At the National Science Teachers Association’s annual conference this week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about the need for higher standards, reductions in “overtesting,” and fostering innovation in students. He also expressed some skepticism that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind, would happen anytime soon.
Just as notable is what the secretary did not do: He did not mention the Common Core State Standards or the Next Generation Science Standards at all by name—even when directly asked about them—nor did he touch on an initiative to prepare 100,000 STEM teachers that the Obama administration has been touting over the last few years.
The secretary gave a short speech to the semi-full ballroom before joining a panel discussion with four science educators. In the speech, he praised science teachers for being “at the forefront of innovation.”
“It’s pretty clear what top CEOs are looking for. They want employees to be able work as a team, to solve problems, to communicate, to prioritize, to obtain and process information,” he said. “I think about all those skills and what better way to teach them than in science classes?”
He went on to make several allusions to the common-core standards without naming them. “Ultimately, all students must graduate from high school truly college and career ready—the simple definition there is not having to take remedial classes,” he said. “Teachers are leading this profound change, which focuses on rigor and relevance.
During the teacher panel, the discussion turned to professional development. “Who should own that PD [professional development]—the teacher, school, district, state?” he asked the group. “Who do you empower? That’s something we struggle with.”
Steven Long, a 40-year veteran chemistry teacher from Arkansas who was on the panel answered: “I think schools have part of that, but a teacher needs to own his or her professional development. What PD schools do is often done to us, not for us.” (Mild clapping and snapping ensued.)
Several teachers also voiced the need for performance-based assessments in science. “As there’s more inquiry-based [instruction], more problem-solving, I think students should be assessed on performing something, on doing something,” said Valia Thompson, who teaches at a STEM elementary school in Chicago. Multiple-choice is no longer going to cut it, she said.
In a media-only session before his speech, the secretary also faced questions about an encounter Thursday morning with a group of about 50 parents protesting the PARCC tests. As the Chicago Sun-Times reports, Duncan’s SUV took a wrong turn on the way to Ariel Community Academy in Chicago, and he was forced to get out and walk through the protesters, who were there to express their opposition to the new common-core-aligned exams. Duncan did not stop to speak to them.
When Sun-Times reporter Lauren FitzPatrick asked about this, he said, “I’ve been clear that there are some places that overtest. ... It’s important to assess students annually, ... but there’s too much time teaching to test.”
When pressed on why he didn’t speak to the parents, he said that he was on his way to another meeting and didn’t have time. “You had a few minutes,” said FitzPatrick. “This is your hometown.”
The secretary was also asked about his hopes for ESEA reauthorization. “What I’ve seen come out of the House [of Representatives] is pretty discouraging so far,” he said. “It’s a party-line vote. When I see a party-line vote, that’s politics not policy.”
Arne Duncan speaks with science educators at the NSTA 2015 annual convention. —Liana Heitin
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.