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New Ed secretary full of superlatives, ideas for the future

The new head of the U.S. Department of Education kept using superlatives— words like “staggering” and “extraordinary”— to describe the opportunity presented him by the billions in stimulus money destined for the nation’s schools. At the same time, Arne Duncan — friend of the president, magna cum laud Harvard graduate, former pro basketball player (in Australia), and much-lauded former head of the Chicago Public Schools — was downright humble in describing his own good fortune in being appointed Education Secretary. Twice he remarked on how extraordinarily “lucky” he was to serve at such a critical time.

After interviewing Arne Duncan for an April ASBJ “Newsmaker” column, I can only think one thing: We’re lucky, too.

I can’t say that in a news story (objectivity and all). But in a blog, I can. And after talking to Duncan for just a few minutes, I was impressed by his down-to-earth style, his willingness to listen, and his admission that he doesn’t have all the answers and will need the input of people who work in, and on behalf of, the schools. One of his first acts as secretary, he said, will be to travel the country and get people’s ideas on how No Child Left Behind might be improved when it is reauthorized.

Having been an urban school superintendent himself, Duncan should understand when educators complain about some of the more onerous provisions of NCLB. He is not, however, going to make it easier for them– just different.

Listen to Duncan’s description of the $5 billion Race to the Top Fund, which will support states that are interested in creating stronger standards for their schools:

“We want to work with a number of states, through a competitive process. We’ll issue an RFP (request for proposal) and try to do a couple of things. First of all, I think we have to raise the bar significantly. We want to think about common high standards, college-ready, career-ready, international benchmarks. We’re calling this the Race to the Top Fund, and that’s for a reason. I think much of what we’ve seen, quite frankly, in too many places, has been a race to the bottom.”

Does that mean Duncan favors national standards, something that is controversial among school board members, many of whom see them as infringing on local control? Here’s his response:

“What I want is a much higher bar, and I want it to be a bar where everybody can look each other in the eye and say, ‘If our students are really hitting this bar, they’re going to be ready to compete against the best and brightest’ – not just here but, again, throughout the world.”

“The idea of 50 different states doing their own thing simply doesn’t make sense to me. Again, I call it the 50 different goal posts. I call that sort of a race to the bottom. And what bothers me most — I think we’re lying to children. I think there are many states that are telling them they are meeting standards when, in fact, they are being set up for educational failure.”

I agree. And if this process is, indeed, leading to those dreaded national standards, I like the way Duncan is going about it. Instead of starting from scratch with perhaps a host of individuals and interest groups vying to throw into the standards every pet fact and concept they can think of, he’s letting the best states lead the way.  So, for example, if Massachusetts or North Carolina comes up with great state standards, we could more or less adopt one of them nationally. What could be simpler?

It’s not that simple, of course. I was reminded of that last spring, when the NSBA Delegate Assembly reacted strongly against a proposal that the association support consortiums of states that wanted to collaborate on creating standards. One thing the delegates feared is that such a process would lead to national standards, which would result in the feds imposing stringent standards without providing schools with the resources to meet them.

It’s certainly a legitimate concern, given what’s happened so far with NCLB. But I have a feeling that under Duncan the education department, while demanding accountability, will listen to the needs of schools and work with them in their quest for higher student achievement.

I’ll share more of my interview with Duncan next week.

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|February 24th, 2009|Categories: American School Board Journal, Student Achievement|Tags: , |

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