Testing, Early Learning, and the Pace of Reform: Talking with Teachers

Our work at the US Department of Education aims to make sure that students throughout this country have the education that they deserve – an education that will give every student a genuine opportunity to join a thriving middle class. A crucial part of that work is supporting, elevating and strengthening the teaching profession.

As often as I can, I spend time talking with teachers about their experience of their work, and of change efforts to improve student outcomes. (We have an important effort, called the RESPECT Project, dedicated to make sure that teacher voices consistently informed policy and program efforts here at the Department of Education.)  Lately, we have begun bringing a video camera to the conversation, and teachers have been generous in letting us capture these conversations so others can see them.

Recently, I visited Rogers Heights Elementary School in Bladensburg, Maryland, near Washington, DC. Rogers Heights’ students bring the diversity typical of so many urban communities; its student body is 97% minority, and 89% qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Half the students have limited proficiency in English.

I was really struck by how smart, committed and passionate the teachers were. We had an intense, honest, sometimes difficult conversation, and I left inspired. The kids at Rogers are in great hands.

I invited teachers to take on any topic they wanted to, and they took on some important and even difficult ones: the pace of reform, the need for arts education, the impact of early learning, and testing. These conversations with teachers help us get smarter about change in education in this country. I hope you’ll take a look; we’ve posted an 8 minute excerpt along with the full video of the hour-long conversation.


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

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education 

The Impact of Gun Violence: A Conversation with Students

All my life, I have been aware of the impact that violence – and especially gun violence – has on children, families and communities. Young men who I got to know in pickup basketball games in Chicago – just kids, as I was myself back then – were buried far, far before their time, killed in moments of senseless stupidity.

Early on a recent morning, I visited Hart Middle School in the Anacostia neighborhood of DC, literally on the way from home to my office. I simply asked the students to tell me their experiences, and they bravely and honestly did – even with a video camera in the room. They talked about the family members they have lost – every single one of them knows someone who has been shot. They talked about their fears that an unspeakable tragedy like Newtown could happen at their own school, and their doubts they would survive to live a full lifetime. And they talked about the senselessness of the violence—people getting shot over a pair of shoes.

These are kids who deserve the best. They’re trying to do all the right things, and they deserve more than we adults have done for them. It’s our job to create a climate where they can grow and learn free from fear, and as you will hear, we are far from succeeding at our task. We need to do better.

It’s impossible to witness the conversation without being moved. I hope you’ll watch, and think about what it means for our communities. We have posted an 4 minute excerpt along with the full video of the hour-long conversation. Please watch.


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

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

It’s Time to Fix Warped Incentives in Division I College Sports

Check out who would win the men's NCAA tournament  based on academic performance. Click to enlarge.

Check out who would win the men’s NCAA tournament based on academic performance. Click to enlarge.

This op-ed by Arne Duncan and Tom McMillen is cross-posted from USA Today.

March Madness is underway, but the 2011 champion, the University of Connecticut, is conspicuously absent. The Huskies men’s team isn’t competing this year because it failed to meet the minimal academic requirements set by the NCAA for postseason play.

The fate of UConn’s team sent shock waves through locker rooms, coaches offices and the suites of athletics directors and university presidents. For the first time, a powerhouse program lost its opportunity for postseason glory because of years of poor performance in the classroom. We think this is a good start toward restoring a healthier balance between academics and athletics in Division I college sports — and toward reaffirming that the mission of a university is to educate all of its students. But it is just a start.

The NCAA should be commended for raising the academic benchmarks that teams must meet for postseason play. New NCAA regulations essentially require teams to be on track to graduate half of their players to be eligible for postseason play, and graduation and academic progress rates are up significantly for tournament teams this year. Yet governing boards of universities and college presidents also need to do more to reinforce the educational mission of their institutions. Too often, presidents and trustees undermine that mission by providing lucrative incentives to coaches that downplay the importance of athletes getting a college education.

Tom (McMillen) recently examined around 50 contracts for head coaches of college football and basketball, many of them culled from the USA TODAY Sports coaches’ salary database. Most of what he found will surprise no one: Salaries and rewards for big-time college coaches are astronomically high. In 2011, 32 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision coaches and 11 NCAA Division I men’s basketball coaches earned more than $2 million annually. The highest paid basketball coach that year, Rick Pitino, was paid $7.5 million by the University of Louisville — a little more than $20,500 a day.

Coaches today earn whatever the market pays. But many coaches work at public universities, funded with taxpayer dollars. In 2011, in Oklahoma, Connecticut and Maryland, a head football or basketball coach was not only the highest-paid employee at the university but the highest-paid state employee.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin earned $147,000 in 2011, while the football coach at the University of Oklahoma, Bob Stoops, was paid $4.875 million, 33 times as much as Gov. Fallin. Moreover, nine Oklahoma football assistant coaches were paid more than the governor, including the tight ends/tackles coach, who pulled down a $240,000 salary.

Coaches receive huge financial bonuses when their team is winning. Yet the incentives for academic success in the contracts Tom examined show how warped priorities have become at some institutions.

If academic performance determined the winners of the NCAA women's tournament, Princeton would come out on top. Click to enlarge.

If academic performance determined the winners of the NCAA women’s tournament, Princeton would come out on top. Click to enlarge.

About two-thirds of the basketball contracts and three-fourths of the football contracts did include a bonus for academic performance. But these incentives were dwarfed by bonuses for performance on the field or court. Academic incentives averaged $52,000 per coach, while athletic incentives averaged $600,000 per coach — a lopsided ratio of 11-to-1.

When many states are reducing funding for higher education, it is hard to justify such skewed priorities and runaway athletic spending. Even at Division I institutions, few athletic programs are self-supporting — which means that institutional funds must typically be diverted to pay for athletic programs.

A recent study by the Delta Cost Project compared spending per athlete and student at Division I institutions. In the six “power conferences” that form the Bowl Championship Series, median athletic spending per athlete topped $100,000 in 2010, compared to about $15,600 spending per student.

Escalating coaches’ salaries are the single largest contributing factor to the unsustainable growth of athletic expenditures. And we believe that universities and colleges must start rethinking coaches’ compensation, at least in the Division I revenue sports.

If universities and colleges want to readjust a coach’s priorities, they need to change the penalties and incentives they offer coaches.

In almost every one of the contracts Tom reviewed, a coach can receive bonuses for winning games, even if his team fails academically. Poor academic performance means the team or the individual player — not the coach — gets punished.

But no coach should receive financial bonuses when much of his team is flunking out or failing to get a degree.

Many boards are too cozy with athletic departments, allowing athletics directors to negotiate contracts for coaches with little oversight. A recent survey by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges found that only about 15% of board members think the salary of their football or basketball coach is excessive. Board members sometimes forget their job is to protect the institution — not the coaches, not the boosters and not the fans.

We are not suggesting any regulatory scheme for capping or restricting coaches’ compensation. Nor can we specify the balance between athletic and academic spending that, to paraphrase the Goldilocks principle, is just right. What we can say is that this balance is plainly out-of-whack with the educational mission of many Division I universities.

Governing boards and college presidents can take steps to right that imbalance. They could adopt a model of “best practices” that includes greater parity in new contracts for coaches between academic and athletic bonuses and provides penalties for poor academic performance.

Today, coaches can enjoy multimillion-dollar contracts when they jump to another university, even when their former team suffers sanctions for misconduct that happened under the coach’s watch.

We would like to see “clawback” provisions in new contracts that would enable institutions to recoup some salary and bonuses from coaches and ADs for rogue programs, even after coaches leave an institution.

Creating a healthier balance between academics and athletics in our universities is not rocket science. All of these steps are doable.

But it will take courageous leadership and a willingness by college presidents and trustees to buck the status quo.

This we know for sure: The current path of big-time college sports is neither economically sustainable nor morally defensible.

Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education; McMillen is chairman and CEO of the Timios National Corp. Both played college and professional basketball. McMillen is a member of the University System of Maryland board of regents.

Audio of Press Call (03/21/2013) Audio icon

Sequester Harms Education and Our Economy

On March 4 Secretary Duncan joined superintendents from school districts that serve military and tribal communities, which will be hard hit by the federal funding cuts known as sequestration. (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

There has been a noisy debate in Washington over whether sequestration’s harm is real and at what point our public schools will feel the pain, but for educators outside of Washington, that’s a settled question. They’re not wasting time debating it, because some had already eliminated jobs and cut programs in anticipation of Congress’s dysfunction. Right now they are focused on figuring out how to deal with an even worse situation next school year.

This week I joined a handful of superintendents from around the country whose school districts are especially reliant on federal funding because of their locations in areas with little to no local property tax base. It is a particular shame that among the earliest and worst hurt are schools that serve large numbers of military families and those on tribal land serving Native American students.

Here’s some of what they said while visiting Washington for a conference of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

  • Window Rock Unified School District, in Fort Defiance, Ariz., serves 2,400 students in the capital of the Navajo Nation. Two-thirds are homeless or live in substandard housing. Anticipating the cuts that sequestration would make to Impact Aid and other federal programs that amount to 60 percent of her budget, Superintendent Deborah Jackson-Dennison eliminated 40 staff positions going into the current school year. Her plan for the upcoming year includes cutting 35 more teachers, 25 support staff and five administrative positions, and potentially closing three of her district’s seven schools. (Some children would face hour-long bus rides to school, on the reservation’s dirt roads.) Unemployment in Jackson-Dennison’s community exceeds 50 percent, so these layoffs due to sequestration and other budget pressures will drag down the local economy even more.
  • Ron Walker, superintendent of Geary County Schools 475

    Ron Walker, superintendent of Geary County Schools 475 in Junction City, Kan., brought letters to Congress from 1,500 members of the community around Fort Riley, appealing to them to undo the sequester and maintain critical funding for education. (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

    Ron Walker is superintendent in Geary County, Kan., which is home to Fort Riley and the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. Last year, pessimistic that Congress would act to prevent the sequester—he turned out to be right—Walker eliminated the jobs of more than 100 paraprofessionals, many of whom worked one on one with children with disabilities. Sequester compounds the pressure already on his budget, he said. “This is a slow-bleed process,” Walker said. “It’s like someone stuck needles in you and is draining your blood. You don’t die overnight. But you will die.”

  • In York County, Va., where Dennis Jarrett is chief financial officer, the district has reduced 124 positions over the last four years, he said. One of them was a guidance counselor—a tough position to keep unfilled when 42 percent of your students are connected to the military or some other branch of federal government. Parents’ deployment and frequent moves put unusual emotional strain on children. “What we’re concerned about…is the quality of life for our students,” Jarrett said.

These superintendents and their colleagues said something over and over that I know well from my days leading Chicago’s public schools: Any reduction in funding, and any uncertainty, causes managers to make more conservative decisions, which means fewer jobs.

In a recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators, more than three quarters of school district leaders indicated their district would have to eliminate jobs as a result of sequestration. Indeed, local school districts, along with states, will have to decide how to absorb these cuts.

The amount of money being cut from education programs and Head Start is the equivalent of about 40,000 teachers’ jobs. Instead of cutting jobs entirely, districts could furlough their teachers and staff for a period of time—which is disruptive for kids—or shorten the school day or year. No one here in Washington can precisely predict how they’ll cope—not Congress, not the President, not Republicans, not Democrats, not think-tanks, interest groups or the news media.

But one thing is certain: cutting $85 billion out of federal programs that support low-income students, students with disabilities, seniors, energy and medical research, the environment, national security and public safety won’t be good for our citizens, our communities or our country. And in education, where personnel costs are about 80 percent of local budgets, you can be certain that some teachers and staff won’t have jobs come September. You can’t make cuts like these without harming your people.

Am I saying there’s not money in our education system that could be put to better use? Absolutely not. I’m not in the camp that says “more, more, more” without considering what it buys you.

But rather than indiscriminately cutting the education budget, as the sequester does, let’s make smart investments. Let’s fund preschool for all children. Let’s redesign high schools to prepare students to succeed in college and our workforce. Let’s make college more affordable.

Taking an ax to America’s school budgets is bad policy. It endangers the progress our education system and economy have made in the last few years. Educators and parents get this. I urge Congress to undo this policy, which will only hurt children and our nation.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

America’s Middle Class Promise Starts Early

By Arne Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius. Reposted from the Huffington Post.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke forcefully 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.

But for millions of young children in this country, the first rung on that ladder is missing because they are cut off from the kind of early learning that would set them up for success in school — with consequences that could last the rest of their lives. Our Administration is committed to closing that costly, unfair opportunity gap through a new plan that will deliver high-quality preschool for every American child, and enhance early learning services for children from birth through age three.

Study after study confirms 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. Indeed, both of us have watched our own children expand their worlds and their minds in the years before they entered school, whether at home or in quality early learning settings. Unfortunately, many American children don’t receive these opportunities.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius read to children at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park, Md., on March 1. Duncan and Sebelius visited preschool and Head Start classrooms, talked with children and teachers and visited the Student Health Clinic.

Fewer than three in 10 American 4-year-olds attend a high-quality preschool program filled with well-organized learning experiences, guided exploration, art, and storytelling, and led by a skilled teacher. The availability of high-quality care and educational services for infants and toddlers is even lower. And the gap is especially pronounced in low-income communities.

Our failure to ensure access to strong preschool is morally indefensible and economically counterproductive. Strong early learning can translate into school success, which can lead to college and good jobs, and ultimately a robust economy. Research shows that every public dollar spent on high-quality early childhood education returns $7 through increased productivity and savings on public assistance and criminal justice programs.

That’s why President Obama has announced a comprehensive plan to help every child develop a strong foundation for future success. Recognizing that this is a time for fiscal caution, the President has been clear that, when combined with his plan for balanced deficit reduction, none of these proposals will add a dime to the deficit. But ultimately, this is an investment that we can’t afford not to make. Under his plan, we will work together to:

  • Make universal, high-quality preschool available to four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families through a partnership with states, while also expanding these preschool programs to reach additional children from middle class families and providing incentives for full-day kindergarten. This new partnership would provide incentives for states to cover all families who want to send their children to preschool and offer high-quality preschool, with low class sizes, qualified teachers, and stimulating learning experiences.
  • Launch a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership to significantly expand the availability of high-quality early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers.
  • Expand highly effective, voluntary home visiting programs where nurses, family educators and social workers connect low-income families to health, social, and educational supports.

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

These actions build on steps the Administration has already taken to boost early learning for our most vulnerable children, from improving accountability and quality of Head Start services to encouraging more systemic policies and investments that will improve the quality and effectiveness of early education through the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge, which rewards states that raise the bar on quality and provide links with health, nutrition, mental health, and family supports.

As we move forward with this economically vital effort, we can look to states that have shown the way. In Michigan and Massachusetts, for example, Governors Rick Snyder and Deval Patrick have made expanding access to preschool programs a priority. In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley has proposed new resources to rapidly expand early education. These leaders represent a bipartisan consensus that America can’t win the race for the future by holding back children at the starting line.

Unfortunately, the blunt, arbitrary cuts that Congress allowed to go into effect through sequestration will do exactly that. President Obama has put forward a balanced plan to replace those cuts and reduce the deficit, which includes spending cuts along entitlement and tax reform. If Congress fails to compromise, up to 70,000 students could be dropped from Head Start and up to 30,000 low-income children would be left without child care subsidies. These cuts jeopardize our children’s futures. America, which now ranks 28th globally in early childhood enrollment, risks falling even further behind the rest of the world in preparing our children for school.

Early childhood education is one of the best investments can make in America’s future. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, not cut back. Doing right by our youngest children is essential to America’s middle-class promise. We look forward to working together to make it happen.

— Arne Duncan is the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education
— Kathleen Sebelius is the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Announcing a New School Turnaround AmeriCorps Program

Arne, Wendy and Americorps members

Secretary Arne Duncan and Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Wendy Spencer with two Americorps members at Grad Nation.

Yesterday, as education leaders from across the country gathered at the Grad Nation Summit in Washington, D.C., we were pleased to announce a new collaboration between our agencies: School Turnaround AmeriCorps.

This competitive, three-year grant program is designed to strengthen and accelerate interventions in our nation’s lowest-performing schools. The new initiative will engage hundreds of AmeriCorps members in turnaround schools across the country. AmeriCorps members will help students, teachers, and principals to transform struggling schools by providing opportunities for academic enrichment, extended learning time, and individual supports for students. These interventions will lead to increased academic achievement and improved high school graduation rates and college readiness among our most disadvantaged students.

We know that students are most successful when they have personal, attentive support.  We believe this initiative is an important step forward in the effort to provide our lowest-performing schools with the additional resources that they need to improve.

Turning around struggling schools is challenging work that requires everyone to play a part – from teachers, administrators, and counselors to business leaders, the philanthropic sector, and community members. This partnership will expand the role of AmeriCorps members in helping students, teachers, parents, and school administrators to transform persistently underachieving schools into models of success.

Public or private nonprofit organizations, including faith-based and other community groups; schools or districts; institutions of higher education; cities and counties; Indian Tribes; and labor organizations are eligible to apply to this program, along with partnerships and consortia of these entities.

A notice of intent to apply must be submitted to the Corporation for National and Community Service by April 2, 2013 via e-mail at: americorpsgrants@cns.gov. Applications are due on April 23, 2013. Grants will be awarded by mid-July.

Please take a moment to read about the initiative. More information about the notice of intent and application instructions may be found here. Together, we can help all students thrive in school and in life.

Secretary Arne Duncan                                    CEO Wendy Spencer
Department of Education                                 Corporation for National and Community Service

Obama Administration Launches College Scorecard

“… My administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria — where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” - President Obama, 2013 State of the Union

Example of Scorecard

The interactive College Scorecard gives students and families five key pieces of data about a college: costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed, and employment.

Too often, students and their families don’t have the right tools to help them sort through the information they need to decide which college or university is right for them. The search can be overwhelming, and the information from different colleges can be hard to compare.

That’s why, today, our Administration released a “College Scorecard” that empowers families to make smart investments in higher education. As the President said last night, we want to help families get the most bang for their educational buck.

The College Scorecard – as part of President Obama’s continued efforts to hold colleges accountable for cost, value and quality – highlights key indicators about the cost and value of institutions across the country to help students choose a school that is well-suited to meet their needs, priced affordably, and is consistent with their educational and career goals.

The tool is interactive, so students can choose among any number of options based on their individual needs – including location, size, campus setting, and degree and major programs.

Each Scorecard includes five key pieces of data about a college: costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed, and employment. These data will be updated periodically, and the Department plans to publish information on average earnings in the coming year.

Get started by visiting whitehouse.gov/scorecard.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Read more about President Obama’s State of the Union address

We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities

Playing sports at any level—club, intramural, or interscholastic—can be a key part of the school experience and have an immense and lasting impact on a student’s life. Among its many benefits, participation in extracurricular athletic activities promotes socialization, the development of leadership skills, focus, and, of course, physical fitness. It’s no secret that sports helped to shape my life. From a very early age, playing basketball taught me valuable lessons about grit, discipline, and teamwork that are still with me to this day.

Duncan signs a basketball

Secretary Duncan signs a basketball before a stop during the 2012 back-to-school bus tour. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Students with disabilities are no different – like their peers without disabilities, these students benefit from participating in sports. But unfortunately, we know that students with disabilities are all too often denied the chance to participate and with it, the respect that comes with inclusion. This is simply wrong. While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team, students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.  Knowledgeable adults create the possibilities of participation among children and youth both with and without disabilities.

Today, ED’s Office for Civil Rights has released guidance that clarifies existing legal obligations of schools to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs. We make clear that schools may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified. This guidance builds on a resource document the Department issued in 2011 that provides important information on improving opportunities for children and youth with disabilities to access PE and athletics.

Federal civil rights laws require schools to provide equal opportunities, not give anyone an unfair head start. So schools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage. But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else. The guidance issued today will help schools meet this obligation and will allow increasing numbers of kids with disabilities the chance to benefit from playing sports.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Read the “Dear Colleague” letter from the Office for Civil Rights

Now is the Time to Reduce Gun Violence in Schools and Communities

Secretary Duncan speaks with Obama

President Obama listens to Secretary Duncan during a meeting to discuss efforts to address gun violence in Vice President Biden's office at the White House, Dec. 17, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

I have been proud to serve President Obama and this administration since day one, but today was one of my proudest days. The actions that the President is taking and proposing to reduce gun violence echo what America’s educators say they need to better protect and support students in school and in their communities. I thank the President and Vice President Biden for leading this critical national conversation. America’s schools are among the safest places in our country. The President’s comprehensive approach will make schools and communities safer.

We will never fully understand why 20 first-graders and six educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School—or why still more students and educators lost their lives at Columbine, Chardon or Red Lake high schools, Westside Middle School, Virginia Tech or the many other campuses and communities in our country where guns have cut short dreams and created fear. We can, however, take a number of common-sense steps to help prevent future tragedies.

As the President called for today, we can limit access to the deadliest guns and ammunition, and we can put in checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. We can also provide new resources, so schools can develop and implement comprehensive emergency management plans.

We can expand student support systems by allowing communities to decide what they need most, including more school resource officers, psychologists, social workers and counselors. A renewed commitment to students’ mental and emotional well-being is key.

Helping schools reduce bullying, drug abuse, other forms of violence and problem behaviors is also vital. And as we seek to prevent tragedies, we cannot be reluctant to do research and collect data so we can understand the causes of gun violence.

Our goals are simple: fewer children dying from gun violence and fewer children living in fear. Harder to realize are the policies, actions, and value changes necessary to reach those goals.

Today, looking into the eyes of parents who have lost children due to gun violence, I am more committed than ever, and the President is, too. Those parents’ unimaginable heartbreak and extraordinary strength must motivate us to act. Now is the time. Our children, families, educators, communities and our country deserve better. We can’t let them down.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Resources for Schools to Prepare for and Recover from Crisis

All of us who work in education have broken hearts and are haunted by the tragedy visited on the educators, students, and families of the Newtown Public School District and Sandy Hook Elementary School. Whenever a school experiences violence and the lives of children and adults are lost, we struggle to find words to express our emotions and explain how this could have happened.

Schools are among the safest places for children and adolescents in our country, and, in fact, crime in schools has been trending downward for more than a decade. Nationwide statistics, however, provide little solace when 20 first-graders and six adults are senselessly gunned down in a small town’s elementary school. Accounts from Sandy Hook indicate that the school’s heroic principal and her staff had safety measures in place and had practiced their emergency procedures. As a result, children’s lives were saved and an even greater tragedy was averted.

Not all tragedies can be prevented. But schools and districts need to be ready to handle crises, large and small, to keep our children and staff out of harm’s way and ready to learn and teach, and to recover from such tragedies should they occur. As we reflect on what happened last week in Connecticut, I want to share some resources from the U.S. Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center that may be helpful to you and your team, now and in the future.

As hard as it is to talk among adults about such a tragedy, it can be even more difficult to talk with students and our own children. Helping Youth and Children Recover from Traumatic Events is a compilation of resources from the Department of Education, other federal agencies, and counseling experts. It is so important to give children the chance to talk, write, or draw to express their emotions. Please create the time and space for them to do that.

For school districts and schools, the Department also has several resources on Creating and Updating School Emergency Management Plans. If you do have an emergency plan in place, please review it, update it as necessary, and practice that plan regularly. Knowing what to do when faced with a crisis can be the difference between calm and chaos.

The Department of Education’s first priority is to help the Newtown community cope in the aftermath of this horrific event. In the days and weeks ahead, we will work with state and local officials, as well as Congress, to do everything in our power to help Newtown begin the long process of recovery.

As President Obama said, our country has suffered through mass shootings and gun deaths of young people too many times, in too many places. As a nation, we must find the courage and the conviction to take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies – now.

As districts and school leaders take steps to prevent and prepare for possible emergencies in their community, they have my full support and deepest gratitude for taking on this difficult yet necessary work.

Click here to read “Resources for Parents following Traumatic Events.”

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education. This post is adapted from a message he sent to all U.S. school districts on Dec. 17.

How do U.S. Students Compare with their Peers around the World?

New international assessments of student performance in reading, math, and science provide both encouraging news about American students’ progress and some sobering cautionary notes.

The encouraging news is that U.S. fourth grade students have made significant progress in reading and mathematics in the last five years. In fact, our fourth graders now rank among the world’s leaders in reading literacy, and U.S. student achievement in math is now only surpassed, on average, in four countries.

EducationUnfortunately, these signs of real progress are counterbalanced by the fact that learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained through eighth grade–where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve between 2007 and 2011.

Still, the progress of fourth graders is especially noteworthy because we see it on rigorous, internationally-benchmarked assessments that students take without any special test preparation, the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).

And unlike previous PISA assessments–the other major international assessment, which U.S. 15-year olds take–nine U.S. states voluntarily participated in TIMSS in 2011. For the first time, policymakers and parents now have data to gauge how academic performance in a significant subset of states compares with the U.S. as a whole, and with international competitors.

In 2006, the last time the PIRLS reading assessments were administered, a slew of countries and regions equaled or surpassed U.S. fourth graders in reading. Students in Hungary, Italy, Sweden, and the Canadian province of Alberta had higher levels of literacy than U.S. students.

Yet five years later, U.S. students are out-performing students in all of those nations and provinces. Education systems where students were on a par with U.S. fourth graders in reading literacy in 2006–Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Quebec region of Canada–have all been surpassed in the last five years by U.S. students.

Just as encouraging, students in highly-diverse states like Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina excelled internationally in a number of subject areas, suggesting that demography is not destiny in America’s schools.

State and local policy turn out to matter a great deal–and can have a powerful influence in advancing or slowing educational progress. It is state and local leaders and educators who are providing the commitment, courage, collaboration, and capacity at the state and local level to accelerate achievement. It’s no surprise that Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina all won competitive Race to the Top grants from the federal government.

Finally, the new TIMSS and PIRLS results put to rest, once and for all, the myth that America’s schools cannot be among the world’s top-performing school systems. In fact, eighth graders in Massachusetts performed below only one country in the world in science, Singapore.

In Florida, the math skills of students are on a par with those of their Finnish peers, who have a record of being among the top-performing students in the world. And the reading skills of Florida’s fourth-graders are on a par with those of the top-performing education systems in the world, too, including Finland and Singapore.

For all of the good news, the new TIMSS and PIRLS assessments also underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in middle school and the pressing need to close large and persistent achievement gaps.

To take one example, in 2011, white eighth graders scored 83 points higher in science on TIMSS than black students and 60 points higher than Hispanic students.

To put those numbers in perspective, white eighth graders in the U.S. did about as well in science as Finland’s and Japan’s students, and were only surpassed by students in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Korea.

By contrast, Hispanic eight graders’ science scores were on a par with students from Norway and Kazakhstan. And black eighth graders’ science scores were roughly equivalent to those of students from Iran, Romania, and the United Arab Emirates.

If education is to fulfill its essential role in America as the great equalizer, big achievement gaps and opportunity gaps must close–and all students must receive a world-class education that genuinely prepares them for colleges and careers in the 21st century. In America, educational opportunity cannot depend on the color of your skin, your zip code, or the size of your bank account.

Given the vital role that science, technology, engineering, and math play in stimulating innovation and economic growth, it is particularly troubling that eighth-grade science achievement has barely budged in the U.S. since 2007. Students in Singapore and Korea are far more likely today to perform at advanced levels in science than U.S. students.

In a knowledge-based economy, education is the new key to individual success and national prosperity. The results of the TIMSS and PIRLS assessments show both that our students are on the path to progress–and that we still have a long journey to go before all of America’s children get an excellent education.

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

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

More than 500 Colleges Agree to Adopt Financial Aid Shopping Sheet

I am pleased to announce that more than 500 colleges and universities (.xls), enrolling more than 2.5 million undergraduate students (thirteen percent of all undergrads), have committed to adopting the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet during the 2013-2014 school year.

Shopping Sheet Example

An example of the information on the Shopping Sheet

The adoption of the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet is a big win for students already attending these institutions and those who are considering enrolling. The Shopping Sheet provides a standardized award letter allowing students to easily compare financial aid packages and make informed decisions on where to attend college. Students and their families now have a clear, concise way to see the cost of a particular school.

The Obama administration introduced the Shopping Sheet in July, and to coincide with the release, I sent a letter to college and university presidents asking them to adopt the Shopping Sheet as part of their financial aid awards starting in the 2013-14 school year.

I applaud the institutions that have agreed to adopt the Shopping Sheet, and hope more colleges and universities follow their example in offering students and families an easy-to-read award letter that delivers the bottom line on college costs.

Learn more about the Shopping Sheet here, and, if you’re an institution interested in adopting the Shopping Sheet for your students, or have questions about adopting it, please contact ShoppingSheet@ed.gov.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of Education.

* Update Nov. 29, 2012: The Department will provide updated figures periodically on its Financial Aid Shopping Sheet website.