Looking Back at 5 Memorable School Visits of 2013

Bret Tarver

Secretary Arne Duncan received a daily weather forecast from students during his visit to Bret Tarver Education Complex in Phoenix.

I visit a lot of schools each year, and it is probably the greatest highlight of my job. Getting out of Washington and into classrooms provides me with the opportunity to talk with students, teachers, parents, and college leaders on what is working and what we still need to accomplish. Their voices are the driving force behind improving education in our country.

In 2013, I visited my 49th state as Secretary of Education, and with each classroom and school visit I walk away with meaningful and memorable lessons. As 2014 gets underway, now is a good time to reflect on 2013, and particularly on five schools that left a lasting impression.

  1. Columbus Elementary, Columbus, N.M.
Columbus

Secretary Duncan speaks with a Columbus Elementary School student on a bus ride to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Columbus Elementary, situated just a few miles from the Mexico border is unlike any school I have visited before. Of the approximately 700 students, from Pre-K to 5th Grade, roughly 400 students wake up before the sun rises to cross the border for school each day. All the students are U.S. citizens and during the afternoon bus ride back to the border, listening to their stories inspired me.

The experience shed new light on educational challenges and youthful grit—not to mention a need to fix our broken immigration system that affects even our youngest learners. Read more about my visit to Columbus during our annual back-to-school bus tour.

  1. Macomb Community College, Warren, Mich.

Community colleges have never been more important. They are the cornerstones that will help us build the best-educated, most competitive workforces in the world. Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., is a shining example of a community college that is providing students with an affordable high-quality education that meets the needs of local employers.

Macomb inspired me and my hope is that more community colleges will follow suit and become regional economic engines. Read more about my December visit to Macomb.

  1. Northwest Middle School, Salt Lake City, Utah

After years of struggling, Northwest Middle School is now ranked number one in its district and is making exciting progress with the help of a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the Department of Education.

During my recent visit I received candid feedback from the students, parents, and teachers about the challenges the school has overcome and the work that lies ahead. Like all turnaround successes, I am hopeful members of this school community will continue to share their successes with school leaders across the country. Read more about my December visit to Northwest.

  1. Ecole St. Jean de Dieu, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

    Haiti

    Secretary Duncan speaks with community members outside of Ecole St. Jean de Dieu in Haiti.

The first school we visited during a recent trip to Haiti was Ecole St. Jean de Dieu. The school is part of the Haitian Minister of Education’s initiative to promote access for vulnerable school-aged children who are outside of the education system.  Most of the students at this school are homeless and live on the streets during the day but attend classes in the afternoons.  

Set in one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods, the school’s bare walls and dusty classrooms were filled with bright-eyed students and commanding teachers. The students that attended this school, many lost parents or guardians in the earthquake and are trying to get a basic education to hopefully live a productive life on their own. I was inspired to see their commitment to receiving an education and working towards a better life. Read more about my trip to Haiti.

  1. Bret Tarver Early Education Complex, Phoenix, Ariz.

The Bret Tarver Education Complex in Phoenix was a vivid reminder of not just the importance of high-quality pre-k but the need to expand it. The staff at this preschool facility is doing a tremendous job of serving over 300 kids in the community, yet another 200+ remain on a waitlist.

It is encouraging to see Arizona make such a crucial investment in our children, but more than a few lucky children deserve a high-quality pre-k experience like the one offered at Bret Tarver. If we plan to meet the long-term educational challenges, we must place greater emphasis on what happens to children during their most formative years from birth to the early grades, and make high-quality early learning available to all students. Read more about my September visit to Bret Tarver.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of Education

Students in Large Cities Make Progress

America’s big cities have long been beacons of promise and opportunity. Yet too often, big-city school systems have failed to equalize educational opportunity or truly prepare our young people to compete in a knowledge-based, global economy.  In large cities, more than a third of all teens fail to graduate on time, and high school dropouts have few opportunities as adults to find rewarding work to sustain a family.

That’s why the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s new study, examining educational performance in big cities, are encouraging.

Math GraphicToday, the National Assessment Governing Board released the results of the 2013 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA). It found that student performance in large cities continues to improve overall, and that large-city schools nationwide are improving at a faster pace than the nation as a whole.

That progress is welcome, especially since large-city districts typically have higher concentrations of Black or Hispanic students, low-income students, and English language learners than the nation as a whole.

To be clear, a lot of work lies ahead to close achievement gaps in our largest cities. But here’s the good news: in 2013, tens of thousands of additional students in large cities are Proficient or above in math and reading than was the case four years earlier. And three districts that pressed ahead with ambitious reforms — the DC Public Schools System (DCPS), Los Angeles, and Fresno — made notable progress since 2011.

In comparison to 2009, 44,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 4th grade math in large cities in 2013; 34,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 4th grade reading; 20,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 8th grade math; and 28,000 more students scored at or above Proficient in 8th grade reading.

This progress is a credit to the hard work of teachers, principals, other school staff members, parents, and students themselves.

Signs of progress on the TUDA are especially compelling because they cannot be attributed to teaching to the test or testing irregularities, such as cheating.

DCPS students made substantial gains in both fourth and eighth grade in reading and mathematics. And students in Los Angeles and Fresno—two of the CORE districts participating in district-based waivers to the No Child Left Behind Law–also made notable progress since 2011.

Fresno was the only district in the TUDA to report a significant decrease in the achievement gap in math and reading (in eighth grade) from 2009 to 2013 between students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch programs and better-off students, who didn’t qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch.

The spoiler in this picture of slow and steady progress is the failure to meaningfully close racial achievement gaps in our large-city schools nationwide since 2009. Tens of thousands of students still lack the opportunities they deserve—and that opportunity gap is painfully at odds with the promise of equal opportunity in America.

Yet the TUDA results also tell us that leadership, vision, and a commitment to get better matter tremendously in big-city school districts.

A large performance gap persists between students in higher-performing cities, like Charlotte, Hillsborough County, and Austin, and students in Detroit and Cleveland, the two lowest-performing districts.

Those city-to-city gaps in performance provide a great opportunity for lower-performing districts to learn from higher-performing districts–and for districts where performance has stagnated to learn from rapidly-improving districts, like the District of Columbia Public School system.

I’m encouraged by the progress students overall are making in big cities. But it is time now to dramatically accelerate the pace of progress, not just in our big cities but in our nation as a whole. An opportunity for a world-class education should be the birthright of every student, no matter what their zip code.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Enabling the Future of Learning

Cross-posted from the White House Blog

I can’t predict the future, but as I wrote back in July, I can say that learning in the future ought to be more personalized. Teachers should have up-to-the minute information that will help them tailor instruction for each student. They should be able to connect and collaborate with other teachers to tackle common challenges and develop solutions. No matter where they are located, students should have access to world-class resources and experts that can enrich a learning experience that is largely designed just for them. And parents should be able to follow their child’s activities and progress almost in real-time, helping them stay more engaged in their child’s education.

This is an exciting future, and for some districts and schools across the country, that future is now.

Today the Department of Education announced the second round of grantees in the Race to the Top-District (RTT-D) competition. (Five winners, representing 25 districts, won a total of $120 million in grant funds.) These grants will support locally developed plans to personalize and improve student learning, directly increase student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student for success in college and careers. Through these grants, innovative school districts will be able to better support teachers and students by increasing educational opportunities through more personalized learning.

President Obama described the promise of personalized learning when he launched the ConnectED initiative last June. Technology is a powerful tool that helps create robust personalized learning environments, but unfortunately, too many of our schools cannot support such environments. ConnectED is about establishing the building blocks for nearly every school to achieve this vision—by boosting broadband speeds through a modernized E-rate program, working to make learning devices and quality content available to all students, and ensuring that teachers have the support and professional development resources they need as they transition to a digital world.

This year’s RTT-D grantees exemplify the types of opportunities created by personalizing learning environments supported by technology. Indeed, most of the districts that won funding represent rural, remote, or small town communities, and their plans show that technology can be a powerful equalizer for schools in such communities. For example:

  • Technology as a tool for teachers and students. Clarendon County School District Two in South Carolina (leading a consortium of four districts) will make personal learning devices like laptops and tablets available to all students in the Carolina Consortium for Enterprise Learning. Teachers will have digital tools to help them differentiate instruction and share standards-aligned materials and assessments.
  • Professional learning communities. Clarksdale Municipal School District in Mississippi will train teachers to become facilitators of instruction and to learn from and support one another through professional learning communities.
  • Continuous improvement. Houston Independent School District in Texas will implement a continuous improvement cycle to measure and support teacher effectiveness and will partner with an external evaluator to provide ongoing feedback to the district on program implementation.
  • Accessible data systems that support instruction. The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (a consortium of eighteen rural districts) will create and implement data systems that measure student growth and success and that help teachers improve instruction.
  • Helping close the digital divide through community access to technology. Springdale School District in Arkansas will expand parent access to technology through school-based and community “hot spots” along with community liaisons with computer access.

It’s clear that much of the innovative work by the districts in this year’s and last year’s RTT-D grantees requires a robust technology infrastructure. And in order for more districts to embrace a future of personalized learning, we must work urgently to meet our ConnectED goals. That future is waiting, but it’s up to us to make it a reality.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, fixing our broken immigration system is a win-win. Immigration reform is not only good policy, but it is good politics, and the individuals Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and I met today near the U.S. Capitol Building reinforced the need to act.  These brave immigration reform supporters have been fasting without food since November 12, to call attention to the human suffering caused by our broken immigration system.

Fast for Families is an organization of faith-based, immigrant rights and labor leaders who came together, calling on Congress to take action toward needed, sensible immigration reform legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship.
Some fasters like veteran immigration reform advocate Eliseo Medina, who after doctor’s orders ended his 22-day fast, have relayed their fast to other immigration reform supporters including members of congress. Others like Rudy Lopez, one of the fasters I met today, has completed 21 days of fasting and vows to continue to protest and fast.  “We love this country; we are proud Americans and aspiring Americas,” said Rudy.

“I want to live in a country where the words ‘justice’ and ‘opportunity’ actually mean something,” said another faster. As I was sitting there with Eliseo, Rudy and other fasters who have friends and families who would directly benefit from immigration legislation, I couldn’t help but to think about the many students across this country who inspired the drafting of the DREAM Act. They continued to share stories of hundreds of people dying in our deserts each year trying to cross the borders as undocumented immigrants.

And I was reminded about one of the most poignant days I’ve experienced in my tenure as Secretary.  In September, I spent a day in Columbus, New Mexico – situated right on our border with Mexico. There, children born in an American hospital to Mexican parents cross the border every day to go to school, sometimes rising before dawn to make sure they arrive to class on time.

The Columbus community has welcomed them for more than 60 years, and despite the journey those American children have to take every day, Columbus Elementary School has near-perfect attendance. Much like the fasters I met today, I saw in both the students and educators in Columbus that same dedication and that profound understanding of the importance of educational opportunity. It is something I will never forget.

If lawmakers in Washington took some time to visit the Fast for Families tent or the Columbus, New Mexico, community, I have no doubt that partisan politics regarding this particular issue would dissolve. We need legislators to work together to reform immigration, so families who just want to have a better life and contribute to America’s economy can do so, together.

The Obama Administration remains committed to working hard to achieve commonsense immigration reform. We have already taken unprecedented efforts to transform the immigration enforcement system into one that focuses on public safety, border security and the integrity of our immigration system through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But we know that DACA doesn’t reach everyone; the only permanent solution is for Congress to pass immigration legislation.

I am very inspired by the commitment and passion of these fasters and the Fast for Families’ goal to continue this hard work until comprehensive immigration reform is indeed a reality. I also remain encouraged by the undocumented students I have met – many of whom have been in this country since they were young children and consider America their home – who just want the opportunity to go to college or serve in the armed forces.

I join the fasters in a call to Congress to pass commonsense immigration reform. I hope that their mission can be fueled by the words of Nelson Mandela, an exemplary leader so present in my mind today: “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

A Matter of Shared Responsibility

In 1985, 14-year-old Ryan White and his family successfully battled myths and hysteria about HIV and AIDS so that he could attend his public middle school. In light of the observation of World AIDS Day this past Sunday, it is useful to reflect on how much has improved over the past three decades when it comes to ensuring people with HIV/AIDS equal access to education. But it’s also important to acknowledge the work still to be done.

World_Aids_Day_RibbonApproximately 636,000 people in the United States with an AIDS diagnosis have died since the epidemic began. As we strive for a world free of HIV/AIDS, we cannot forget those who are currently living with it. More than 11,000 school-age children in the United States are currently living with a diagnosis of HIV infection or AIDS, as are almost 30,000 young adults (ages 20-24). This disease crosses all socio-economic strata and is not limited to a particular region or zip code in this nation.  HIV/AIDS can afflict individuals of every race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and age. We as a community must band together to address any myths, misconceptions, stereotypes, and to eliminate discriminatory behavior concerning people with HIV/AIDS.

Most schools have embraced a spirit of inclusion and non-discrimination that allows students with HIV/AIDS to participate equitably in classrooms and extracurricular activities. In some schools, however, myths and fears about HIV/AIDS can still lead to exclusion, discrimination, and bullying. In those instances, schools must be reminded in no uncertain terms that it is illegal under federal civil rights laws enforced by the Department to prohibit a student with HIV/AIDS from attending school or to permit harassment of a student because he or she has, or is regarded as having, HIV/AIDS.

Here are some of the ways you can make a difference:

  • Learn the facts about HIV/AIDS, how it is spread and how it isn’t. Find resources and organizations near where you live and help share this information with your fellow community members.
  • Arm students, parents, teachers, administrators, and families with tools to stop bullying in schools, including bullying and against students with HIV/AIDS.
  • Review the Department’s guidance documents  that address when harassment on the basis of disability, including HIV/AIDS, can violate the civil rights laws.
  • Understand that students who are living with HIV/AIDS, are regarded as such, or are associated with others living with HIV/AIDS (such as parents, guardians, and other family members), are protected from discrimination under federal civil rights laws including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Let’s continue to educate ourselves and others about HIV/AIDS. Let’s renew our commitment to support our colleagues, classmates, friends, and neighbors living with HIV/AIDS.  Our actions can make a big difference. We owe those living with this disease, and ourselves, no less.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

High Standards for All Schools and Students, Everywhere

We have a tendency in our fast-moving world to focus on controversial-sounding soundbites, instead of the complex policy debates that underlie them. Unfortunately, I recently played into that dynamic. A few days ago, in a discussion with state education chiefs, I used some clumsy phrasing that I regret – particularly because it distracted from an important conversation about how to better prepare all of America’s students for success.

In talking about the importance of communicating about higher learning standards, I singled out one group of parents when my aim was to say that we need to communicate better to all groups – especially those that haven’t been well reached in this conversation. I have not been shy in letting the country know the enormous value of the state-led movement to prepare young people for college and careers. My goal was to urge elected leaders and educators to be more vigorous in making that case, too, particularly when recent polling shows that a majority of Americans may not even know what these higher standards are.

More rigorous standards for what students should know and be able to do have the potential to drive much-needed improvements in America’s classrooms. The state-created standards known as the Common Core are widely supported by teachers—three-quarters of whom have said in surveys that higher standards will improve instruction—and by leaders from both sides of the aisle. Republican Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas, has written, “From an economic and workforce development perspective, these standards are critical.” Democratic Governor Jack Markell of Delaware has said these standards emphasize “the ability of our next generation of workers – your kids, our kids – to apply lessons learned in the classroom to real-world situations.”

I want to encourage a difficult conversation and challenge the underlying assumption that when we talk about the need to improve our nation’s schools, we are talking only about poor minority students in inner cities.

This is simply not true. Research demonstrates that as a country, every demographic group has room for improvement. Raising standards has come with challenging news in a variety of places; scores have dropped as a result of a more realistic assessment of students’ knowledge and skills.

Every parent wants the best for their children. Every parent deserves accurate information about how their kids are doing in school. And every community can be doing more to challenge all its students and bring out their individual brilliance.

As a parent of two children in public school, I know no one enjoys hearing tough news from school, but we need the truth – and we need to act on it. The truth is we should be frustrated that as students, parents, and citizens, we’ve been hiding the educational reality, particularly as other countries are rapidly passing us by in preparing their students for today and tomorrow’s economy. However, we should use this passion to say that the status quo is not acceptable and that we want more for all students.

Good communication matters, because the transition to higher standards isn’t easy. While the work of implementing reform is absolutely challenging, it’s time to come together to do what’s necessary to provide all our students the educational opportunities they truly deserve.

Let’s get back to that conversation, because it’s an important one for our country.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Inspiration and Heartbreak – My Two Days in Haiti

Secretary Duncan in Haitian ClassroomSeveral months ago, Vanneur Pierre, Haitian Minister of National Education and Vocational Training, invited me to visit his country and see firsthand a glimpse into the Haitian education system.  Since the devastating earthquake hit in 2010 the U.S. Government has pledged its support as Haiti seeks to rebuild its economy and infrastructure, including its education system.  The two days I spent in Haiti were inspiring and heartbreaking.  From a school that is educating kids that live on the streets during the day to a hundred children crammed into a 7th grade classroom, the thirst and hunger for learning was incredible.

Along with visiting three schools, I had the opportunity to join USAID Associate Administrator Mark Feierstein and Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack to announce a multi-million dollar program in Haiti for USAID’s Room to Learn. This program will help to support equitable access for vulnerable children.

Each school we visited, while lacking modern amenities was full of an entrepreneurial spirit and will to learn. The school buildings were unlike anything we could imagine in this country.  Most were semi-outdoor structures with little or no electricity and stark dusty walls with paint generations old. No fancy gyms, libraries or cafeterias to see, only brick, mortar and gravel to make up the landscape. Each student sat at a desk or on a bench attentively looking towards the front of the room.  Classroom after classroom, student after student, each was focused on the lesson plan of the day.  When the teacher spoke, you could hear a pin drop.

Duncan Playing BasketballThe first school we visited was Ecole St. Jean de Dieu, which is part of the Minister’s initiative to promote access for vulnerable school-aged children who are outside of the education system.  Most of the students at this school are homeless and live on the streets during the day but attend classes in the afternoons.  I met 16 year olds who were in the second grade, far behind where they should be but trying to get an education to build a better life.

While traveling through Haiti I also had the opportunity to visit the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP) program which provides university scholarships in Haiti for straight-A students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One student, overcome by her past, cried as she told me about her life’s journey.   I sat and listened to the passionate and personal stories of students in this program discussed how their world was changed as a result of the opportunity to continue their education.

I visited another school, Ecole Nationale de Tabarre, an outdoor set of buildings, where I witnessed students reading books in their native tongue of creole donated by USAID’s read to learn program to make education more accessible for all children.  From there we went to Lycee de Petionville, one of Haiti’s model high schools.  I saw a classroom of over 100 7th graders packed into a room built for 30-40.  After visiting some classrooms, I joined the basketball team for a brief scrimmage in the school’s cement courtyard and basketball court.  It was a remarkable sight to see, two and three stories up an entire school looking down on the court.

The future of Haiti was looking down on me.  I saw hundreds of eyes, full of optimism and hope for a better tomorrow recognizing that having a strong education can put you on a path to a better life.  These children, like other Haitian children across the country, want an education and are willing to try despite the odds against them.

It’s inspiring to see so many children, teachers, and national leaders committed to making much needed investments in Haiti’s next generation.  Parents and leaders in the U.S. and Haiti share a common desire to create a high quality education system for all that adequately prepares our children for success in their personal and professional lives. A strong Haiti can be built by a strong education system and a strong ministry of education.  I want to continue being a good partner with President Michel Martelly, Minister Pierre and the entire Haitian government to strengthen the nation, one child at a time.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education        

Educational Excellence in Action: the 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools

Just before the government shutdown, I took part in a very special day. I had the honor of announcing the 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools. I’ve often said that the best ideas in education will always come from the local level, and these schools exemplify that. The 286 schools—210 elementary schools, 22 middle schools, 53 high schools, and one K–12 school— represent promising ideas in many different settings, from remote rural areas to the hearts of our major cities, from prosperous neighborhoods, as well as neighborhoods combatting poverty. They demonstrate that with great teaching, great principals, hard work, and community support, every child can receive a world-class education.

Lake Forest Elementary, New Orleans

A student at Lake Forest Elementary, New Orleans. One of 286 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools.

These 286 schools are powerful examples of vision and commitment in the service of America’s children. They are safe yet stimulating environments where all students are valued and held to high standards. Our challenge as a country is to take to scale what’s working, and the National Blue Ribbon Schools offer a golden opportunity to do that.

This year, we have captured some of their successes in a series of one-page profiles. I invite you to learn more about the great work being accomplished by these schools around the country. Here are a few brief samples of what you will find:

  • “Through embedding strategies for how to learn into the core content standards of what to learn, students who were once considered at risk demographically become scholars and college graduates.” Akron Early College High School, Akron, Ohio
  • “As the cornerstone of our ongoing success, we relentlessly follow the fundamental steps for improvement: analyze, evaluate, discuss, research, plan a course of action, apply, and begin again.” Okatie Elementary School, Okatie, SC
  • “Children explore and investigate using critical thinking skills. Special instructional days, Super Science, Mighty Math, Ecological Engineering, and Multicultural Field Days, involve the entire staff and community in our themes.” Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, Las Vegas, Nev.
  • “We are rural, we are suburban, and we are military. This makes for a great mix and a terrific educational experience…Making student academic achievement a priority, we use observation and assessment to sculpt instruction.” Scott Elementary School, Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Education and Civil Rights, 50 Years After the March on Washington

I’ve often said that education is the civil rights issue of our time. I’m not the first to say it. But what does that mean?

Student

A student at Schools Without Walls in Washington, D.C., listens to Secretary Duncan give remarks as part of the “50 Years of Struggle: Youth Driving Economics, Education and Social Change.”

Civil rights means having the same opportunities that other people do –regardless of what you look like, where you come from, or whom you love.

And in today’s world, to have real opportunity, you need a world-class education.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, how far has the struggle for young people’s civil rights come?

With Jim Crow segregation ended and an African-American president speaking tomorrow at the 50th anniversary of the March, our progress is undeniable.

Yet in a time when so many young people don’t enjoy rights as basic as safety from violence, and when so many children lack the educational opportunities they deserve, there is a lot of work still ahead of us. The vision that electrified the country in 1963 – the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and the other leaders of the March – remains ahead of us. And it will take struggle to get there – a struggle our  young people must lead.

Today, I had the privilege of speaking to students and civil rights leaders at the School Without Walls in Washington, D.C., about the state of civil rights for our young people. At the event, hosted by the King Center and Discovery Education, I urged the students to join a heroic struggle that began long before they were born.

You can read the speech here and watch it here.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

America’s Kids Need a Better Education Law

This op-ed originally appeared in August 25 edition of The Washington Post.

The nation’s most sweeping education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, better known as No Child Left Behind — is outmoded and broken. Congress has gone home for its summer recess without passing a responsible replacement.

That’s too bad. America deserves a better law.

At the heart of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a promise: to set a high bar for all students and to protect the most vulnerable. Success in that effort will be measured in the opportunities for our nation’s children, in a time when a solid education is the surest path to a middle-class life. Tight global economic competition means that jobs will go where the skills are. Raising student performance could not be more urgent.

NCLB Logo

“The nation’s most sweeping education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, better known as No Child Left Behind — is outmoded and broken,” writes Secretary Arne Duncan

No Child Left Behind has given the country transparency about the progress of at-risk students. But its inflexible accountability provisions have become an obstacle to progress and have focused schools too much on a single test score. NCLB is six years overdue for an update, and nearly all agree that it should be replaced with a law that gives systems and educators greater freedom while continuing to fulfill the law’s original promise.

The vision of American education that President Obama and I share starts in the classroom — with fully engaged students, creative and inspiring teachers, and the support and resources needed to get every child prepared for college and career. Students in our poorest communities should enjoy learning opportunities like those in our wealthiest communities. Zip code, race, disability and family income should not limit students’ opportunities or reduce expectations for them. The progress of U.S. students should remain transparent.

Washington’s role is to protect children at risk and promote opportunity for all. The federal government is not, and will never be, in the business of telling states or schools what or how to teach. But it cannot shirk its role of ensuring that schools and students meet the high bar that prepares them for the real world. History shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always meet the needs of the most vulnerable students.

Yet the backers of a bill passed by the House last month would use this moment to weaken that role and reverse reforms that carry enormous benefits for children. Others would retreat from ongoing efforts to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession. Neither would be a smart move.

Let’s not kid ourselves that things are fine. The United States once led the world in the proportion of its young people who had completed college; today, we are 12th. Three-quarters of our young people are deemed unfit for military service, in part because of gaps in their education. This is no time to sit back.

States must play the central role in leading the education agenda — and their work in partnership with the Education Department provides a road map toward a better law. These states have established high standards, robust teacher and principal evaluations and support systems, smart use of data, and ambitious learning goals. They have made bold efforts to improve our lowest-performing schools. They are also adopting assessments that move beyond today’s fill-in-the-bubble tests.

Consider the new teacher and principal evaluation systems that Tennessee has pioneered. Not only has student proficiency improved in every area — but so has teachers’ support for these rigorous new systems, according to an independent survey. Massachusetts has used its greater flexibility to target federal funds to improve the lowest-performing schools, with significant success.

Such progress offers a vision of what the core principles of a new elementary and secondary education law should be. It must set states free to use their best ideas to support students and teachers. It also must align student learning and growth with career- and college-readiness.

Yet some in Congress would reduce the federal government to a passive check-writer, asking nothing in return for taxpayers’ funds. And they would lock in major cuts to education funding at a time when continued investment in education is the only way we can remain globally competitive. Far better ideas, which build on state and local reform efforts, can be found in the bill passed in June by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.

In the months ahead, I will ask Congress to listen to those doing the real work of education change. Principals, teachers, governors, state education chiefs, superintendents, parents and students themselves know what is and isn’t working. They can guide us to a better law.

Lawmakers in both chambers and parties should agree on a bill that raises the bar, protects children, supports and improves effective teaching and school leadership, and provides flexibility and supports good work at the state and local level. We should give them the resources and the flexibility and make sure we all are accountable for the job we are doing on behalf of our children.

We are fighting not just for a strong education system but also for our country. A good law is part of that fight.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

AAPI DREAM Riders Inspire

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of young people who are mounting an inspiring fight to overcome barriers and make this country stronger. They are called the DREAM Riders, and they are taking their vital message to the entire country.

Duncan meets with DREAM RidersThe DREAM Riders are a group of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) who have been granted deferred action through the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. What that means is that, for certain young people who came to the United States as children, the government has deferred action that would remove them from the country, and given them authorization for employment.

These young people, along with student supporters, are kicking off the DREAM Riders Tour. This tour will take them all over the country with stops in Washington, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and California, among others. The group plans to rally local AAPI youth and students around the need for Congress to pass commonsense immigration reform and lay the foundation for relationships and future collaboration with local organizations and leaders.

I was inspired by the stories of the DREAM Riders and their friends and family— stories often rooted in hardship and heartbreak as their parents strive to make ends meet — stories of success and struggle as they try to obtain the best education that our country has to offer.

The DREAM Riders and I discussed the significance of a meaningful pathway to earned citizenship for undocumented individuals and our collective efforts to ensure passage of commonsense immigration reform.  The Senate has passed this legislation in a strong bipartisan vote for legislation in the Senate, but the House of Representatives has not yet taken action.

AAPI communities and families have a huge stake in this debate. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, approximately 1.1 million individuals of Asian descent are undocumented. According to the Department of State, approximately 2 million individuals of Asian descent are currently waiting abroad to reunite with their families in America.

The future of our country and our economy brightens tremendously under the provisions of this legislation. Earlier this month, the White House released a report highlighting the numerous and varied economic benefits of fixing our broken immigration system, including helping to grow our economy by creating new business and jobs. And according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill will increase the nation’s GDP 3.3 percent by 2023 and 5.4 percent by 2033.  We should not underestimate the economic value of hard-working AAPI immigrant and refugee families: many AAPI immigrants start their journey in the United States as small business owners, investors, and entrepreneurs.

The efforts of these AAPI DREAM Riders will significantly impact younger generations in their communities. I wish these young advocates the best of luck on their upcoming tour and commend their efforts to ensure that the collective voices of their communities are heard.

Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education

Minnesota: Providing Students A Strong Start

Secretary Duncan and students

Secretary Duncan, right, joined Jody Bohrer’s Kindersprouts circle time during his Minnesota visit along with students Brody Mallunger, left, and Rubi Torres, at Pond Early Childhood Center, .July 16, 2013 in Minneapolis. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

This originally appeared in the July 20th edition of the Minnesota Star Tribune. 

The best ideas to put children on a path to school success rarely come from Washington, D.C.

President Obama has put forward a plan to make high-quality preschool affordable for all children — a vital step in putting young people on a path to a thriving middle class. As I saw firsthand in a pair of visits in the Minneapolis area on Tuesday, that effort builds on the work of states like Minnesota.

The day began at Pond Early Childhood Family Center in Bloomington, where I sat with students who sang a song, recited the alphabet and discussed some of their favorite words. The visit was an inspiring example of great educators helping kids get ready for kindergarten in a setting of joy and support.

Later Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, and other leaders from business, the military, government and the clergy, joined a town-hall discussion at Kennedy Senior High School. At that town hall, parents, teachers, education leaders and others from throughout the state made clear that they have seen the power of early learning — and that they know we must reach many more children.

That understanding did not emerge from Washington. Forward-looking states have led the way — including Minnesota, where Dayton this year signed a bill that invests nearly $200 million in early learning, helping tens of thousands more children attend high-quality child care, preschool and all-day kindergarten.

Minnesota has made a priority of preschool through an Office of Early Learning, a Children’s Cabinet and an Early Learning Council, which together ensure that the cradle-to-career continuum begins with a strong start. In addition, as a winner of a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant, Minnesota is creating systems and infrastructure that offer new ideas to other states.

Minnesota’s work represents real progress for families and children in the face of great need. The state’s new investments will reach about 8,000 children over two years, but that leaves many 3- and 4-year-olds — some 35,000 of them — without access to high-quality early learning opportunities. And that’s why we need to work hard, in Minnesota and across the country, to reach so many more students.

Why? Because of the pivotal role that quality preschool education can play in a child’s life. Studies confirm what every teacher knows: Young children who experience secure, stimulating environments with rich learning opportunities from an early age are better prepared to thrive in school. They reap benefits in high school graduation rates and employment, and are less likely to commit crimes.

Experts — including Art Rolnick, a former senior vice president at the Federal Reserve office here, who joined the town-hall discussion — have made a strong case that public investments in preschool return many times more in savings and benefits. As Rolnick — a tireless advocate for early learning — has said: “The best economic development strategy is investment in early childhood.” Acting on that knowledge will help to position young people to do well in an increasingly competitive and globalized workforce.

Yet today, millions of young children in this country lack that opportunity. Among 4-year-olds in the United States, fewer than three in 10 attend a high-quality preschool program. The availability of high-quality learning and development programs for infants and toddlers likewise presents challenges for families. And the gap is especially pronounced in low-income communities.

That’s why the president has put forward a plan to make high-quality, full-day preschool available to all 4-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line — a major help to families working to balance work and family responsibilities and the costs of child care. All federal costs of this proposed state-federal partnership would be covered by a new tobacco tax — meaning it won’t add a dime to the deficit. States would receive incentives to provide voluntary high-quality preschool with low class sizes, qualified teachers and stimulating learning experiences.

The plan also would launch a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership to expand high-quality early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers, along with voluntary home-visiting programs in which nurses, family educators and social workers connect low-income families to health, social and educational supports.

President Obama has spoken about America’s basic bargain: that people who work hard and shoulder their responsibilities should be able to climb into a thriving middle class. Restoring that bargain, he said, is the unfinished work of our generation.

Minnesota is doing that work in earnest. Your children are better for it.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.