Arne Duncan was far from popular among many teachers during his seven years as US secretary of education, thanks to controversial policies regarding everything from testing to charter schools.
But his latest comments – made during an exclusive interview with TES – can be expected to win praise from across the profession.
Mr Duncan, who stepped down from his role at the heart of the federal government back in January, thinks that good teachers should be paid more. And not just a little bit more, but a lot more.
He argues that good teachers should be paid as much as $150,000 a year (around £100,000). In the US, that could mean a rise of more than 175 per cent. And he believes that headteachers should earn $250,000 (about £175,000).
Mr Duncan told TES that teachers were paid too little because their work was “undervalued”. And he said that even £100,000 was arguably still not enough.
“We’re not even close to [paying the amount that] teachers deserve for the hard, complex, hugely important work they do; we’re not in the game,” he said. “For me, a great teacher in the United States should make $150,000, absolutely. A great principal, $250,000.
“[If] you think about talent in other sectors, in the business sector, the legal sector, the medical sector, I could make an argument that they’re still underpaid at that point.
“I think we undervalue the profession,” he continued. “There are communities where sanitation workers make more than teachers. That’s important work, that’s hard work, but bus drivers make more than teachers.
“So I just don’t think that we value children enough, we don’t value that investment that we’re making enough. Children don’t vote, they don’t have unions and they don’t have lobbyists. Adults don’t represent their interests well enough.”
Mr Duncan told the Global Education and Skills Forum, held in Dubai last month, that in Washington DC a “great young teacher” aged about 30 could earn about $100,000. “That’s a big deal,” he said. “That attracts and retains talent at a different level.”
But Mr Duncan said high salaries for teachers would have to be part of a “grand bargain” that would also include more accountability and asking the best teachers to work in the most disadvantaged communities.
Both sides of the bargain
Mr Duncan was chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, which oversees the district’s schools, for eight years before being appointed as US President Barack Obama’s education secretary in 2009. He and President Obama, who worked as a community organiser in Chicago, were friends during that time.
“I didn’t go to Washington because he was a friend, I went because we had worked together on tough educational issues,” Mr Duncan told the conference. “I knew his heart, I knew his passion, I knew his commitment.”
Shortly into his time as education secretary, Mr Duncan’s department received $100 billion from the government’s economic stimulus programme. But the impact of the worldwide financial crash meant local authorities in the US were already having to cut back on teachers. So when the stimulus came, it solved some of the problems but not all of them.
It was a worrying time, he said: “There were hundreds of thousands of teachers who were laid off from their school districts because of tough budget times. I really worried about an educational crisis, [an] educational meltdown.
“We were able to save a couple [of] hundred thousand teacher jobs right off the bat. There were still a couple [of] hundred thousand teachers who got laid off, I would’ve loved to have had a lot more than that, but that was a big deal for me.
“I just thought a lot about teachers in unemployment lines, not being able to pay their bills, walking away from schools and that image haunted me.”
Mr Duncan introduced wide-ranging and controversial reforms, including the “race to the top” programme that offered financial incentives for state education authorities to bring in reforms such as judging teachers’ performance on their students’ test results.
He said this had been a “scary” reform for some areas and admitted that teacher evaluation in some parts of the country was carried out in a “pretty horrific” way.
But he said it was important to encourage the principle of knowing how well teachers were performing.
“California [has] 300,000 teachers,” he said, offering an example. “The top 10 per cent are world class. The bottom 30,000 maybe shouldn’t be teaching, or should be doing something else.
“No one in California can tell you who’s in what category, who’s world class and who maybe needs to find another way to make a living. [In] any valued profession, you’d have some idea of talent and some way to look at it, so again I don’t want to shy away from the difficulty,” he said.
“If we truly think that this is a valued profession, an extraordinarily difficult, complex and important profession, we can’t be scared to talk about excellence [and] we can’t be scared to highlight success,” he said.
Mr Duncan told the conference that the $4 billion “race to the top” programme had a “transformative impact” on schools.
“The fascinating lesson for me is that, while we put that $4 billion out in a competitive basis toward states based upon their willingness to commit to some pretty difficult and ambitious goals, I can honestly say that we saw more change in states that didn’t receive a nickel than in states that received hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.
However, he admitted that the government “could’ve done a much better job” to support teachers when changes were introduced and in explaining to parents “why things are more challenging for your children” when standards were raised.
Another reform Mr Duncan supported, the Common Core State Standards – a set of academic standards that pupils are expected to achieve in English, arts and maths throughout their education – had been “difficult” in a nation where local control of education is highly prized. It was eventually adopted by more than 40 states, but nevertheless caused huge controversy.
“In hindsight, we should’ve called it the uncommon core or the very-unique-to-every-state core,” he joked.
“But at the end of the day, for all the noise, every state is still moving forwards and our best hope was that 25 states would move, so it wildly exceeds our greatest hopes.”
But Mr Duncan accepted that America’s education system was still failing in many areas. “If you look at the United States’ performance, frankly, at every level we’re not close to where we should be,” he admitted.
“In terms of access to early childhood education, which I think is the most important thing we could do, the best long-term investment, we rank about 28th relative to other industrialised nations. It’s like a scarlet letter, we should be absolutely ashamed, we’re nowhere near where we should be.”
Current statistics show that 82 per cent of the US’ 14- to 18-year-olds graduate from high school. Mr Duncan said that this left about 750,000 young people “leaving our schools for our streets each year”.
These pupils “have no chance, zero chance to make it in the legal economy, so [there’s a] desperate need to do better there,” he warned.
And he said the US college completion rates, for which the country ranked “first in the world a decade ago”, were now about 12th in global rankings. For high-school reading and maths scores, the country usually ranked between 15th and 30th, he added.
Mr Duncan said that the US should learn from others that were achieving more: “At every level, if we think that we have all the answers, that’s the height of arrogance.”
Arne Duncan’s key moments
Announcing the “race to the top” policy in July 2009. It offered financial incentives for states to bring in reforms such as performance-based evaluations for teachers and principals and the expansion of charter schools.
Overseeing a period of high-stakes testing. This received parental opposition and in October, President Obama urged schools to limit the use of exams.
Supporting the Common Core, a set of academic standards that pupils are expected to achieve in English, arts and maths throughout their education.
Facing opposition from teaching unions. In July 2014 the National Education Association, the US’s largest teaching union, passed a resolution declaring “no confidence” in Mr Duncan, asking him to resign. The same month, the American Federation of Teachers passed a similar resolution.