What I’ve Learned in 50 States

US Photo Collage“The best ideas come from outside Washington, D.C.” I’ve used that phrase in a lot of speeches and conversations during the past five years, and I repeat it because it’s true. Earlier this month in Hawaii, I visited two schools and talked with military families at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam about college and career ready standards. The stop in Hawaii marked my 50th state that I’ve visited since being Secretary, and the visit once again reinforced the importance of listening to what matters most at the local level.

During the past five years, whether my visit was to a conference, a community center, a business, an early childhood center, a university, or one of the more than 340 schools I’ve stopped by, I’ve come away with new insight and knowledge into the challenges local communities face, and the creative ways people are addressing them. I know that in order to do this job well, it’s vital to never stop listening, especially to those in the classroom each day.

Across the country I’ve witnessed courage in action. States and districts are raising standards and expectations for students, and teachers are thinking deeply about their practice and their profession. And thanks to the hard work of parents, community members, educators, and students themselves, the high school graduation rate is now the highest on record.

Many of the states I’ve visited have brought unexpected surprises. At YES College Prep in Houston, the spirit of the student body moved me as it gathered for its annual College Signing Day. In Columbus, N.M., I saw the conviction and dedication of educators as they grapple with providing a quality education to more than 400 students who cross the U.S.-Mexico border each morning. And in Joplin, Mo., I witnessed a community working together to ensure students continued their education after a tornado destroyed the high school and killed many of their family members.

As I travelled the country, I saw places that inspired me, and others that left me angry, or heartbroken. I’ve visited schools where education funding is too low, and the buildings are in need of desperate repair. I’ve been to neighborhoods where poverty and crime present unique challenges to educators and administrators. I’ve listened to students talk openly about not feeling challenged or inspired. And when I met with grieving parents from Newtown, Conn., I once again saw how devastating gun violence can be for our children and communities.

We must continue to invest at every level of our educational system, from preschool to higher ed. We must fight for our children’s right to grow up safe, free of fear, in schools and communities that cherish and nurture them.

After 50 states, and visits in urban centers, remote rural schools and tribal communities, I am more optimistic than ever. I’m optimistic because of the educators I’ve met, because of the parents and community leaders that rally for great education, and because students everywhere demonstrate their deep conviction that working hard and getting a great education will transform their life chances. They come to school every day because they feel safe, they feel engaged, and they feel loved and valued by their teachers.

America’s public schools embody our American values of creativity, industry and ingenuity, and from Hawaii to Maine, I am fortunate to have learned this firsthand.

Check out the interactive map below, which includes visits to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Click here to see a larger version.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education


  1. Dear Mr. Duncan,
    I am writing to you as a mother of 3 school age children and as a former middle school math teacher. As I learn more and more about how Common Core came to be, I see it as about as undemocratic a way to try to improve education as could possibly have happened. I understand you and President Obama thought you had the perfect storm in which to change things. The first African-American president, overwhelming support, great optimism…then the economic crisis (a blessing in disguise perhaps)…Stimulation money to push change. I was very optimistic when I first heard your plans. I fought with family about your ACA. I thought a national curriculum would be a very good idea…but then I read more about your plan for education. And I saw what was happeneing around the country. Then I read the actual research about how CC came to be, who funded it, how it was sugned on to, the lack of education experts involved, the terrible curriculum that has come from it, the move to provotoze public education instead of truly improve it. And I am sickened. My heart aches with what could have been. I grieve for the children in the inner-cities and their losses of neghborhood schools only to be presented with charters that are not truly interested in edcating everyone. And now I fight for your dismissal, the end of Common Core, and a stain on the president’s legacy. Shame on you, and shame on him.

  2. Secretary Duncan,
    I must take issue with a recent statement you made when testifying before the House Subcommittee on Labor/HHSE/Education regarding Special Education students. You noted that through your $100 million competitive grant program, students with IEP’s will be able to move out of Special education. I am a 37 year veteran Special Ed teacher who teaches the most severely handicapped students in my public school district. I’m good, but not that good that I can “cure” my students. Due to the horrid RTTT mandates, my students are required to take all of the state assessments. The accommodations allow me to only read the questions, not the reading passages which are well beyond their grade level expectations. One of 2 things happens. Either they just sit and stare at me and maybe try to guess, or have a heartbreaking meltdown that lasts the entire day. This is child abuse. Our state only allows for 1% of our children with IEP’s to be evaluated with alternate assessments. These are not children who can be “cured” and moved out of Special Education. Please be more sensitive to this population of children and their families and please do your homework on this issue.

  3. Dear Secretary Duncan: There is a crisis in the public schools in the U.S. Too many are disruptive in the classroom, interfering with the teacher trying to cover the detailed curriculum. Teachers leave teaching due to burnout, stress and a lack of support. Too much administrative time is spent on disciplining unruly children, documentation, crafting a punishment. Many administrators fear parents and lawyers and walk on eggshells. My observations are after over one year in 4 Texas schools, 3 elementary and one junior high. I believe one of the things that you could do in the next 2 and 1/2 years is have an honest serious debate about who needs to take control of the education of our children; is it a federal , state, or local issue? Congress created a federal department of education and many have called for its’ dismantling, including presidential candidates in 2012 and its has been discussed , since I believe, the Carter administration. After this country decides whether the education of our children is a national issue or local, the elephant in the room of the abysmal job parents are doing preparing their children for school, including how to behave, the lack of proper discipline and control of the classrooms and schools by teachers and administrators due to restrictions and fear of lawsuits, and the breakdown of the family, particularly absent fathers, are all contributing factors to why we have the dropout rate, juvenile crime, prison population, and now we are steadily dropping on lists of countries adequately educating their children and these are all issues that seem to be neglected. Just about every major city in this country has too much violent crime being done by men who started as dropouts. We have too many laws which are not enforced and for this nation to adequately reverse this deplorable situation, parents must be held legally accountable for the acts of their children (the inmates) because they are controlling the asylum(the schools) and the laws of child abuse, neglect, contributing to the delinquency of a minor are all on the books and not enforced. We tolerate teens committing acts of homicide and do not hold parents accountable. We allow men to abandon children. Some are celebrated and wealthy. Even if they pay their child support most have little involvement in the rearing of the child which affects their whole life. These issues are largely ignored and in the last 5 years have barely been discussed as we bring up another generation of violent, disruptive children who wreak havoc on the classroom before dropping out and adversely affect the education of the other students in the classroom they disrupt and cause teacher burnout and early retirement or leaving the profession. These are the important issues and we need courageous leaders to take them on, not announcements about grants and financial aid. Who will take on the elephants in the room as our society continues to fall behind other nations that do not allow the child neglect we have allowed as a society for the last 30 years. It is now commonplace to see school violence that was not a reality in the 1970s.

  4. I really do believe that schools should educate their students. They should not long-term suspend a student for substance abuse. The schools would do well to have an accountant help them balance their stretched dollars, and the schools would do very well not to use local police officers as “resource officers”, who facilitate a school-to-prison pipeline.

  5. ‘I’ve visited schools where education funding is too low, and the buildings are in need of desperate repair.’

    Instead of requiring districts to apply for “grants”, jump through hoops for Race to the Top funding that is inequitable and discriminatory by any means test, you should be raising taxes on the top 1% who are sucking education dollars away from public education for personal gain. The Waltons, Gates, Pearson publishing with the Common Core rip off and others who fund charter interests and insist that teachers are the problem, not poverty and parents, are the folks benefiting from our public education dollars or those schools you saw would’ve been properly funded, repaired and staffed.

    Until the hidden tax breaks from off-shore accounts are stopped and those corporations and people start being taxed fairly and we can start investing back into America’s schools, communities and infrastructure, then…well – I guess we’ll have the best politicians that money can buy who will help their friends get the biggest piece of American Pie.

    How many of those folks have their children in public schools? Why aren’t they doing these “reforms” in the private schools first as a “pilot” to see if even worth our time.

    Such a disaster. Shame on you for bowing to corporate interests at the expense of our children.

  6. Secretary Duncan,
    As a high school Language Arts teacher, I hope this feedback will be taken in the spirit in which it is meant. Though I vehemently disagree with many of your policies, including your proclivity for championing local governance of schools and teacher empowerment with one voice while instituting draconian, misguided, federally-controlled mandates
    based on junk science with another, I support your frequent communications with educators and hope in the future you will listen to us more thoughtfully.
    The main reason for this email, though, is some constructive criticism of “your” writing. Whether you yourself write the copy for communications such as this or someone else does it for you, you should really hire a proofreader who has learned standard English conventions and decent rhetorical skills. Putting a comma after “I know” in the last sentence of the second paragraph and phrases like “in need of desperate repair” are examples of shoddy writing that do not reflect well on someone in charge of education in a first-world nation.

    Susan Stahl, NBCT
    Seattle, WA

  7. Dear Arne Duncan,

    I am a firm believer that the United States of America has some of the best learning opportunities in the world. These opportunities are available in our various American school systems. Is there room for improvement? Yes, there is!

    However, the United States of America is great because of the differences that exist in our society. Is there room for improvement? Yes, there is!

    However, our ability to differ in what is the best way to educate our children; may very well be a significant strength in disguise; as long as the difference is not too great. I believe the constant dialogue and review of data will help us to avoid the differences becoming too great. For differences, are indeed great marks of our democratic society.

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