Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009 | 2:07 a.m.
Since being confirmed by the Senate this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been rolling out an aggressive plan to overhaul the nation’s lagging public school systems. It is time, in his words, for “fundamental reform.”
Congress, at President Barack Obama’s urging, is putting billions of stimulus dollars into education. It is a stunning amount of money, and this is a time like none other for American schools.
The nation has a high-school dropout rate of 30 percent, Duncan said, and those who graduate are behind students in other nations. With American students competing for jobs in a world economy, it is important they have the best education possible.
“As the president has said many times, we have to educate our way to a better economy,” Duncan said Wednesday in a meeting with the Las Vegas Sun’s editorial board.
As the former chief executive of the public school system in Chicago, Duncan understands the variety of issues facing education, including public safety concerns and money woes. He understands the need for change and wants to upend the status quo. Duncan has put together a broad array of plans that, if implemented, could significantly improve schools. To wit:
• A well-rounded education. The emphasis under the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration’s hallmark education policy, was standardized testing that covered a few subjects. Principals and teachers across the country, consequently, “teach to the test.” The result often has been a limited curriculum. Duncan wants to see children receive a well-rounded education including physical education, art and music. He said he wants public school students “to have the opportunities private school students have always had.”
• Higher standards. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government has mandated how schools would reach achievement goals but lets the states set the standards. Duncan said that should be reversed: Let the federal government set uniform high standards for everyone and let states be creative in finding ways to meet them.
• Longer days. The school calendar was developed in an agrarian society, and it needs to be changed, Duncan said. He is calling for both a longer school day and a longer school year, noting that in some countries, students spend 30 percent more time in the classroom than their U.S. counterparts.
• More parental involvement. A father of two young children, Duncan said parents should be actively involved in their children’s education, from reading to them at night to participating in school activities. He said school officials can help by encouraging parents. Duncan said schools often have an attitude that discourages parental involvement.
• Better schools. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools can be tabbed as poorly performing because of minor problems and, now, too many schools carry that label. As a result, the schools that really need the help don’t get it because there isn’t enough money to go around. The focus should be on what Duncan called the “bottom of the bottom.” For example, a little less than 10 percent of the public high schools in the United States produce half of the nation’s dropouts. Those schools also account for three-quarters of the black and Hispanic dropouts.
The federal government is offering $546 million — $25 million is expected to go to Nevada — to poor-performing schools that agree to dramatic turnaround measures. By putting extra resources where they are most needed, the nation could see dramatic improvements.
• Greater accountability. The Bush administration relied on test scores to gauge achievement, but sterile test scores alone do not tell the whole story. Duncan understands that and has called for a broader evaluation that would hold teachers, principals and administrators accountable, not just for their own actions but also for the performance of their schools. A believer in merit pay, Duncan said that in Chicago, bonuses were handed out to “every adult in the building” — from the janitor to the principal — at a school that achieved its goals.
• Community schools. Duncan says schools should “open our doors a bit.” Schools, he said, should be the center of the community, and nonprofit groups could offer after-school programs for children and workshops for adults.
Duncan understands there will be obstacles to implementing his programs. He has garnered criticism from the nation’s largest teachers unions, which have fought against using test scores to measure teacher performance.
“Are we asking unions to move outside their comfort zones? Absolutely,” Duncan said, noting that the unions aren’t alone. He’s asking parents, students, school administrators and the U.S. Education Department to change.
One of the refreshing things about Duncan is that he comes to the Education Department without ideological baggage as was common during the Bush administration. He doesn’t talk about Democratic ideas or Republican ideas. He talks about ideas that will work. What he questions is whether the country “can seize this moment” to change education.
“I think what we’ve lacked as a country is courage and heart,” he said. “We know what the right thing is.”
Those words ring true in Nevada. For years lawmakers and governors have seen the high dropout rates and underperforming schools but have never taken the steps to properly fund education.
The stimulus money that will be flowing into Nevada is a good start, but money — particularly short-term grants — is not enough. The state needs a long-term commitment from its elected leaders to adequately fund and support education. Elected officials, teachers, principals, parents and communities will have to come together and work at providing a top-notch education for our children.
Duncan is correct. It is time to take action. Congress, the states and the public should support this effort.