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What Secretary Duncan Said, And Whether It Matters

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan isn't going to be an NPR Ed regular. Except when he is.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan isn't going to be an NPR Ed regular. Except when he is.

In the runup to this week's launch of NPR Ed, our team spent a lot of time talking about who we want to be and what kind of stories we want to tell. Stories about learning, stories about teachers and professors and students and principals and parents. Stories that take place in classrooms and communities.

In some ways it was almost easier to talk about what we don't want: Incremental policy developments. Dense debates over obscure funding formulas. News conferences. In other words, we don't think you're coming to NPR Ed to hear sound bites from members of Congress or from the alphabet soup of organizations that fill our inboxes with their latest reports.

In talking about this over the past few weeks my thinking kind of crystallized into one sentence. A headline almost: "One thing we're not about is, 'Whatever It Is That Secretary Duncan Said Today.' "

And so, in one of those funny things that happen in life, I found myself yesterday afternoon doing, guess what? Sitting on a stage in Nashville, interviewing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the keynote event at the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association.

Yup, we're not even a week old, and there I was with a golden opportunity to write about Whatever It Is That Secretary Duncan Said Today.

The reporters in the room, myself included, had hoped he would make some news. Instead, the Secretary used his prepared remarks to talk about the legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling 60 years ago, and how there's still a lot of work to be done.

"Unfortunately, in 2014, we still don't treat inequality and inequity in schools with the urgency and seriousness of purpose it deserves," Duncan said.

And he talked about finding more and better ways of giving poor and minority students the tools they need to get into – and graduate from – college.

When my turn came I asked him, three times, about whether the Common Core State Standards have a messaging problem. Many teachers and parents are frustrated. And they're drawing unflattering comparisons with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Duncan didn't really go there – which is one of the reasons it can be hard to get the story in education by focusing on what political leaders say.

Instead, he made the point that the alternative to having high education standards is, well, not having them. And Duncan noted that, despite all the controversy, some places, like Tennessee and Washington, D.C., are making progress under the Common Core.

And so this stuff is important. The Common Core marks a huge and dramatic shift in the way learning happens in this country – and those are the stories we want to tell.

I asked him, given the deep problems in American education he'd just described, what he thought the Administration's legacy on education would be. He said, basically, I'm not looking back, I'm looking forward. And that "We're not where we need to be."

And then he invoked our shared past:

"The history of Brown," Duncan said, "gives me optimism, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of our schools is long, but it bends toward justice – and justice means true equity and opportunity for all."

So maybe there's a lesson here: never say never.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.