds going on on campuses across the country, from Ivy League to the rest of the education system. I wonder what you, as the Secretary of Education in the United States of America think about what is happening in higher education today in this country.

There are a couple different strands going on. So, first of all, the idea of making our nation’s colleges and universities are diverse, are inclusive, are welcoming to students from very different backgrounds, we think that is hugely important. And the president’s goal, our goal, is to lead the world in college completion rates again as we did one generation ago and today we’re 12th and that is in no one’s best interests. So whatever we can all do collectively to make sure that universities create a climate where universities are welcomed and supported whether it’s first generation college goers, whether it’s immigrants new to the country, whether it’s English language learners a higher education opens the door, it’s the key to entering the middle class and there’s no better investments young people can make in their futures in their family’s futures in their country than to not just graduate from high school, but from higher education whether it’s two-year or four year-college.

Does college in this country have to change because that’s what these students are asking for and demanding in a lot of cases?

I think many things have to change, I think we have to make college more affordable, one. We have to focus not just on access, but on completion. The goal of students is never to go to college just to go to college, the goal is to complete. And yes, where students feel unwelcomed where they feel unsupported, where don’t feel a part of campus life, where they feel isolated and alienated, that’s in no one’s best interest.

You’re a young guy, you’re not done by any means. I’m gonna gather that you’re going back to Chicago, what are you gonna do with the rest of your life, sir?

I don’t know yet, so if you have any good ideas let me know. I got a lot of hard work here, I was thrilled to get the bill done today, that was a bit of a Christmas present. But I’ll worry about what comes next after I leave here in January.

Kai also asked Duncan about his biggest regret.  

Produced by Daisy Palacios.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal