Arne Duncan: 'We Have to Get Better Faster Than We Ever Have'

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During an interview today, the secretary of education defended his plan for America's schools and explained why it isn't the same as No Child Left Behind.

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The Atlantic

Arne Duncan says his fourth year as secretary of education is marked by a "huge sense of urgency."
 
During an interview at The Atlantic's Jobs and Economy of the Future Town Hall, Duncan's lanky frame was folded into a chair but his message was veined with exigency. He stressed the role of quality teachers in improving student outcomes, and expressed his belief in incentive measures to better performance. "Great teachers, regardless of socioeconomic challenges--which are very real, we need to address them holistically -- great teachers make a huge difference in students' lives," he said.
 
Judy Woodruff, who conducted the interview, pressed Duncan to address criticism of Obama's signature education initiative, the swiftly-titled Race to the Top program, which provides grants to reward school innovation and reforms. Some argue that Race to the Top's emphasis on testing and value-added teacher evaluations is perpetuating the problems of No Child Left Behind, a program Duncan has been working to dismantle since taking office in 2009. Many have raised concerns that mandating results will overshadow the individual needs of students and punish teachers for factors outside their control.
 
Duncan responded that testing data is just part of his equation: Effectiveness, he said, can be gauged by a combination of factors, including attainment and subjective reports from student surveys.  "At the end of the day, what I'm most interested in is getting those graduation rates to 100 percent, getting those dropout rates down to zero, and making sure that every high school graduate is college and career ready." (In the event's introductory remarks, Microsoft executive Brad Smith had cited a recent report predicting that 62 percent of students will need some college education to be employable in 2018. Only 42% of students now continue past high school.)

Duncan also emphasized that Race to the Top encourages solutions at the state and local level, allowing more individual and freedom. "No Child Left Behind was very prescriptive, top-down from Washington," he said. "You want students learning and improving every year. But how they do that--that's the art of teaching."

Technology will play a major role in bringing American education up to speed, Duncan said. His remarks preceded the formal release of Opportunity for Action: Preparing Youth for 21st Century Livelihoods, a report by the International Youth Foundation that emphasizes the vital role technology now plays in workplace success for nearly every occupation across the globe. "In education, we move far too slow," Duncan said. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the world isn't waiting around. Duncan pointed to the rapid adoption of technology in South Korea, whose education ministry recently announced a $2.4 billion project to digitize all elementary school materials by 2014. "We're either going to follow, or, as a nation, we're going to lead," he said. "I really think we should be leading here."

Duncan described his own two children's enthusiasm for Khan Academy--the free online educational video library launched in 2009 by a recent MIT graduate, which now draws over 2 million users a month. He touted technology as an equalizer for disadvantaged students, specifically in inner city and rural schools. "I think technology can provide access to world-class education that so many children have been denied. The combination of great teachers and great technology, I think, can give children a real chance that they haven't had for decades in this country."

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Sarah Yager is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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