Duncan: Common Standards Will Produce Tech Innovations

By Sean Cavanagh — January 20, 2011 3 min read
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Appearing on a panel with two of the country’s best-known economic figures, Arne Duncan offered the audience a business forecast of his own: The push for common academic standards and tests across states is likely to produce technological innovations in schools.

The education secretary was speaking at an event organized by the Aspen Institute, and he was joined during his discussion by former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and Gene Sperling, a former top adviser in the Clinton administration who was recently named by President Obama as director of the White House’s National Economic Council. Moderating the discussion was the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson.

At one point Isaacson asked the guests why so many of the whiz-bang technologies, such as ever-more-elaborate video games, hadn’t seemed to have found their way in schools—at least not on a broad enough scale to produce big gains in student learning.

Sperling recalled that when he was in college, the hip game was “Pong,” which now seems prehistoric compared to the 3-D games that captivate students these days.

“It’s hard to believe that all of that [technological] genius in the United States just has to be turned to that,” Sperling said, referring to video games and entertainment, and “that none of the genius could be turned” to schools.

Duncan also bemoaned the lack of technological breakthroughs aimed at producing student academic gains. But he said that the move to common standards and tests could help, as companies that have stayed clear of the market because of having to develop different products to meet different states’ standards will soon have a shot to sell goods across states.

“With common standards coming, and with common assessments coming, we are creating a much more efficient marketplace,” Duncan said, “and there are lots of folks out there who could do very well by doing good, going forward.”

“It was very tough, with a lot of different standards, trying to customize everything at the local level,” he added. “There are huge inefficiencies there. With a common measuring stick and common standards, I think the market becomes much more attractive for those geniuses on the entertainment side, to get into the education sector.”

Earlier in the discussion, Duncan said he couldn’t predict which technologies would have the biggest impact. But he said new data systems to track teacher and student performance, and new formative assessment systems, are already bringing a “sea change” in education.

“As a country, we weren’t even this game...10 years ago,” the secretary added.

Many of the folks in the audience would certainly be keen on any business opportunities emerging from common standards. The Aspen event drew business representatives from digital learning, social networking, and other companies, as well as nonprofit leaders.

One of the purposes of the Aspen event was to allow organizations that lost out in the federal “Investing in Innovation” competition a shot at securing private-sector support for their proposals.

Even during a time when the elected officials at the federal level are calling for spending cuts, both Duncan and Sperling touted the i3 and Race to the Top competitions as examples of government investments driving innovation.

Republicans in Congress are likely to call for cuts in domestic spending in the months ahead. But Sperling said the administration would make the case that cuts have to be undertaken tactically, so that education, technology and other areas with the potential to produce economic growth are protected.

That message is likely to come across in the president’s upcoming State of the Union address, Sperling suggested.

Education, for the president’s economic team, is “core economics,” he said. The president is likely to speak to “the language and message and policies of ‘competitiveness,’ ” Sperling explained. “What we need to be doing to build the long-term jobs for the future [will come] much more into central focus.”

In political debates over spending in the months ahead, the president will also make the case that education needs to be protected, Sperling predicted.

The message is that “we understand we have to get the deficit down. It’s crucial. You have to get spending down. It’s crucial,” he said. “But this is not a meat-ax approach. You’ve got to be smart about it. Youv’e got to look and say, what [strategies are] truly about [supporting] productivity, about education?”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.