In an October 2 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reflected on his cross-country bus tour, which included more than 100 events in a dozen states across the country, and outlined education reform goals for the future, saying now is “no time to retreat,” but that it is time to “double down” on what is working.
“Above all, what I picked up on the bus tour is an abiding faith in the power of education to change lives for the better,” Duncan said of the “Education Drives America” tour. “People know that education is not only the best way to end poverty and build a strong future—it’s really the only way.”
Duncan stressed that a high school diploma is no longer sufficient for a good job in today’s economy and urged every student to aim for some form of education beyond high school. He said the country’s economic security, as well as its national security, depends on how well the nation educates its students. “A strong military remains our best defense, but a strong education is our best offense,” Duncan said.
Duncan said people believe that investing in education is the “right way” out of the economic slowdown, but they worry about where the money will come from because school budgets are tight and resources are shrinking for counselors, school nurses, and other support staff, as well as for the arts, sports, and afterschool programs. He said an estimated 300,000 teachers have lost their jobs in the last two years, but he said there was “little appetite” in Congress to help.
He defended the additional flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that the Obama administration has granted to states through the waiver process and said that waivers are “not a pass on accountability but a smarter, more focused and fair way” to be held accountable.
“The fact is, many educators didn’t take NCLB seriously because it assumed all children start from the same place and learn at the same rate. That’s just not reality,” Duncan said. “And the record on NCLB is clear: performance is up slightly and achievement gaps have narrowed somewhat but not nearly enough. Under waivers, we will accelerate that pace.”
Duncan called Race to the Top a “fascinating lesson on the power of incentives,” noting that “we have seen as much reform in states that didn’t receive a nickel as in states that received tens of millions of dollars.” He called the Common Core State Standards a “game-changer” and said teacher evaluation must be based on “multiple measures” rather than a single test, adding that teachers “must be at the table” when it comes to building systems of evaluation and support. He said the nation must do more to serve low-income children and find the bipartisan will to address their needs and close the opportunity gap but lamented, “as a country, we’re not even close.”
Turning to the upcoming elections, Duncan said the choice facing voters is “pretty stark.” “Some people see education as an expense government can cut in tough economic times,” he said. “President Obama sees education as an investment in our future—the best investment we can make, especially in tough economic times.”
Looking ahead, Duncan outlined eleven goals, including high-quality early education for more low-income children; state-driven accountability that demands progress for all kids; a stronger partnership between teachers and technology; a new generation of math and science teachers; passage of the DREAM Act; reforming career education; and a close examination of the student financial aid system, among others.
“One of the big factors impeding the economic recovery is the lack of education,” Duncan said. “That’s why millions of jobs remain unfilled. Some 90 million adults in America have basic or below-basic literacy skills. A quarter of our kids never complete high school. What chance do they have to contribute in today’s economy? In fact, some say our dropout crisis has had the impact of a permanent national recession—the loss of human potential and productivity is staggering.”
He peppered his speech with success stories about turnaround schools and school districts and offered positive examples of how education can impact the lives of individuals. “Americans are desperately hungry for a quality education and willing to do just about anything to get one. They know what’s at stake for them, and for their families,” Duncan said. “They’re not asking for a handout—they want a hand up. They will work hard. They will give it everything they have. We owe them the same. And we owe our children much more.”
A transcript of Duncan’s speech is available at