(Photo:Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo:Wikimedia Commons)

Arne Duncan was confirmed as the ninth U.S. secretary of education in January 2009, following his nomination by President Barack Obama. During his confirmation hearings, he called education “the civil rights issue of our generation, the only sure path out of poverty and the only way to achieve a more equal and just society.” Later that year, he agreed to an interview by the American Counseling Association in which he touted the vital role of school counselors.

Approached again earlier this year by ACA, Duncan graciously agreed to provide answers to a handful of questions about education and school counseling.

As elementary and secondary schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia work to implement new and more rigorous Common Core State Standards designed to improve the college and career readiness of the nation’s students, what role do you see professional school counselors playing in the implementation of these challenging math and language arts goals?

I’ve been amazed by the states’ work around reform, what they’ve done in responding to our offer of ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) flexibility and how so many of them are moving forward with implementing the Common Core. And, frankly, it’s all very complex. Local stakeholders like school counselors should work to familiarize themselves with their state’s plans, their work around the Common Core and particularly the training and professional development activities states are committing to to bring teachers and leaders up to speed.

It’s important to note that students’ grades and test scores are likely to go down in the first year of Common Core implementation, and school counselors and other nonteaching staff can play a critical role in helping students and parents understand this and understand the value of this transition. Scores will likely drop in a consistent manner for all students, so relative performance shouldn’t change. What these state leaders understand is that raising standards is good for all students and, among other things, will help to ensure lower rates of remediation at the college level. Students and parents also need to understand their rights in ensuring that the standards and assessments are fully accessible to all, and counselors can play a key role there.

We are hearing so much from the president’s administration around the idea of “preschool for all.” What are the implications regarding the social and emotional development of young children were this plan to become reality?

 A key component of quality early learning programs is teaching and incorporating what educators refer to as “soft skills” into their daily activities. We talk a lot about the ready-to-read and early math skills those kids who’ve had the benefit of an early learning environment bring with them into elementary school, but these kids are also more persistent and better able to pay attention and interact with their classmates socially and emotionally. They know how to share, how to listen, how to play with others. These are all skills that prepare them to learn in a classroom environment, and quality early childhood programs know this and know how to teach these skills.  

Hopefully, these skills are then transferred up the education pipeline, through middle school and on to high school, resulting in better prepared kids with less need for disciplinary interventions and fewer behavioral issues. The educators I talk to say to me that at every level of education, they are faced with students who enter their classrooms and aren’t prepared to learn. We believe that quality early learning programs can greatly impact this issue for many children.

Earlier this year, the White House and Department of Education unveiled the interactive College Scorecard to provide students and families with the critical information they need to make smart decisions about where to enroll in postsecondary education. What has been the public reception to the College Scorecard, and why should counselors use it in helping students navigate their education plans and decisions?

We’re getting some praise for our work in this area, and we know this kind of information is important to families. In March, The New York Times published an editorial about our new College Scorecard and applauded how it gives students valuable information about cost and value, how a school aligns with their career and educational goals, what they will owe once they graduate and how all of that compares from school to school.

Counselors play a vital role in helping students choose a college and can use the Scorecard, our financial aid shopping sheet and Studentaid.gov as several tools the department has made available to provide greater transparency around college costs and value in order to empower students and families to be better consumers. The Scorecard gives students a glance at how much college will cost, how institutions fare in terms of graduating their students, whether students are able to repay their loans after graduating and how much graduates from that institution typically earn upon graduating. We want this return-on-investment information to be both consumer friendly and readily available. We are currently working on adding other useful information, such as postgraduation earnings several years out and updated data on other metrics. We will continue to work hard to make this tool more useful to better meet the needs of students and families. Those interested can visit www.studentaid.gov to access all of these tools.

What message would you like to convey to the nation’s more than 105,000 professional school counselors as they are about to embark on the 2013-2014 academic year?

One of the things that we tragically learned last year watching the experience of the Newtown community is how important counselors are when a school and a community are in crisis. Counselors across Connecticut and all across the country went into full support and assistance mode to help wherever they could in the face of something completely unimaginable. I hope the country as a whole will try to detect and intervene when and where necessary, and we need to educate each other to ensure everyone understands that mental health strategies that include early detection are fundamental to our thinking around emergency preparedness and school safety guidelines. It’s hugely critical work, and I applaud the school counselors and organizations like ACA for dealing with this issue head-on.

Frank Burtnett originally conducted this interview for publication in the August issue of ACAeNews for School Counselors