Duncan discusses education reform, back-to-school changes

Duncan said making sure children in disadvantaged communities have access to technology will be critical. (Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com)

A more well-rounded curriculum with less focus on a single test. Higher academic standards and more difficult classwork. Continued cuts to extracurricular and other activities because of the tough economy: Education Secretary Arne Duncan says these are some of the changes and challenges that children could notice as they start the new school year.

Several significant reforms have taken place over the past three years. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, a set of uniform benchmarks for math and reading. Thirty-two states and D.C. have been granted waivers from important parts of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. Billions in federal dollars have gone out to improve low-performing schools, tie teacher evaluations to student growth, and encourage states to expand the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Duncan said he believes students will see the concrete effects of those changes when they head back to class this school year.

Putting in place Common Core standards, which began in many of the early school grades last year, could mean a greater emphasis on critical thinking. Waivers for No Child Left Behind should translate into a greater focus on a broader range of academic goalposts, including increasing the number of students who graduate, pass Advanced Placement classes and tests, and leave high school ready for college or a career, Duncan said.

One result of waivers is a hodgepodge of individual state accountability plans for student performance and achievement. Duncan said these state plans could help guide Congress in coming up with a comprehensive plan to fix the No Child Left Behind law, which Republicans and Democrats alike say is broken.

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“To see so many great, innovative, creative, courageous ideas coming from states, I think, is literally leading the country to where we need to go,” Duncan said.

Although the law has been credited with helping shine a light on the need to improve the performance of low-income, minority, and other student subgroups, the nation is far from reaching one of its central goals—that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

As that date approaches, more and more schools have been labeled as out of compliance with the law and subject to a set of interventions. The waivers are designed to grant states reprieve from that requirement and greater control over how to close achievement gaps and lift low-performing schools.

One of the most important changes as a result of the waivers, Duncan said, will be a renewed focus on subjects such as science, social studies, and the arts. In many schools, they received less attention in the push to improve math and reading scores.

“Many, many states are emphasizing again not just the basics but a world-class education,” he said.

For those in states where the Common Core standards are being implemented, students could see more emphasis on critical thinking and spending a longer time gaining a deeper understanding of a more limited range of concepts in math.

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