October 3, 2012 | By Robert Webb | firstname.lastname@example.org
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged Congress not to reduce funding for early childhood education at a National Press Club luncheon on Oct. 2.
"Candidly speaking, however, it's a challenge in the current climate," Duncan told a sold-out Club ballroom. "If some members of the House have their way, programs like Head Start, Title I and IDEA [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act] could take a big hit. So we need to continue to fight hard for these programs that protect children at risk."
Duncan addressed the Club luncheon after returning from a recent three-week bus tour of U.S. schools that began in California and stretched to Massachusetts.
"I can report that while the hard work of improving schools is difficult and challenging and requires many people to move outside their comfort zones, the mood is largely positive," he said.
"People are working hard, and for the most part they are working together," he added. "They know that it takes strong partnerships to raise standards, improve performance, tackle dropout rates and strengthen the teaching profession."
He said the Department of Education's theme this year is "Education Drives America."
Duncan cited several schools that have boosted their performance in recent years, including Emerson Elementary School -- one of more than 1,300 to receive a federal School Improvement Grant.
"It was one of the lowest performing schools in Kansas," Duncan said. "Almost half of the students were learning English for the first time. With its grant, Emerson brought in new school leadership, made other staffing changes and also made a big investment in parental involvement. School officials visited parents and organized data meetings to show parents how their students were performing."
He said two thirds of the schools with School Improvement Grants "made gains in reading and math. After two years their progress not only got them off the list of struggling schools but earned them status as a Reward school."
Duncan said Kingsbury Middle School in Memphis "made gains for nearly all groups of students and was in the top 5 percent of its state in terms of student growth."
But Duncan was critical of No Child Left Behind, the program begun under President George W. Bush.
He said it "set lofty goals for all kids but didn't require high standards and many states took the easy path." About 19 states lowered one or more standards and 35 states set proficiency levels in 4th grade reading below levels of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Teachers should not "be forced to teach to a test," Duncan said. "Young people should not complete their education saddled with debt. But this is the reality in America today. To change these realities, we have to rise above the partisan politics -- we have to set aside the tired debates pitting reformers against unions. We have to discard the ugly and divisive rhetoric of blame."
On the topic of higher education, Duncan noted that Hispanic enrollment in colleges is up 25 percent in recent years.