Arne Duncan Carves Out Regular Time to Listen to Students

Arne Duncan Carves Out Regular Time to Listen to StudentsAbout a week ago, a group of students walked proudly down the halls of the US Department of Education to represent their schools, communities, and the countless youth across this nation who want more of a voice in the national education conversation.

In the February 25 meeting, participants discussed how to best engage students like themselves in education policy, what it means to have a quality education, and how to bridge resource gaps.

One leader—Stephanie—described why she almost dropped out of school:  because she didn’t feel as though anyone was looking out for her.  When Arne asked why she stayed in school, she described wanting to push herself to graduate despite her obstacles.  The following day, Stephanie spoke at the National Youth Summit and provided her peers with an example of one who could have fallen through the cracks but who wouldn’t let it happen.

These ten students did far more than have a discussion at the Department; they widened a space for students to have a voice in education. Each month now, different student populations will engage with Arne Duncan on issues facing them. After the February discussion and the National Youth Summit, many of the adults attending commented on the power of the students’ words and experiences, acknowledging that it is important to create spaces for them in our national conversation about their need to have opportunities for a world-class education.

Read a blog post about the Voices in Action National Youth Summit.


  1. I would agree with the comment made by A.S. where he/she says “Our nation’s public school students need and deserve more individualized attention, smaller class sizes and a rich curriculum.” The U.S. has a big problem when it comes to educating our kids. It would seem that we are more intent upon keeping kids in school rather than educating them. The U.S. school system has turned into a giant “day care” system rather than a source of education. Luckily for us some students are driven and truly want to get an education. Unfortunately, that is made even more difficult by the motivated students being subjected to the students who could care less about school. Something needs to be done. And a more reliable source of funding needs to be found. The lottery provides much-needed funds, but the demands in other government areas is putting pressure on the funds provided. We need a major overhaul of the education system in the U.S. before it’s too late.

  2. Secretary Duncan,
    I’m from FL. Our Senate is considering a bill right now that will make it very difficult for many to stay in school. The bill, SB 736 will mandate end of course (FCAT) standardized high stakes tests for every course in school. It will also mandate a merit pay program for teachers based on the scores of the students on these tests. Further, experienced teachers will not be rewarded. Education as it exists now will end. This soon to be law is not based on peer reviewed studies. In fact, peer reviewed studies show these changes do not work. Yet, our legislature, bolstered by RTTT, have decided that these changes will improved education. These changes will cost millions of dollars. As a result, our schools will have less money for teachers. Our teachers will have no power for salary negotiations. Our students will have more power than teachers as they will decide with their test scores which teacher stays and which will go. And the mandatory end of course exams will encourage many borderline students to just drop out and take the GED exam. These are not solutions to the education problems. Your own guy in the DOE, Mr. Cunningham admitted this was true. He said that you had to “do something”- anything. It is irresponsible to do just anything you can think of. Taxpayer money is going to pay for these untested programs. The problem is not only financial. In the meantime, we are not doing what does work. We need to make teaching a profession. Require teachers to get a masters degree. Help them by making an education degrees free with a teaching commitment. Pay teachers more. Make sure they have power in the negotiations with their districts. And make sure our kids are not test taking machines with another new test just around the corner. Thanks!

  3. Our nation’s public school students need and deserve more individualized attention, smaller class sizes and a rich curriculum. One experienced retired principal said that the way he enticed young people to remain engaged in the educational process and stay in school was through offering music, theater, and art which unfortunately now is being narrowed by rigid standardized testing and decimated with budget cuts.

  4. Dear Secretary Duncan,

    It is indeed sad that so many kids like Stephanie feel unappreciated in the current educational system, and cannot get their voices heard. There is one major fundamental flaw in our education system as I see it–maybe because I have quite a different perspective on this subject.

    It has to do with how we stimulate and excite or motivate the brain to learn. This cannot be done at all in our present system, because there is not a core curriculum in the entire United States that takes Music and Art as seriously as Math and Science and English. If there were, then children would learn in a completely organic and natural way. They would also be allowed to express the part of themselves that lays dormant in the present educational system and thus creates frustration with the learning of traditional subjects.

    We need a complete overhaul of our core curriculum in this country to lavishly include the Arts as a serious study like Math, Science, and English. I have taught the violin for over 35 years in many contexts including public school, privately, afterschool programs, community music schools, and currently a major university–NYU, and during this time I have never seen a child who is involved with a musical instrument have severe problems with reading or any subject. It is because they are getting a complete education.

    Let me give you an example: In 1982 I began teaching a child in a community music school whose mother–a single mom on welfare, brought her to the music school religiously every week for lessons from quite a distance away. The girl had music in her life in a serious way–she was expected to practice and progress. She also did well in her academics, and ended up going to Harvard on a scholarship, and is now a lawyer in NYC.
    If you would ask her what made the difference in her life; why she didn’t fail; why her voice was heard, she would tell you that her musical involvement was the key to her success. One isolated story, but there are many like this–and they don’t need to be isolated–all children can learn a musical instrument or sing. Just ask kids who are really truly involved in music what it means to them.

    Its time that the United States raise its level of education all around–start by supporting real musical education in the schools, so literally kids voices will be heard–loud and clear in the chorus, as a soloist, on a flute, violin, trumpet, drum.

    Why can’t we be a superpower in the field of education? well look back at history–what did the ancient civilizations study along side of mathamatics–yes! it was music.
    Let’s all take a new look at what we need to be studying in schools–its not more math, more science, more English, its a balance of all the subjects that are important to grow a student.

    Thanks for listening.

  5. It is very unfortunate that Secretary Duncan,
    really does not understand the failure of our system for many students like Stephanie. They only talk about test scores and teacher accountability and raising the standards,and closing failing schools,but they never explain how they will meet the needs of all children in our schools. No alternatives are ever provided for those children who are not college material. They constantly harp on individualized instruction, but couldn’t care less about reducing class size,and expect all the child to take and pass the same state examinations.Test Prep has replaced reading,writing and math as the most important subject in our schools. What a shame.

  6. I am not surprised that children feel like dropping out of school. We are creating a system that only values test scores, not learning. Even great teachers who want to engage their students feel frustrated because almost all, if not all of their time must be spent on preparing students for tests. This does not create students who can think; it just creates students who can spew back facts. Please think about our children’s future and how we can truly engage them in the learning process. In addition, a system that allows charter schools (that are purportedly part of the public education system) to obtain private funds where traditional public schools cannot is deeply flawed. If regular public schools were given all of the extras that go to charter schools (including fewer students in a class and more funding) you might be surprised at the results. We have some amazing public schools out there, but budget cuts, threatened teacher lay offs, and a system that only prizes test scores is threatening to detroy them.

  7. Kudos to Stephanie. Unfortunately the policies that Arne Duncan is pursuing will result in more students lost in larger classes and bored by teachers who are forced to teach to the test. As a public school parent who campaigned for Obama, I am deeply saddened and disappointed by the education policies being pursued by his administration!

  8. Secretary Duncan, I urge you to listen to a wide variety of student voices, such as the ones who are highlighted here in this March 4, 2011 UCLA-sponsored project:

    “Thirty-one local high school students with the Council of Youth Research — a project of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) — will hold a community hearing at UCLA’s Downtown Labor Center to present their recommendations on how to improve urban public education. Their findings are based on eight months of research investigating educational conditions at their high schools.

    The students, from Crenshaw, Locke, Manual Arts, Roosevelt and Wilson high schools in Los Angeles, used graduate-level social science techniques and theories to collect and analyze data. They distributed more than 1,250 surveys, conducted interviews with school leaders and peers, used statistical databases, and led workshops with teachers to discuss the importance of a ‘powerful curriculum’.”

    Research results:

    I hope these students will visit you in DC.

    I would also urge you to listen to as many true grassroots parent groups as possible. You’ll find increasing concern over Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind: concern that teaching to the test crowds out other curriculum, and concern that subjects that are *not* reading and math will also be part of the same “convenient” quantification of achievement. How will you implement portfolio review of a student’s work in social studies or art if class sizes are at 30 and 40 per teacher? Where will the extra time to grade work produced by larger classes come from? Essay grading takes longer than a bubble-scanned sheet. Expansion of RTTT beyond math/science strikes me as impractical, ill-conceived, and to what result? So we can better identify and fire those teachers who aren’t performing according to unreliable data on student achievement?

  9. It’s interesting that Stephanie’s near brush with dropping out seems to be the fault of teachers, as it’s portrayed in the post above.

    We don’t know much about her, her circumstances, her life at home, or much of anything, other than she claimed to want to pursue school. Good kid.

    And good kids like her deserve better from our leaders who are decimating the public school system in America, providing instead, opportunities for wealthy businessmen to make bank, and removing opportunities for kids like Stephanie to get a better shake than the one she got.

    Large class size is a huge problem for kids, as Leoni said to a stone face.

    Shame on Arne Duncan, and shame on whoever hired him.

  10. If turn around schools are such a great idea AND test scores are reliable why don’t you simply insist that pairs of entire faculties in big enough cities switch places? Teachers at the school that’s doing fine are transferred to the low scoring school.

    That way everyone would get chance and all of you neo-cons (yes, you Mr. Duncan) would soon discover the impact that poverty has on schooling.

  11. It is very sad that this young lady almost dropped out of school. The state of education in America warrants concern. Real change must come from top to bottom. Politicians pay lip service by saying they want to improve the education standards in this country, but are only too happy to bring down the cleaver on spending for schools. President Obama can’t say one thing and Congress does another.

    No Child Left Behind, left many children behind and Race to the Top is racing away from many children, who are quite capable to being stellar students but no-one is listening or even taking the time to help them. You can’t have big class sizes and expect all the students in the class to do well and be given the proper attention. We have to make a concerted effort to fix what ails the education system in this country or we will have more Stephanies who actually drop out of school and become a statistic.

  12. Yes, it is important to create “spaces” for young people to contribute to a “national conversation” on education. It is equally important to create genuine opportunities for parents to contribute their thoughts and ideas on what is and is not working in the schools their tax dollars support. “Genuine” is the operative word.

    The population of ‘involved’ parents continues to grow exponentially. We are on the front lines. We struggle daily with a plethora of issues in both public and charter schools-be it curriculum issues, teacher shortage issues, quality of teacher issues, disenfranchised leadership issues, technology issues, funding that does not reach the classroom issues–many issues where we have first hand knowledge.

    Real change can never be implemented without the ‘buy-in’ or the endorsement from those on the front lines expected to make those changes. Until a “genuine,” unbiased, and unfettered dialogue occurs, workable solutions will not have a chance of being implemented.

    I anxiously await for that real dialogue to occur along with many of my colleagues in Parents Across America, in Testing is Not Teaching and Fund Education Now–all run by parents with only one concern: the children–all children–and their futures. Our schools. Our children. Our voices need to be included. I’m happy to arrange that dialogue at any time and I thank you for this opportunity to comment.

  13. What I’m hearing from Stephanie (student leader) is that she attributed her struggle to having to go-it-alone through a factory-like school environment. I’m really glad that she was able to rise above this, but I fear that other students might not be so inspired.

    Secretary Duncan, I ask you to please curb the elements of your administration’s education reform that focus exclusively on making schools a place of test taking. Kids are getting lost in the system, and the system is only getting less human.

  14. It’s very sad that Stephanie almost dropped out of school: because she didn’t feel as though anyone was looking out for her.Surveys show that many students say that they feel that way because class sizes are so large. Why does Sec. Duncan advocate for increased class size, when smaller classes have been shown, over and over again, to lead to higher student achievement and engagement and lower dropout rates? Doesn’t he know that the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US DOE, says that smaller classes have been linked through rigorous evidence to better student success?

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