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

I met a young woman at the Marine Base Air Station in Yuma, Arizona who wants to be a special education teacher. Only 17 years old, she has gone to 10 different schools.

Service members in Yuma talked about the critical importance of having consistent, high educational standards as their families get reassigned around the country. For families that sacrifice so much for all of us, the least we can for them is give their children a high-quality education, regardless of where they are stationed.

I went to Castle Park Middle School in Chula Vista, California, where they are turning around the school by addressing chronic absenteeism. Attendance is up, parents and kids are more engaged, and they’re seeing results in the classroom. Same children, same families, same socioeconomic challenges, same building—but different expectations and great leadership are leading to very different outcomes.

Every student I met in Chula Vista was wearing a t-shirt with the name of a college on it. One of those universities was Arizona State University, where I had been a couple days earlier for a forum on college costs. ASU is already doing what President Obama has challenged the country to do—raising grad rates, increasing access and quality, all while keeping down tuition.

They’re willing to be more transparent with costs, with outcomes and with other indicators to help parents and students make better decisions about college.

Across the country today, when student debt exceeds a trillion dollars, when young people are leaving school with six-figure debts, and—worst of all—when they are deciding to forego college because they cannot afford it,  this isn’t just an educational crisis, this is an economic crisis.

It’s a threat to the American Dream—the basic bargain that built this country: If you’re willing to work hard, you can expect a decent wage that supports a family, a home, basic health care, a quality education for your kids, and a secure retirement.

Back in 2009, all of those things were at risk—and several still are. Median income has fallen since 1999, and wages have been flat for decades. Home values in many communities are still down or stagnant. College is too expensive. And the prospects of a secure retirement are fading for too many people.

President Obama said he will devote the remainder of his term to restoring that basic bargain and provide ladders to the middle class for struggling families. The best ladder of all to the middle class is a quality education.

Our North Star-goal is for every student to graduate from high school and acquire some kind of postsecondary training or degree. Without that, their chances of a good job are slim to none.

We know we still have a ways to go. Nearly one in four young people fails to finish high school on time. The dropout rate for those who go to college is painfully high—and it’s highest in minority communities.

About two-thirds of students who start at community colleges take a remedial course at some point in their studies.  Only one in five African Americans age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher—and the numbers for Hispanics are even lower.

So for all of our progress, things are still not fine for these young people, and the last thing we should do is retreat.

As we look to the months and years ahead, here’s the lay of the land:

The most striking trend is that states and districts, principals, and teachers and students are moving forward without waiting for Washington.

Many states are wisely investing more in preschool, child care, and home visiting programs. States with federal early learning grants are leading the way on improving quality. Other states can learn from them.

At the K-12 level, under the flexibility we’ve offered states,  state leaders on both sides of the aisle are moving ahead with high standards, better systems of evaluation and support, and more effective accountability. They are preparing for new assessments that will better measure student learning—and tell us the truth about where we are as a country and what we need to do to get better.

(Next page: Keys to future success)

eSchool News Staff

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