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Guest Host: Susan Page
As students head back to school, guest host Susan Page talks with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a panel of experts about common core standards, later school start times and President Barack Obama’s college rating plan.
- Fawn Johnson correspondent, National Journal.
- Richard Rothstein research associate, Economic Policy Institute.
- Mike Petrilli executive vice president, Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
- Arne Duncan U.S. Secretary of Education, Obama administration.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. As students head back to school this week, we've gathered a panel of experts for a conversation about the top education issues of the day.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio to talk about common core standards, later school start times, and President Obama's college rating plan are: Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Fawn Johnson of National Journal magazine, and, from NPR's New York studio, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute. But first, we're joined by phone by Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education. Thanks so much for joining us.
SECRETARY ARNE DUNCANGood morning, Susan. Thanks so much for the opportunity.
PAGEYou know, millions of students are going to be going back to school and finding big changes in their curriculum, battles over how teachers are evaluated as a result of these common core standards. Some are saying this change is coming too fast, that it's too much. How would you respond?
DUNCANWell, I think it's so important that our students have high standards, and we want our children to be successful not just in looking for jobs in this country but in terms of international competitiveness. And for decades, Susan, unfortunately, this country, we've had low standards. Standards were dummied down to make politicians look good. And for me, it's one of the most insidious things this country did educationally is they actually lied to children and to families and told them they were ready for college and careers when in fact they weren't even close.
DUNCANAnd so, yes, it's going to be a hard and sometimes rocky or bumpy transition to higher standards. But as a parent of two young children, I think I speak for most parents that, you know, you want more for your children, not less. And I tell you the one thing I absolutely don't want is I don't want to be lied to. I don't want people to tell me my children are ready for success when they're not in the game.
DUNCANSo it's so important that we, you know, articulate this and talk to parents and do a better job of informing parents of the changes. We continue to support teachers, but the vast majority of teachers are very, very supportive of this. It's going to empower them to be much more effective. And so we need to work through the kinks and the bumps along the way together, but we need to have the courage to do the right thing for children, for education and ultimately for our country.
PAGEWell, I know you've gotten a lot of blowback from some teachers who say they just need more time to get accustomed to the new standards before they're (unintelligible). I heard that you got 14,000 emails from teachers asking for a delay.
DUNCANNo. Yeah. No. It's -- again, we've got to separate out the issues. I think all these things get conflated. Susan, I'll be really, really clear. Your first question was about higher standards, common standards that 46 states have voluntarily adopted. And these standards were developed by governors and state school superintendents from around the country. So that's one conversation.
DUNCANThe second conversation's looking at what the ties potentially between student performance and teacher evaluation. And what we've done -- and again a partnership with states is say to states, if you need a little bit more time, if you need a little bit more flexibility, we're open to that and just let us know.
DUNCANSo there's no right or wrong answer. And if some states want additional flexibility there, that's great. If they're ready to go, you know, many states are sort of ahead of this. They've been working on this for a couple years. If they don't need that time, that's great as well. So we're absolutely open on that one.
PAGEYou know, it only took 140 characters for you to stir a debate on Twitter about the idea of starting high school classes later in the morning to recognize that a lot of teenagers don't wake up that early, aren't that alert at early times. Last month, you tweeted, commonsense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented, let teens sleep more, start school later. What do you think? Is this something you feel strongly about? Is this something you'd like school districts to do?
DUNCANWell, that was one of my more effective tweets. I didn't realize at the time, so you never know how these things -- how this stuff is going to work. But I am serious about it. I think there's lots of research and again sort of commonsense that a lot of teens, you know, struggle to get up at 6:00 in the morning to get on the bus or 5:30 in the morning to get on the bus. And, I mean, the logistics behind this are complicated, and I recognize that and buses and, you know, after-school sports and all those things.
DUNCANBut at the end of the day, I think it's incumbent upon education leaders to not run school systems that work good for buses but that weren't good for students. And if teenagers -- study after study have shown -- and mornings are very difficult. You know, they're not awake. They're groggy. They're not able to pay attention in class. If we were able to start later and if they were able to be more focused, if they were able to concentrate in class, that's a really good thing.
DUNCANAnd so, again, designing -- so often, Susan, so often education, we design school systems that work for adults and not for kids. I think this is just another example of that. And so I was trying to challenge the status quo and to be provocative and say, if so much evidence is pretty, you know, is fairly overwhelming that this is a better thing, a better way for teens to learn, why -- as education leaders, why aren't we paying attention to that and at least, you know, looking at this very, very seriously?
PAGEOf course, the timing of the school day really an issue for local school boards. And I wonder, do you see a federal role in joining this debate?
DUNCANI think it's important for me to try and be as honest and truthful on everything as I can, so ultimately, obviously, this will be absolutely be decided at the local level. We have 15,000 school districts, and that has, you know, sometimes there's some challenges. But the real upside of having 15,000 districts is they can be laboratories for innovation, for creativity.
DUNCANWhere I struggle we're not trying to push folks a little bit is when I think, you know, the vast majority of districts are just sort of conforming to the status quo rather than being, you know, more creative and being innovative. And I would love to see a couple of districts and, you know, some individual schools are starting to look at this, but I'd love to see more districts, you know, seriously contemplating a later start time.
PAGEYou know, we had President Obama a couple weeks ago propose a federal rating system for colleges that would use things like tuition, graduate rates, student loan debt and earnings to rank colleges. You know, my kids have just recently graduated from college. We went and looked at -- like a lot of other parents -- the U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges. What do you think -- and that is, I think, the right rating system for colleges that is the most famous anyway. What do you think about that rating system?
DUNCANWell, I think there are lots of problems with it, frankly, and I think it's created lots of perverse incentives that actually increase costs for families like yours. And I have to tell you that I traveled the country. Everywhere I go, one of the biggest complaints I hear is that far too many middle-class families are starting to think college is for rich folks, that they can't afford it. And in a time when going to college has never been more important, sadly it's never been more expensive.
DUNCANAnd so we want to be very, very thoughtful here. We have no preconceived notions. We want to spend, you know, months out listening to, you know, professors and presidents and parents, like yourself, and students themselves to figure out, can we come up with something that is more rational that encourages, you know, universities to keep cost down and increase graduation rates and increase the number of economically disadvantaged young people they're serving?
DUNCANBut right now, this is on a trajectory that's just simply out of control. College costs have gone up dramatically. Student debt is far too high. Too many states have walked away from their investment in higher education. So this isn't just about universities. It's about challenging states to say this is the best investment you can make whether it's in higher ed or K-12 or early childhood.
DUNCANStates cannot walk away from education, which sadly too many, you know, have done and frankly are doing. But we want to have a very, you know, thoughtful, engaged national conversation around this and see if we can dramatically -- not just incrementally -- dramatically drive down the cost of college for hardworking middle-class families like yours.
PAGEYou say that the U.S. News rating has perverse incentives. What would the new federal rating do that -- not do or do that in contrast to the U.S. News rating to avoid those perverse incentives?
DUNCANSo again, we want to be very, very thoughtful and go out and listen, so I don't begin to have all the answers now. But, you know, we want to look at things like, are graduation rates improving or not? Are universities serving more, you know, economically disadvantaged young people, first generation college goers?
DUNCANAre they building cultures not just around access but around completion? Are they doing things to bring down the cost, whether it's, you know, shorter time to degrees, whether it's competency-based learning, whether it's using technology in innovative ways? You have many schools now using technology both to reduce cost and to increase passing rates in classes.
DUNCANSo it's much better for students, and it's saving them money. We need those kinds of innovations to go to scale, and we're not there yet. So those are the type of things that we want to look at. But, again, want to be very, very thoughtful and do a lot of listening to people and try and make sure we do this as thoughtfully and comprehensively as we can.
PAGEWe had an emotional day in Washington recently with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. And one of the goals of that original march was to push for more integrated public schools. Fifty years later, I know this is an issue that the federal government continues to wrestle with, most recently with the lawsuit that the Justice Department joined against Louisiana. Tell us something about that.
DUNCANI'm not familiar with that lawsuit. Again, that's between the Department of Justice and the state of Louisiana. So I think asking Justice for the details would be helpful. I know they're looking at it carefully. But bigger picture, first of all, I'd just say that, you know, being able with my wife to be at that 50th anniversary is just the kind of thing I will always remember. It was absolutely inspiring and amazing just to be -- just to witness it.
DUNCANAnd I fundamentally think the need for integration and more integrative schools is very real, and there are things that we can do. Obviously, there are housing patterns that present challenges. I know one of your next speakers, Mike Petrilli, has done some really thoughtful work here. But I was fortunate to go to an integrated school, you know, all the way through K-12.
DUNCANAnd I don't think I could do a job like this was I not, you know, didn't have that kind of opportunity. And far too many children today are denied that opportunity. So, yes, we want to do everything to make sure they're, you know, getting rigorous course work and have great teachers and are academically prepared for college. But you want children to grow up comfortable and confident with other people who come from different backgrounds from them.
DUNCANAnd if they don't have those opportunities -- not that you can't learn it as an adult, but it's much harder. So whatever we can do to continue to increase integration in a voluntary way -- I don't think you could force these kinds of things -- we want to be very, very thoughtful and to try to do more in that area quite frankly.
PAGEArne Duncan, we're almost out of time, but just let me ask. You were President Obama's first appointment as education secretary. Do you plan to stick out the second term with him?
DUNCANOh, I'm in it for the long haul. We didn't talk this morning, unfortunately, about early childhood education. We desperately want to increase access to early childhood ed. We want to continue to work, to drive reform and to raise standards on the K-12 side. And we have so much work to do with bringing down college costs.
DUNCANSo me and my team have a very, very full plate. I think we have a chance to really make -- create greater educational opportunities for young people, for our 3- and 4-year-olds and for our 22- and 23-year-olds, this cradle to career pipeline. So we have a lot of work to do, and I'm in it for the long haul.
PAGESecretary Arne Duncan, thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll discuss what Secretary Duncan just told us. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're joined from the NPR studio in New York by Richard Rothstein. He's a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, an economic think tank. And here in the studio with me, Fawn Johnson. She's a correspondent at National Journal magazine.
PAGEAnd Mike Petrilli, he's executive vice president, and he got a shout-out from Secretary Duncan. He's with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank. He's also author of the blog Education Next. So I thought a really interesting interview with Secretary Arne Duncan with the start of the school year. Richard Rothstein, what struck you as being important about what he said?
MR. RICHARD ROTHSTEINWell, the key point he made, which I think has been lost in the debate, is there's a big difference between having higher standards and the consequences of those standards. Nobody objects to having higher standards, the common core or if they are higher and to the extent they are higher. The real issue is that what Secretary Duncan has been advocating is tying accountability to the tests that are based on those standards. We've had 10 years now of accountability tied to tests based on so-called lower standards, and they've completely corrupted our education system.
MR. RICHARD ROTHSTEINThey've made the system much worse. Teachers have had incentives to narrow the curriculum to the things that are tested. Students have been trained to take tests rather than to learn the underlying curriculum. The same thing is going to happen if we tie tests to these higher standards. Teachers will learn what kinds of things are going to be on the test. There'll be a lot of test preparation going on. The tests will not reflect what children really know but rather how skilled they are at taking tests.
MR. RICHARD ROTHSTEINAnd it won't account for all of the other things besides classroom instruction that affect how high student achievement is. So the common core standards are one thing, but the real issue is the attempt -- the misguided attempt to have very high stakes attached to tests to measure those standards. Those will corrupt education just as much as now as they have in the past, and it's unfortunate Secretary Duncan and his colleagues haven't learned the lessons from No Child Left Behind and are preparing now to implement the same kinds of mistakes that were done in the last 10 years.
PAGEMike, I know that you have been helpful with the administration in talking to conservatives among others about common core. What did you think?
MR. MIKE PETRILLIYeah. Well, I think that the secretary is trying very hard right now to provide flexibility for states that need it, especially around timing, how do you time the adoption of new teacher evaluation systems, for example, while also providing some political cover to state leaders that want to move ahead more quickly. So I appreciate that.
MR. MIKE PETRILLINow, Secretary Duncan has not always been so helpful on the case for the common core partly because many conservatives out there fear that this is a real federal intervention in our schools. So the best thing that Arne Duncan can do, in effect, is to stay quiet about these standards. They really were initiated by the states. It's a state initiative. And we've got to let the states take the lead on this.
PAGEDo you think the debate over whether we should set what are essentially national standards, is that debate now settled?
PETRILLIOh, no, it's definitely not settled. There's a big backlash on the right about this. And this is what, though, I think we have to talk about is -- Arne Duncan was saying we should stop lying to our parents about how kids are doing. You know, today, new test scores came out in Indiana. This is a state where there's a big debate going on on the common core, and our own institute has found that Indiana's content standards are quite good.
PETRILLIHere's the problem: Their test is extremely easy. And they reported today that 90 percent of third graders for example are proficient in Indiana. The National Assessment of Educational Progress puts that more at about a third of Indiana students. So somebody is not telling the truth. And the goal with this effort is to dramatically raise the bar and say, look, if you really want to be on track for college or career, it's a very high standard. And unfortunately right now, we're giving parents the false impression that everything is fine when it's not.
PAGEWell, I've got to say when -- I went to a parent-teacher night once with one of my kids in elementary school, and the teacher said, you know, I don't really like geography, so I don't teach it. And I thought, wow, I think actually Ben might need geography some time down the road. Fawn, this is really designed, I guess, to address that kind of experience.
MS. FAWN JOHNSONAbsolutely. And the thing that I really appreciate about Arne Duncan as -- just as a leader is he is taking on an age-old question, which is how do you decide what your students are supposed to learn, which is a hard-enough question as it is. And then secondly, how do you measure it, which is -- opens up a whole Pandora's Box of debate and also political leanings on one side or the other.
MS. FAWN JOHNSONBut what Arne Duncan is able to do in his role -- I would call him a new kind of education secretary. He has more power than almost any secretary previous to him because of the fact that the standards of the No Child Left Behind law were not able to be re-authorized by Congress, which means that his department is the one that gets to tell states what they can waive and not in the old No Child Left Behind law.
MS. FAWN JOHNSONBut he is so friendly and affable and flexible about it, so he says, such that he can really -- he can push in a lot of different directions in a way that makes it very hard to argue with. And so it's a great role that he's playing. Not everybody likes it for sure, particularly the people on the right, but it is something that -- I mean, he is willing to push in areas that are very uncomfortable for people on both sides of the political spectrum.
PAGEHe's also had some money to spread around through the stimulus bill.
PAGERichard Rothstein, do you agree that -- I realize you have some concerns about these standardized tests. But do you agree that Arne Duncan has been more powerful and perhaps more influential in this job than our -- the previous education secretaries?
ROTHSTEINOh, yes, he certainly has because he's had enormous flexibility without congressional authorization as a result of the stimulus bill and the Raise to the Top funds. The problem is that he's got an entirely incoherent approach to education policy which, as I said, is doing enormous harm. He ended his comments before with promoting the importance of early childhood education. I fully agree with that.
ROTHSTEINEverybody who studies student achievement knows that the one most important factors affecting student achievements is whether children come to school in the first place prepared to learn, whether they've had good literacy experiences in early childhood where they've had high-quality care. He promotes that. It's very important. It's wonderful that he promotes it.
ROTHSTEINBut then he turns around and advocates and implements an aggressive accountability policy which holds schools accountable for the same results whether or not their children have had high quality early childhood instruction. If early childhood is really as important as he says it is, and I think it is, how can you hold schools accountable for high standards and high accomplishment if children haven't had those early childhood experiences?
ROTHSTEINSo, on the one hand, he advocates all the right things, early childhood. He advocates health clinics in schools. He advocates after-school programs and has promised neighborhoods program. But when it comes to actually implementing an accountability system, it makes no difference. It has no effect whatsoever.
ROTHSTEINHis Race to the Top program, for example, gave states no points for whether they had early childhood programs or health clinics in schools or after-school programs. And so he talks a good game when it comes to all of these important influences in education, but when it comes down to the actual accountability policies that he's promoting, they have no effect whatsoever.
PAGEYou know, it's interesting. Arne Duncan is a Democrat in a Democratic administration, and yet our more liberal panelist is being very critical of him, our more conservative panelist is being more positive about him. Fawn what does that -- is that the general assessment he faces? And what does that say?
JOHNSONI think that's exactly the place where he should be if he's going to be an effective secretary. But it's absolutely right that the -- with the exception of some Tea Party types who are really critical of the common core and some of the kinds of federal policies that the secretary is pushing. Arne Duncan has made the left very uncomfortable because of the fact that he really wants to -- he wants to push accountability. And accountability, by very -- by its very definition, is difficult to measure, and somebody is going to lose out.
PAGEMike, we've been talking about common core, but in fact, the flood of emails that we've gotten so far are on another topic, and that is later start times for high school students. We're going to go to the phones in just a few minutes, 1-800-433-8850, and get some of your comments on that. This is the issue, though, that is getting the most attention from our listeners right now. What struck you about what Secretary Duncan said on that front?
PETRILLIWell, I thought he was quite reasonable on that question, and he rightfully pointed out that he has no role to play in this decision other than using his bully pulpit. There is some pretty good research that shows that, in fact, high school students do need that extra sleep and that later start times might help them. Now, figuring out how to do that, you know, if you back up the school day, then, you know, what happens to those after-school sports and the other activities?
PETRILLIOne thing he didn't say but is a real possible solution here is that as more high school students take some courses online, you could imagine high schools having a shorter school day with the expectation that high school students would take a couple of classes at night. And there'll still be time for that after-school sports period. That might be something people should look at.
PAGEHere's what school districts often say. You know, we've got to run these buses. Who's going to get the early bus? You're going to have the 6-year-olds who are going to kindergarten the first grade on the early bus? Are you going to have the high school students?
JOHNSONRight. And the question, of course, is, you know, the parents are also the ones that have to be involved in this. And I would argue that probably the flood of your emails are coming not from students, but from parents. And there really, you know...
PAGEWe kind of hope the students are in school at this point.
JOHNSONI would -- well, I would hope so. But...
PETRILLIOr sleeping, yeah.
JOHNSONRight. I think the -- I mean, this is one of those very local community issues. But what I love is that, again, the secretary is doing what he does very well, which is using social media to promote an idea that really should be talked about in a lot of different places.
PAGERichard Rothstein, he was very critical of the US News college ranking system, which we know has become hugely influential. He said it provides perverse incentives. What did you make of his comments on that?
ROTHSTEINWell, I agree. The US News & World Report rankings do provide perverse incentives. And I have to acknowledge -- we all have to acknowledge -- that his college accountability system, his new system, isn't fully formed yet, so we don't really what it's going to say. But the kinds of things we've been hearing will also provide perverse incentives. For example, he wants to create incentives for higher graduation rates.
ROTHSTEINWell, that sounds terrific in theory. But the best colleges in this country are those that take disadvantaged minority low-income students. Community colleges prepare them for transfer to four-year colleges, graduate them. But they have low graduation rates. A community college that takes students like that and graduates 40 percent or 50 percent of its students is doing a fantastic job.
ROTHSTEINIt's doing a much better job, in comparative terms, than, say, a school like Harvard that may graduate 95 percent of its students. So when we have an accountability system that's based on graduation rates, are we going to consider a community college with a 50 percent graduation rate a failing college, the same kinds of mistakes that we've made when we've been having accountability for K-12 education?
ROTHSTEINOr he says he wants to rate colleges on the earnings of its graduates. Well, that sounds good in theory as well. But does that mean that colleges are going to have perverse incentives not to run programs, for example, to train teachers, which is a relatively low-paying occupation for college graduates and instead try to...
PAGEOr you might note that President Obama himself took a low-paying job when he got out of Harvard, working as a community organizer.
ROTHSTEINThat's correct. I think it was before he went to law school, though. But you're right. So are we going to create incentives against colleges that turn out children -- students for teaching or nursing or other low-paid occupations and create incentives for them to send students to law -- to Wall Street?
ROTHSTEINThese are the kinds of perverse incentives that are involved in any of the kind of mechanistic accountability systems, whether it's for higher education or K-12 education, of the kind that Arne Duncan promotes. And so I'm very concerned about the direction he's going in this higher education accountability system.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, Mike, what do you think about this idea of a federal ranking of colleges on these various things -- graduation rates, debt load and so on?
PETRILLIYeah. I think that Richard is right that the devil's in the details. I think the administration is trying to tackle a serious problem, which is that we see college tuitions, especially, totally out of control, you know, rising much faster than inflation. And this is now something that concerns everybody up and down the income ladder. All parents worry about how they're going to afford these huge college tuition bills.
PETRILLII would say, though, you know, what Arne Duncan and Richard don't want to talk about exactly is to say, you know, part of the reason that we're spending so much money on higher education is that a lot of kids are going into higher education who are not prepared for college. And they end up in remedial courses, and then they drop out. And we certainly need to improve our K-12 system to better prepare their students.
PETRILLIBut we also need to face the fact that some of those kids are probably not ready for college and should not be going to college. And does it make sense to be spending billions of dollars a year in Pell Grants and student loans for kids who are most likely going to drop out anyway? There's got to be a better path to the middle class than to have them, you know, go into those colleges and fail.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. Let's go first to Elizabeth. She's calling us from Chapel Hill, N.C. Elizabeth, hi. You're on the air.
ELIZABETHHi. Thank you for taking my call. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools do have a policy where the high school students start one hour later than the elementary school students. I myself attended a high school where the opposite was true and the high schools were the first to start, and I myself as a parent have two elementary-age children. I unfortunately been to -- I do not have the source in front of me, but I recently did read a study where they indicated that elementary school children who had an extra hour of sleep in the morning had marked gains in achievement.
ELIZABETHSo, to me, given the fact that probably everybody, including us, could benefit from an extra hour of sleep in the morning, I think we need to look at the rest of the schedule. And my thought is if the high school students are starting later, they're finishing the day later. And not only are there after-school sports, but there is marginally greater homework in elementary school. And also, for me, personally, I had to go to work after school, in addition to doing my homework and extracurricular activities.
ELIZABETHIf I wanted spending money, my family situation dictated that I needed to work, and there are restrictions on how late high school students are permitted to work during the week. So putting all that together, I would favor having the high school students start earlier and the elementary school students start later. And I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.
PAGEElizabeth, thanks so much for your call. We have a different perspective from Julie. She sends us an email. She says, "St. Johns County in Florida has moved start times for high school students to 9:15 a.m. It allows those students to participate in sports and jobs that run late, complete homework and still get adequate sleep." So, Fawn, an issue on which there's more than one point of view.
JOHNSONAbsolute -- I mean, I can't really improve on our caller in terms of her just outlining the scope of the issue. I think the question is really -- it goes down to individual school districts and how much money they have available, how much flexibility they have with their teachers and with their schools and what they do with their communities. If there is somebody who has to start school early, I don't know what the right answer is. I mean, I know what I always prefer, and I would have preferred it when my son was in kindergarten as, you know, he's going to the later parts of his school now.
PAGEAnd when he's in high school, you maybe prefer he has a later schedule, too?
PAGEHeather writes us a query: "Could we elaborate on national versus local decisions when it comes to late start times? Can federal guidelines help local?" Is there a federal role in this, Mike?
PETRILLIYou know, I think the one federal role is to do research on these kinds of questions and to fund studies that look at something -- this is a very important question, it's a legitimate place for study -- and then to disseminate those results out there and for someone like Arne Duncan to use the bully pulpit.
PETRILLIBut I certainly would not want a federal rule or mandate on this sort of thing because, you know, as we've heard from the callers, there's lots of different perspectives on this and competing priorities. And any kind of mandate would be an unfunded mandate. It might cost more money to change these start times, and I don't expect the federal government to pony up for that.
PAGEMike Petrilli, he's with the Thompson B. Fordham Institute. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go back to your calls and questions, and we'll talk about the issue that's -- that Arne Duncan wouldn't talk about, that lawsuit in Louisiana on school integration. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With the studio -- in the studio with me today: Fawn Johnson of National Journal, Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And joining us from New York, Richard Rothstein from the Economic Policy Institute. Well, earlier in this hour, I asked Secretary Arne Duncan about the lawsuit that has been filed by the Justice Department, suing Louisiana schools as part of an effort to -- effort aimed at integration of the public schools. Mike, tell us about it.
PETRILLISo this relates to some desegregation orders that are now something like 30 or 40 years old. There are some school districts in Louisiana still under those orders. And the state of Louisiana, in the meantime, has passed a school voucher program, allowing low-income students to send -- to go to a private school of their choice with public funding.
PETRILLIObviously, something that's very controversial, but that is supported in Louisiana and overwhelmingly serves African-American students. And because some of these students in these school districts want to transfer to private schools, which, by the way, tend to be much better integrated than the public schools, the Justice Department is worried that it will upset the racial balance of those schools that they are departing.
PETRILLIIn truth, though, it means that they might go from, say, 80 percent African-American to 82 percent African-American. The -- this lawsuit, in my view and in the view of many supporters of school choice, is such a sad statement of the administration's priorities. Why not let these African-American parents choose where their kids can go to school?
PAGERichard, what do you think about that?
ROTHSTEINWell, I want to put this in the broader context of what Arne Duncan said about integration. He mentioned and he's correct that integration is an essential ingredient of student success. Low-income, disadvantaged minority children are not going to succeed to the extent we want so long as they're in racially isolated schools with few middle-class children around them, with few peers who have come from homes with high-literacy experiences and so forth.
ROTHSTEINSo integration should be a high priority for this administration and for any administration if they want to improve student achievement. Arne Duncan said in his comment earlier it should be voluntary. That was, I think, a very unfortunate comment. Of course, it should be voluntary. Everything is voluntary. The common core standards are voluntary. But Arne Duncan has no compunction about creating enormous federal incentives to adopt these voluntary programs. Early childhood is voluntary. After-school programs are voluntary. But the Department of Education has incentives.
ROTHSTEINThis administration has provided no incentives for schools to integrate. In the Race to the Top competition, for example, schools and states were not given extra points if they were following programs to integrate their schools. There are many policies that states could adopt that could enhance the integration of their schools. There are many suburbs in this country, predominantly white suburbs, that have zoning ordinance, for example, that prohibit the construction of low and moderate-income housing.
ROTHSTEINThe Race to the Top could have created an incentive to abandon those zoning ordinances as a way of integrating schools. But -- so Arne Duncan just stopped short by saying it's voluntary, but has not adopted any of the kinds of incentives to give school districts and states the means by which and the incentives to integrate their schools that he's adopted for a whole range of other policies.
PAGEHere's an email from Michael in Orlando. He writes, "What do other countries do about adolescent sleep issues? Is it only American students who have problems in the morning? Can't anyone set a reasonable bedtime?" And we're getting a lot of emails, Fawn, on saying, hey, isn't this up to the parents, not the schools, to get the kids to bed at night so they can get up in the morning and go to school?
JOHNSONYou know, it's funny. I don't know what other countries do, but I assume that they have the same struggles that we do. I can't imagine that teenagers in developing countries of England or in Germany are any better at going to bed than my kid is. So I think -- I mean, the only thing I can expound on in this particular debate is my own experience, which is probably like anyone else's, but doesn't really add too much to the conversation.
JOHNSONHowever, I will say that I agree with Mike that if this is a real issue for parents, the federal government and, you know, good for Arne Duncan for tweeting analyses and research.
PAGELet's go to Curtis. He's calling us from New York City. Curtis, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CURTISHi, Susan. I think you're a fantastic reporter, by the way.
PAGEWell, thank you.
CURTISYou're welcome. My question is about exploding tuition rates. Is it possible that the changes in laws from the previous administration that college debt couldn't be vacated in bankruptcy court is responsible for the explosion in tuition rates in the same way that the federal government basically financing medical attention may have contributed to the exploding cost of medical attention in the U.S.? And I'll take my -- pardon me?
PAGEYes. Good question and interesting. Let me ask the panel. What do you think?
JOHNSONI don't think that that is the case. My understanding about the reason why college tuitions are escalating is that the -- actually, the state funding that is going into colleges has decreased. The number of people who are trying to go to college has increased, which means that states can't accommodate them in the way that they would like to.
JOHNSONAnd so their share of federal money coming in lowers because they can't accommodate them, and it just turns into this vicious cycle where the state governors aren't allowed to raise taxes -- or they can, but that it's not politically popular. They need to balance a budget, and so there's a lot less money going into state universities. And it's being made up by the parents and the families who are paying for the college. That's my understanding. I don't think it has -- I think it has very little to do with how they deal with student debt.
PETRILLIBut let's be honest about the perverse incentives here, right? I mean, we have tried to solve this problem for years by pushing, dumping, really, more and more money into our colleges. And so they have, in many cases, turned around and said, OK, if students are going to have bigger Pell grants or they'll going to be able to get loans easier, we can jack up our tuitions and we'll still have plenty of customers. And that's not just the traditional colleges. That's now for-profit colleges as well. And so, you know, just dumping more money into the system hasn't worked either.
PETRILLIWe have a bubble like we had in the housing market, where it is very easy to get these low interest loans for students. They rack up all this debt and then, lo and behold, many of the kids get out of college and can't afford to pay it back. We've got to get the incentives right. We've got to get parents and students to be savvier about saying, look, is this education that I'm taking out the $100,000 in loans for, is it actually worth it? And I think that's what Arne Duncan is pushing for is at least some better information on that front.
PAGESuch a hard debate for parents, I think, because every parent wants the very best for their child. They want to set them up for success in life. And you wonder, do I need to pay this huge bill in order to do that?
ROTHSTEINBut can I say something about this, the college cost issue, though? I think it's important to separate two separate issues. One is the rising cost of private college education. The other is the rising cost of public university and public college education, which is where the vast majority of American students go. The rising cost of public education -- state universities, state colleges, community colleges -- is not attributable to the kinds of things we've been discussing.
ROTHSTEINFawn mentioned it, and she's correct. That's the withdrawal, the decrease in state funding of higher education, and so students are having to make it up. None of the fiddling we do with the private financing of higher education is going to solve that problem. This is a state fiscal issue, and it's a question of the commitment that our country is making to higher education in the public system.
PAGELet's go to Arkansas and talk to Joe. Joe, you're on the air.
JOEHi. Thank you for taking my call. According to the federal Department of Education website, states are responsible for setting the curriculums for schools, and if I understand this correctly, that they are also responsible for setting the standards. So my question is, with laws like No Child Left Behind, are states mandated to follow those standards set forth in those -- in that law? Or can they decide to opt out of it with the only repercussion being that they would not be eligible for federal funding?
PAGEAll right, Joe. Thanks very much for your call.
PETRILLISure. So what No Child Left Behind says -- and this is now the 12-year-old law that is in effect -- is that states must have standards in reading and in math but the content of those standards is up to the states. Now, more recently, we have these common core standards which, again, were developed by the states. The sector of education did create some incentives for states to adopt the standards through Race to the Top program. But that's now past. That's in the past. And states can certainly back out of those standards any time they want.
PETRILLIAnd there's a lot of debate going on. I was in Arkansas a few weeks ago, testifying a legislature about states pulling out. And personally, I hope they don't because the standards are actually quite good and much more rigorous than what states like Arkansas had previously. But it is up to the states. And the curriculum definitely stays up to the states and in most cases up to the school district, the curriculum that kids are actually taught to reach those standards.
PAGEWell, Duncan has -- Secretary Duncan has, in fact, issued an enormous number of waivers for states and even for individual school districts, Fawn, from the mandates of No Child Left Behind.
JOHNSONRight. And this is, you know, going back to what I said, I think, at the very beginning of this program, was that -- is that you're seeing an unprecedented amount of power that an education secretary has over the states. I mean, the education system is set up deliberately to not be a federally directed program. It's supposed to be state and locally directed. But because No Child Left Behind has not been reauthorized and its standards are outdated, the secretary has a lot of leverage.
JOHNSONSo he has -- to date, I think there have been 41 waivers that have been given to states and the District of Columbia. There are eight school districts that have been given waivers. And then 35 of those waivers are going to come up for renewal at the end of the current school year, which means that these states are going to have to re-apply. And this is a rigorous process that the states and the school districts go through. It -- I mean, you can look at it all online.
JOHNSONIt is -- the Education Department professionals ask a lot of questions and they push -- they definitely push the states in the directions that they want them to go. So it's a real tension between the idea of what the federal role should be or is and what originally the, you know, original 1965 Education Act had envisioned, which was a state-run system.
PETRILLIBut let's be clear, Fawn. I mean, that the Department of Education has gone far beyond what's in the statute, at least many of us believe. And so, for example, they are now saying that if states want these waivers to change the way their accountability system works, they have to create these statewide teacher evaluation programs that are tied to student achievement. There is nothing in the No Child Left Behind Act about any of that. Now, they are just making it up out of thin air without congressional authorization. So this is angering a lot of people on the right and, I think, appropriately so.
JOHNSONWell -- and that's a typical debate within the Obama administration that we've seen.
PAGELet's go to Key West, Fla. and talk to Maurice. Maurice, thanks for holding on.
MAURICEThank you for taking my call.
PAGEYes. Go ahead. Do you have a question or a comment?
MAURICEActually, I had a comment and a question. My mom is a PhD doctor in education, and she taught us to learn as we were growing up. So we learned the great gift of learning. I haven't heard much of that being talked about. And I think what we're being tested on, such as with No Child Left Behind, is we're being taught to memorize, not to learn. And I think that's one of the main problems. I think it's up to the parents and the people in the community to actually stand up behind their kids and actually get involved in the educational program instead of waiting for somebody else to fix it.
MAURICEFor example, I run a company in Key West and I go out to local daycares, elementary schools, and I provide them with information on what it is that I do, which is computer programming and stuff like that. And I get them on board with that and following along with it. They learn more than they learn from the school. And also in the schools -- for example, my mom left a high-paying job in a university, went back to the district jobs, K through 12, and something we've talked about is the technical stuff that's in the schools.
MAURICEThe support representatives in the school are not qualified to be in the school. That's not all the schools. There's a wide majority of them. For example, there's been some talk of some people in some schools saying that they're not there to fix computers or to set up computers. And I think if this is your base, then your base is corrupt. And if your base is corrupt, then I don't think you should expect much out of the program at all.
PAGEAll right, Todd. (sic) Thanks so much for your call. And our thanks to your mother for providing that critical role of teaching. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Richard, I want to ask you about the impact of the sequestration, the budget cuts, the automatic budget cuts called sequestration on education budgets for this school year. Are they having an effect?
ROTHSTEINOh yes, they are. Teachers or numbers of the class sizes are being increased around the country more importantly than that, and this is a combination boast of the sequestration and of Mr. Duncan's accountability policies as we're seeing the layoffs of librarians and art teachers and music teachers and physical education teachers because the accountability system focuses exclusively on test scores in math and reading.
ROTHSTEINSo yes, the funding is being reduced. Sequestration is part of it. State budgets are also contributing this reduction in state tax revenues over the last few years. And it's causing a number of serious problems in elementary and secondary education that is bound to have deleterious effects on student achievement in the long run.
PAGEHere's an email from Adela who writes us from Fort Worth. She writes, "What is the perspective from the federal level regarding more PE and recess time and re-implementation of art and music in order to rear well-rounded children as well as academically successful students?" You know, Fawn, this has been an issue in the D.C. area with the news that one of the big districts here is cutting -- I guess, cutting out PE time or cutting it back to 15 minutes for elementary school students. Is there a federal role in this issue?
JOHNSONWell, I would answer the email just by saying that I have not heard anything from the Education Department about those issues. A lot of what they are focusing on is what they would consider the core math and reading that you want the kids to be to that level. And importantly, let's just remember that the research shows that if kids aren't proficient in math and reading by third grade, they are in for a load of problems. So it's -- that's really what the administration is focusing on, Michelle Obama excepted.
PETRILLIRight. Michelle Obama has certainly been out there on the PE and anti-obesity. But let's make it clear, the new common core standards in English, and this message hasn't gone out, if schools are going to do well on these new standards, they have got to get back to teaching history, geography, civics, art, music to build up kids' content knowledge and kids' vocabulary. That is...
JOHNSONAnd writing, too. That's the other part of the common core.
PETRILLIAnd writing. And so the hope is these standards are going to push back against some of what's happened in a No Child Left Behind with that narrowing of the curriculum. I do worry that that message has not gone out there. Parents can certainly help. Get the message out there. Content should be coming back to the elementary school curriculum.
PAGERichard, what do you think?
ROTHSTEINBut -- well, it's not as simple as that. You know, the SAT is a higher quality test than the kinds of standardized tests that the states have been giving. But it's not been difficult to spend millions of dollars in this country, private money, in test prep courses, teaching students tricks on how to pass the SAT, how the elevate their scores above what their true achievement truly shows. And the same thing is going to true -- going to be true with the tests based on the common core standards.
ROTHSTEINSo it's true. There -- it would be -- you would do better on the common core standards if you had the other content areas being focused on. But you would be doing even better if you dropped some of those content areas and spent the time instead doing test prep and drill and learning test-taking tricks. And so long as we combine the idea of higher standards with accountability, we're going to get this kind of corruption that we've had in the past that we will in the future.
PAGERichard Rothstein, Fawn Johnson, Mike Petrilli. Thanks so much for joining us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Danielle Knight. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales.
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