Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Flat Scores are a “Picture of Educational Stagnation”

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Vietnam has become the most recent country to move past America in terms of educating its youth, this according to the well-respected Program for International Student Assessment. It’s a long list Vietnam joins, and one that continues to grow. Our K – 12 schools, as a whole, aren’t cutting it. Yes, in some communities the local schools are very good. And yes, we’re doing a better job of providing educational opportunity to some groups than was true in the past. But here’s the reality: if we compare apples to apples – measuring only our best students against the best students from other countries in Asia and Europe -, our best students are lagging behind. When we compare the broad range of all our students, America finds its K – 12 students left further and further in the dust, not just by educational juggernauts like Singapore and Japan, but by a growing number of European and Asian countries.

Let’s, for the moment, set aside the inclination to make excuses. They don’t pan out. For example, we have pockets of racial and cultural homogeneity in America, and yet among those groups, scores in reading, science and math are generally lower than in the countries some point to and complain are “too homogenous” to compare to America. And it’s simply not true that other economically developed democracies are somehow “cheating” on these international comparisons by culling out their lowest students. Besides, again, our best students are falling behind the best students of many of these countries. Apples to apples.

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Let’s refuse to retreat into denial. Our schools are underperfoming. Period. It’s a real problem, it has been with us for decades, and we can’t pretend it away. While the rest of the world is improving its public schools, America’s have stagnated, and that’s deadly to a vibrant, democratic, capitalistic society. It’s not just that at the high end we aren’t educating enough future mathematicians and scientists to keep up with the demands of an increasingly high tech world and a shifting manufacturing base; and it’s not just that at the low end we aren’t ensuring that graduates of our schools can read job applications and decipher bus schedules. In the middle, our schools are simply not preparing students with the basic math, reading and writing skills they need in order to successfully negotiate the work world or to succeed in college. Roughly half… half… of our college-bound high school graduates end up having to enroll in remedial, high school level math and writing classes once they get to college. This represents an enormous waste of money. Moreover, the statistics for these students are grim. Many or most who begin college in remedial classes never graduate. They drop out – representing even more waste.

And let’s stop frenetically pursuing non-solutions. When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan states that, “We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable, and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators,” he’s engaging in the same worn out, empty rhetoric we’ve been hearing from our Education Secretaries for the past forty-two years – since 1971 when Charles Silberman’s Crisis in the Classroom was published. Mr. Duncan sounds like a fool. All of his “solutions” have been proposed time and time and time again over the past 40 years – to no constructive end.

  • More emphasis on early childhood education sounds great, but the reality is that without quality elementary schools to send kids to, all or virtually all of the gains they make in pre-school are leveled out by the time the student is in third or fourth grade. 
  • Raise academic standards? Sure. But that’s a complicated endeavor, and one that is impossible without vision, passion, intelligence and dedication from school administrators, and there simply are not very many public school administrators who have vision, passion, intelligence and dedication. Most present themselves as clock-watchers, counting the minutes till the end of the day, the days till the end of the week, the weeks till the end of the year, the years till they can retire, and don’t appear to have even one of these necessary traits for leading an institution to higher academic expectations.
  • Make college more affordable, by… We’ve been waiting for forty years for the completion of that sentence. Community colleges have been a classic non-solution, on the whole making the problem worse, not better. (College degree attainment rates for students who start in community colleges are abysmal.)
  • Recruit and retain top-notch teachers? Again, sure. Of course. How? We live in a free market. Forget what teachers in other countries make, or what other countries spend or don’t spend on their schools. Those figures are, largely, irrelevant to the American economic culture. In our society, anyone capable of attaining a college education probably thinks in terms of a comfortable home in a good neighborhood; a quality vehicle for every working member of the family; a nice vacation each year – maybe two; music lessons and summer camps for the children; maybe a boat or camper or up-to-date kitchen or similar items. The economic markers college graduates aspire to are often difficult – in some cases impossible – to obtain on what teachers in many states earn. We live in a free market. If we want better teachers, we won’t get them by punishing and threatening them, as is the current tactic from Duncan and any number of other politicians. If we really want better teachers, we’ll do what Toyota does when it wants better engineers, what Edward Jones does when it wants better investment strategists, what the U.S. Navy does when it wants competent admirals, and what sports teams do when they want the best players and coaches: When we want better teachers, we’ll offer more economic incentive.

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I have a hazy memory – which may not be accurate – of a younger Arne Duncan proposing a real solution to energize America’s stagnate public schools. For one, brief, shining moment – if memory serves – Duncan took a break from hacking at the leaves and branches of the problem and aimed at the root. He observed that the key to improving our public schools was to improve the quality of our school superintendents, their lieutenants in district offices, and building principals. In other words, he got it – a fundamental truth known to every competent military unit, every successful corporation and every winning sports team in America: No entity can long rise above the level of its leadership. Thus, if we want better schools, we need better school leaders. 

So how come more people aren’t looking at that?

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Addressing the Root Causes of America's Underperforming Pubic Schools