Duncan: U.S. failing ‘core responsibilities’ on education

Here in the Washington bubble, the prevailing narrative is that reformers and unions are in a constant state of war. But in the real world, many unions are in fact partners in reform. While the media flocks to noise and controversy, the quiet, courageous work goes uncovered or unrecognized.

In McDowell County, West Virginia, the AFT is working hard to turn around an isolated rural school system. In Evansville, Indiana, where the NEA’s Priority Schools program is underway, the local teachers union and administration worked together to lengthen the school day and year. Here, locally in Prince George’s County, the union leader told me he is supportive of difficult school turnaround efforts because children deserve better.

And in both Hillsborough County, Florida, and Jefferson County, Colorado, unions and management are working together to find new and better ways to evaluate teacher effectiveness and reward success in the classroom.

Now, you might ask, what difference does the debate about education inside the bubble, inside Washington, ultimately make to students, teachers, and parents—who want to ignore the education wars and press ahead to solve practical problems?

Well, unfortunately it does make a difference. Across the ideological spectrum, the pundits and politicians can disagree on many issues. Yet from different starting points, education ideologues often end up making strange bedfellows that can only agree on one thing: to them, transformational change is dangerous and must be stopped.

Inside the alternative universe, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good—it becomes a paralyzing force that props us the status quo and is a recipe for continued mediocrity.

At my department, we’ve worked hard and steadily to be a good partner with states. But that’s not always easy given the dysfunctional politics in Congress these days.

In the last year, Washington lawmakers introduced a word into the vocabulary of America’s educators—“sequester”—that has only meant one thing: cuts. Cuts to programs like Head Start; cuts to schools serving military families and Native American students; cuts to programs serving low-income students and those with disabilities. Yet in classic Washington fashion, members in Congress did not impose the sequester on their salaries, their benefits, or their staffs—only people in the real world felt the pain.

Even now, as we speak, Congress hasn’t reached agreement on a spending bill. They’re putting petty politics ahead of governing—and they are hurting our children and our country. They are creating stress and uncertainty for schools and districts in red states and blue states and in every state—and at a time when our schools need stability and investment.

And think of all of the unfinished business in Congress that affects our school children—from comprehensive immigration reform to common-sense gun laws.

If the slaughter of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t move them, I don’t know what will. In the meantime, mass shootings continue across our nation—in malls and movie theaters; on basketball courts back home in Chicago; and most recently at the Navy Shipyard—all while other nations have chosen to work together to eliminate or sharply reduce the toll of gun violence.

Congress has also failed to carry out its basic, core responsibilities in education. The bedrock laws affecting K-12 education and career education are all long overdue for a rewrite.

The President and I pushed hard for a strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We’d still like to see one—and so would governors and state chiefs, as well as teachers and parents. If Congress can’t work together on behalf of children, what can they do?

Education leaders need some certainty to set goals and strategies to improve. That’s why our department has worked with 40 states to adopt ambitious performance targets that capture more kids at risk, raise standards, and move forward with accountability systems that go way beyond a narrow focus on a single test score.

I promise you—none of us will get everything 100 percent right the first time. But we are all learning what’s working—and, where necessary, adjusting. We are seeing extraordinary courage and leadership by states, as we challenge them to maintain a high bar, while offering them as much flexibility as possible to be creative and innovative.

Reform is hard, tough work. But where you have the right conditions and people willing to move outside their comfort zones and work together, you’re seeing great results.

(Next page: What is working so far)

eSchool News Staff

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