'Why are programs that put an emphasis on parents' education being eliminated?' asked one reader.

Recently, we asked eSchool News readers, via our daily newsletter, ‘What’s one question you’d like to ask U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan?’—and Sec. Duncan answered.

After reading our newsletter, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) contacted eSchool News and asked us to choose five reader questions for Duncan to address. We chose these five questions based on relevancy, general interest, and diversity of topic. While every question we received was worthy of a response, Duncan unfortunately could not answer them all.

Here, you’ll find Duncan’s answers to the selected questions (in no particular order).

Said an ED representative in an eMail: “Thanks very much for giving him the opportunity to speak to eSchool News readers, who share a special place in our hearts!”

1.  “Why do we keep trying to solve the problems of public education by continuing to do what is contradictory to what we know about how children learn? Children all develop cognitively, as well as physically, at different rates of speed.  Yet, in the classroom we insist that all children of a particular age should complete and learn skills and content for a grade level within a nine-month time frame.  We would never expect them to all grow at the same rate physically and weigh the same and be the same height. Why do we expect them to all grow at the same rate cognitively? This basic foundation of public education is creating the problems and producing dropouts.” —Nancy Self

Duncan: “Nancy, that’s a great question, and it’s one of the reasons that I believe the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) is really letting our students down. No two people progress at the same rate and in the same ways. While our goal is to ensure that all children are prepared for college and a career by the time they graduate high school, we also need to consider growth and gain so that we know whether students are making enough progress towards reaching that goal.

That means collecting data about what students are learning so that schools, parents, and teachers can see where students are on track and where they are falling behind. However, instead of focusing solely on students reaching an arbitrary bar on an achievement test, I would like to see us pay much more attention to their growth over a year. Ideally, we want every child to be at or above grade level, but that is not always possible within a year when students come into class far behind in a given subject. Instead, we need to reward and encourage students and teachers who have been able to achieve large gains, regardless of their grade level.

If a fifth-grade teacher is able to move a student in her class from a second-grade reading level to a fourth-grade level, that child and that teacher should be celebrated. Under our plan to reauthorize NCLB, schools and districts that show this progress will be highlighted—and teachers who produce such large gains will be rewarded.”

2.  “When will our public education system equal the playing field for all students and teachers by recommending that every K-12 school’s professional staff include a full-time certified school librarian—one who can provide essential literacy instruction to students and critical co-teaching support for classroom teachers in using 21st-century tools to support learning and teaching 21st-century skills?” —Judi Moreillon, M.L.S., Ph.D. Assistant Professor, School of Library and Information Studies, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas

Duncan:  “You raise an important issue. An essential part of offering all students a world-class education includes providing them with access to a full range of texts and expert teachers who will help them to learn from them. All teachers have a mission to develop literate and engaged critical thinkers, and media specialists play an important role in achieving this goal. Of course, there are a number of ways for schools to include this high-quality instruction. For most K-12 schools, it will be important to have certified librarians on staff who can facilitate learning, co-teach, and even show classroom teachers how to use increasingly sophisticated digital media. However, some school districts may choose to tackle the issue in a different way. Our role in the federal government is to support the use of research, libraries, and media specialists, but not to mandate how schools accomplish this goal. Instead, every district should develop high goals for student learning and then set policies in place to make them happen for their unique students.”

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.”

4.  “If the first, most important teacher for a child is the parent, and a child’s education level is determined by the mother’s education level, why are programs that put an emphasis on parents’ education being eliminated (Even Start) or funding reduced (Adult Education)?” —Daphne Mathews, Adult Programs Administrator, Christina School District

Duncan: “Without a doubt, family involvement in schools is essential if children are going to receive a world-class education, and research shows us that there is often a correlation between the education level of children and that of their parents. That’s why family literacy services are included in our proposed Effective Teaching and Learning for Literacy program.

It’s also why President Obama has committed to ensuring that America will regain its lost ground and have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020. During these tight budget times, we have been able to protect Pell grants, increasing the number of students served from 6 to 9.6 million. Pell grants fund the education of student in our poorest families, and they provide an educational lifeline to many who will be in the first generation of their family to earn a college degree.

We have also invested $500 million through the Trade Adjustment Act in the Community College Training Fund that will give students of all ages access to career colleges where they can receive training to help develop marketable skills.”

5.  “Why is it allowable for students attending for-profit colleges to obtain funds to pay for their education when they can obtain the same education at a community college for a fourth of the cost? Many students run out of money after one semester, and many of those so-called earned credits do not even transfer to the nonprofit community college.” —Diane R. Ahlberg, College and Career Specialist, Global Career Development Facilitator, Park Center Senior High School

Duncan: “Thank you for this question, Diane. I think it is important to give students choices, and I support our federal student loan system that allows borrowers to choose their college or university. Students often have very different reasons for selecting a particular institution. Some base their decision on the type of programs available, the distance from their home, the ability to attend on their schedule, price, or other factors.

There are many career college programs that meet students’ needs. Though many provide students with very specific credentials, I am concerned that there are some programs that are not providing good value for students. Some are quite simply leaving their students with unmanageable debt burdens and poor employment prospects.

Because of these concerns, the Department has worked for over a year to develop a new set of regulations that would make schools ineligible for federal student aid if they aren’t preparing students to succeed in the workplace. Federal student loans are an important way for individuals to afford a postsecondary program that best serves their needs and prepares them to be competitive in the global workforce. But if one of those programs is truly not serving students well and is leaving them with unmanageable debt burdens and poor employment prospects, then it is our responsibility to protect our significant federal investment in higher education.

It is important for students to be able to find gainful employment after earning a degree, because after hitting the books, the loan payment books begin to hit back.”