Ferguson: Broken trust and the urgency of equal opportunity

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have been on the minds of many of us at the Department of Education. Secretary Duncan addressed the topic in a staff-wide email just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Because of the importance of the topic, we are posting his email below.

Dear Colleagues,

Like many of you, I have been troubled by the death of Michael Brown, the tragic loss to his family and his community, and what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri, over recent months and over the past 36 hours.

We come to work at this agency each day because we believe in the world that is possible when equity and justice and peace and opportunity are a reality in the lives of our communities and our young people.  Thus, it is especially difficult to watch the scenes of violence and unrest in Ferguson.  Evident in those scenes is a broken trust that exists within communities well beyond Missouri, between people – particularly those of color – and the official institutions that are there to serve them.

I must stress that nonviolence is the most powerful strategy and the only path to a real solution.  What we are seeing in Ferguson speaks to some important and deep issues that won’t be resolved just by bringing quiet to the streets there.

For our young people to succeed, they have to be connected, to know that they have a stake, to have opportunities open to them, to trust in our legal system, and trust that the adults and society around them have their best interests at heart.  I worry when young people may have lost their trust in our system of laws and democracy, and become disconnected – from adults, from society, from school, and from the police.  I believe that this alienation, lack of trust, and disconnect is how we start to lose some of our young people, especially in communities of color.  I believe it is our job as adults to do everything we can to rebuild that trust – in Ferguson and throughout the country.

Solving those problems and setting communities on a path to trust isn’t a quick fix.  Relationships are built – or damaged – over time.  We should take away from Ferguson that we need a conversation to rebuild those relationships, throughout the country, and that need is urgent.  It needs to involve everyone – our young people, our parents, our schools, our faith communities, our government officials, and the police.  It needs to happen now.

Moving that conversation forward is part of the work that so many of us do – and in fact, for many of us, it’s the reason for it.  We are together in that effort, and it has never been more important.  Thanks for what you do every day to advance opportunity, cohesion, understanding, trust, and justice.

Finally, as you gather with your families and in your communities for Thanksgiving, let’s all be thankful for our many blessings and hopeful that we can get to a place where all of America’s children feel they have an equal opportunity to succeed in life thanks to a great education, a rewarding job, and the caring of adults around them.

Best wishes,

Arne

Why Education Is a Global Matter

This year marks the 15th anniversary of International Education Week (IEW), a time to recognize, reflect, and celebrate the important role education plays worldwide.

Educators, families and students are working hard to implement a comprehensive vision for cradle-to-career improvements here in the U.S. so every child can receive a world-class education, and to ensure that our nation remains globally competitive. But U.S. education leaders are also committed to an international education agenda that’s deeper and more collaborative than ever.

In November 2013, at the invitation of Haiti’s education minister, Secretary Duncan visited Haiti and met with students, teachers, government officials, and other stakeholders.  National leaders in Haiti are committed to expanding educational opportunity and raising educational quality. We saw clearly that children in Haiti want an education and are willing to try despite the odds against them.   Read more about the Secretary’s visit here. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

In November 2013, Secretary Duncan visited Haiti and met with students, teachers, government officials, and other stakeholders. Read more about the Secretary’s visit here. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

That is why, during IEW 2012, Department of Education released its first fully-integrated international strategy, Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement, linking our domestic and international priorities. Increasing the global competencies of all U.S. students, learning from other countries to improve our education policies and practices, and engaging in active education diplomacy will help to strengthen U.S. education and advance our nation’s international priorities.

Just last month, Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for advocating for girls’ education, became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace prize. As she said, “We realized the importance of pens and books, when we saw the guns.” What a courageous and amazing young person. All of us – educators, parents, policymakers, and world leaders – desire a bright and happy future for our children and our nations. Education must help to ensure that future: a better educated world is a more prosperous world, a healthier world, and a safer world. When we became a Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) Champion Country  earlier this year, we committed to be leaders in this effort.

I’ve seen the difference education makes in my experience growing up in Chicago and later as head of the Chicago Public Schools; during my time in Australia when I worked with wards of the court; and in the communities and schools I’ve visited as Secretary. Two visits from the past year are particularly vivid for me: Columbus Elementary, situated just a few miles from the Mexico border, where students wake up before sunrise to cross the border for school each day and my trip to Haiti where I saw in the eyes of so many children the desire and commitment to get a basic education despite the odds against them.

I also place a high priority on benchmarking ourselves against other education systems and learning from them to see how we can improve. OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the international assessment of reading, math and science, has been an important yardstick for me because it is taken by 15-year-old high school students around the globe. The most recent PISA results show a picture of educational stagnation for the U.S., a wake-up call against complacency and low expectations. PISA also helps to show that there’s a false choice between equity and excellence: education systems as diverse as Canada and Korea can, and do, achieve both.

We know that a key component of educational success is starting early yet the U.S. is 25th in the world in our enrollment of four-year-olds in preschool. This gap highlights the urgency of our efforts to increase enrollment in high quality preschool. Young children in New Zealand, for example, can receive 20 hours of free early learning opportunities each week.  Data show that 95 percent of New Zealand’s children have had some early childhood education when they start school. The U.S. rate of 65 percent pales in comparison.

We hosted – with international and domestic partners – the first-ever International Summit on the Teaching Profession in 2011, bringing together ministers and union leaders with high-performing and rapidly improving education systems from around the world to discuss how to enhance and elevate the teaching profession worldwide. The summit proved such a success that it is now hosted annually by countries around the world.  What we heard at the summits have had an important impact on U.S. teacher policy, including RESPECT and Teach to Lead.

I hope, this week and every week, you’ll find ways to encourage and support the shared vision of International Education Week – that every child, in every country, grows up globally competent and appreciates cultural diversity.

Watch Secretary Duncan’s IEW 2014 message:

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Getting Assessment Right to Support Students, Educators and Families

The following op-ed piece by Secretary Duncan originally appeared in the Washington Post on Oct. 17. Secretary Duncan addressed the issue of getting assessment right in conjunction with an Oct. 15 official statement on the issue from President Obama, which is below.

As a parent, I want to know how my children are progressing in school each year. The more I know, the more I can help them build upon their strengths and interests and work on their weaknesses. The more I know, the better I can reinforce at home each night the hard work of their teachers during the school day.

The standardized tests my kids take are one gauge on the dashboard, but parents and educators know that tests are not the only indicator.

Last week, state education chiefs and district superintendents announced a plan to examine their assessment systems, ensure that assessments are high-quality and cut back testing that doesn’t meet that bar or is redundant. I welcome that important step.

Parents have a right to know how much their children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are excelling, improving and struggling. A focus on measuring student learning has had real benefits, especially for our most vulnerable students, ensuring that they are being held to the same rigorous standards as their well-off peers and shining a light on achievement gaps.

However, many have expressed concern about low-quality and redundant tests. And in some places, tests — and preparation for them — dominate the calendar and culture of schools, causing undue stress.

Policymakers at every level bear responsibility here — and that includes me and my department. We will support state and district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance to those who seek it.

To be clear: I strongly believe in using high-quality assessments, including annual tests, as one (but only one) part of how adults improve instruction and hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. With my own kids, I know parent-teacher conferences, grades and other feedback round out the picture of whether they’re on track.

After a generation of watching other nations surpass ours educationally, the United States is putting the building blocks in place for schools that will once again lead the world. But for this effort to pay off, political leaders must be both strong and flexible in support of the nation’s educators.

America’s schools are changing because our world is changing. Success in today’s world requires critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration, problem solving and creativity — skills that go beyond the basics for which schools were designed in the past. But in recent decades, other countries have retooled their schools faster than we have.

We must do better. A great education isn’t just what every parent wants for his or her child; it’s a necessity for security in a globally competitive economy.

The good news is that, thanks to the hard work of educators, students and communities, America’s schools have made historic achievements in recent years. The U.S. high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, and the places most committed to bold change have made major progress on the nation’s report card. Since 2000, high school dropout rates have been cut in half for Hispanic students and more than a third for African Americans. College enrollment by black and Hispanic students has surged.

Perhaps even more important, educators are taking fundamental steps to help reclaim the United States’ leadership in education. Throughout the country, students are being taught to higher standards, by teachers empowered to be creative and to teach critical thinking skills. Last year, nearly 30 states, led by both Republicans and Democrats, increased funding for early learning.

Yet change this big is always hard, and political leaders — myself included — must provide support and make course corrections where needed. We are asking a great deal of our educators and students. Despite their hard work, and a growing embrace of many of these changes, one topic — standardized testing — sometimes diverts energy from this ambitious set of changes.

Fortunately, states and districts are taking on this challenge — including places such as Rhode Island and New York state; St. Paul, Minn.; Nashville; and the District, where leaders are already taking actions to limit testing. As they and others move forward, I look forward to highlighting progress others can learn from.

States are also leading the way on improving test quality, building assessments that move beyond bubble tests and measure critical thinking skills and writing; the Education Department has provided $360 million to two consortia of states to support that work. And to reduce stress on teachers during this year of transition, my department in August offered states new flexibility on connecting teacher evaluation to test results.

It’s vital that political leaders stand behind changes that will prepare our young people for success in the real world — changes that educators have worked so hard to get underway. We must also stand behind states that have increased standards for learning, and where adults are holding themselves responsible for the progress of all students. We must stand strong for responsible and equitable school funding. We must stand strong for making both preschool and college accessible to all.

And we must stand strong in the knowledge — not the belief but the knowledge — that great schools make a difference in the lives of all children.


Statement by the President on Local Education Leaders’ Action on Standardized Testing

Over the past five years, my Administration has worked with states to remove obstacles created by unworkable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.  While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve. Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.

That’s why my Administration has given states that have set higher, more honest standards the flexibility to meet them.  In that spirit of flexibility, I welcome today’s announcement from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that state education chiefs and district superintendents will work together to cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting the smarter use of tests that measure real student learning.  I have directed Secretary Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

In the 21st century economy, a world-class education is more important than ever.  We should be preparing every child for success, because the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  Our nation’s schools are on the right track: Our high school graduation rate is at its highest in our history, the dropout rate is the lowest on record, and more of our young people are earning college degrees than ever before.  I’m determined to support our nation’s educators and families as they work to set high expectations for our students and for the schools in which they learn.

Secretary Duncan Wants to Hear from You

Cross-posted from the White House blog.


This morning, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent the following message to the White House email list.

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Last week, I met Brittany.

She’s a hardworking student at West Georgia Technical College who is now just months away from being certified as a nursing assistant, but there was a point when she didn’t think she’d be here. In high school, Brittany became pregnant and her future suddenly became uncertain. Her high school counselor suggested she apply for the 12 for Life program, a local program that offers students who have fallen behind in high school the opportunity to attend class, work and get back on their feet.

As I talked with Brittany and her fellow students — many of whom were the first in their family to graduate high school — they spoke powerfully and tearfully of the program’s success, and how it had given them hope for the future.

Brittany’s inspiring story is just one of many I heard last week during the Department of Education’s annual back-to-school bus tour. This year’s tour took us to Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, and provided my team and me with the opportunity to see innovations in education and to discuss progress, promise, and results.

I wish I could see every innovative program — every initiative creating promise for our children — happening across the country, but even after visiting all 50 states and more than 350 schools during my time as Secretary, I can’t visit every school. So that’s where you come in.

What cutting-edge programs are your local schools undertaking? Or, if you don’t know of any, what would you like to see them do?

We’ll share some of your stories and suggestions on the White House blog.

meet_brittany

Brittany tells Secretary Arne Duncan about her positive experience in the 12 for Life Program during a stop on his back-to-school bus tour in Carrolton, Ga. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education by Joshua Hoover.

This was my fifth back-to-school bus tour, and with each tour, I become increasingly optimistic about our country’s ability to elevate and strengthen education. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, college enrollment has hit record levels, dropout rates are dramatically down, and principals, teachers, parents, and students are taking the lead on improving education for all students.

But during the bus tour and around the country, I also hear a lot of people worried that our children won’t inherit a better America than we did. That’s why we have such an important shared mission: to make sure that every student, everywhere, gets an effective education. It’s a mission that we can all agree on, and it’s one that matters immensely.

The best ideas in education will never come from Washington, which is why the Obama Administration is working hard to help states and communities strengthen schools — in particular, through supports for great teaching, and higher standards. It’s inspiring to see states and local communities stepping up to expand access to high-quality early education, transition to college- and career-ready standards, and support innovation in education.

So I want to know what’s happening in your community. Share the innovative things the schools in your area are doing — or what you’d like to see happen.

We should celebrate the gains we’ve made these past couple years, but we can’t be fully satisfied. There’s still more to do to support all students so they may reach their full potential. So, in this new school year, let’s get to work.

Thanks for sharing,

Arne

Secretary Arne Duncan
Department of Education
@arneduncan

 

AmeriCorps – An Incredible Gift to Our Schools

Today marks the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, the national service program that has helped 900,000 Americans give a year of their lives in service to this country. Hundreds of thousands have served in our schools as teachers, tutors, and classroom assistants. In fact, AmeriCorps volunteers are hard at work in 11,700 schools across the country right now. AmeriCorps volunteers have strengthened our nation in so many ways, believing that those who love their country can change it. They have helped communities rebuild after natural disasters, from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to the tornado in Joplin, Mo. They have made our parks cleaner and more accessible.  And they have increased access to healthy foods for people living in poverty. I’m heartened that much of AmeriCorps’s impact can be felt in our schools.

We know that giving kids the education they deserve takes entire communities working together, and AmeriCorps has connected people looking to make a difference in public education in strategic and meaningful ways. During my time as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and in my visits to schools across the country as Education Secretary, I have seen how AmeriCorps volunteers serving with Teach for America, City Year, Public Allies, and other organizations have helped to educate and support our nation’s children. And I have seen how they inspire even more individuals to take up the mantle of service – 4 million Americans volunteered alongside AmeriCorps members in 2013 alone.

We don’t just think national service programs can benefit kids. We know. I’ll share one example:  39 percent of the 6th – 9th graders working with City Year volunteers improved an entire grade level in their English and Language Arts courses during the 2012-2013 school year. Students with City Year volunteers spent an aggregate of 14,600 more hours in the classroom thanks to the volunteers’ attendance improvement efforts.

We know there is potential for national service to do even more for our kids. That’s why last year I announced a new partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service – School Turnaround AmeriCorps. Through this innovative program, 650 young people have been given the opportunity to serve in the nation’s lowest-performing schools. I visited one of these schools in Washington D.C., Stanton Elementary. What I saw was inspiring: 18 young City Year corps members working alongside teachers to ensure that kids receive the education they deserve. Corps members motivate kids in the morning, tutor them throughout the day and afterschool, and act as great role models.

What’s perhaps even more heartening is that there are eight AmeriCorps alums on staff at Stanton Elementary today; their service experience inspired them to continue helping kids. Across the country, 60 percent of AmeriCorps volunteers go on to work in nonprofits and public service. Kids need talented, dedicated, and passionate educators in the classroom, and AmeriCorps is helping to recruit this next generation of education leaders.

While I missed out on AmeriCorps by a few years, I took a year off of college to work in my mother’s afterschool tutoring program in the south side of Chicago. That year transformed my life. It’s a big reason why I do the work I do today.

On the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, I want to thank the leaders in Washington who crossed party lines to launch this national service program, along with the tireless advocates who help the program continue to grow and thrive. But, most importantly, I appreciate the people who serve and volunteer. You demonstrate what is possible when we commit to furthering our nation’s highest ideals. You are solving our biggest challenges, strengthening communities, and increasing opportunity for our children. Our nation’s future is brighter because you serve. Thank you.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Day in the Life: On the Back-to-School Bus Tour with Secretary Duncan

It’s time for our children to head back to school, and as classrooms and notebooks begin to fill up again, I’m increasingly optimistic about our country’s ability to elevate and strengthen education. With high school graduation rates at an all-time high, and big jumps in the number of students going to college over the last few years, it’s a good time to celebrate the teachers, principals, families, and students who have driven that success. And, it’s a good time to talk about the work ahead in ensuring that strong educational opportunities are a reality for every child in America.

For the fifth year in a row, I’m hitting the road for our Department’s back-to-school bus tour. This year’s tour is themed “Partners in Progress,” and I’ll be traveling through Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to see innovation in education at work, and to discuss progress, promise, and results.

Today, I’m taking over the White House’s Instagram account to give you a behind-the-scenes look as I meet teachers, parents, students, and education leaders who have been partners in making progress for our nation’s children. Keep checking back throughout the day for more photos, and remember that the tour won’t end today, so stay up-to-date with our tour by following me on Twitter, by checking out the hashtag #EDTour14, and by visiting ed.gov/progress.

Announcing Commit to Lead

Today, we are announcing a new opportunity to advance teacher leadership. But, for it to succeed, we need your voice to be a part of it.

Since day one on the job, many teachers have shared with me an overwhelming desire to excel in the profession, lead others, and to have a stronger voice. Too often, great teachers leave the classroom because they lack avenues to exercise their leadership – and that’s a loss for our students, our schools and for the profession. As I’ve heard this common refrain from teachers, I thought it was critical to respond. In the midst of dramatic change in education, we need to give our teachers genuine opportunities to be leaders without leaving their classrooms.

To promote and accelerate opportunities for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom, we announced one of our most exciting initiatives earlier this year – Teach to Lead. This initiative builds on years of work to elevate the teaching profession, particularly through our RESPECT effort, and on the leadership of our Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who advise our team on key decisions and represent the Department externally. Together with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, we launched Teach to Lead to advance student outcomes through expanding opportunities for teacher leadership. And, to achieve this vision, my team and our partners committed to identify, spotlight, and support promising models for teacher leadership across the country.

Teach to Lead is a collaborative effort to advance student achievement by opening doors for all teachers to engage in meaningful leadership opportunities, while remaining in the classroom and in the profession they love. Most importantly, this initiative should be shaped by your thoughts, experiences, and ideas. The shape of teacher leadership shouldn’t be dictated from outside the profession, it should be decided and shaped by teachers themselves, in partnership with principals and other educators.

That’s why today we’re unveiling a key platform to spur more ideas, more conversation, and more collaboration around teacher leadership – Commit to Lead.

Commit to Lead is a public, online community that directly engages teachers and other educators to define what teacher leadership can and should be in their communities, so that collectively we can help make it part of the fabric and culture of every school. It builds on the great work that already exists in the field, and invites the creation of new ideas.

Through this platform, educators will have the opportunity to share ideas and get feedback from peers and collaborators nationwide. It offers a place to spark discussion and build momentum around the best teacher leadership ideas and strongest commitments you can come up with – whether you’re a veteran teacher-leader with best practices to share, or you’re a novice who’s just beginning to get engaged in the conversation. The launch of this site represents one step in our ongoing commitment to listen to educators and support their vital leadership of their profession.

Using Commit to Lead, participants can vote on each other’s ideas, allowing the most promising ideas to rise to the top. We’ll stay a part of the conversation, so that we’re learning from your invaluable experience and knowledge, but also so you can benefit from resources and contacts at our more than 100 partner organizations. The ideas that this online community shares – the ideas fostered, developed, and supported by teachers everywhere – will help to drive a number of regional leadership labs for teachers. At these convenings, featuring teams of teacher leaders and experts from across our partner organizations, your ideas will become plans and, soon, those plans will become actions.

Teach to Lead is all about giving educators the power and a seat at the table – and through this virtual community, the chance to share and develop your ideas on a massive scale is in your hands. Already, we’ve heard of great ideas like the classroom structure reorganization led by 5th grade teacher Vicky Edwards and the school-wide writing program developed by Rhea Espedido, a reading interventionist who wanted to boost student success in writing throughout her entire school.

We want to hear the next great idea – will you be the one to share it?

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

A Back-to-School Conversation with Teachers and School Leaders

As teachers gear up for a new school year, I want to offer two thoughts. One is a message of celebration and thanks. The other is a response to a concern that has come up often in many conversations with teachers and families, and which deserves an answer.

First, the thanks. America’s students have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year – the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups that in the past have lagged significantly. For these achievements, we should celebrate America’s teachers, principals, and students and their families. These achievements are also indications of deeper, more successful relationships with our students. All of us who’ve worked with young people know how much they yearn for adults to care about them and know them as individuals.

These achievements come at a time of nearly unprecedented change in American education – which entails enormously hard work by educators. Nearly every state has adopted new standards, new assessments, new approaches to incorporating data on student learning, and new efforts to support teachers.

This transition represents the biggest, fastest change in schools nationwide in our lifetime. And these efforts are essential to prepare kids to succeed in an age when the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate skillfully, and manipulate ideas fluently is vital. I have heard from many teachers that they have not received all the support they’d want during this transition. Yet America’s teachers are making this change work – and I want to recognize and thank them for that and encourage their leadership in this time of change.

That’s the easy part of this message. The harder part has to do with concerns that many teachers have brought to my door.

My team and I hold regular conversations with teachers, principals and other educators, often led by Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who take a year away from their schools to advise my agency. Increasingly, in those conversations, I hear concerns about standardized testing.

Assessment of student progress has a fundamental place in teaching and learning – few question that teachers, schools and parents need to know what progress students are making. And few question the particular importance of knowing how our most vulnerable students are progressing. Indeed, there’s wide recognition that annual assessments – those required by federal law – have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus.

There are three main issues I’ve heard about repeatedly from educators:

  1. It doesn’t make sense to hold them accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.
  2. The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.
  3. Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.

I share these concerns. And I want our department to be part of the solution.

To those who are reading the last sentence with surprise, let me be clear: assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. As a parent of two children in public school, I know I want that. And in fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students’ progress – through a sensible, smart combination of factors that reflect their work with students – not the level students came in at, or factors outside of their control.

But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone – always on a mix of measures – which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators. In Nevada, educators include a teacher’s contribution to the school community in their measures; in Hawaii, schools consider student feedback surveys and professional growth, such as leading workshops or taking university coursework). Educators in Delaware look at measures of planning and preparation such as lesson plans and descriptions of instructional strategies to be used for students with diverse needs. Federal policy rightly stays out of picking those individual measures, but ensures that in evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth, and consider multiple measures.

But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who’ve worked through it have told me it’s allowed them to become the best teachers they’ve ever been. That change needs educators’ full attention.

That’s why – as I shared in a conversation with dozens of teachers at Jefferson Middle School in Washington, D.C. earlier today – we will be taking action in the coming weeks that give states more flexibility in key areas that teachers have said are causing worry.

States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems – and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well. We want to make sure that they are still sharing growth data with their teachers, and still moving forward on the other critical pieces of evaluation systems that provide useful feedback to educators.  We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right. These changes are incredibly important, and educators should not have to make them in an atmosphere of worry. Some states will choose to take advantage of that flexibility; others, especially those that are well along in this transition, will not need a delay. The bottom line is that educators deserve strong support as our schools make vital, and urgently needed, changes. As many educators have pointed out, getting this right rests also on high-quality assessments. Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.

I’m concerned, too, when I see places where adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students.

And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.

There’s plenty of responsibility to share on these challenges, and a fair chunk of that sits with me and my department. We encouraged states to move a whole lot of changes simultaneously, because of the enormous urgency to raise standards and improve systems of teacher support – not for another generation of students, but for today’s students.

But in how this change happens, we need to listen carefully to the teachers, principals and other educators who are living it on a daily basis – and we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.

From my first day on this job, the objective has been to work in a spirit of flexibility to help states and communities improve outcomes for kids. We need to make changes, but we are also making progress. I’m determined that, working in partnership, we’ll continue to do both – be flexible and make progress for our kids.

Change is hard, and changes of significance rarely work exactly as planned. But in partnership, making course alterations as necessary, we will get there.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

This post originally appeared on SmartBlog on Education.

My Top Advisers: Principals and Teachers

I had three conversations last week that served as valuable reminders of the impact of visionary, skilled principals. In one conversation, a group of award-winning teachers emphasized repeatedly the important role that great principals play in recruiting and retaining the best teachers in challenging school environments. One teacher, Laura Strait, shared that she moved from Massachusetts to California just to work for an outstanding principal.

I have never seen a high-performing school without a great principal. Principals are key to education change efforts, and I can’t overstate the importance of courageous leadership.

As we work together to prepare our students for success, it’s vital for me to regularly tap into the collective wisdom of our schools’ instructional leaders. In two other conversations I had with educators last week, I met with principals in Toledo, Ohio, last Tuesday and in the District of Columbia on Friday. I wanted to hear from them about what’s working, what isn’t, and what the U.S. Department of Education can do to better support them. In both cases, I asked for a candid conversation, and I got it.

At D.C. Public Schools, I spoke with a group of 200 principals and central office leaders to thank them for their commitment to their students and schools and listen to their thoughts as they head back to school. I shared Laura Strait’s story – she’s a winner of TNTP’s prestigious Fishman Prize – and challenged them to be that principal, one who is so strong that a teacher would follow them across the country to teach in their school. That’s the kind of leadership we need everywhere.

At Toledo Public Schools’ Woodward High School, I met with nine principals of northwestern Ohio schools – from urban, rural and small town environments – to hear about the impact that all the changes happening now in K-12 education are having on their students, teachers and families.  I was pleased to hear that Ohio’s Race to the Top grant has funded meaningful professional development that has helped to bring teachers at many schools out of their classroom silos to more effectively collaborate with their colleagues to meet the unique needs of each child. Race to the Top funding has also made some dramatic innovation possible: For example, it’s helping to transform the middle and high school in rural Van Wert, Ohio, into a New Tech school that utilizes cutting-edge resources to enable kids to fully develop the critical thinking skills that today’s employers need and tomorrow’s jobs will demand.

However, I also heard loud and clear from Ohio principals that the quick pace of change is causing angst for them and their staffs. From the transition to college- and career-ready standards and assessments to new teacher evaluations, there’s been an unprecedented amount of change within a short span of time. All of the principals made it very clear that they’re seeing strong progress in their schools, and don’t want to stop the momentum. As Woodward Principal Jack Renz said, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.”

These are not easy times in education. What I hear from you, our principals and teachers, influences what we do at ED. As we start the school year, it’s important for districts, states and the staff at ED to hear your voices.

Can we build on positive momentum to help each student reach his or her full potential? If the answer lies with educators like those that I met last week –courageous principals and the passionate teachers who want to work with them – then I have no doubt in my mind that we can.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Bringing the Promise of Healthy School Meals to More Children This Fall

Reposted from the Huffington Post.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 enabled the U.S Department of Agriculture to make historic changes to the meals served in our nation’s schools. Breakfasts, lunches, and snacks sold during the school day are now more nutritious than ever, with less fat and sodium and more whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. For many kids, the meals they get at school may be the only nutritious meals they receive that day—and when children receive proper nourishment, they are not only healthier, but they also have better school attendance and perform better academically. It’s not enough, though, to make the meals healthier—we must ensure that children have access to those healthier foods.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act authorized a program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), that can help schools achieve their educational goals by ensuring that children in low-income communities have access to healthy meals at school so they are ready to learn. In this program, schools agree to offer breakfast and lunch for free to all students, and cover any costs that exceed the reimbursements from USDA. Designed to ease the burden of administering a high volume of applications for free and reduced price meals, CEP is a powerful tool to both increase child nutrition and reduce paperwork at the district, school, and household levels, which saves staff time and resources for cash-strapped school districts.

Starting this upcoming school year, the program is available to schools across the country. The decision to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision is a local one, and schools must decide for themselves whether this program is right for them. In order to give schools more time to make that decision, we recently extended the deadline to participate in School Year 2014-2015. Last month, USDA announced that schools now have until August 31 to enroll.

State educational agencies and local school districts often use data collected through the National School Lunch Program to carry out certain eligibility requirements for other programs, including Title I for schools serving students from low-income families. The Department of Education recently released guidance highlighting the range of options that schools have for implementing these requirements while also participating in CEP—and many districts already have successfully implemented Title I requirements using data that incorporate Community Eligibility. We strongly encourage schools and school districts that have not yet adopted CEP to review ED Guidance on Community Eligibility and Title I and USDA’s Resources on Community Eligibility, and carefully consider the positive impact that CEP can have for your students, schools, and communities.

This program has already been working in nearly 4,000 pilot schools across the country, some of which are already in their third year of participation and seeing tremendous results. Schools that participated in the pilot phase of this program saw increased participation and revenue from breakfast and lunch programs:

  • In Washington, D.C.’s public schools, Lindsey Palmer, school programs manager for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, outlined why CEP has worked so well for D.C.’s schools; including reduced stigma, reduction in administrative functions, better prediction of federal school meals funding amounts based on previous participation, more resources available to improve the meals and overall program, and better reach to those students who really needed the benefits of the school meal program.
  • In New York, Larry Spring, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District, also offered high praise. His district can better focus efforts on food- insecure students and provide greater access to meals with the help of CEP. According to Superintendent Spring, his schools have enjoyed an increase in attendance since adopting CEP, which generally translates into higher test scores and improved academic achievement.

We want to give every child an opportunity to learn and thrive at school. CEP has the potential to bring the promise of healthy school meals to over 3,000 school districts nationwide. The Departments of Agriculture and Education have been working together to make sure that every eligible school knows about CEP and has the information they need to determine if it is right for them. To learn more visit USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Website.

See what others have to say about the program.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and Tom Vilsack is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Big Thinking and Bold Action to Reach America’s College Completion Goal

What if more Americans who dream of getting a college degree, and who hold a full- or part-time job could count on substantial – or even full – tuition assistance from their employer? What would that do to improve the prospects of individuals, families, and communities in this country? What would it do to increase the prosperity of our nation as a whole? How much closer would it put us to reaching the goal President Obama announced when he took office – that the U.S. will again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates?

Last August, the President called for innovative approaches to enable more students to access, afford, and complete college. Today, in New York City, I stood with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Arizona State University President Michael Crow as they announced a bold new partnership they’ve named the Starbucks Onward College Achievement Plan.

Under the plan, many U.S.-based Starbucks employees (known within the company as “partners”) who work 20 hours a week or more will have help starting – or completing – their degree in over 40 online undergraduate degree programs offered by Arizona State.  The plan is especially aimed at encouraging partners who started college, but because of costs or other commitments had to put their dreams on hold, to transfer their existing credits and get their degree. It offers the targeted services that first-in-family, minority, and other underserved learners may need to be successful in navigating the college experience, with built-in supports like enrollment coaches, financial aid counselors, and faculty advisors, to ensure that students make it across the finish line.

This model is innovative, in both its delivery – with online, adaptive, and personalized learning – and its focus on tuition reimbursement that rewards progress and degree completion. Efforts like this one also advance the fundamental American value of equity: that we all – regardless of income, background or any other factor – deserve the same chance to build a better life and realize our full potential.

A college education is the single best investment Americans can make in their future.  But, the amount of debt that many students must take on to pursue the dream of going to college is simply unacceptable. Today, two like-minded leaders and their organizations are taking an important stand to combat these rising costs.

Since President Obama took office, this Administration has focused intently on doing all we can to keep college within reach of every American. We’ve made key investments in federal student aid, and made it simpler to apply. We’ve created new tools and resources that help students select a college and make informed college financing decisions before they decide to enroll. And, last week, the President announced new executive actions to support federal student loan borrowers, especially those at risk of defaulting on loans.

But, regaining America’s place as the world’s best-educated, most competitive workforce will take all of us working together. I can’t think of a worthier goal to pursue: everyone benefits from a better-educated workforce and society. It’s our shared responsibility as a nation to ensure opportunity for all. We need big thinking and bold action.

The Starbucks Onward Achievement Plan is an example of the type of innovation we need to see more of in the workforce and education sectors. It shows that together, we can achieve so much more than we ever could separately. I hope this example will encourage other business and education leaders to rise to the challenge, and develop their own creative solutions.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Drawing the Right Lessons from Vergara

Sometimes conflict is the starting point on the path to progress.

That’s one of two possible ways events could play out in the wake of Vergara v. California, a court case that is driving enormous debate throughout the education world.

Brought on behalf of nine public school students, the Vergara case argued that California’s laws on teacher tenure and placement violate the right to an education in the state constitution. The lawsuit claimed that minority and low-income students are deprived of effective teachers by state laws that, in essence, award lifetime employment to teachers after as little as 18 months, and that require layoffs on the basis of seniority.

Last week, a judge agreed, saying these laws deprive students of their civil rights. The decision affirmed the fundamental duty to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, family income or skin color, receive a quality education – starting with an effective teacher.

The question is, what happens now?

One possibility is a series of appeals, probably stretching across years, and similar suits in other states and districts. Both sides have the millions such a fight would require. Improvements for teachers and students would be slow in coming.

I hope it doesn’t turn out that way.

There’s a second path – which is for all involved to recognize, as the court did, that the status quo is broken, and get to work on alternatives that serve students well – and respect and value teachers and the profession of teaching.

The second path may be harder to achieve. This country has plenty of experience at lawyering up. It has less at finding consensus on tough public issues.

But I am convinced it can be done. There is a common-sense path forward – built on a recognition that the interests of teachers and of disadvantaged students are not opposed, but aligned. With commitment and collaboration, we can create systems that do these vital things:

  • Ensure that disadvantaged students have strong teachers
  • Establish a meaningful bar for teacher tenure
  • Retain the most effective teachers
  • Make it possible to remove teachers who are ineffective, even after a meaningful period of support

Too much of the reaction to Vergara has suggested that the needs of students and of teachers are at odds. On the contrary, both students and teachers will benefit in systems that use wise practices, including high-quality, thoughtful supports and incentives, to ensure that all students – and especially the most disadvantaged — have effective teachers. Students and teachers both benefit when school systems take concrete steps to elevate the teaching profession, to recognize, listen to and learn from the most effective educators, and establish practices and career paths for educators that enable them to hold on to the most effective educators.

Tenure itself is not the issue here. I absolutely support job security for effective teachers. I think it’s vital to protect teachers from arbitrary or ill-motivated job actions. But giving teachers tenure after only 18 months in the job — a practice that Vergara challenged — is not a meaningful bar. Awarding tenure to someone without a track record of improving student achievement doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well. Likewise, in the unfortunate circumstances when teachers must be laid off, letting them go solely on the basis of seniority, without taking quality into account, doesn’t serve our students well. Such policies ignore teachers’ effectiveness and undercut the public’s confidence in public education.

Instead, let’s create rewards —and reduce barriers — to attract and keep talented teachers and to develop inspiring school principals, especially in neighborhoods where children need the most help. The challenges that students growing up in poverty bring to school can be enormous. Our school systems should act on that understanding by ensuring that such students have especially skilled teachers, principals, and support staff.

Let’s recognize that as a nation, we have a responsibility to better prepare and support our teachers throughout their careers. Let’s recognize and celebrate the strongest teachers and find opportunities for those who are willing to mentor their peers to do so. Let’s pay teachers in a way that recognizes their real value and importance to our society. Through such steps, we can do a better job of keeping strong teachers at every stage of their career – from promising early-career teachers to accomplished teachers who can mentor their colleagues.

Let’s have a conversation that is national in scope but local in its solutions. Let’s find a way forward that supports both students and educators.

And let’s learn from high-performing nations that translate their respect for the value of teachers into action. These countries pay all teachers well, recognize excellence, and offer pay and career rewards for working with the neediest kids.

Elevating teaching and school leadership is an imperative everywhere in this country, and something we have long worked to support at the federal level.

Our RESPECT blueprint pulled together the thinking of thousands of educators to lay out a vision for how we as a nation can transform the profession of teaching; a new initiative, Teach to Lead, responds to some of their recommendations with new ideas for putting teachers in leadership roles, and builds on the many effective examples of distributed leadership at work in our schools today.  We’ve also collaborated with national education organizations, including the two major teachers unions, to spotlight and learn from examples where labor and management are working effectively together to support students and educators.

We are also putting a strong focus on how we can support states and school districts in more equitably providing great teachers to all students – a focus intensified by the work of our Equity and Excellence Commission. Our new Race to the Top-Opportunity proposal would invest in states and districts willing to tackle persistent, systemic opportunity gaps in access to resources, coursework, and effective educators. And we are promoting policies and making investments that target the many other inequities that can unfairly harm a child’s home life, as well as their education, and reduce their chances of going to college, being successful in a career and contributing to society.

After a dramatic, emotional week, it can be hard to recognize that there’s common ground among people and organizations that tend to be opposite each other in courtrooms, on television and at bargaining tables. But we can align in the fight against academic failure.

It took enormous courage for 10th grader Beatriz Vergara and her eight co-plaintiffs to stand up and demand change to a broken status quo. It’ll take courage from all of us to come to consensus on new solutions.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education and the former CEO of Chicago’s public schools.