Student Board Members Dial Up Secretary

Sunday afternoon for a high school student can look a lot like this: hang out with friends, spend some time online, start a project due Monday, download music. Their weekend agenda doesn’t typically include this: participate in a conference call about education policy with the U.S. Secretary of Education and student leaders from across the country.

But for 24 students from 14 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, that was how Sunday, Nov. 21 went as these student members of state boards of education gathered by phone to share their experiences, their ideas, and to talk with Secretary Duncan. The conference call was organized by NASBE, the National Association of State Boards of Education, which had convened the student board members for a virtual orientation session.

Arne told the students he was impressed by their commitment to public service. “You’re so far ahead of what I was thinking about in high school,” he said, thanking them for representing their fellow students at the state level.

Nearly half of the country’s state boards of education include students in board deliberations and decision-making, and many local school boards do, also. Every school board should, Arne said, adding that while he talks to students as part of his frequent visits to schools around the nation, he would like to get their advice more regularly.

“Our job (as education policymakers) is to work for you,” he said, “and if we’re not listening to you, we’re kidding ourselves. It’s like our head’s in the sand.”

For about half an hour, the students asked questions and offered their thoughts on the state of education and school reform. Myles Gearon from Illinois, the Secretary’s home state, expressed concern that under current federal education law (commonly known as No Child Left Behind), schools are expected to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on state tests, and if they fall short—even by one measure—they are considered failing. Currently, the law expects that by 2014 every student will be proficient in reading and math and that every school will be “perfect.” Gearon called that requirement “grossly unrealistic” and demoralizing to educators and students.

Arne agreed. No Child Left Behind is too punitive—the law, which is formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—sets up “50 different ways to fail,” he said. To remedy that, the Obama Administration’s Blueprint for Reform proposes to scrap the current pass/fail accountability system and replace it with one that differentiates between schools with persistent achievement gaps across the board and those that have shortcomings here and there. The proposal would give schools in the latter category much greater flexibility in addressing their needs while also including rewards for schools where growth in student achievement is greatest.

Where the Blueprint does not waver, Arne said, is on breaking down data on student achievement to measure how subgroups of students are performing and growing, so that students don’t slip through the cracks because of  their race or ethnicity, English language abilities, special needs or socioeconomic status.

Arne encouraged the student board members to focus on combating the dropout rate in their states, communities and schools. Losing 1 million students a year is “morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable,” he said. In response to a question from Donald Handeland from Alaska, he added, “When students drop out today, they’re basically condemned to poverty and social failure. There are just no good jobs for them. Our economy has changed.”

Zhan Okuda-Lim of Nevada asked the Secretary about the federal role in education and what role he thinks states play. Arne replied that he sees the Department’s role as supporting states and, in turn, local school districts. “So much of the action in school reform is at the state level. We think that’s where the real lever is,” he said. “Our goal—and our opportunity, really—is to support that great local leadership.”

Arne expressed his hope that Congress would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the coming year and that states and local school districts would continue to make bold changes to improve our nation’s education system.

“Education,” he said, “has to be the one thing where we put politics aside and simply do the right thing by America’s children and the country.”

Wrapping up the conversation, Arne told the students they “make me very, very hopeful for where we’re going.”

Massie Ritsch
Office of Communications and Outreach