Education Secretary Duncan responds to eSchool News readers

3.  “While nations like Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, and China are passing us here in the United States exponentially, is the Department going to push for legislative reform for schools in the U.S. or is it going to be business as usual? If the most successful schools in the world do not rely upon standardized testing and computer-based testing, why does this country still insist on doing the same? Why is the system allowing the continued expansion of charter schools that continually drain funding from the public school system?” —Vincent C. Newman, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards candidate

Duncan:  “One thing we continue to hear from top-performing countries is that teachers matter tremendously. Top-performing countries perform as well as they do in large part because they recruit, prepare, and develop world-class teaching forces. This is exactly why we’ve focused on doing a much better job preparing, supporting, and celebrating our teachers. But we’ve also seen that different strategies are appropriate for different circumstances. In countries like Singapore and China, where the educational decisions are centralized, the government is able to offer teachers and students incentives such as higher salaries and a more equitable distribution of resources. Students also take fewer high-stakes tests, but the tests have bigger, life-altering consequences, including determining whether a student is headed for college or a trade school education.

In the United States, education is largely controlled by states, not the federal government. An advantage of this is that states are able to make decisions about what is best for their students. This lack of central control comes with quite a few challenges, though, including the confusion that happens when fifty-plus states each have their own curricula and their own bars for proficiency. We need some common standards so that we can compare results across states and be more transparent about where students are—and where they are not—being prepared for college and careers.

What I would really like to see is not more testing, but better testing. The current bubble tests do little to assess critical thinking or anything beyond the most basic skills. We need well-designed assessment systems that are aligned to the curriculum so that teachers are able to take stock of what students really know and can do. We don’t need more standardized tests. They are one tool, and an important one, but they are not the only one. Teachers should still draw upon a wide variety of formative and summative assessments, including student projects, portfolios, and so forth, to gauge how well students are learning so that they are able to refine their lesson plans and meet learners’ needs. But because methods of evaluating these types of projects tend to vary widely from place to place, we need some common assessment systems to keep the standards high and to make comparisons.

In response to your question about charter schools, I support any school that gives families access to a quality education. High-quality charter schools provide a great alternative within the public school system to families who feel stuck in failing schools. But charters that come up short need to be held accountable.”

Meris Stansbury

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