Education Secretary Arne Duncan took questions from students.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan took questions from students.

Education leaders in the United States must work to close the digital divide and ensure that all students have access to top-notch technology, while at the same time using technology not just for technology’s sake, but as a game-changing learning tool, said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a national town hall meeting for students on Dec. 15.

During the town hall, which was a special edition of the Education Department’s (ED’s) television news program for parents, Duncan said that using technology the way today’s students use it is key to making an impact.

“We need to be much more creative and innovative in how we do things,” Duncan said. For instance, students today use cell phones and PDAs on a regular basis, he said, so coming up with creative ways to deliver content and curriculum involving technologies that students like to use is one way to grab students’ attention.

Questions and eMail comments from students focused largely on how to prepare for and fund higher education, and Duncan emphasized college and career readiness, which is one of ED’s main education priorities.

Duncan asked students what they are doing now to take responsibility for their own education, and he said activities such as Advanced Placement classes for college credit, extracurricular groups geared toward college majors or areas of interest, and volunteering are all steps in the right direction.

When asked about the steps ED is taking to improve U.S. education standards, Duncan said standards must improve if the United States is to compete with the rest of the world.

“What I honestly believe is that we’re being outcompeted by other countries right now,” he said. “It’s not because students in other countries are smarter than students in the U.S., but in other places, students are going to school 25 to 30 percent longer than they are here.”

He said that while the idea of longer school days is rarely met with enthusiasm when presented to students, it needs to be considered.

“We live in a global economy today—you’re not competing for jobs with students from your district or state or even country. … I just want to level the playing field, and I think part of that is going to school more and thinking differently about what a school should be,” he said.

One key to that, Duncan said, is transforming schools so that they become community centers—open for 12 or 13 hours a day with a variety of programs for students, adults, and families.

Click below to watch the town hall meeting.

U.S. Department of Education Town Hall

“I think that will go a long way to improving education in this country,” he said.

Duncan said he is encouraged that 48 state school chiefs have committed to drafting common, career-ready standards.

“We’re not preparing enough students to be successful in higher education, and we’re not doing enough to prepare students for the world of work,” he said.

“We have about 2,000 high schools in this country that are basically dropout factories. … I want us to get dramatically better and do it with a real sense of urgency,” Duncan added. “You guys have one chance to get a great education; you can’t wait years or decades for improvements.”

Some students asked about merit-based teacher pay, and Duncan acknowledged the idea’s divisive reception.