At his Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 13, Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan said he hopes to be able to continue the "Obama effect" with children by improving access to early childhood education programs, raising standards and increasing teacher quality in K-12 schools, and boosting access to higher education.
During Duncan’s confirmation hearing with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski told the story of a student in a Baltimore school who told his teacher he wanted to be "smart" when he grew up–like President-elect Barack Obama.
"We need to harvest this Obama effect," she said.
Duncan agreed that Obama and his wife Michelle have created an opportunity to show children living examples of what can be achieved when they work hard to get a good education.
"Never before has being smart been so cool, and working hard been so cool," he said. "In Barack Obama and in Michelle Obama, we have two people who are living symbols of education."
Duncan said that in an era of global economics, rapid technological change, and extreme economic disparity, education is the most pressing issue facing America.
"Preparing young people for success in life is not just a moral obligation of society. It’s an economic imperative. As President-elect Obama has said many times, the nations that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow," Duncan said. "Education is also the civil-rights issue of our generation–the only sure path out of poverty and the only way to achieve a more equal and just society."
Obama has stated that he believes all children should have access to high-quality early childhood education and child care, as does Duncan.
"We have to start early, and we have to stay with them the whole way through," he said of making sure educators are engaged with their students. "If we think there’s a magic bullet at one point, we’re kidding ourselves. I wish it were that simplistic."
Both Obama and Duncan have stated that while they don’t wish to throw out President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law, there is a need for an overhaul. However, neither Obama nor Duncan have mentioned specifics about what should be done to rework the widely unpopular law.
Duncan told the Senate committee the law should not punish schools where only a handful of kids are struggling.
He praised the law for shining a spotlight on children who need the most help. NCLB holds schools accountable for progress among each group of kids, including those who have disabilities or are learning English.
But right now, a school is labeled as failing if only one group of kids is struggling, even when the rest of the kids are making gains. Give individual kids more tutoring and other support, Duncan said–but "let’s not take too blunt an instrument to an entire school. Those teachers are doing a Herculean job, and we need to recognize that. We need to reward that."
NCLB prods schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014. It was due for a rewrite in 2007, but the effort stalled. Lawmakers hope to try again within the next several months.
At the same time, Duncan praised an idea that teachers’ unions have resisted: teacher pay raises tied to student performance. Duncan started a performance-pay program in Chicago with federal dollars from the Education Department.
"That’s something that I want to look at, to not just support but also potentially increase," Duncan said. "The more we reward excellence, the better our students can do."
Duncan said he intends to travel the country recruiting new teachers and to take steps to keep teachers on the job.
"Given the tough economic times, that actually helps our chances of recruiting great talent," he said.
Duncan also said kids should spend even more time in the classroom. Kids in 200 schools came to class on Saturdays last year, Duncan said, and he brought 15,000 freshmen back to school a month early on a voluntary basis.
"I think our school day is too short, our week is too short, our year is too short," he said.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin told Duncan he thought the secretary of education might be one of the Cabinet posts that most affects the American people.
"How we progress really comes down to what kind of education system we have. The secretary of education and the secretary of health and human services have the task for defining America," he said. "We have to do better for education in this country and in health and human services. From what I know of you and what you’ve [said] here today, I think you’re up to the job."
Harkin said he suspected that Duncan would be approved unanimously in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and approved in the full Senate.
Duncan, 44, has been CEO of Chicago public schools since 2001. He worked in the school system under former schools chief Paul Vallas after heading an education nonprofit. Before that, he played professional basketball in Australia, where he worked with underprivileged kids as a social worker. He grew up working in his mother’s tutoring program on Chicago’s South Side.
"I grew up with a set of children, none of which looked like me … and despite the challenges at home and the challenges in the community, I saw that success is possible," he said, noting that some of those children grew to become actors, IBM executives, and one even worked with him for the Chicago schools.
He and his family were often targeted–the church where they tutored the children was firebombed, and his mother’s life was threatened–and he said when he was younger he often wondered what compelled his mother to take her three young children to that community every day.
"But the work was so important and the work was bigger than all of us. I plan to work with the same sense of commitment and the same courage for the next four years that my mother exhibited for the past 48," he said.
In Chicago, Duncan managed to raise test scores and graduation rates, and he improved the quality of teaching.
His critics, however, say he shouldn’t get credit for better test scores, because they improved before he took over and state tests became easier during his tenure. Parents who opposed his aggressive school closings say they were disruptive to kids.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
Office of the President-elect
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the “Creating the 21 st Century Classroom" resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom