The Secretary of Education Speaks on the Future of “No Child Left Behind”

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne DuncanU.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

The “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act of 2001 is up for reauthorization, amid a great deal of debate about which parts of it have succeeded and which have failed. On Tuesday evening, I attended a “town hall” meeting in Arlington, Virginia, at which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussed the Obama administration’s plans for changes to the legislation before its renewal. He also talked about what parents and communities need to do to make U.S. schools better.

The first thing about NCLB that will be changed, Duncan said, is its name, as the current one “has become toxic.” But that’s the least of the changes he wants to see. There needs to be a set of national standards for students, he said, instead of the current system in which each state has its own; and the standards need to be set high enough that students who meet them are genuinely prepared for college. The system needs to deal better with teachers, he said: rewarding the best teachers, supporting good ones with room for improvement, and — there’s really no way to put it nicely — getting rid of those who simply shouldn’t be teaching. Further, raising the pay for special-education and mathematics teachers is a priority for Duncan, as too few highly qualified individuals seek out those jobs today.

Duncan also pointed out that the current school year is obsolete, having been based on an agrarian economy that no longer is a reality for most students in the country: few kids need the summer off to help with the farm. Schools, he said, should be open more months of the year, and later hours, too — he pointed out that most schools have resources like libraries, gymnasiums, and computer labs that could be of use to the community during hours when instruction is not taking place. Some schools have started partnerships with local community centers, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and the like, whereby part of the school is run by the outside entity and stays open after the rest of the school closes. Expanding this kind of idea across the country could help schools trim costs while at the same time provide a benefit to their local communities.

Duncan also spoke about safety. “Students,” he said, “can’t learn if they don’t feel safe.” So schools, and the communities they serve, must be safe environments for schoolkids, or their fears will become a huge obstacle to the learning process. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what specific measures the administration intends to enact to improve safety, though Duncan said that tying the community more closely to the school with plans such as the one mentioned above should have a positive effect on the kids’ safety.

Over and over again throughout the event on Tuesday, one thing kept getting mentioned, both by Secretary Duncan and by the other participants: Parents need to be more involved in their kids’ schooling. Duncan indicated that he is aware of how difficult a problem this is to solve, but also how important it is, as he is a parent of two little kids himself. First, he said, parents need to understand how important it is that they take an active role in their children’s education. Second, parents who need assistance helping their kids need to get it from the community: that is, parents whose job(s) prevent them from helping their kids with their homework or going to school events need to be given more options, with legislation if necessary, and parents who themselves are not well-enough educated to help their kids need to be given access to adult education.

Over the next several months, Secretary Duncan and his staff will take trips to each of the 50 states, to find out what parts of NCLB people think have been working and which parts they think need to be changed. He will also be delivering his message of parental and community involvement to anyone who will listen.

As for me, I liked most of what I heard. Secretary Duncan told me personally that he wants to see some of the money set aside for education in the economic stimulus package used to help reduce class sizes, which have been growing in many parts of the country despite NCLB’s mandates to reduce them. He is committed to encouraging young people to go into teaching, and talked about enacting programs to help provide more incentive for them to do so. I also particularly liked when he was talking about his own background, and he mentioned that, when he was growing up, his family had no TV set at all, so he and his parents (who were both educators) read a lot of books together. His parents, he said, made sure he read the classics: “Twain, Tolkien, Dickens…”

Taken on the whole, there was a great deal more substance than often appears at such events. Secretary Duncan clearly takes his job very seriously, and has some very good-sounding ideas on how to fix much of what is wrong with America’s schools.

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