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U.S. Education Secretary Discusses 'Opt-Out,' Achievement Gap

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

The contentious Bush-era education law known as ‘No Child Left Behind’ is possibly going to get an overhaul.  No Child Left Behind had forced states to test all children, and held schools accountable when low scores stayed low.

Right now, the Senate and House need to reconcile two different versions of an overhaul that they’ve each passed. The White House says it doesn’t like the House version.

WSHU's Mark Herz spoke with U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, about some of the biggest education concerns in Connecticut and New York.


There was a massive Opt-Out movement in New York over the last round of Common Core-aligned standardized tests. Many parents say tests like that don't help their kids, and even stress their kids out. And teachers say evaluating them on how their students do on standardized tests is unfair and even inaccurate. Will the overhaul of No Child Left Behind address these concerns?

It will address many of these concerns. I think having some connection between teacher evaluations and student learning makes sense. The goal of all great teachers is to make kids learn. But for folks to say there should be no connection between teacher evaluation and student learning I think actually demeans the profession. I think on the kids' side, there has been too much testing where there's duplicative tests, or redundant tests, or too much time doing test prep. That makes no sense. Part of what we're asking Congress to do in the fix of No Child Left Behind is to put a cap on what states can do in terms of testing. And the vast majority of testing is not coming from the federal level—it's coming from the state and local level. I do think it's important for kids to be tested annually.

How will the proposed changes to the No Child Left Behind Act address the acute disparity in public schools in Connecticut, where there are mostly wealthy white suburbs, and cities where the vast majority of the state’s people of color and poor live?

That's a very difficult conversation to have. It's a critically important conversation to have, and the only way you can have that conversation  based on facts, and not just based on opinion, is to have honest data on student performance. So you need data on the wealthier, affluent suburbs; and you need data from the less affluent inner cities. And so families who walk away from that, I think, really make it harder for us to have this conversation. First of all, only about 8 to 10 percent of funding for local schools comes from the federal government. Usually about 90 percent is local. As long as you have a property tax based system, like Connecticut, then the children of the rich get a lot more spent on them than the children of the poor. And that is fundamentally unfair. I would say it's un-American. Education has to be the ticket to the middle class. Connecticut's challenge is not unique, but it is particularly stark. Overall, Connecticut is a pretty high performing state. But there are desperate inequalities in the state. As parents, as taxpayers, do we just care about our kids, or do we care about all kids?

People have fought hard for decades to improve education in Connecticut. But it’s been tremendously difficult to move things forward, like graduation rates. What ideas do you have to improve education in the state?

Investing in early childhood education. Nothing is more important. The average child coming from a disadvantaged community who does not have access to high-quality early learning starts kindergarten a year to 16 months behind. At 5 years old, they're already a year or more behind. It's absolutely unfair, and, quite frankly, they may never catch up. So that has to stop. Any building block has to be around early education.

Mark is a former All Things Considered host and former senior editor with WSHU.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.