Arne Duncan: Education Documentary Is a 'Rosa Parks Moment'

The education secretary says "Waiting for Superman" is a shocking wake-up call to reform the nation's schools

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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeatedly declined to "call out" anyone holding up education reform at today's Washington Ideas Forum. Interviewed by NPR's Michel Martin, Duncan spoke in earnest generalities.

When he complained that no one was willing to "challenge the status quo" in education, Martin asked him to name names. Duncan skirted her question, choosing instead to focus on those who have pursued reform and innovation. "The media loves the conflict," he said, "but it hasn't done enough to highlight the profiles in courage" of those who have challenged the system.
Washington Ideas Forum
Martin brought up a comment he made after watching the new education documentary "Waiting for Superman," describing the film as a "Rosa Parks moment" for education.

"I think the images are so compelling," Duncan explained. "These are real moms, real dads, real children, who, unless something changes, their children will get a horrible education. And that is just morally unacceptable."

Martin asked just how motivated people would be to change the public education system when 10 percent of Americans can afford to send their children to private school.

"It wasn't just African Americans who looked to Rosa Parks," Duncan said. "White folks looked at her and said, 'Something's wrong with our country.' When you look at our country and you look at this movie, you realize it's not just your kids."

Martin prodded Duncan about what Washington, DC's recent rejection of Mayor Adrian Fenty means for Fenty's education reform efforts. Is it a setback, she asked?

"Absolutely not," Duncan said. "My read is very simple. Again, I'm not the politician here. If you look at the polls, the vast majority of people in DC thought the schools got better. And guess what? They did get better."

So what happened? Martin asked.

Duncan shrugged. "We lost the race."

Addressing the growing gender gap in education and the high drop-out rate among boys, Duncan had a surprising suggestion: "I'm a fan of single-sex schools," he said. "Based on, I think there are young men who need a really structured and disciplined environment and can do really well in that. Men need great role models ... we have far too few men of color in our school system. Boys growing up with single moms, far too many of them don't have men in their lives."

While he acknowledged that single-sex education is no silver bullet--that there is no silver bullet--Duncan believes that working single-sex options into the public school system would help correct a longstanding discrepancy in the choices available to rich and poor, white and black parents.

Full session below