ED — which must distribute all stimulus-related money by Sept. 30, 2010 — has laid out a series of goals schools should strive toward with the stimulus money, but Duncan said he did not want to dictate exactly what kind of innovation should be developed at the district level.
“Our job is really to empower that local leadership and not treat them like sheep,” he said. For example, Duncan said, finding ways to use cell phones to deliver lesson plans to students would improve education and meet federal guidelines.
“Kids are on their phones 14 hours a day,” he said.
Duncan said he would watch stimulus money closely, not just read proposals submitted by policy makers and legislators struggling to balance state budgets.
“I’d much rather watch someone’s actions than listen to their words or read their fancy paragraphs.”
Duncan had chided South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford this spring for initially refusing stimulus funds for his state’s school system. South Carolina lawmakers largely opposed Sanford’s stance, and on June 4, the state supreme court ordered Sanford to abide by a South Carolina budget law and request the $700 million in federal funds.
“First,” Sanford wrote in a letter eMailed to Duncan, “it’s important to state one last time for the record what a monumentally terrible idea I believe the entire so-called stimulus act is, and why in particular utilizing this money as our General Assembly has done is ultimately going to cause more harm than good.”
Said Duncan with a laugh, “I’ve never had to beg someone to take money.” Such experiences have surprised the secretary in his new role: “Some things I anticipated, some I didn’t.”
In addition to the financial crisis, an item at the top of Duncan’s to-do list is the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Some aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law, first passed by Congress in 2002, would need to be overhauled. The law’s name — which Duncan called “toxic” — could also see a change soon, although Duncan refrained from saying when the switch would come.
Reforming NCLB would require a philosophical turnaround, Duncan said. Under the Bush Administration, NCLB “was very loose on the goals and very tight, very prescriptive on how you get there.”
“I think that’s fundamentally backwards,” he argued. “I think it should be very tight on the goal … and be much looser on how you get there.”
Providing more funding for NCLB’s federally mandated academic goals and focusing on a growth-over-time model — in which educators focus on incrementally raising school’s standardized test scores each year — will be two reform efforts during the Obama Administration’s term, according to the secretary.
Duncan said NCLB has largely been seen as an inflexible, “blunt instrument” that devastates school morale when federal standards are missed year after year in some districts.
“Some of those schools labeled as failures actually are getting pretty significantly better each year,” he said. “To call them failures is misleading and unbelievably demoralizing to teachers and parents and the community.”