U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his senior staff were in Ohio this week as part of the department’s back-to-school bus tour. They held several meetings in Cleveland and Toledo over the course of two days. After a visit to a Cleveland high school, Duncan spoke with StateImpact Ohio from his tour bus. (Read coverage of those meetings here and here.)
Earlier this week, we asked StateImpact readers and listeners to send in their questions for Duncan. Scroll down to see Duncan’s answers.
Q: Your tour is all about improving the economy through education. I think most people – when you ask them about improving the economy – would say jobs. Lots of jobs. How does education play into economic success in the U.S.?
A: What’s amazing to me is that even in these tough economic times we today have about 2 million high wage, high skilled jobs that are unfilled in this country…and the jobs of the future are virtually all going to require some form of higher education beyond high school. So the only way we keep these jobs in this country is if we’re producing the knowledge workers who can be successful. And if we don’t these jobs are going to migrate to Singapore or South Korea or China or India or wherever it might be. So we’re competing internationally to keep high-wage, high-skilled jobs in the country and the only way we’re going to do that is through quality education.
Q: You’re talking about higher education, but you mentioned (at a panel discussion in Cleveland) that that starts in kindergarten. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
A: We have children who come from middle class families and who have been read to every night and who have all the advantages and you have other children who literally enter kindergarten who have never been read to, who don’t the front of a book from the back of a book. So if we’re serious about closing achievement gaps, if we’re serious about leveling the playing field, to me that all starts with high quality early childhood education.
Q: We’ve been hearing a lot about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the waiver program and today we heard you say that part of the problem with NCLB was that it was a top-down initiative, but you ARE the top. So what can the Department of Education do from the top to reform education?
A: As we think about this waiver page, it’s a simple trade off: Where states are doing the right thing educationally, when they have high standards, when they’re raising the bar, when they’re being creative around teacher and principal support and evaluation…we just want to give them a lot more flexibility, give them room to innovate and frankly get out of the way. For me the tradeoff is raise a high bar, hold folks accountable for results but give them a lot more autonomy and be a lot less prescriptive, a lot less top-down. … We can’t, we shouldn’t, try to micromanage individual communities that are so different across the country. We’re never going to know best what’s right for those children, what’s right for those communities, but the local educators do. And if we can empower them then I think we start to unleash more of the creativity that we saw in Race to the Top.
Q: Time for some listener / reader questions. James Keys from Elyria wants to know, why don’t public schools copy schools a very successful private school in his area. Essentially he’s saying ‘Why don’t we just put a camera in those schools and copy what they do?’ Does copying a successful model work?
A: I think we should absolutely be learning from successful models whether they are traditional public schools or whether they are private schools. We should be building and replicating upon success and taking to scale best practices. So whether that’s at the school level, whether that’s around a math curriculum or an after school program or a parental engagement activity, whatever that might be, for all the challenges we face educationally, I do think those challenges are being solved somewhere in the country. … I don’t think in education we’ve rapidly enough scaled what works and learned those lessons, and we’re trying to put a lot of resources behind that at the community level, at the district level and at the state level.
Q: A self-identified “Ohio teacher” says many of the other top performing nations in terms of education have moved away from focusing on standardized tests, instead focusing on their professional educators. Why aren’t we doing that?
A: I’m much more interested in looking at growth and gain, at how much students are improving each year than I am in absolute test scores. I’m really interested in…what are the trends and not just looking at a single number. When I look at high performing countries that are out-educating us today, what they have done systemically is they have elevated the teaching profession. They’ve strengthened the profession. They’ve made it doctors, lawyers and teachers. I think we’ve beaten down teachers; we’ve beaten down educators and we have to reverse that. … Any time we are scaring great educators out of the profession, what’s the upside there? I fail to understand that.
Q: Some people are concerned about moving public funds to virtual schools instead of investing in public education. What are your thoughts on virtual education?
A: I think technology is here to stay…I think our young people, this is how they’re growing up, this is how they’re learning. And we shouldn’t run from it. We shouldn’t hide from it. We should embrace it and I think we really need to think about how we do that and hold people accountable for results.
Q: Can I get your thoughts on teacher evaluations? That’s a big topic here in Ohio.
A: Where you have teacher evaluation systems that don’t recognize excellence, that don’t support those teachers in the middle, and that don’t move out those at the bottom, where it’s simply not working after mentoring and support and is not working for any of the adults, I think it’s definitely not helping the children either there. I think folks have to think differently; we have not done enough to honor the extraordinarily hard and complex work that teachers do. … Where systems are broken there are lots of examples to learn from in this country and across the globe but sticking with the status quo out of fear of change is not the answer. We can’t put our head in the sand here.