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Arne Duncan interview: best education ideas aren’t in Washington

The US education secretary’s approach involves finding and highlighting innovative solutions in schools around the nation.

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President Barack Obama sits next to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as he speaks about the importance of education while at an event at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, on September 8.

Larry Downing/Reuters

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Arne Duncan, the US education secretary, is candid about his hopes for a major overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is overdue for reauthorization.

"The first thing that's got to go is the name," said Secretary Duncan, his face somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

Duncan was in Manchester, N.H., on Wednesday at a forum on President Obama’s Fatherhood Initiative. Afterward, he gave an interview to the Monitor in which he talked about plans for reform of America’s education system. One thing he stressed: The leadership may come from Washington, but the best ideas on which steps to take will probably be found somewhere else.

“When I worked in Chicago, I never imagined the best ideas came from Washington,” he says, referring to his years as CEO of the Chicago public-school system. “Now that I’m in Washington, I certainly don’t imagine that.”

In crowds, the former professional basketball player stands a few inches above almost everyone else. On Wednesday at the forum in Manchester, Duncan was the center of attention as he spoke for about 10 minutes, hoping to stir up interest in the Fatherhood Initiative. He also fielded a few questions and listened to commentary from a diverse group that included prison ministers and coaches for robotics teams.

Later, in the interview, Duncan turned to discussion of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB. He was generous in his assessment of what the Bush administration did well when it crafted the legislation.

"There is something very important that they did right," he stresses, "and that is the disaggregation of data" – the requirement that schools separate out the test-score results of minority students. A school whose minority students don’t make gains on standardized tests will ultimately face sanctions.

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