Duncan Sets a High Standard for a High-Performing State

By Sean Cavanagh — January 25, 2011 2 min read
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If you were to pick a state where U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would go to urge improvements to schools, Minnesota might seem an unlikely choice.

After all, by a lot of measures, other states would do well to follow Minnesota’s example. The state’s 4th and 8th grade scores, particularly in math, typically rank among the elite on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, jostling with Massachusetts and a handful of others in the upper echelon.

And at a time when seemingly every public figure connected with education is warning about the nation’s mediocrity on international tests (Duncan made another reference to it in his speech last Friday before Minnesota’s Chamber of Commerce), Minnesota’s students have fared pretty well on the global scale. They’ve gone toe-to-toe with their peers from elite nations on a couple U.S. state-to-foreign nation comparisons, and they’ve made big gains since the mid-1990s on one prominent international exam.

Yet the education secretary carried the message that business and political leaders in the land of lutefisk and Lake Wobegon can’t afford to be satisfied with where things stand, educationally.

To be fair, Duncan didn’t exactly rip Minnesota as a low-performer or a state slow to make changes to schools. In his speech before the chamber, he praised Minnesota as having a “rich history in terms of education,” and described it as a pioneer in the charter school movement.

But he added that it faces some “real challenges as well,” particularly in closing the achievement gap, which he described as one of the largest in the country.

“That’s not something any of us can be or should be proud of,” he said.

Duncan also noted that Minnesota didn’t score very well in round one of the Obama’s administration’s Race to the Top competition, and didn’t apply in the second round—though some might question how valid a standard that is for judging a state’s academic performance or its educational ambitions.

The secretary took the occasion to urge state officials to change policies in specific areas, such as creating new steps for alternate certification for teachers.

“We need to get great teachers from many, many different types of walks of life. And to think that there should be some monopoly or some exclusivity around that doesn’t make sense. We need to open this up and get great talent wherever that talent should come from,” he said.

I asked U.S. Department of Education officials whether Duncan wasn’t being a bit hard on Minnesota, given the state’s relatively strong record. They said the secretary was simply driving home the point that the state’s work isn’t finished.

“Secretary Duncan is very proud of Minnesota’s accomplishments, but he is challenging everyone to get better,” the department said in a statement. “No one can be satisfied with the status quo.”

There’s a long history of education secretaries using their offices as platforms to level praise, or criticism, at states, cities, and schools. Did Duncan strike the right balance in talking about education in the Land of 10,000 Lakes?

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