“States and districts, schools and communities are driving more change than ever before,” Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters during a speech at the National Press Club yesterday. “Educators at every level are being more and more creative — pairing good schools with struggling schools, creating smaller, more manageable districts, and building partnerships between both high schools and colleges – and between colleges and industries,” he said.
During his speech and follow-up question and answer, Duncan reflected on the Department’s recent Education Drives America cross-country back-to-school bus tour, as well as explained how far we’ve come in last three years, and how far the country still needs to go.
On Flexibility Under No Child Left Behind
Above all there is enormous enthusiasm at the state level to build more effective accountability systems through the waiver process we began last fall – and now affecting more than 60 percent of the schoolchildren in the country in 33 states – with about 10 more in the pipeline.
Waivers are not a pass on accountability – but a smarter, more focused and fair way to hold ourselves accountable. In exchange for adopting high standards and meaningful systems of teacher support and evaluation:
- States set ambitious but achievable targets for every subgroup.
- More children at risk – who were invisible under NCLB – are now included in state-designed accountability systems — including low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.
- Finally, local districts decide the most effective way to intervene in underperforming schools, instead of applying rigid, top-down mandates from Washington.
On Race to the Top
Our job — for the last three and a half years – has been to support that work – to support bold and courageous reform at the state and local level. That’s what Race to the Top was all about.
We offered the biggest competitive grants in our department’s history – and 45 states raised standards and 33 states changed laws – in order to compete and accelerate student achievement. In a fascinating lesson on the power of incentives, we have seen as much reform in states that didn’t receive a nickel as in states that received tens of millions of dollars.
The fact that 45 states have now adopted internationally benchmarked, college and career-ready standards is an absolute game-changer. Virtually the entire country has voluntarily raised expectations for our children.
On Strengthening Teaching
I also know that some educators feel overwhelmed by the speed and pace of change. Teachers I speak with always support accountability and a fair system of evaluation. They want the feedback so they can get better and hone their craft.
But some of them say it’s happening too quickly and not always in a way that is respectful and fair. They want an evaluation system that recognizes out-of-school factors and distinguishes among students with special needs, gifts and backgrounds.
They certainly don’t want to be evaluated based on one test score – and I absolutely agree with them. Evaluation must be based on multiple measures.
On Investing in Education
And the choice facing the country is pretty stark – we are at a fork in the road. Some people see education as an expense government can cut in tough economic times. President Obama sees education as an investment in our future – the best investment we can make, especially in tough economic times.
Duncan ended by calling for the country to unite behind the cause of public education and realize that the solutions won’t come from one party or ideology, but that all of us need to challenge and hold ourselves accountable.
Cameron Brenchley is director of digital engagement at the U.S. Department of Education