U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on the National PTA Wednesday morning to make education a major campaign issue for the 2016 presidential election.
“I challenge you: In 2016, could we have a presidential debate around education?” Duncan asked a crowd of about 100 parents and teachers at the Oliver Middle School here. “Can the PTA force that debate?”
Duncan was in the Volunteer State on the last day of his three-day back-to-school bus tour. He visited the middle school, where he was greeted with live music from the school’s award-winning band, to talk to parents about their role in education and how they can have a greater impact.
“Think about who you vote for at the state level, at the local level,” Duncan said during a panel discussion alongside a teacher, principal, and parent. “Challenge them.”
“When politicians think of education as an expense instead of an investment, I don’t blame politicians, I blame voters,” he continued. “If we had more politicians who didn’t just say they’re for education, but actually talked the talk and walked the walk [things could be different.]”
Duncan pointed out that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, is one of the few politicians who has followed through on promises of being “the education candidate.”
“He’s taken some political risks [in taking on education issues] ... but very few candidly walk the walk,” Duncan said.
The education secretary used his first stop in Tennessee—he was headed to Memphis in the afternoon—to laud the state’s recent academic gains. Tennessee’s students made the biggest improvements in the country in math and reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Duncan said the increased scores are a direct result of the state implementing the Common Core State Standards. He applauded teachers and parents for committing to new standards and assessments after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee schools an “F” in 2007.
“Not surprisingly, test scores dropped, achievement gaps increased, but guess what?” Duncan asked. “We were really telling the truth for the first time in a long time.”
Duncan’s comments come as the public is in the midst of a nationwide debate over the common-core standards, with conservative state legislators across the country attempting to repeal them.
Interestingly, Duncan didn’t run into any pushback against the standards from parents in the crowd during the question and answer session.
In fact, he had an ally on the panel: Kayleigh Wettstein, a 3rd grade teacher at J.E. Moss Elementary in Nashville. As a fifth-year teacher, Wettstein started her career using one set of standards and has since shifted to using the common core.
“If we set really high standards for our kids, they will meet and surpass our expectations,” she said. “I’m really thankful for common core, and as a teacher we need to get on board.”
Wettstein’s advice for parents struggling to understand the new standards: “Take a deep breath. This is new for everyone. We need to work together and collaborate, and there’s no point in getting stressed out.”
Duncan’s final stop is in Memphis, Tenn., where he’ll join Chris Barbic, superintendent of the state’s turnaround school district, for a pep rally.