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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Education Secretary Duncan: ‘We Have To Get Better Faster’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pictured in Washington, Jan. 17, 2013. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pictured in Washington, Jan. 17, 2013. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

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.

“One generation ago we were first in college completion rates, and today we are twelfth, and we have had many countries pass us by.”

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.”

“A significant investment in expanding access to high quality early childhood education is the best investment our country can make.”

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.

Guest

  • Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education. He has been in the role since January 2009. He tweets @arneduncan.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Booklover

    I teach at a community college and have students who are just not able to make it through a college-level program? What do you propose to do about these students?

  • Whitesauce

    It’s so depressing to hear Sec. Duncan talk about the world being flat. Whether companies move jobs out of the US has nothing to do with education. It’s all about money. Our schools absolutely need to improve, but let’s not equate it to this race to the bottom his philosophy advocates.

  • Guest

    There has never been a better time for educating yourself. Because that’s what its all about: educating yourself! I am in the midst of two FREE online courses. One from coursera.org and the other from udacity.com. The coursera class is realtime (i.e. the professor is creating lectures and notes as we go along. Homeworks are sent out weekly and have due dates) – we can’t work ahead. On the other hand, the udacity course is complete, homework assigned, quizzes ready and a person could work through it as fast as he is able. Both classes have active online forums, where students can ask questions, help each other, and get assistance from the professor and his teaching assistants. I’m not sure which style I prefer but I am sure that anyone willing to put forth the effort will get a lot out of these online courses. In this era of global competition, I think we all need to keep adding to our skills, reinventing ourselves.

  • Geoff

    I’m tired of hearing it called “School performance” — it’s student performance not school performance. Sadly, our higher ed programs teaching teachers have generated methods by which students don’t ever fail (teaching to mastery). Just go back and correct your failed exam and you pass. And then you eventually graduate w/ a HS diploma but know absolutely nothing. And who’s putting pressure on those school boards to not fail their kids? You guessed it – the parents. School boards and administrations quiver at the site of angry parents at a school board meeting, even when their concern is the assigning of homework – “they need to be kids not spend all their time doing homework.” And we wonder how we’re 12th? We should be surprised we’re not 25th with the pathetic demand we put on our kids to work at getting an education. It’s not the paper (diploma) that constitutes an education!

    Wonder why so many people never consider teaching or decide to quit? That’s the race to the bottom.

  • Thinkfreeer

    Mr. Duncan is missing the point. The performance of educational institutions has little to do with what they are ABLE to do, and everything with what people WANT THEM TO DO, or not do.

  • Thinkfreeer

    Oh, and let’s stop misusing the word investment with respect to spending more on education. A business does not think of more office staff as an investment, but an expense. The only way that the government can make a case that spending more on education is an investment is if they really expect that will result in significantly increased taxes in the future.

    Any time a politician uses the word investment it simply means “I want to spend more money and I want you to think this is a good thing.”

  • kylie

    Please share with Secretary Duncan how very pleased I am with his goals for public education. I essentially agree with everything he said in his interview with Jeremy Hobson yesterday, especially concerning the need to provide services for our youngest children. PLEASE, however, suggest he work on his noun/verb agreement. It’s painful to hear our Secretary of EDUCATION say “data is” several times in the course of the interview.
    Thanks!

  • Ed Makan

    The dumbing down of the American educational system is working.
    No wonder I and others have trouble finding qualified people to work in various businesses.
    The system stresses too much on testing and less on teaching “life skills”.
    This is why the US needs to import labor. The foreigners do a better job educating their children than the US does.
    What a shame.

  • Mike

    Politicians are simply way too immersed in political correctness to accurately diagnose and cure the problems of “education”. Secretary Duncan brings “truthines” but can not cure any of these afflictions without being bold enough to articulate all of the elements that are destroying the family as the basic building block of society.

  • Raymond Gipson

    Secretary Duncan makes some excellent points and is spot on when he says we need to improve now. Someone else said that we should and do hire our critical scientists from other countries – I ask why is it not from our own schools? They used to be the best in the world and everyone tried to get our people to come to their countries to teach them. We have to stop using an outdated agrarian based school calendar and increase our school day and days per year we send our kids to school if we want to stop slipping more and more behind in the educational areas.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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