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Public education in the United States has long been political. From equal education for women and minorities, to the differences in funding between wealthy and poor communities, efforts to provide quality public education and reduce these differences have proved to be difficult to attain, not to mention controversial and divisive.
The Obama administration has pushed for education reform with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the helm. Duncan’s policies have appealed to both Republicans and Democrats, but his task is far from easy.
The United States’ education attainment, when compared to the world, does not paint a good picture. The Council on Foreign Relations finds that the U.S. has slipped 10 spots in both high school and college graduation rates in the past three decades, and the Economist’s Intelligence Unit ranks the United States 17th out of 50.
“One generation ago we were first in college completion rates, and today we are 12th, and we have had many countries pass us by,” Duncan told Here & Now. “Obviously in a world that’s shrinking and getting flatter, and with a globally competitive economy, jobs are going to go — high-wage, high-skill jobs, good middle-class jobs — are going to go to where the knowledge workers are. And I desperately want that to be in the United States. And so we have to stop being so complacent, we have to get better faster, and I would argue we have to get better at every level on the education continuum, from cradle to career.”
Secretary Duncan defends the Obama administrations’s Race to the Top program, which ties federal funding to improving school performance.
“There was this huge, unmet need for reform,” Duncan said. “And what we frankly did is create the opportunity — we helped to create the space and unleash that. And at the end of the day, the fascinating lesson, to me, it wasn’t about the money. It was really about an opportunity to move the country and to move school districts and states in the direction they knew they needed to do, but sort of quite hadn’t felt the space or the opportunity or the permission, previously.”
Duncan says Race to the Top has promoted creativity and innovation among school districts to better serve their students, where President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act placed an emphasis on test scores.
“I’m not one who thinks we should not evaluate kids ever … you also don’t want to over-test,” Duncan said. “But what I’m interested in looking, is how much students are improving each year, looking at their growth and gain.”
Under No Child Left Behind, the focus was only on the student’s final score, Duncan said.
“But if a child comes to you, and the child’s a couple grade levels behind and they leave you at grade level or a little bit below grade level you’ve actually done a terrific job. You’re a heroic teacher,” he said. “Under No Child Left Behind, that teacher or that school or district would actually be labeled a failure.”
Duncan says that his two main goals as secretary are providing greater access to early childhood education and creating incentives to recruit the best teachers.
“A significant investment in expanding access to high quality early childhood education is the best investment our country can make,” Duncan said. “For every dollar we invest, we as a society get back seven dollars.”
Duncan also wants to make supporting great teachers and attracting great teachers a top priority by increasing teacher pay and paying teachers more for taking on difficult assignments.
“We, as a country, are not going to get where we need to go if we don’t do a much better job of supporting teachers,” Duncan said.