Minnesota needs a sense of urgency on education, says secretary Duncan

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wishes that Minnesota would take action on education reform.

Duncan came to the Twin Cities Friday and told the large crowd at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon that Minnesota faces challenges, notably the gap in educational achievement between the state's students of color and its white students.

"What I haven't quite felt - candidly, recently - is this sense of urgency," said Duncan, adding, "We have to get better faster."

Educational achievement and attainment constitute the "civil rights issue of our time," he told the crowd.

Other states haven't solved the challenge of gaps in educational achievement, but they've made progress, he said.

Minnesota: not so much.

Minnesota and the nation as a whole must step it up when it comes to education if we hope to hold our lead in the world economy, Duncan noted.

"As President Obama says, the nations that out-educate us will out-compete us."

Duncan's messages are ones that Growth & Justice, too, is delivering. Many of the themes that Duncan presented in his talk on Friday line right up with ideas and recommendations from our initiative on Smart Investments in Minnesota's Students:

  • Duncan set out as a goal a 50 percent increase in the share of U.S. students who finish higher education. At the state level, Growth & Justice is pushing for Minnesota to commit to a 50 percent increase in the share of young people who successfully complete a post-secondary education program.
  • Duncan flagged early childhood education as critical, urging Minnesota to ensure that children from low-income families have access to high-quality child care and that all children enter their school years ready to learn.
  • He emphasized the need for high standards and high expectations for students.
  • And he called for effective parental involvement to increase student success, noting that his own federal agency hopes to double funding for initiatives aimed at identifying and supporting parent-focused initiatives.

Duncan talked, too, about the critical role of community colleges in education and retraining. He spoke in favor of alternative certification for teachers and of including student performance as one element of teacher evaluations. He called teachers the nation's "great unsung heroes." And he cited the need to encompass a wide range of academic subjects in our push for excellence.

Mindful of his audience at this Minnesota Chamber of Commerce event, Duncan welcome the active interest of the business community in education.

"The business community's voice in education - involvement in education - is desperately needed."

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the event, has made education reform an issue. The Chamber's priorities include effective teachers in every classroom, reading at grade level by the time a student leaves third grade, and increased high school graduation requirements.

Business and state government leaders took the stage after Duncan's talk, echoing many of his themes.

Republican State Senator Gen Olson cited proficient reading by third grade as a stand-out issue. And she noted the need to teach skills in a variety of different ways that match up best to how individuals learn. "The burden on my heart in education is closing the achievement gap," she said.

Democratic Representative Carlos Mariani, who directs the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, noted the need to "tie reforms to strong funding for our schools."

Said Democratic Senator Terri Bonoff of kids at risk, "We have to be willing not just to identify that these kids have the greatest need but then also that we're willing to do something about it."

And Republican State Representative Pat Garofalo laid out his motto when it comes to education: "Kids first. No excuses. No exceptions."

There's no time like the present for that.