What I’ve Learned in 50 States

US Photo Collage“The best ideas come from outside Washington, D.C.” I’ve used that phrase in a lot of speeches and conversations during the past five years, and I repeat it because it’s true. Earlier this month in Hawaii, I visited two schools and talked with military families at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam about college and career ready standards. The stop in Hawaii marked my 50th state that I’ve visited since being Secretary, and the visit once again reinforced the importance of listening to what matters most at the local level.

During the past five years, whether my visit was to a conference, a community center, a business, an early childhood center, a university, or one of the more than 340 schools I’ve stopped by, I’ve come away with new insight and knowledge into the challenges local communities face, and the creative ways people are addressing them. I know that in order to do this job well, it’s vital to never stop listening, especially to those in the classroom each day.

Across the country I’ve witnessed courage in action. States and districts are raising standards and expectations for students, and teachers are thinking deeply about their practice and their profession. And thanks to the hard work of parents, community members, educators, and students themselves, the high school graduation rate is now the highest on record.

Many of the states I’ve visited have brought unexpected surprises. At YES College Prep in Houston, the spirit of the student body moved me as it gathered for its annual College Signing Day. In Columbus, N.M., I saw the conviction and dedication of educators as they grapple with providing a quality education to more than 400 students who cross the U.S.-Mexico border each morning. And in Joplin, Mo., I witnessed a community working together to ensure students continued their education after a tornado destroyed the high school and killed many of their family members.

As I travelled the country, I saw places that inspired me, and others that left me angry, or heartbroken. I’ve visited schools where education funding is too low, and the buildings are in need of desperate repair. I’ve been to neighborhoods where poverty and crime present unique challenges to educators and administrators. I’ve listened to students talk openly about not feeling challenged or inspired. And when I met with grieving parents from Newtown, Conn., I once again saw how devastating gun violence can be for our children and communities.

We must continue to invest at every level of our educational system, from preschool to higher ed. We must fight for our children’s right to grow up safe, free of fear, in schools and communities that cherish and nurture them.

After 50 states, and visits in urban centers, remote rural schools and tribal communities, I am more optimistic than ever. I’m optimistic because of the educators I’ve met, because of the parents and community leaders that rally for great education, and because students everywhere demonstrate their deep conviction that working hard and getting a great education will transform their life chances. They come to school every day because they feel safe, they feel engaged, and they feel loved and valued by their teachers.

America’s public schools embody our American values of creativity, industry and ingenuity, and from Hawaii to Maine, I am fortunate to have learned this firsthand.

Check out the interactive map below, which includes visits to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Click here to see a larger version.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Listening and Learning at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession

ISTP 2014

Delegations from high-performing education systems across the globe gathered for the 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New Zealand.

At the end of March, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and I joined delegations from high-performing and rapidly improving education systems across the globe for the 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Whether large or small, highly decentralized or not, countries share a common desire to create a high-quality education system that prepares all children for success in their personal and professional lives. The summits provide a unique opportunity for education ministers and teacher leaders to come together to learn from each other, share best practices, and look for ways to replicate or adapt back home what other countries are doing well.

New Zealand welcomed us with a powhiri, the traditional Maori ceremony, which is something most of the international guests and I had never seen. It was a beautiful and moving welcome and I was honored, as the host of the first summit in 2011, to accept the New Zealand challenge for a successful 4th summit on behalf of the international community. Many thanks to New Zealand Minister of Education Hekia Parata and her team for being gracious hosts during the summit.

This year’s summit focused on Excellence, Equity and Inclusiveness. There was complete agreement that where you live or what your parents do for a living should not determine your access to a quality education. We need to invest in education to close opportunity gaps that exist for too many children and create learning environments that allow all children to thrive. Using PISA 2012 data, OECD showed that there’s a false choice between equity and excellence: education systems as diverse as Korea and Canada can, and do, achieve both.

Maori Welcome

The International delegations began the summit in New Zealand with an official Maori welcome ceremony.

The countries represented at the summit stressed strong support for early interventions to help children start school healthy and ready to learn—one minister even suggested early learning as the focus of the next summit. Many of the countries around the table, including our New Zealand hosts, have a stronger commitment to early childhood education than we do in the U.S. Young children in New Zealand can receive 20 hours of free early learning opportunities each week. Data show that 95 percent of New Zealand children have had some early childhood education when they start school. The U.S. rate of 65 percent pales in comparison.  

During the summit, we also talked a lot about teacher leadership and collaboration. For example, Canada involves teachers in making and implementing policy. Representatives from Singapore talked about the importance of consultation and feedback, as well as the country’s three career tracks, which provide different options for teachers’ career progression. New Zealand discussed its proposed program to create new roles and pathways, while Hong Kong mentioned a new school leadership program. These interventions and many others confirmed to me that our new Teach to Lead (T2L) initiative and our ongoing labor-management collaboration mirror what high-performing systems are doing.

I came away from the summit discussions with a renewed energy and commitment to early learning teacher leadership and collaboration, and to continuing the challenging work of education improvement. The U.S. delegation committed publicly to:

  • Continue to work to increase access to high-quality early learning opportunities,
  • Increase opportunities for teacher leadership,
  • And, support labor-management collaboration to increase learning for all students.

Dennis, Randi, Chris and I are already moving ahead on our commitments and will report back on our progress to the international community next year at the 5th summit in Alberta, Canada.  Little did we know three years ago, when we hosted the first international summit, that it would become an international community of practice dedicated to enhancing the teaching profession to improve learning for all students. Now, let’s get to work.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Equal Pay Day 2014

Women make up half of the U.S. workforce and yet often, they are paid less than men for doing the same job. Today, April 8, marks an important day for highlighting these unfair disparities:  National Equal Pay Day.

Our nation has made great progress in expanding economic and educational opportunities for women, but business, industry, labor, and government at all levels still have so much work to do to ensure that every American, regardless of their gender, is treated fairly and gets equal pay for equal work.

From the first day he took office, President Obama has been a staunch advocate for fair treatment in the workplace and equal pay. The first piece of legislation the President signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for women to challenge their employers in court if they weren’t paid the same salary as men doing the same job. Shortly afterwards, the President created the National Equal Pay Task Force to crackdown on violations of equal pay laws. He called on various agencies to help support this work, from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the Department of Justice.

The Department of Education has joined this effort with our federal partners to ensure that the programs and grants we are responsible for can better support women, and narrow or eliminate gender opportunity gaps in education. At ED, we are improving support for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We are creating pathways to good jobs and careers through high-quality career and technical education (CTE). We are making higher education more affordable, and expanding pathways to postsecondary education for adult learners, workers looking to retrain for new careers, and young people seeking careers that require technical education.

In adult education, recent data has shown that there are gender disparities in skill levels for literacy, numeracy, and problem solving. The new data and evidence of disparities prompted the Department to hold a series of roundtables and engage various equity organizations who work directly with young girls and women. We explored promising models of how to better align local, state, and federal resources when addressing skill issues. And in coming months, ED will be releasing a National Action Plan to help guide our work with respect to low-skilled adults, especially as it relates to gaps in gender equity.

One of the most important—and often overlooked—tools for narrowing gender pay gaps in the United States is Title IX, signed into law in 1972. Title IX bars educational institutions from discriminating against a person on the basis of their sex in any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Title IX proved to be one of the great unsung success stories in education. It is best known as the law that required equal access to athletics for male and female students in secondary schools and colleges. But ultimately, Title IX dramatically increased employment for women by increasing access not just to athletics but to college itself and subsequent job opportunities.

Just as the benefit of athletics stretched far beyond the playing field for men, Title IX proved that the same benefits held true in the case of women and girls. Women athletes are more likely to graduate from college than female students who don’t play sports. They are less likely to use drugs, get pregnant as teenagers, or become obese.

In fact, one rigorous study by Betsey Stevenson—now a member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers—found that up to 40 percent of the overall rise in employment among women in the 25 to 34-year old age group since 1972 was attributable to Title IX. Girls and women who benefitted from Title IX had wages that were eight percent higher than their peers–and also were more likely to work in high-skill, previously male-dominated occupations.

As the President has said, equal pay is not just a women’s issue but a family issue. When the number of women in the workforce expands rapidly, their role as breadwinners expands rapidly too. And when women aren’t paid and treated fairly, their families suffer.

That’s one reason President Obama’s groundbreaking 2013 Preschool for All proposal is so important. It would enable states to provide an additional one million four-year-olds with high-quality preschool.

The benefits of high-quality early learning for young children are clear—and their mothers and families benefit as well. Child care expenses for families with working mothers range from 20 percent to nearly 50 percent of a working mom’s salary. Sadly, that steep price tag leads too many mothers to put off pursuing their own educational and career goals.

Our task is to make sure we are always working to narrow and eliminate unfair opportunity gaps. On June 23, President Obama is convening the first-ever White House Working Families Summit.

In the months beforehand, the Administration will build on the momentum of Equal Pay Day, and engage business leaders, advocates, policymakers, and educators to explore how we can better address issues affecting all working families—especially those pertaining to equity for women.

On equal pay, it’s time not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk. As a nation, we’re on that journey now. But we still have a long way to go to meet the gender-blind American ideal of equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Today: The First-Ever White House Student Film Festival

filmfestival_image

The very best person to talk to about how modern technology is changing our classrooms isn’t me, or even the President.

It’s a student who is actually learning from those tools every day — accessing school assignments online, watching online video lessons to learn a new concept, or even talking directly with other students around the world with new technology.

That’s why, a few months ago, the White House challenged students all across the country to create short films answering a simple question:

Why is technology so important in the classroom — and how will it change the educational experience for kids in the future?

The response was overwhelming. And today, the 16 official selections are going to be screened at the first-ever White House Student Film Festival.

You’re going to want to tune in for this one. Watch the official selections, then tune in today at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Today’s going to be a fun day, but this event speaks to something much bigger.

That’s because these students’ films all illustrate the critical conversation about education in our country right now: the importance of connecting our classrooms.

The fact is that right now, only around 30% of our students have the high-speed Internet access they need for digital learning. That means millions of kids across the country aren’t currently benefiting from the kinds of technologies that made the student films you’ll watch today possible.

The President’s ConnectED initiative is making sure that changes — by connecting 99 percent of students to next-generation, high-speed broadband within five years.

Want to see exactly why that’s so important? Just take a look at some of the incredible things kids can produce when they’re connected.

See the official film festival selections, then make sure you’re watching the event at 2:30 p.m. ET today.

Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

The Case for College Signing Days

On May 2, students in San Antonio, Texas will take part in an event that costs practically nothing, benefits the future of many, and brings joy to all. Schools everywhere would do well to take note, and consider doing likewise.

On that day, San Antonio will host its annual College Signing Day. More than 4,000 students will pack the University of Texas San Antonio Convocation Center, where they’ll sit according to their postsecondary school of choice, enjoying a bright spotlight on their college plans.

Younger students in San Antonio will no doubt take notice – because they’ll be participating in a week-long series of activities promoting college and career readiness at their middle and elementary schools.

It’s a simple and inexpensive way to celebrate our students, their accomplishments, and their futures.

As the President has made clear, the future of individual young people and of the economy as a whole depends on increasing the numbers of students who attend, and complete, college and other post-secondary training. A joyful event that helps to build a college-going culture can be part of that.

That’s why every district in America should consider having a College Signing Day to honor students who continue their education beyond high school. It’s something I wish I’d done during my time as CEO of Chicago Public Schools – and something that’s touched me emotionally when I’ve witnessed it.

Rural Berea, Kentucky is among the places showing the way. There, 150 students will celebrate their enrollment in two- and four-year colleges and universities this spring. On April 26, seniors will be joined by representatives from the colleges they will attend across Kentucky.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to be a part of YES College Prep’s College Signing Day in Houston. In the crowd of over 5,000 people, I was moved by the spirit that filled the room – a spirit that celebrated hard-fought accomplishments, and anticipated fulfilling futures. In that crowd, I saw hope for both individual students, and for our nation.


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

The effects of College Signing Day last longer than a two-hour assembly. The event can shift the focus of an entire student body from high school graduation to postsecondary commencement. It shows younger students that they can aspire to more than athletic greatness: they can be great academically, too. It shows them that academic excellence is just as worthy of cheers, shouts, and photo ops as athletic prowess.

President Obama offered a similar message in his recent State of the Union address when he celebrated first-generation college student Estiven Rodriguez, a high school senior bound for Dickinson College in the fall. Estiven – who accompanied the First Lady to President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address – spoke no English when he arrived in America at age 9.

But Estiven didn’t rest on his accomplishments – instead, he chose to pay it forward, helping his peers at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning Schools (WHEELS) with their postsecondary aspirations.

In December, he did something that touched his school, his community, and ultimately, his country. As the President said, “he led a march of his classmates – through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors – from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications.” The teens, wearing WHEELS sweatshirts and holding a banner, served as an example that few could forget.

All students overcome challenges – whether they’re language barriers or tough homework assignments – to graduate high school and gain admission to college. Hosting a College Signing Day is an easy way for schools to embrace these challenges, and the students who overcame them.

In today’s knowledge-based, global economy, a postsecondary degree or certificate is more important than ever. The first step for students, and for our nation, is college acceptance.

This year, let’s celebrate that first step – and all the steps to come.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Why I Wear 80

Graduation CapsWhen I take the court tonight for the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, I’ll be wearing a number that signifies some great news – thanks to the hard work of our nation’s students, parents, and educators.

The number I’ll wear – 80 – is rarely seen on a basketball jersey – but represents a record in education.

That number – 80 percent — is the newly announced high school graduation rate, the highest in American history. Never before have 4 out of 5 American students completed high school. We have further to go, but this is a moment to celebrate the hard work of our educators.

Often in sports, but rarely in education, do you hear about the heroes whose skill, hard work, creativity and tenacity resulted in an achievement the whole country should know about. We should all take heart from the passionate, caring work being done in classrooms, schools, and communities across the country.

Who’s to credit for this progress? Here, as elsewhere, you can be sure that the best ideas come from outside Washington, D.C. The best ideas come from teachers, principals, superintendents, and other educators who are determined to see their students succeed.

These ideas come from communities like Seattle, Wash., where Grover Cleveland High School was struggling just a few years ago. But Cleveland’s educators and students wouldn’t let the school fail.

photolockerWith federal grant funds and other reform dollars, Cleveland transformed from a traditional neighborhood high school to one that emphasized project-based learning, connected students with mentors in the surrounding community, and offered internships in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. School leaders and staff met every week and included parents, employers and other partners in designing a new approach to learning.

Cleveland seized the opportunity to innovate, and it worked. The school’s four-year-graduation rate rose from 60.5% in 2011 to 75% in 2013.  And in 2013, Cleveland was named a Washington State School of Distinction.

Elsewhere, in Tennessee and the District of Columbia, state and local leaders looked honestly at student underperformance – and did something about it. They raised standards, strengthened classroom instruction, and revamped systems for teacher support and evaluation.

At Cleveland – and at schools in states from Ohio to Texas – change was, and is, hard. It takes tenacity, compassion, and courage from both students and educators.

The 80 percent number – the graduation rate for the class of 2011* — represents not only the collective progress we’ve made as a nation, but individually as communities, schools, students, and families.

But I see 80 percent as a starting point. We have so much further to go – for the one in five students who don’t graduate; for the many who graduate less than fully prepared for college; and for the groups of students that, despite recent progress, are achieving and graduating at lower rates. The potential of American students is limitless – it’s on our schools, families and communities to help them achieve at higher levels.

All students should have the opportunity to achieve in high school and thrive in whatever career or college they pursue. We owe 100 percent of our students that chance.

Today, I’ll celebrate where we are, and recognize where we need to go.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

*2010-2011 Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate

Celebrating CTE Month

Aviation_High

Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (left), and Secretary Arne Duncan visit with Aviation High School students during a visit to the CTE-focused school in 2013. February is CTE Month.

In his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama called on the nation to make 2014 a year of action. He laid out a clear vision for promoting equality of opportunity and challenged everyone to go all-in on the innovations that will help this country maintain its edge in the global economy. “Here in America,” said the president, “our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That’s what drew our forebears here.  … Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.” The president also put heavy emphasis on career and technical education and training that prepares young people for work. “We’re working to redesign high schools,” he said, “and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career.”

February is Career and Technical Education (CTE) month—a great opportunity to acknowledge the important contribution CTE is making to individual citizens, our economy, and our nation. Every year, during this month, we recognize the efforts and accomplishments of the many students who are pursuing their ambitions through CTE pathways. We also thank all those working tirelessly so that more students can find their life’s passion and reach their full potential. Each day, thousands of teachers, school and district administrators, state education officials, career and technical student organization leaders, business and labor leaders, parents, and others are helping to equip students with the academic knowledge—as well as the technical and employability skills—they need to find productive careers and lead fulfilling lives.

Today’s CTE students and educators face a more difficult challenge than those of earlier generations, when a high school diploma and the skills it represented were enough to secure a place in the middle class. Those low-skilled, well-paid jobs are gone, and they won’t return. By working together, those at the local, state, and national levels are making significant progress in improving the rigor and relevance of CTE programs all across America.

In the 21st century, we need to prepare all students to succeed in a competitive global economy, a knowledge-based society, and a hyper-connected digital world. All students must be lifelong learners, able to re-skill frequently over the course of their careers, in order to meet the changing demands of the workplace and the marketplace. They’ll need the flexibility and ingenuity to thrive in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet! Teaching and learning must change, in part, because the very nature of work has changed. President Obama’s North Star goal in education is for every student to graduate from high school and obtain some form of postsecondary training or degree.

High-quality CTE is absolutely critical to meeting this challenge. Inspiring CTE teachers and effective curricula are essential to ensuring that students can master the new realities and seize the amazing new opportunities that await them.

The president and I believe that high-quality CTE programs are a vital strategy for helping our diverse students complete their secondary and postsecondary studies. In fact, by implementing dual enrollment and early college models, a growing number of CTE pathways are helping students to fast-track their college degrees.

CTE programs provide instruction that is hands-on and engaging, as well as rigorous and relevant. Many of them are helping to connect students with the high-demand science, technology, engineering and math fields – where so many good jobs are waiting.

In visiting CTE programs across the country, I’ve seen many excellent examples of partnerships that are providing great skills and bright futures for students. Our challenge is to replicate these successful programs so they become the norm—especially in communities that serve our most disadvantaged students. This administration’s goal is to prepare students to excel in college, in long-term occupational skills training, in registered apprenticeships, and in employment.

The president’s 2014 budget proposal includes both continuing and new funding to support this agenda. In addition to refunding the Perkins Act at roughly $1 billion, the Department of Labor will complete providing approximately $2 billion in Trade Adjustment Act funds over four years for CTE partnerships led by the nation’s community colleges. And, in November, the president announced a new $100 million initiative between the departments of Labor and Education to fund Youth CareerConnect grants.

Youth CareerConnect will encourage school districts, higher education institutions, the workforce investment system, and other partners to scale up evidence-based models that transform the U.S. high school experience. Best of all, with this grant program, we can plan on making awards early this year.

In celebrating CTE month, we celebrate all the partners—students, parents, business, union and community leaders, educators all through the pipeline, and many more—who are helping to transform CTE and achieve our shared vision of educational excellence and opportunity for all students. At the Department of Education, we’re proud to be your partner.

Together, we can make the year ahead a time of bold, smart, far-reaching action.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Behind Progress, Common Sense and Courage

This op-ed appeared in the January 23, 2014 edition of the Washington Post.

In education, it sometimes takes courage to do what ought to be common sense.

That’s a key lesson from several recent national and international assessments of U.S. education. These include the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card; a new version of the NAEP focused on large, urban districts; and the international rankings in the tri-annual PISA test.

Collectively, these assessments demonstrate extraordinary progress in the places where leaders have worked hardest and most consistently to bring change — but also a national failure to make nearly enough progress to keep up with our competitors.

Duncan at PISA

Secretary Duncan received feedback from students during last month’s PISA release.

Nationwide, students made modest progress in reading and math in 2013, with achievement edging up to record highs for fourth- and eighth-graders, the NAEP found.

Nearly every state has adopted higher academic standards, and most states have instituted new systems of teacher support and evaluation. It’s a testament to hardworking educators that they are implementing these changes and raising student performance at the same time.

But as the international PISA results demonstrate, our progress isn’t enough. Other countries are leapfrogging us at a time when education is vital to economic health in a global competition for jobs and innovation. Among the 65 countries and education systems that participate in PISA, the United States was surpassed by 27 in math and 14 in reading . That’s unacceptable.

We can learn, however, from some of the standouts. In contrast to a national picture of gradual progress, Tennessee and the District of Columbia reported striking jumps — in both math and reading achievement and in both grades examined, fourth and eighth.

We don’t know all the reasons why students did better in Tennessee and the District in 2013 than in 2011. But it is clear that they shared a similar approach to bettering education — taking common-sense, but politically hard, steps to help students. Both are places where vulnerable students predominate; 73 percent of District students and 55 percent of Tennessee students are sufficiently needy to qualify for reduced-price meals.

There are important lessons here. What these two places also had in common was a succession of leaders who told educators, parents and the public the truth about educational underperformance and who worked closely with educators to bring about real changes. They pushed hard to raise expectations for students, even though a lower bar would have made everyone look better. And they remained committed to doing the right thing for children, even when it meant crossing partisan lines or challenging ideological orthodoxy.

To meet those higher standards, these leaders invested in strengthening the quality of classroom instruction and revamping systems for teacher support and evaluation. They ensured that teachers could use good data from multiple sources to identify learning gaps and improve instruction. They also sought ongoing feedback from educators and others.

These concepts — developing and supporting the people who do the most important work, using data to inform improvement — are what strong organizations do.

Yet these common-sense steps took uncommon courage. Tennessee had previously set one of the lowest bars in the country for proficiency in reading and math. The resulting proficiency rates — 91 percent in math and 92 percent in reading — were a lie. By raising standards, Tennessee’s leaders forced the public, parents and politicians to confront brutal facts.

When Tennessee raised its standards in 2010, the proportion of students rated proficient dropped to 34 percent in math and 45 percent in reading. But in a bipartisan act of courage, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stayed true to the reforms begun under Democrat Phil Bredesen. They refused to dumb down standards to try to make Tennessee students look better.

Were students actually doing worse? No. For the first time, the state was telling the truth.

Just as important, leaders in the District and Tennessee worked with educators to transform industrial-era systems of support and evaluation for teachers and principals that had little or no link to teachers’ impact on student learning. That meant continuing the work of political predecessors, as Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson did in the District.

Building better systems that take account of educators’ impact on learning is complex and controversial work. Yet in Tennessee and the District, leaders solicited input from their critics, stayed committed but flexible and delivered systems that help both successful and struggling teachers.

I’m cautious about drawing big conclusions from a two-year trend, and it’s important to track a variety of educational outcomes, such as high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Even so, the experiences of Tennessee and the District suggest that children win when leaders work closely with educators to do several vital things right, at the same time, and don’t give up when the going gets tough.

As Henderson said: “When you concentrate on teacher quality, you get results. When you radically increase the level of academic rigor, you get results.”

To be clear, no one in Tennessee or the District is declaring victory. Students in both places have a lot further to go to close achievement gaps and even to reach the level of top-performing states. But their progress shouldn’t be treated as mysterious or miraculous.

The changes America’s children need to get a better education require political courage and hard work. But in many cases the steps are surprisingly straightforward — and can be taken anywhere.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Education Datapalooza

Duncan at Education DatapaloozaYesterday I participated in an Education Datapalooza hosted by the White House and U.S. Department of Education.  More than 600 people packed into an auditorium to discuss innovation in higher education—and what I heard and saw makes me excited for the future! The gathering was a response to President Obama’s call this past August to improve value and affordability in postsecondary education, in which he outlined an ambitious plan that included a major focus on innovation.  As part of his call to action, the President and the First Lady are speaking today about the importance of ensuring that every child, rich or poor, has the opportunity to access a quality college education.

At the Education Datapalooza, we gathered to celebrate innovative products, apps, websites, and other tools to help students get to and through postsecondary education. Many of the tools help students and families navigate the college choice and selection process. Others focus on improving teaching and learning, especially in ways that leverage technology to improve online and classroom-based instruction.

Events like this one are exciting because they bring together so many different people from different backgrounds and experiences. The event featured entrepreneurs and software developers, along with researchers in the fields of college access and learning. It also featured students, who taught college guidance counselors how to use the latest mobile apps so that they could refer other students to them, along with policymakers and representatives of non-profits that represent student voices. Video of the day will be posted soon here: www.ed.gov/datapalooza.

Duncan at DatapaloozaPart of Datapalooza was an innovation showcase, at which more than fifty organizations participated by giving live product demonstrations of their tools to empower students and families to make informed decisions about college—and improve teaching and learning. Among the participants were several teams that began developing their tools only a few weeks prior, as part of the Data Jams hosted by the White House and Department of Education to catalyze innovation. I got a chance to walk through the innovation showcase and meet with the entrepreneurs and student advocates who are developing new tools. The energy and excitement in the room was tremendous.

Many of the tools and apps developed, use open data provided by the Department of Education and other federal sources. In the past, even data that was free to the public was often difficult to find and use. Knowing that it is critical to innovation, President Obama signed an Executive Order last May directing agencies to make government-held data more accessible to the public and to entrepreneurs. Building on the Executive Order, the Department of Education announced a new public data inventory that went live in December.

And yesterday, we announced our intention to issue a Request for Information (RFI) to gather ideas and feedback on potential development of Application Program Interfaces (APIs) with key education data, programs, and frequently used forms—including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). APIs offer the potential for developers to interact with these federal resources in new ways, including developing apps or services that benefit students and consumers.

While Datapalooza was the culmination of months of hard work by entrepreneurs and college experts, it is also just the beginning of a wider conversation. In the weeks and months ahead, the Administration will continue outreach to the community seeking to catalyze innovation. We value your input, so please send your ideas to Datapalooza@ed.gov.  We hope to engage those who participated in Datapalooza and others who are committed to promoting opportunity for American students.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

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