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“QUALITY EDUCATION TOO LONG DELAYED IS EDUCATION DENIED”: In Campaign-Like Speech, Secretary Duncan Turns Up the Heat on ESEA Reauthorization

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"Quality education too long delayed is education denied."

Pushed to the back burner by the economic recession and health care debate, among other issues, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) received a much-needed spark from a speech that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave on September 24. In a campaign-style speech that was as much a rallying cry as it was a policy proposal, Duncan evoked Dr. Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham City Jail in making his case for why education reform cannot wait.

“Quality education too long delayed is education denied,” Duncan said. “We are now in our fifth decade of ESEA-nearly half a century of education reform and direct federal involvement in this state and local issue,” Duncan said. “We’ve had five decades of reforms, countless studies, watershed reports like A Nation At Risk, and repeated affirmations and commitments from the body politic to finally make education a national priority. And yet we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high-quality education that prepares him or her for the future.”

Duncan offered praise for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)-the current incarnation of ESEA. He credited the law for exposing achievement gaps, expanding the standards and accountability movement, and focusing on outcomes-not inputs-to measure education reform efforts. However, he also said that NCLB unfairly labels many schools as failures even when they are making real progress, adding that the current law places too much emphasis on test scores rather than student growth, and is “overly prescriptive in some ways while it is too blunt an instrument of reform in others.”

Duncan also took NCLB to task for encouraging states to set low academic standards. He cited the failure to set high standards as one reason why millions of students are not completing college. “They are simply not ready for college-level work when they leave high school,” he said. He also said that low standards have contributed to the nation’s “staggeringly” high dropout rate.

In regard to policy, Duncan did not offer specific proposals; instead he chose to present broad outlines and themes. Specifically, he said that the role in Washington, DC is to “support reform by encouraging high standards, bold approaches to helping struggling schools, closing the achievement gap, strengthening the field of education, reducing the dropout rate and boosting college access. All of this must lead to more students completing college.”

Duncan also said that the federal government should be “tight on the goals-with clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers” but “loose on the means for meeting those goals.” He added that local educators do not need a prescription for success, but he said that they do need a common definition of success that focuses on student achievement, high school graduation, and success and attainment in college.

He hinted that merit pay for teachers would be a consideration during the reauthorization of ESEA. “Let’s build a law that respects the honored, noble status of educators, who should be valued as skilled professionals rather than mere practitioners and compensated accordingly,” he said. “Let us end the culture of blame, self-interest, and disrespect that has demeaned the field of education. Instead, let’s encourage, recognize, and reward excellence in teaching and be honest with each other when it is absent.”

Duncan also took a shot at the provision in NCLB requiring all students to be 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014. “Let us build a law that demands real accountability tied to growth and gain both in the individual classroom and in the entire school-rather than utopian goals,” he said. “A law that encourages educators to work with children at every level-the gifted and the struggling-and not just the tiny percent near the middle who can be lifted over a mediocre bar of proficiency with minimal effort. That’s not education. That’s game-playing tied to bad tests with the wrong goals.”

While Duncan did not lay out a specific timeline for ESEA reauthorization, he did say that the Obama administration would be developing a proposal “over the coming months.” But above all, Duncan stressed the need for timely action.

“And to those who say that we can’t do this right now-we need more time to prepare and study the problem-or the timing and the politics isn’t right-I say that our kids can’t wait and our future won’t wait,” he said. “More than any other issue, education is the civil rights issue of our generation and it can’t wait-because tomorrow won’t wait-the world won’t wait-and our children won’t wait.”

In reaction to Duncan’s speech, Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, said that Duncan’s speech can “push vitally needed education reform ‘over the top.'” Noting that one third of the nation’s high school students drop out and another third graduate unprepared for college or careers, Wise said delaying action on ESEA reauthorization is “neither an acceptable education policy nor a smart political strategy.”

Wise credited NCLB for its focus on data gathering and accountability, but he noted that current law “neither effectively addresses nor funds” the unique problems of the nation’s high schools. “Just when our young people reach the jumping off place for college and careers, the federal support drops off,” he said.

Read Secretary Duncan’s complete speech.

Read Governor Wise’s complete statement.

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