The Obama Education Plan: Math, Science, and Rigor

Arne Duncan tells BuinessWeek about the Administration's priorities and strategies in the works to improve schools
Duncan says No Child Left Behind resulted in "dumbing down" the curriculum Melissa Golden/Bloomberg News

In a major speech on education on Mar. 10, the President called for linking teacher pay to performance, rolling out more charter schools to increase parents' choices, and closing schools that don't make the grade. A few days before the President's speech, Education Secretary Arne Duncan discussed this provocative agenda with BusinessWeek Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler, Washington Bureau Chief Jane Sasseen, and Correspondent Steve LeVine.

The business community is very concerned about student proficiency in math and science. How will you treat these areas?We have 20 English teachers for every job and can't find a math teacher, and that's a problem. We have to pay math and science teachers differently. I also think early exposure for kids is really important. If you wait until high school to instill in kids lots of math and science, it's too late. We've got to push to get more kids taking algebra in eighth grade, and then you start to think about calculus in that fourth year [of high school].

In Chicago, you brought in math and science teachers from outside. Where did they come from?One pool was the young guns. The second was people coming out of industry, 30, 35, or 40 [years old]. I had folks who took 60%, 70%, 80% pay cuts to come teach in the inner city. I had one couple that walked away from Motorola (MOT), who wanted to come teach.

The third group were people at retirement age. So we had a Troops-to-Teachers program for folks coming out of the military. You have people 50, 55, who have lots of good years left.

How will you set national standards?We're going to pick a set of states who are willing to drive a national conversation [about standards], to commit to do the whole package of reforms. We'll make some mistakes, get the kinks out. But we'll use that to say, "As a country, this is where we need to go."

How concerned are you about "teaching to the test?" and to the standards?If you're teaching to a bad test, it's a problem. If you're teaching to a good test, it's good. One downside of No Child Left Behind was 50 states dumbing down things.

What role do you see for community colleges?We're going to make a play around community colleges. Green jobs, tech jobs, health jobs. [We have] a tremendous opportunity to produce the workers that the corporate sector needs.

Bill Gates recently suggested that much of the $2 billion his foundation has spent on education basically achieved very little. What are the lessons here?They invested early just on creating small schools. What they did right was work hard to get the culture right. The next step is you have to drive more students into taking AP classes, college-level classes. When you combine those two, it's extraordinarily powerful. If all you do is change the structure, and don't change the content, you're not doing enough for the kids.

Is there a model school for all?We need to create a range of great options, and let the marketplace play. The schools that are doing a great job and where there are waiting lists, let's build a lot more of those. [In Chicago] we had one military academy and a long waiting list, and we ended up with six. There are very few high-performing schools with empty seats. The more we empower parents, [the more] they are going to figure out the best learning environment for their child.

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