The standards were independently adopted and created by the states, but the Obama administration encouraged their expansion through its Race to the Top competition, which has awarded more than $4 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia to pursue education reform.

Most states began putting the standards in place in the early school grades last year; some, such as North Carolina, will have them ready in every grade this fall. For the majority of states, it will be by 2013-14.

“That’s going to take some time to get there, but there’s a huge amount of interest and momentum behind that,” Duncan said.

Proponents of the standards say they will better and more equitably prepare students for higher education or a career and make it easier for students who change schools across states. Critics point out they are being implemented across the country without any kind of pilot, and a Brookings Institution report found that states with high academic standards don’t necessarily have higher achievement.

Duncan said the transition to the standards might be “a little bumpy or choppy, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.”

Another big development has been the rapid expansion of charter schools. The number of students in charter schools has passed 2 million, according to the nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

While the growth of charter schools means more options for students, it can make the process of deciding which school to attend more difficult. Many charters are still new, and there is limited research on how effective they are on improving student outcomes.

For more news and opinion on school reform, see:

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Education’s pendulum: Thinkers or test takers?

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Duncan said it’s important for parents to visit schools and make an informed choice.

“Every child learns differently,” he said. “Every child has strengths and weaknesses. Get a sense of the right learning environment for your son or daughter.”

He urged all parents to contribute to their child’s school, whether it’s through donations and volunteering, helping coach a team, or keeping kids on track with their assignments.

“I always say parents are their children’s first teachers, and I think, by definition, their most important teachers,” he said.

Duncan said his two children, who are in public schools, continue their learning in the evening through Khan Academy, an organization that offers thousands of free lessons online. He said making sure children in disadvantaged communities have access to technology will be critical.

“To me, that’s a huge part of creating a more equal educational system,” he said.