The nation's highest education official said Friday that Minnesota needs to do more to close its achievement gap between white and minority students.
Arne Duncan told a crowd of business and education leaders in Minneapolis that while no state has solved the gap, other states have made more progress than Minnesota.
"What I just haven't quite felt, candidly, from Minnesota is this sense of urgency," Duncan said during the speech at the Chamber of Commerce. "The history of education reform is strong here, but what I think I'm trying to do here is challenge the country to not be complacent."
Although Minnesota's education system and its students usually rank toward the top of national achievement tests, the data masks a deep disparity between white and minority students.
For example, in 2009, eighth graders in Minnesota had the second highest math scores in the nation on a widely used standardized test. But while the overall average was higher than most states, the gap between the scores of white students and both African-American and Latino students was the seventh largest in the country.
Duncan also called on state leaders to create alternative ways for people to become teachers. That issue was the subject of a debate last year at the state Capitol and is proposed in several bills this year.
Duncan's visit also included a stop at a school in Lakeville, near the home of U.S. Rep. John Kline. The Republican lawmaker now chairs the U.S. House education committee.
MPR's Tom Crann spoke with Duncan after his speech on Friday. An edited version of that interview is below.
Tom Crann: At lunch time, you spoke to business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce here in Minnesota. What was your assessment of Minnesota's education system at that time?
Arne Duncan: It's a really interesting time. I think Minnesota has some real strengths, but frankly has a long way to go. Minnesota has a huge achievement gap that needs to shrink dramatically. Minnesota, I think, needs to become more innovative, in terms of pushing a reform agenda, but as I met with the business community, as I met with the governor, with both senators, I think there's a real opportunity here for Minnesota to help lead the country where we need to go.
Crann: Do you see Minnesota working on closing that achievement gap? Is it enough here, or do you see other places doing it better, and maybe things we could learn here in Minnesota?
Duncan: This is one of the challenges [that] when I spoke this morning, I challenged folks to really deal with openly and honestly is the gap, the achievement gap between white and minority in Minnesota is amongst the largest in the country. And that's not good for children. It's not good for communities. It's ultimately not good for the state. And so I think that's an area where Minnesota needs to have really courageous conversations and think through how we close that gap, while we raise the bar for all children simultaneously.
Crann: Where do you and Congressman John Kline, who is the new chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, where do you see some agreement?
Duncan: I think we have areas of huge agreement. We want to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law this year. We think a lot of that law is fundamentally broken. We want to make it much more flexible, frankly, get Washington off of folks' back and hold districts and schools accountable to a high bar, but really give great teachers and great principals and great communities, give them the room to move. And he's pushed very hard for increased local flexibility, and I absolutely agree with that.
When I managed Chicago Public Schools, I almost had to sue the Department of Education for the right to tutor my children after school. We had a huge battle. Thankfully I won, but it made no sense whatsoever. So I think there are areas of great common agreement, and ... we want to put together a law that's much more flexible, that's much fairer, and also much more targeted, much more focused.
Crann: Is that reauthorization of No Child Left Behind going to happen this year? There was a lot of talk about it when President Obama took office and even during the campaign. So, what's next for that? What [is] the timetable?
Duncan: I'm hopeful that we can do it this year. And again, I think there are a lot of perverse incentives in the current law, lots of disincentives. We think as we're struggling to dramatically improve the quality of education, the law in some ways is really hurting us and not recognizing great teachers. And it's led to a narrowing of the curriculum and a dumbing down of standards.
We need to recognize excellence. Every child needs a world class education. We have to focus much more on growth and gain and how much students are improving, rather than absolute test scores. So my goal is absolutely to reauthorize this year. And I think it's, for better or worse, one of the few areas that Republicans and Democrats can work together in a bipartisan way moving forward.
Crann: I want to talk about Race to the Top. There were a couple of rounds of funding, and Minnesota did not get included in the first round and declined to apply for the second, if I am correct about that. But then the problem is there's no more money for it. So where do you see Congress appropriating more money for Race to the Top so that Gov. Dayton, as he says, can reapply for it? How realistic is that?
Duncan: I think it's very realistic. We're working hard with Congress, whether it's additional funding for Race to the Top or whether it's our Invest in Innovation Fund or our Promise Neighborhoods initiative, and grants for those different competitions have been won by folks here in Minnesota.
We think we have to invest in excellence, and we have to really invest in people with the courage to challenge the status quo and [use] best practices. We think we as the Department of Education should be in the business of rewarding the great work at the local level. And so we're asking for significant resources to continue Race to the Top, to continue the Invest in Innovation Fund, to fund the implementation of the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, and we're very hopeful Congress will be supportive of that effort.
Crann: Today ... at the Chamber of Commerce address, you also talked about the idea that there should be additional ways for talented people to become teachers. This is the issue of alternative licensure, correct?
Duncan: It is, and I think there's a real common sense middle ground that I think the state is getting to, and I was really encouraging the state to continue to move in that direction. We cannot have enough great teachers in this country, and we need to do everything we can to bring great talent into our nation's schools. Talent matters tremendously in education. We have to do a much better job of supporting that talent and nurturing that talent, but wherever we're sort of limiting access or making it difficult for great teachers to get in the classroom, I don't understand that.
Crann: What do you say to the arguments, though, against alternative licensure, that there needs to be proper training? And the concern I think is the qualification level of some people who may be talented in other fields, but they haven't been through education training curriculum.
Duncan: I think what we should do, Tom, moving forward, is hold everyone accountable for not just bringing in great talent, [but] supporting that great talent. So whether it's traditional paths, whether it's alternative certification routes, we have to be evaluating all of them and see over time who's producing the most talent and doing the best job of supporting that talent in the classroom. But to just still fundamentally say a certain set of folks aren't allowed to common into the classroom, just, I think, puts a real limit on where we need to go.
The final thing I'll say is that we have grave shortages in this country in specific areas, in the math and sciences, in the STEM field, and that's so important to our country moving forward. So why shouldn't we be actively recruiting scientists and engineers and biologists and chemists to think about teaching and then help them with the classroom skills? We need people who know the content, who know the material, and there's a huge pool of talent out there that we're not tapping into that I think does our children a real disservice.
Crann: Any hints about what the president might say in his State of the Union address next week about education?
Duncan: Well, I think the president from day one has had a laser-like focus on education. And you'll continue to see that focus and courage in the State of the Union speech. We're very much looking forward to it. And he has said repeatedly that the countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow, and that we're fighting for our economic security, we're fighting for our national security, and education is also the civil rights issue of our generation.
Crann: You've said that before, that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. Explain what you mean when you say that.
Duncan: I just think the dividing line in our country today is so much around educational opportunity. And you can be a child from a very tough community and a tough family in a poor area, but if you have access to a great early childhood program, to a great elementary school, to a high school that has a college-going culture, I think that young person has a great chance to be successful, but if a child has access to inferior schools where there are low expectations and where there are drop-out factories, I think that child's basically condemned to poverty and social failure. And so I think the dividing line in our country today is so much around educational opportunity. And we have to continue to close that divide.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)