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Push is on for a 'common' education standard for US schoolchildren

The state-by-state system leaves many students 'inadequately prepared,' Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday at a Monitor breakfast.

By Dave CookStaff writer / June 10, 2009

Education Secretary Arne Duncan attends a Monitor breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington on Wednesday.

Michael Bonfigli

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Washington

Education Secretary Arne Duncan threw his weight Wednesday behind a "common" education standard for all of America's schoolchildren, saying the current state-by-state system has produced uneven results in which some students "are totally, inadequately prepared to go into a competitive university, let alone graduate."

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Mr. Duncan, who has been on a cross-country "listening tour" in preparation for submitting revisions for the No Child Left Behind Act, says he's encountered support for the idea of a national standard. "Teachers have been really positive on this idea of common standards," he said at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters. "That has played much better with teachers than I thought it would.”

The secretary acknowledged, though, that what he calls "common higher standards, internationally benchmarked" would face hurdles and involve political pain. States and local governments are protective of their prerogative to set educational standards, and what Duncan is suggesting would be a huge break with tradition.

“Politicians don’t like to go out and say, 'We are really struggling,' or 'Our kids are behind,' or 'Our kids are at a competitive disadvantage,’ ” Duncan said.

A better alternative to the state-by-state approach, he says, is to "get away from each state doing its own thing. Let’s do one thing, and let's hold ourselves accountable.” But raising the bar, he acknowledged, means “test scores are going to drop in some places precipitously. And what we have to do is we have to give those politicians cover for doing the right thing. So there is a real tricky balance that we have to work on here.”

Mum on No Child Left Behind

The tall, fast-talking Duncan, who ran the Chicago public school system before being named to the Cabinet, was not ready to spell out the changes the Obama administration will propose in No Child Left Behind, a law spearheaded by the Bush administration that is currently up for reauthorization.

But he signaled his druthers on Wednesday. “I want to be much tighter on the goal … college-ready, career-ready, international benchmark standards, very high bar" compared with the Bush administration’s approach to No Child Left Behind. "But then let folks be more creative, more innovative in hitting that high bar – holding them accountable for results,” Duncan said.

As a result of No Child Left Behind, “children have been lied to, parents have been lied to,” he said.

In many states, he charged, standards have been “dumbed down so much” that those who pass the test “are barely able to graduate from high school and you are totally inadequately prepared to go into a competitive university, let alone graduate from there.”