Behind Progress, Common Sense and Courage

This op-ed appeared in the January 23, 2014 edition of the Washington Post.

In education, it sometimes takes courage to do what ought to be common sense.

That’s a key lesson from several recent national and international assessments of U.S. education. These include the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card; a new version of the NAEP focused on large, urban districts; and the international rankings in the tri-annual PISA test.

Collectively, these assessments demonstrate extraordinary progress in the places where leaders have worked hardest and most consistently to bring change — but also a national failure to make nearly enough progress to keep up with our competitors.

Duncan at PISA

Secretary Duncan received feedback from students during last month’s PISA release.

Nationwide, students made modest progress in reading and math in 2013, with achievement edging up to record highs for fourth- and eighth-graders, the NAEP found.

Nearly every state has adopted higher academic standards, and most states have instituted new systems of teacher support and evaluation. It’s a testament to hardworking educators that they are implementing these changes and raising student performance at the same time.

But as the international PISA results demonstrate, our progress isn’t enough. Other countries are leapfrogging us at a time when education is vital to economic health in a global competition for jobs and innovation. Among the 65 countries and education systems that participate in PISA, the United States was surpassed by 27 in math and 14 in reading . That’s unacceptable.

We can learn, however, from some of the standouts. In contrast to a national picture of gradual progress, Tennessee and the District of Columbia reported striking jumps — in both math and reading achievement and in both grades examined, fourth and eighth.

We don’t know all the reasons why students did better in Tennessee and the District in 2013 than in 2011. But it is clear that they shared a similar approach to bettering education — taking common-sense, but politically hard, steps to help students. Both are places where vulnerable students predominate; 73 percent of District students and 55 percent of Tennessee students are sufficiently needy to qualify for reduced-price meals.

There are important lessons here. What these two places also had in common was a succession of leaders who told educators, parents and the public the truth about educational underperformance and who worked closely with educators to bring about real changes. They pushed hard to raise expectations for students, even though a lower bar would have made everyone look better. And they remained committed to doing the right thing for children, even when it meant crossing partisan lines or challenging ideological orthodoxy.

To meet those higher standards, these leaders invested in strengthening the quality of classroom instruction and revamping systems for teacher support and evaluation. They ensured that teachers could use good data from multiple sources to identify learning gaps and improve instruction. They also sought ongoing feedback from educators and others.

These concepts — developing and supporting the people who do the most important work, using data to inform improvement — are what strong organizations do.

Yet these common-sense steps took uncommon courage. Tennessee had previously set one of the lowest bars in the country for proficiency in reading and math. The resulting proficiency rates — 91 percent in math and 92 percent in reading — were a lie. By raising standards, Tennessee’s leaders forced the public, parents and politicians to confront brutal facts.

When Tennessee raised its standards in 2010, the proportion of students rated proficient dropped to 34 percent in math and 45 percent in reading. But in a bipartisan act of courage, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stayed true to the reforms begun under Democrat Phil Bredesen. They refused to dumb down standards to try to make Tennessee students look better.

Were students actually doing worse? No. For the first time, the state was telling the truth.

Just as important, leaders in the District and Tennessee worked with educators to transform industrial-era systems of support and evaluation for teachers and principals that had little or no link to teachers’ impact on student learning. That meant continuing the work of political predecessors, as Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson did in the District.

Building better systems that take account of educators’ impact on learning is complex and controversial work. Yet in Tennessee and the District, leaders solicited input from their critics, stayed committed but flexible and delivered systems that help both successful and struggling teachers.

I’m cautious about drawing big conclusions from a two-year trend, and it’s important to track a variety of educational outcomes, such as high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Even so, the experiences of Tennessee and the District suggest that children win when leaders work closely with educators to do several vital things right, at the same time, and don’t give up when the going gets tough.

As Henderson said: “When you concentrate on teacher quality, you get results. When you radically increase the level of academic rigor, you get results.”

To be clear, no one in Tennessee or the District is declaring victory. Students in both places have a lot further to go to close achievement gaps and even to reach the level of top-performing states. But their progress shouldn’t be treated as mysterious or miraculous.

The changes America’s children need to get a better education require political courage and hard work. But in many cases the steps are surprisingly straightforward — and can be taken anywhere.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education


  1. Just a quick “common sense” comment…..It’s hard for a child to learn when they come to school hungry or without some of the basic needs a child has, regardless of whose responsibility it is. The program in place to provide breakfast and Backpack Buddies has provided one need and the after school tutoring program has helped fulfill another. Neighborhood and community programs such as Big Brothers/ Big Sisters, Amachi, PTA/PTO groups as well as church and community volunteers all work together for the good of our children. As a great grandmother with custody of two school age children I can attest to the fact that the “normal” famly structure has changed. There are many latchkey kids. It is up to those who can and are willing to step up and help. The teachers and school system can’t do it alone. Just remember— these children are our future leaders.

  2. Really, Arne….really. When are you going to acknowledge that you are spearheading the failed and destructive “reform” movement of public education. Your efforts continue to rob children of educational opportunties while lining the pockets of the wealthy. You and our first African-American president are at the lead in the current civil rights issue of our time, dismantling public education, further isolating children of color, special needs, and/or poverty. There is NO honest dialogue just twisted facts and information used to support failed policies.

  3. People need to realize that with the PISA scores, we are comparing apples to oranges. When we are told we are No. X on the list it means nothing because we are dealing with cultural norms, diverse education systems, and most importantly, different expectations. What few people want to realize is that we see education differently than each of the nations we are comparing ourselves to. Keep this in mind, in most countries school is not a place for cheerleaders, sports teams, plays, etc. We provide all of these to our students. Most other nations do not. If you want your child to play soccer, you pay for the equipment and sign them up for a private league that you pay for out of your family income. If your child is gifted musically and wants to sing or play an instrument, you pay for that too.

    When people make the argument that we spend $X per child while another country spends much less and gets better results, well, it is because of the differences in how each nation values education. We want to allow our students to be exposed to a little bit of everything and we spend millions on giving them these opportunities.

    DO NOT let the US Dept. of Ed., Pearson or any politician use PISA scores as a justification for their “flavor-of-the-month” reform.

    • I agree with you Mary Ann that there is an “expectations” problem in the U.S. Other countries have high expectations relative to educating students in school (with some extracurriculars for social skill development) and requiring parents to take responsibility in raising their children. When everything is done for parents, they don’t have expectations or knowledge of responsibility. Therefore, the achievement gap will continue to widen because those parents who have expectations for their children will continue to do what it takes. Unfortunately, the number of parents waiting for someone else to take responsibility for their children will continue to rise and the achievements will be minimal.

      It is discouraging, especially when you work with so many students who are capable of achieving with the proper guidance and support, but we continue to cripple them by authorizing failing programs, curriculums and school administrators. For the programs that do work, they are copied by school Districts for the WOW factor of alluring students, however they are clueless in the fine detail in getting the job done—educating students.

      It is a comedy of errors at the expense of far too many.

  4. I feel that there are not enough programs in place to help children see the vision of success in our school systems. I was told at a meeting ” that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”. I told them that it’s not about leading them to the water, but creating a thirst for the water and lighting the pathway for them to get there. Just some food for thought. Be Blessed

  5. There are currently no plans in place to educate America’s children. There are too many standards, rules, fees, licensing requirements and politics to ever make things better.
    Common Core is an almost perfect example of what does not work.
    Find teachers who can teach even if they don’t “play the game” and hire them. Get out of the way and let them educate America’s students.

  6. Wait, what? There were DC school leaders who were honest about something – ANYTHING?!? – while running DC public schools?!?!?

    I’m sorry, I choked on my coffee, I was laughing so hard.

    Seriously, Dude, you have No. Clue. You are not in classrooms teaching and never have been. You already had no credibility when discussing education policy and somehow you have managed to LOWER my estimation of you as an educational leader with this drivel, I mean “speech.”

  7. Reality check. Leaders need to tell us the truth. I am skeptical of anything a director or CEO reports. Facts can be made to say anything. We need to tell it like it is and stop all this sugar coating. Lets get the job done and put our efforts (including cash) at what needs to be done first.

  8. It would be interesting to see how this article would tie in to the level of morale present in Tennessee classrooms among students and teachers.

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