National Press Club

Education Secretary Ties Stimulus Spending to Reform

June 1, 2009 | By Andrew Kreig

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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used a featured Club speech on May 29 to link the nation’s economic and educational woes to what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for progress.

“We have some real resources, $100 billion, to invest in education,” he said, while emphasizing that money is only part of the plan. “With unprecedented resources, we need unprecedented reform.”

Duncan had been CEO of Chicago’s public school system since 2001 before his nomination by President Obama to run the education department. Duncan called for dramatic changes in educational systems at all levels to coincide with the administration’s recovery plan providing more than $100 billion to encourage educational innovation while also increasing employment. NPC President Donna Leinwand introduced Duncan, saying he “has more resources at his disposal than any previous secretary of education.”

As positive examples of major innovation, he cited a plan by Cincinnati schools to use federal funds to shorten summer vacation by a month to improve learning. He praised also decisions by school systems to look for ways to make their gyms and libraries more widely available for community use, 12 to 13 hours a day where feasible. He said systems that provide reforms and show positive results should get federal funds, whereas those who essentially stick with failed strategies should lose out on discretionary funds.

He outlined reasons why he is confident that great progress can occur within four years. First, he said is “absolute leadership from the top,” starting with the President’s personal commitment. Second is “bipartisan support in Congress.” Finally is the money, which he said will be tied to closely to innovation and performance.

In assessing performance under standardized tests, he said that too many of them have been “dumbed down” by states and localities, thereby giving both school systems and students a false sense of security. “We’ve had a race to the bottom,” he said. “We want career-ready, university-ready students. We have to raise the bar.” The No Child Left Behind initiative “was loose on the goals, tight on the standards,” he said, adding that those priorities should be reversed.

Beginning in the fifth grade, students should continually be able to assess whether they’re on track be successful in school and career, he said. “There are no good jobs out there for high school drop-outs,” he added. Thus, he said, the country needs much-improved graduation rates and higher-education enrollment, including in vocational studies.

During Q&A, he said vouchers address the needs of too few students, typically just one or two percent. By contrast, he said his experience and goal is to improve entire schools. He said the administration is open to the innovations of home-school and charter schools. But he said of charters, “You have to give them real autonomy. Coupled with that is real accountability.”

He was asked about a recent survey showing that the Education Department ranked 27 out of 30 federal agencies in employee satisfaction. He responded that the problems parallel those within schools. He said employees want to develop their skills and realize their potential, just like students. He promised improvements both in his department and in the nation’s schools.

“Educators for too long have produced schools that are ‘Good enough for someone else’s children,’” he said. “This has to be personal.” He said he couldn’t sleep the evening of May 27 after meeting school children in Montana at a Native American reservation that has a 65% high school drop-out rate amidst 70% adult unemployment. After seeing those children, he told the Club audience, “We as adults have to do much better than meet them half-way.”