In a speech to state lawmakers and education leaders this afternoon, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded states for driving the reforms that could raise the bar for students, but he warned: “We are not giving a world-class education that children desperately need.”
Duncan highlighted adoption of the common core standards by most states as a “game changer” in education. “For the first time, students in Massachusetts and Mississippi will be measured by the same yardstick,” he said.
He also spoke of the need for better assessments and of the work being done to provide real-time feedback to students. He emphasized the importance of rewarding excellence in teaching and linking student performance with teacher pay, as well as providing access to “great” schools for all students. Success in turning around 700 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools is evidence that progress is possible in poor communities, he said.
Offering a glimpse into his upcoming agenda, Duncan also highlighted three areas he’s been thinking about for the new year:
1) Increased Focus on Technology
As schools face a coming funding cliff with federal stimulus money ending, districts need to improve efficiency and productivity with technology, Duncan said.
“Technology has transformed how we interact socially, how we do business, but technology has to transform how we provide education,” he said. While some may think the simple answer to budget cuts is eliminating arts, band, sports, or shortening the school day, harnessing technology to reduce costs is a better alternative, he suggested.
2) Breakthroughs in Labor-Management Agreements
Duncan cited recent contract agreements in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New Haven, Conn., that had broad support.
“This is what teachers are looking for,” he said. Now with a handful of models, Duncan said, it can be taken to scale.
He announced that the department would host a labor-management conference in next year to bring together superintendents, school board chairs, and union leaders to discuss the issue.
3) Bipartisan Efforts to Reauthorize ESEA
Duncan also said he is focused on getting reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act moving early in the new year—with some changes.
The current version of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, is too punitive, without enough incentives, he said. The law is also too “top down” and needs to be “more flexible,” to empower governors and states, he said.
NCLB has led states to lower standards and narrow the curriculum, Duncan said, and changes should be made to reward excellence in states and districts. He urged the conference attendees to convey a sense of urgency to Congress about the reauthorization to move it up the legislative calendar. He remained hopeful that it could receive bipartisan support and move forward even in light of the new Congress.
Duncan told the group gathered in Washington for the Excellence in Action National Summit on Education Reform that he sees education reform as a civil rights issue, an economic issue, and a national security issue—driving the urgency for action.
At the end of his speech, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, joined him on stage and complemented Duncan’s work, saying “there was a lot of room for common ground.”
Duncan said while there had been tremendous progress, much was left to be done. “We have to work together,” he said.