U.S. education secretary works to increase high school graduation rates


U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says President Barack Obama’s educational proposals are high on his budget priorities. “The president’s budget is linked between dramatically improving the quality of education and ultimately strengthening our economy,” said Duncan last week during a March 25 teleconference with reporters.

“We have to educate our way to a better economy,” Duncan said. “This budget fully understands how critically important that link is.” Duncan added that President Obama is especially focusing on improving early childhood education, K-12 reform initiatives and providing more access to funds for college.

The education secretary claimed that $500 million over the next five years are being designated “to really [help] states to work with their colleges and universities to make sure…more students aren’t just entering higher education but [also] are graduating,” Duncan explained. “Our goal is to significantly increase the number of students graduating from a two-year institution or a four-year [one],” he said

The education budget has a three-fold theme, Duncan explained. “One, we need to be responsible. Secondly, that we need to be forward-thinking, and third, we need to be investing in the future.”

As a former Chicago school chief, Duncan has a reputation of being a reformer.
He noted, “The more we can think about extending the learning time for children who don’t [have] two parents at home raising them every night [and] don’t have lots of books at home,” the more educational outcomes are improved. And, “Where schools simply aren’t improving and are going south, I think we have to challenge the status quo. This isn’t just about money, but [it also needs] to be much more creative and innovative.

“We have to be thinking about these three themes: how we use time differently, how we think about really engaging the best and brightest and their talent, and how we think about turning around those struggling schools. Some of this has to do with resources, some of this has to do with thinking — innovating, and having the political will and courage to challenge some of these status quos.”

Following are excerpts of Duncan’s remarks during last week’s teleconference in which the MSR participated.

Use of state-level educational stimulus funds

“The money will flow through the governor and to districts, and we will be providing significant guidance. We’re putting out significant money — billions of dollars — in Title I money and IDEA money [the Individuals with Disabilities Act]. We also have the $5 billion ‘Race to the Top’ fund and will be issuing out RFPs [request for proposals] in late May or June, and we want to work with a set of states who are willing to really challenge the status quo in a number of important ways.

“…What if school districts and states were bringing back children who are Title I eligible back to school early in the summer, or what if they were lengthening the school day next school year?

“What if they are lengthening the school year? What if they are open on Saturdays? There is a huge opportunity for states to use dollars in ways that really make a difference in students’ lives.”

Accountability measures for federal funds

“We will do everything we can to make sure every single dollar is spent wisely. There are many, many children who we are inadequately serving now. Those states and districts that are doing a great job, we are going to highlight those innovative practices. But where we see a state or district operating in bad faith, and doing something counter to what’s the president’s intent, we are going to come down like a ton of bricks.”

Adult education and GED programs

“If students or young people don’t have a high school diploma, it is virtually impossible to get a good-paying job. So we want to do everything we can to encourage folk to get back to complete, then to go on and think about a two-year or four-year university, vocational training, technical training, whatever it might be.”

Teacher quality, merit pay and alternative teacher certification
“These are all complex topics. [We address these issues by] first, really rewarding teacher excellence and finding a way to spotlight those teachers who are making a huge difference in students’ lives. Secondly, how do we reward the best and brightest to take on the toughest assignments, whether that is inner-city urban, or rural?

“Third, I want us to think differently [about] where we have had decades of shortages of math and science teachers. I think we need to think about compensating those teachers differently that go into those professions and stay.

“Fourth, I think we need to be thinking about alternative certification as well as finding ways to open up more pools of talent to go into education. If you happened to not major in education as an undergrad, you shouldn’t be prohibited from going into teaching.”

Charter schools

“Charter schools aren’t the only answer, but high-performing charter schools are a significant part of our strategy to improve the quality of education our children receive.”

Charles Hallman welcomes read-er responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com, or read his blog: www.www challman.blogspot.com.