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.

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

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."

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.”

An extra $100 billion may add leverage

Duncan, whose long friendship with Barack Obama is based in part on their shared love of basketball, has been given some financial weapons to help sell his views. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gives the Education Department almost $100 billion in stimulus money to distribute around the nation.

While on his listening tour, Duncan said, he also found “a lot of interest in financial literacy from parents, from teachers … given how tough the economy is.”

In the current economic climate, the soaring price of college is also much on voters' minds. Duncan said the Obama administration is “putting some incentives in place” on the issue. But the secretary argued, too, that market forces could help corral run-away tuition costs.

“Parents and students are really smart consumers," he said. "They have more options than ever before. And where college costs at a particular school are skyrocketing, I think those places are going to put themselves out of business. I think the marketplace is going to correct this.”

Praise for his predecessor

While Duncan's criticized some Bush administration educational policies, he praised his predecessor, Margaret Spellings.

“What I will always give Secretary Spellings and the previous administration credit for is for shining the spotlight on the horrendous differences in outcomes between white children and African-American and Latino children.”

Tracking outcomes is a key theme for the secretary, who argues for “comprehensive data systems” that let states track both teacher and student performance – and relationships between the two.

“I want to be able to track every child throughout their educational trajectory, so we know what they are doing. Secondly, I want to track children back to teachers, so we know the impact the teachers are having on those children. And third, I want to be able to track those students back to teacher, and teachers back to the schools of education, so we can understand which schools of education and which feeder programs are producing the teachers that are producing the students that had the most gain.”

California, he noted, has “this phenomenal student data system. They have a great teacher data system. And there is a firewall between them … this thing is a huge, huge barrier that is hurting kids. We so have got to literally tear down this firewall.”

On a trip to California, Duncan said, he raised the issue with teachers whose political clout was behind the firewall.

“I spoke there and said, your top 10 percent, your top 30,000 teachers, would be among he best in the world. The best any place in the world. Your bottom 10 percent, your bottom 30,000, should find another profession. And no one in this room can tell me who is in what category. That is a real problem.”

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