Student Achievement

Duncan at ‘Parent Summit:' Press For Better Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — January 13, 2014 5 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged parents on Monday to demand more of policymakers and their local schools so that their children are well prepared to thrive in a competitive global economy.

Addressing about 150 parents gathered in Washington for a “parent summit,” Duncan focused his remarks on the countries that outscore the United States on international tests, saying that both their cultures and their policies support stronger education systems than in the United States. He recounted a favorite story about how President Barack Obama met in 2009 with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who said that one of his biggest challenges was contending with parents who relentlessly demanded better schools for their children.

In his remarks, Duncan repeatedly cited Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, which explores the experiences of American teenagers who study abroad and foreign students who study in the United States. Duncan argued that U.S. students find too little rigor in their academic programs and that that parents must demand better. That means demanding policies that require recruiting the strongest college graduates into teacher-preparation programs, and providing stronger training, he said. Duncan also said it means better rewards for teachers that take on the toughest assignments, and making sure the neediest children have access to the best academic offerings.

But parents must also “change expectations about how hard our kids should work,” Duncan said. Americans “talk the talk” about those things, but the top-performing countries “walk the walk,” he said.

“We have to work with teachers and principals to create schools that demand more from our children,” Duncan said.

It’s an especially important time for parents to raise their voices, the secretary said, as states put the Common Core State Standards into practice and field-test assessments designed to gauge mastery of the standards.

“Don’t ever, ever underestimate the power of your collective voice” as schools move through these rocky transitions, he said.

High Expectations, but ‘Well-Rounded’ Study

In a short question-and-answer session, one attendee expressed concern that stepping up academic pressure on children can increase stress to unacceptable levels. Duncan was quick to temper his call for rigor with the recognition that children need a “well-rounded” education that includes physical education, arts, drama, and debate.

While South Korea has lessons to teach us in high expectations, he said, the United States shouldn’t emulate every aspect of its approach, either. He noted passages in Ripley’s book that report on a 10 p.m. curfew to keep students from staying too late in tutoring sessions, and that describe how some South Korean students wear “napping pillows” on their wrists in school because they’ve lost so much sleep studying.

Duncan made his remarks at a summit organized by the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, widely known as the nation’s report card. It was billed as a “day of inspiration and action” intended to arm parents with NAEP data on the achievement gap so they can return to their home districts and use it to spark parent activism. About 150 parents, drawn by calls from the PTA and local education foundations, are attending today’s summit.

On their schedule after Duncan’s address were other speeches by scholars and education activists who will paint them a picture of today’s educational achievement landscape, and help them learn to “ask the right questions” of their policymakers at home. Then they’ll move into small-group sessions where staff members from NAGB will guide them through the trove of interactive NAEP data so they can see how their states—and in some cases, their districts—perform relative to others on NAEP.

Using NAEP Data to Drive Change

“We are going to arm you with NAEP data that tells you the truth,” NAGB chairman David Driscoll told the parents in opening remarks as the day began.

As board chair, Driscoll has been pushing for several years to use NAEP data to create an ongoing dialogue about how student achievement can be improved. He’s been dismayed that NAEP tends to be only a “one-day story,” as each new set of NAEP data is released. As part of his charge, NAGB has created a new site intended to be parent-friendly, with an interface that’s unlikely to scare non-eduwonks away.

Its resource page, in particular, aims to be a primer for parents, few of whom have ever heard of NAEP. It even lists every state and participating district’s NAEP coordinator, with his or her phone number and email address. It connects parents to NAEP results for their state and district (if they live in one of the 21 urban school systems that participate as distinct entities).

In a bid to reach a wider audience, NAGB’s even got a Facebook page now, and a Twitter feed. It’s not exactly a household word on the social media scene just yet—its Facebook page has only 346 “likes,” and its Twitter feed boasts 998 followers. But NAGB’s hoping those numbers will rise.

Cornelia Orr, NAGB’s executive director, said in an interview that this first parent summit was several years in the making. NAGB conducted two rounds of outreach to parents, in 2011 and in 2012, inviting parent leaders from across the country, and representatives of national parent groups, to talk about what parents want to know.

One theme that emerged from focus groups, she said, was that parents often feel they don’t know the right questions to ask to get the information they need to press for change. That theme guides the work of the summit, as parents dive into NAEP data.

Parents will be encouraged to ask how their states’ performance on NAEP compares with that of other states, and they’ll be walked through the data that answers that question, Orr said. They’ll also be guided through information that helps them compare the rigor of their own states’ tests to that of NAEP. Many states’ tests are easier than NAEP, resulting in high proficiency rates and what Duncan calls a “complacency” about the need for educational improvement. When NAEP comes out, however, it paints a much more humbling picture for many states, since its definition of proficiency is tougher than what is used on many state tests.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.