The U.S. Secretary of Education shared his views on, among other things, volunteerism, No Child Left Behind, reading readiness, and libraries, in an exclusive June 22, 2009, telephone conversation with American Libraries Editor in Chief Leonard Kniffel.
Arne Duncan at the Fanwood (N.J.) Public Library for the June 22 kick-off of "United We Serve."
American Libraries: With many libraries being forced to reduce hours because of funding problems, just when so many more people need service, what can the federal government do to help?
Arne Duncan: You hit the nail on the head. At a time of pretty significant increases in usage among children, among parents, among families, unfortunately we’re seeing hours cut and staffs cut. And so in the stimulus package there is an historic level of support for education coming from the federal government and over $100 billion of new money for education. We recognize the dire straits of tough economic times and the stress the states are under; however, it’s just so important that we keep our libraries—both school- and community-based—open and providing resources for families. I really think libraries can help to get our country back on its feet; it can help to get families back in the workforce, it can help families obtain education, it can help them with résumé writing, and it’s just a real jewel of a resource that I want to make sure we maximize the benefits of. This is an investment, not just in libraries but in our communities, families, in the country as a whole.
You visited the Fanwood Public Library in New Jersey today for the launch of the “United We Serve” initiative for volunteerism? What did you observe there about library services?
It’s a great library, and I met with librarians from all over the state and a few other places, and what I saw is what I saw in my neighborhood library back home in Chicago and in our neighborhood library now in D.C.: wonderfully committed staff, tremendous demand, a real willingness to reach out to the community and to reach out to the population, family literacy nights or families that are learning English for the first time, folks helping with résumé writing, with job hunting, on issues around foreclosures. It’s just this phenomenal resource. I have two young children at home, 5 and 7, and they’re avid library goers and they’re so proud to have library cards; so sort of first and foremost as a parent I just appreciate the leadership, the hard work. I would do whatever I can to support the great work libraries are doing around the country.
You’ve said a lot in the past about how schools should really be community hubs and they should provide health care information and do all kinds of other community-related activites. And you’ve mentioned that schools should be open more than six hours a day and beyond the school year. But there are a lot of financial considerations regarding using facilities for more hours―up to 14 hours a day, for example. What has to happen for better use to become a reality?
I think a piece of it is financial, and we can come back to that; but honestly the idea of a school being open six hours a day, five days a week, nine months out of the year, I just think that’s an outmoded, 19th-century concept of what education should be. It’s based upon the agrarian economy, and I just think our schools today need to be fundamentally different in their design and their structure and in what they’re trying to accomplish. We have schools in every community of the country; they all have classrooms, libraries, computer labs, gyms, some have pools, and these are great community resources. They don’t belong to me or to the superintendent or to the principal; they belong to the community and we need to open up, we need to collaborate, we need to co-locate so we can invite in the nonprofit partners, invite in the social service agencies, invite in the community resources. Our children need more today than we’re giving them. And I just think that it’s a wonderful space, where schools can really be sort of community anchors and the hearts, the true centers of the community, where families are learning together there.
So I just think we need to just fundamentally change our thinking and think very differently about collaboration, about opening our doors. There’s never enough money and times are really tough, but we’re talking about more time; to me that’s a great use of Title 1 dollars. So really think very, very differently about time, and not just the new Title 1 money but the historical Title 1 dollars. Let’s put more than $10 billion dollars into Title 1 money on the table, but I would argue that one of the most important things we can do, particularly for children from disadvantaged communities, is to give them more time.
The American Library Association has been identified as a partner in the new “United We Serve” volunteer effort, the “Summer of Service.” Can you talk about that and how came about?
It’s just so important. Again, libraries are just these phenomenal community resources. They’re doing a great, great job, they’re in tremendous demand, and so we wanted to spotlight how important they are again―not just in helping families get back on their feet, but helping the whole country get back on its feet. And I worry a lot about summer reading loss. There are so many documented studies—and we get this all the time in Chicago—where children would get to a certain point in June and then when they come back in the fall they’re further behind than when they left. That’s actually heartbreaking. It’s so important that our kids keep reading and keep learning all summer. There’s obviously no better place for that to happen than in libraries, where our children can really early in life gain a love of learning, a love of reading for its own sake, not just for homework, but just for the love of reading itself. Those students are going to do very, very well; I’m actually very confident about what they can accomplish.
We want to spotlight libraries both for helping children and for helping families, and we see tremendous volunteer opportunities for teenagers or adults or senior citizens to come and help and volunteer at the library this summer. Given the tremendous increase in demand and given the financial constraints that you talked about, we think this is a great place for volunteers of all ages to step up. And whether it’s leading the children or helping teach computer-literacy skills, or helping with résumé writing, we think that libraries are a great, great place where people from all ages can step up over the summer and contribute to their own community.
How do you see volunteers fitting into the equation both in schools and public libraries beyond the “Summer of Service”?
Well, again it’s where we have teenagers leading the 10- and 12-year-olds, or 5-year-olds, where they’re helping them with their homework. It’s phenomenal where you see volunteers teaching résumé -writing skills or helping on job applications or helping do GED or ESL. There’s just so many opportunities, not just for the summer―we’re going to kick it off this summer―but these are all ongoing needs, so if we can get a core of volunteers working now throughout the summer we absolutely hope that will carry over into the school year.
Could I just backtrack a little bit and ask you again to talk a little bit about the belt-tightening that we’re all facing. With sources of revenue drying up for libraries, are there specific ways that the Department of Education is going to encourage state and local governments not to pull the plug on library resources?
We’ve been very, very clear―not just there but in other places―that we don’t want people to take a step backwards, and there are all kinds of documented studies that show where you have healthy and strong and vibrant libraries with librarians staffing them that students do better, they read better, their test scores go up. And so, again, we understand the stress, we understand the pressure that states are under, but we can’t afford the country to take a step backwards. We have to, in fact, continue to get better; the status quo itself isn’t good enough. We’re going to do whatever we can to let folks know that we have to keep children reading, we have to keep them learning, we have to keep our buildings open, we have to keep our libraries open and staffed. There are well documented research studies that show the generic correlation between a qualified librarian, strong libraries, and student achievement.
Maybe the American Library Association can help by, among other ways, pulling together those statistics, doing the research?
I think so, yes, I think absolutely the library association can help get the word out, help let people know. And, as you know, when times are tough and folks have to tighten belts, that’s really a test of leadership, and some folks are going to make some great decisions and be strategic, actually use it as a time of opportunity to get better, and other folks are going to be a little bit paralyzed or take the path of less resistance. This is a real test of leadership at every level―at the school level, at the district level, at the state level―and we’re going to see some phenomenal innovation around the country despite of, or maybe even because of, these tough economic times, and even see other places really struggle to do the right thing here. So this is a tremendous test of leadership. I would argue again, despite or because of the tough economic times, this is a time of real opportunity for us to get better as a country, and I don’t want to waste this opportunity.
You became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 2001. Can you tell us a little bit about what you took to your new position in Washington from that experience, especially with regard to school libraries?
What’s been germinating in me from the time I was a little boy going to my mother’s after-school tutoring program is just how critically important it is to teach our children to read. And that’s the foundation; that’s the fundamental ability for everything. And if we do that well, if our children learn to love to read at an early age, to read for pleasure, they’re going to have a world of opportunity ahead of them; if they don’t, if they struggle, it’s going to hurt them in everything. One interesting thing we found in Chicago, where historically math scores were low, the big problem was in children’s math: They couldn’t read the word problems. So literally the only way you’re going to improve what’s learned in math was do a better job of teaching reading. I’ve just been convinced―again, from the time I was a little boy going to my mother’s program―that this is the foundation, this is the building block for everything. If we do this well our children can go on to do great things; and if we don’t do this well, quite frankly all the other bells and whistles aren’t going to get us where we need to go. I was lucky because when I was growing up my parents were a little crazy: we didn’t have a TV in the house, so my parents read to my sister and brother and me every night. We just grew up in this extraordinary sort of literature-rich environment, and it shaped all of us and it’s still in all of us.
How old were you when you got a TV?
No, we never had one. I had to sneak to my friend’s house to watch TV once in a while. I always tell that story now; the kids are usually horrified. I always had them guess: How many TVs do you have in the house? You know, eight, 12, 20? No, nada, zero. And so it was a little bit unusual, but in hindsight I just feel thankful for the opportunities that I had. In fact, I worry a lot about students who don’t grow up in a household filled with books like I had. Obviously there’s so many more temptations now with video games, music videos; there are so many other distractions today. So whatever we can do to keep a laser-like focus on literacy and getting them to read early on, that is just critically, critically important.
You’ve said a lot of great things about libraries. In U.S. News and World Report back in February you said, “It is to no one’s disadvantage if class size skyrockets while librarians get eliminated or school counselors disappear.” But how do librarians advocate for library support without seeming self-serving?
What I think is important is demonstrating the difference that they make in students’ lives and that where you have great librarians, where you have a culture of literacy in the school you see remarkable things happen. So it’s not about being selfish or self-serving; it is about demonstrating the difference that you’re making in our students’ learning. And where that happens we need to see more of that. Again, in tough economic times we all have to make tough decisions to be very strategic. And the more librarians can not just advocate but can demonstrate the difference they’re making in the lives of children, the difference they’re making in the lives of families and community, I think that’s the best thing that we can do collectively to push the cause.
Do you have any comment about “No Child Left Behind”? What’s the future there? What needs to change?
I’ve said a lot about that. We’re actually in the middle of a listening and learning tour, so I’m traveling the country to hear from students and teachers and parents and principals. What I want is to keep the focus on aggregating data and really focusing on achievement gaps between white children and African-American and Latino students. We have to not sweep it under the rug but continue to improve there. But there are some challenges there. Obviously this is dramatically underfunded. We need to put unprecedented resources on the table, and we really want to think about raising the bar for everyone, think about college readiness, about national standards and not having 50 states do their own thing so standards end up getting dumbed-down, and raise the bar pretty significantly but then give districts and schools the chance to innovate and be creative. The best ideas for improving education are never going to come from Washington; they’re always going to come on the local level. We really want to empower great educators at the local level to be innovative, to be creative, and hold them accountable for results but give them a chance to make a difference in students’ lives. That’s the only way we’re going to get where we need to go.
Is there anything that I didn’t ask you or any other message for the librarians of America that I didn’t bring up that you wanted to say?
Well, as I said before, just really first as a dad and secondly as a director of education I just appreciate their leadership. Just one little anecdote: When she first got a library card, my daughter carried it around on her for days, like she won the lottery, like a lottery ticket. To get a library card you had to be able to write your name, that was the test, and so for my son, who’s younger, that was a huge motivating factor for him to continue to work on his writing and learn to write his name because he didn’t want to get left out of having a library card. So in ways big and small the librarians of the country are having a huge impact, and again, as a father, it means a lot to me.