“The best ideas come from outside Washington, D.C.” I’ve used that phrase in a lot of speeches and conversations during the past five years, and I repeat it because it’s true. Earlier this month in Hawaii, I visited two schools and talked with military families at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam about college and career ready standards. The stop in Hawaii marked my 50th state that I’ve visited since being Secretary, and the visit once again reinforced the importance of listening to what matters most at the local level.
During the past five years, whether my visit was to a conference, a community center, a business, an early childhood center, a university, or one of the more than 340 schools I’ve stopped by, I’ve come away with new insight and knowledge into the challenges local communities face, and the creative ways people are addressing them. I know that in order to do this job well, it’s vital to never stop listening, especially to those in the classroom each day.
Across the country I’ve witnessed courage in action. States and districts are raising standards and expectations for students, and teachers are thinking deeply about their practice and their profession. And thanks to the hard work of parents, community members, educators, and students themselves, the high school graduation rate is now the highest on record.
Many of the states I’ve visited have brought unexpected surprises. At YES College Prep in Houston, the spirit of the student body moved me as it gathered for its annual College Signing Day. In Columbus, N.M., I saw the conviction and dedication of educators as they grapple with providing a quality education to more than 400 students who cross the U.S.-Mexico border each morning. And in Joplin, Mo., I witnessed a community working together to ensure students continued their education after a tornado destroyed the high school and killed many of their family members.
As I travelled the country, I saw places that inspired me, and others that left me angry, or heartbroken. I’ve visited schools where education funding is too low, and the buildings are in need of desperate repair. I’ve been to neighborhoods where poverty and crime present unique challenges to educators and administrators. I’ve listened to students talk openly about not feeling challenged or inspired. And when I met with grieving parents from Newtown, Conn., I once again saw how devastating gun violence can be for our children and communities.
We must continue to invest at every level of our educational system, from preschool to higher ed. We must fight for our children’s right to grow up safe, free of fear, in schools and communities that cherish and nurture them.
After 50 states, and visits in urban centers, remote rural schools and tribal communities, I am more optimistic than ever. I’m optimistic because of the educators I’ve met, because of the parents and community leaders that rally for great education, and because students everywhere demonstrate their deep conviction that working hard and getting a great education will transform their life chances. They come to school every day because they feel safe, they feel engaged, and they feel loved and valued by their teachers.
America’s public schools embody our American values of creativity, industry and ingenuity, and from Hawaii to Maine, I am fortunate to have learned this firsthand.
Check out the interactive map below, which includes visits to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Click here to see a larger version.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education