Student Board Members Dial Up Secretary

Sunday afternoon for a high school student can look a lot like this: hang out with friends, spend some time online, start a project due Monday, download music. Their weekend agenda doesn’t typically include this: participate in a conference call about education policy with the U.S. Secretary of Education and student leaders from across the country.

But for 24 students from 14 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, that was how Sunday, Nov. 21 went as these student members of state boards of education gathered by phone to share their experiences, their ideas, and to talk with Secretary Duncan. The conference call was organized by NASBE, the National Association of State Boards of Education, which had convened the student board members for a virtual orientation session.

Arne told the students he was impressed by their commitment to public service. “You’re so far ahead of what I was thinking about in high school,” he said, thanking them for representing their fellow students at the state level.

Nearly half of the country’s state boards of education include students in board deliberations and decision-making, and many local school boards do, also. Every school board should, Arne said, adding that while he talks to students as part of his frequent visits to schools around the nation, he would like to get their advice more regularly.

“Our job (as education policymakers) is to work for you,” he said, “and if we’re not listening to you, we’re kidding ourselves. It’s like our head’s in the sand.”

For about half an hour, the students asked questions and offered their thoughts on the state of education and school reform. Myles Gearon from Illinois, the Secretary’s home state, expressed concern that under current federal education law (commonly known as No Child Left Behind), schools are expected to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on state tests, and if they fall short—even by one measure—they are considered failing. Currently, the law expects that by 2014 every student will be proficient in reading and math and that every school will be “perfect.” Gearon called that requirement “grossly unrealistic” and demoralizing to educators and students.

Arne agreed. No Child Left Behind is too punitive—the law, which is formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—sets up “50 different ways to fail,” he said. To remedy that, the Obama Administration’s Blueprint for Reform proposes to scrap the current pass/fail accountability system and replace it with one that differentiates between schools with persistent achievement gaps across the board and those that have shortcomings here and there. The proposal would give schools in the latter category much greater flexibility in addressing their needs while also including rewards for schools where growth in student achievement is greatest.

Where the Blueprint does not waver, Arne said, is on breaking down data on student achievement to measure how subgroups of students are performing and growing, so that students don’t slip through the cracks because of  their race or ethnicity, English language abilities, special needs or socioeconomic status.

Arne encouraged the student board members to focus on combating the dropout rate in their states, communities and schools. Losing 1 million students a year is “morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable,” he said. In response to a question from Donald Handeland from Alaska, he added, “When students drop out today, they’re basically condemned to poverty and social failure. There are just no good jobs for them. Our economy has changed.”

Zhan Okuda-Lim of Nevada asked the Secretary about the federal role in education and what role he thinks states play. Arne replied that he sees the Department’s role as supporting states and, in turn, local school districts. “So much of the action in school reform is at the state level. We think that’s where the real lever is,” he said. “Our goal—and our opportunity, really—is to support that great local leadership.”

Arne expressed his hope that Congress would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the coming year and that states and local school districts would continue to make bold changes to improve our nation’s education system.

“Education,” he said, “has to be the one thing where we put politics aside and simply do the right thing by America’s children and the country.”

Wrapping up the conversation, Arne told the students they “make me very, very hopeful for where we’re going.”

Massie Ritsch
Office of Communications and Outreach

Carrying on the Tradition of Great Teaching

Jami Burns and Allison Nys are carrying on the tradition of good teaching in rural Montana schools.

They are proof that great teachers do more than produce high-achieving students in their classrooms today. They have the power to inspire the next generation of great teachers that our nation needs and America’s prosperity depends on.

Both told their stories at the 102nd annual National Rural Education Association conference in Branson, Missouri this week.

Burns teaches at Huntley Project Elementary, a distant rural K-6 school of approximately 360 students in the Worden, MT of Yellowstone Country. She teaches at the school she attended as a child. She said that she is one of a dozen members of her former classmates who became teachers.

“And I truly believe we all became teachers because we had great teachers when we were growing up,” Burns said.

Nys was named the Montana Rural Teacher of the Year by the Montana Association of County School Superintendents. She teaches fifth- and sixth-graders – a combined class with eight students in each grade – at Pioneer School, north of Billings, MT. The Pioneer School has a total enrollment of 60 students in grades prekindergarten to six.

Nys said she chose to teach at the small rural school that she once attended and to live in a rural community, because it is a great place live, work and raise a family. She believes her students do well because of the personalized instruction she is able to provide.

She also believes she is a teacher today, because of her teachers and the positive experience of attending a small rural school.

It is estimated that our nation will need more than one million new teachers in the next five years. Some rural communities face unique challenges with teacher recruitment. Rural communities also have many strengths that include parental involvement, small class sizes, and personalized instruction that is often applicable to their communities and makes education meaningful to students.

On September 27, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched a national teacher recruitment campaign that features a new website — — dedicated to providing information and resources for students and prospective teachers — including a new interactive “pathway to teaching” tool designed to help individuals chart their course to becoming a teacher.

The world is changing. Shape it. Pursue your passions – TEACH,

John White
Office of Communications and Outreach

Pathways to Teaching

Last week, Secretary Duncan launched the TEACH campaign, and with it a new website,, where aspiring teachers can come to find their pathway to teaching. As an ongoing series, we will be featuring teachers from around the country, and have them tell their story of how they found their calling in the classroom.

Nick Greer, a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education, was a Baltimore City high school science teacher and former Baltimore Teacher of the Year.

“This child is more frustrated than she needs to be,” I thought to myself as I watched a frustrated young girl throw parts of the toy she was playing with across the room. “…Just another day at New Beginnings Learning Center, I suppose,” was my next thought. As I approached, I recognized that she was trying to solve a three-dimensional puzzle that involved cogs and gears that could be used to move an object. I also realized the problem she was having right away, and recognized two options for helping her. The first was to simply pick up the pieces, finish the puzzle for her, and allow her to rejoice in the working model. The second was a more involved approach, and wouldn’t be as easy. The alternative involved having young Shartaya pick up the pieces she threw and sit down with me while I asked her questions leading her to discover the solution on her own. Enjoying a challenge, I chose the more complicated of the two options. The feeling I received from watching Shartaya rejoice in her own solution to her perplexing predicament left me second-guessing my future career goals in my second-to-last year at the University of Pittsburgh.

Never in my wildest dreams, or nightmares for that matter, had I contemplated teaching as a career choice. Even through high school while tutoring friends and teammates, hearing my mother exclaim that my path had already been laid out as a teacher, I refused to listen. Even while studying Neuroscience (my intended life’s goal), yet not feeling particularly attracted to the research labs that appeared to be calling my classmates away, I refused to see the obvious signs. How could I return to the ruthless high school environment after all the years spent watching other students harass and belittle teachers, supposedly working on their most important life skill: insubordination? After my brief encounter with Shartaya it seemed I never even had a choice. My remaining year at Pitt was spent finishing my Biological Sciences degree, then taking the prerequisite courses needed to apply for the rigorous Master of Arts Teaching graduate program at Pitt. “I told you so,” was the only statement my mother uttered. My time as a Masters student was funded through Federal Student Aid Stafford loans and a couple of award-based grants that I received for showing promise in my future career.

Looking back, Shartaya taught me that if I’m patient and creative enough my students will extract life-long lessons: comprehension that isn’t provided in a textbook. She led me to become addicted to inspiring people so that they too may become addicted to learning.”

To hear more from Nick about his experience in the classroom, and about why our students need strong male role models, check out:

Find your path to teaching at

Conference Call with Education Grantmakers

Secretary Arne Duncan held a 30-minute conference call with education grantmakers on Friday, October 1.

He reflected on the important role that the philanthropic sector has played over the past year in supporting the transformations taking place around the country. The Secretary thanked grantmakers for their support for the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) and Promise Neighborhoods, and encouraged funders to help states and districts maintain the momentum created by their applications to these grant programs and others such as Race to the Top. He then answered questions from the participants about the role for education funders as states and districts implement reforms in a difficult fiscal environment.

Listen to the call. Audio icon Read the transcript.

President’s Back-to-School Speech Sparks Teachable Moment for Dual-Roled Educator

Teaching Ambassador Fellow Tracey Van Dusen uses the President's back-to-school speech as a teachable moment in her Advanced Placement Government class.

President Obama’s back-to-school address, delivered in a Philadelphia auditorium, was made a teachable moment for high school students who watched the live broadcast of the speech in their Ann Arbor, Michigan, classroom through the efforts of teacher Tracey Van Dusen, recently appointed by Secretary Duncan as a 2010-2011 Teaching Ambassador Fellow (TAF).

“Several students said they liked the way the President related his own less-than-perfect school experiences to really personalize it,” said Van Dusen, who remains a full-time government and history teacher at Pioneer High School while serving part-time in the TAF corps, described by the Secretary as “the voice of teachers in the Department,” and “ambassadors to teachers, students and parents across the country.”

The President’s speech provided Van Dusen a perfect catalyst to integrate those dual roles by sharing her newly-honed insights into the real world of federal policymaking with her Advanced Placement Government class. Before the broadcast began, she walked students through a history of federal education policy in the U.S., from the days of one-room school houses to current education reforms like Race to the Top.

The veteran teacher was impressed with the way the President subtly wove messages about education reform into his speech.

“He drove home the importance of education at this point in history by talking about the real-life recession struggles that many families are experiencing, and linking that to students’ everyday school achievement and its potential impact on their future and on America’s future as we compete with other nations,” said Van Dusen.

Van Dusen’s lesson and Obama’s words sparked lively classroom dialogue on a variety of provocative topics, including the appropriate role of the federal government in education, the value of student testing, and what makes a great school. She looks forward to continuing that discussion in her future AP classes, and to expanding the conversation to students in other Pioneer government classes by incorporating the taped video of the President’s address and similar activities around it.

Donning her Teaching Ambassador Fellow “hat,” Van Dusen is excited about the future opportunities she’ll have to discuss federal initiatives with other educators in their districts and states, and to encourage their input into efforts to improve education at all levels of government.

Julie Ewart
Office of Communications and Outreach

Central High School: Courageous as Ever

Central High School: Courageous as EverLITTLE ROCK—The building of Central High looks almost exactly as it did when the school was built in 1927. The students, however, do not.

Since the “Little Rock Nine” helped integrate Central in 1957, the school has become a mix of more than 2,400 students of various races, socio-economic backgrounds and communities. It is also now regarded as one of America’s top-performing public high schools. In a nation where more than a quarter of students drop out before completing high school, Central High sends 80 percent of its graduates to college.

This morning, in front of the high school’s Art Deco and Collegiate Gothic façade, Secretary Duncan joined Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and state Commissioner of Education Tom Kimbrell to applaud Central’s achievements since its dark days a half century ago when nine African American teenagers were stopped by National Guard troops when they tried to enter the all-white school.

“From that extra tough experience,” Arne said, “a beautiful flower has grown. And if it can happen here, ladies and gentlemen, it can happen anywhere in the country.”
The Secretary, who was born seven years after what they refer to here as “the crisis,” recalled learning about it in school. He told Minnijean Brown Trickey, a “Little Rock Nine” member in today’s audience, “I can’t tell you how much your courage motivated me and motivated so many young people growing up around the country.”

Central High School: Courageous as EverArne’s first meeting on campus was with a group of Central’s teachers in the school’s library. They asked questions about federal education policy and the Obama administration’s proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which most teachers know as No Child Left Behind. The teachers shared their ideas for improving the law and suggested ways to support a well-rounded curriculum and evaluate teachers.

Arne took this away from their conversation: “For all the progress and success [at the school], nobody is complacent. Nobody is saying, ‘We’ve arrived.’ Everybody’s hungry to get better. And that’s what we have to continue to do as a country. We have to educate our way to a better economy.”

For politicians and policymakers, he told the teachers, “our only job is to support you, to help this country start to recognize how critically important teachers are to our future.”

More Photos

Massie Ritsch
Office of Communications & Outreach

Get on the Bus

Across America, school buses are rolling out to pick up students and start a new academic year. Joining those yellow buses this year will be the blue motor coach you see here, and its route will be more than 800 miles long, spanning eight states. Not your typical ride to school.

Aboard the blue bus will be U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, headlining a Back to School tour with the theme “Courage in the Classroom: Honoring America’s Teachers.” Over the next two weeks Arne will visit schools that are facing challenges head-on—and demonstrating success. He will talk with teachers about how they are helping their students achieve and how the federal government can best support educators.

The tour kicks off in the South on Aug. 26 at iconic Central High School in Little Rock, where in 1957 nine courageous teenagers were the first African Americans to desegregate the school. Then the bus will travel on to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The second, northeastern leg begins Aug. 30 in Albany, traveling on to Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Click here for an accessible version of the video.

All along the way we’ll be talking with teachers and other educators about the critical work they’re doing to educate America’s young people. We’ll talk to parents and students about their goals for the new school year and beyond.

Joining Arne will be some of the Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows, who join us from the classroom for a year to ensure that the teacher’s voice is always being heard.

You can follow the Back to School tour here on, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Look for updates from the road each day, along with photos and video from events and behind the scenes.

Massie Ritsch
Office of Communications and Outreach

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Call with Reporters on President’s Higher Education Speech

Secretary Arne Duncan participated in a press conference call with reporters today to preview President Obama’s speech on higher education and to discuss the impact of the Administration’s higher education agenda on the Hispanic community. Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, also participated in the call.

Listen to a recording of the call. Audio icon

Top 5 Things You Should Know Before Heading Back to College

Cross-posted from the White House blog.

Today President Obama is traveling to the University of Texas at Austin to discuss what the Administration is doing to meet his goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. Thousands of college students will be heading back to school in the next few weeks, so here’s a list of the top five things you need to know before you head back to school:

  1. Many students’ wallets are going to be a little heavier. The President has invested more than $40 billion in Pell Grants and provided support to help these scholarships keep pace with inflation in the coming years. The great thing about Pell Grants is that they are free and clear – they don’t have to be paid back if your family qualifies. Since taking office, the President has helped grow the maximum Pell Grant scholarship by $800. This is real money that students and families can use to pay for tuition and fees.
  2. If you don’t have a job after graduation lined up and are stressed about health insurance, don’t worry. If you’re under 26 years of age, you may already be able to get on a parent’s health insurance plan – and all plans will allow this in September.
  3. Not ready for a 4 year institution? Community colleges are a great alternative, and they will receive an extra $2 billion over the next four years to invest in degree and training programs that will prepare you for the jobs of the future.
  4. If you attend one of America’s 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) or 225 Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), your school might get a cut of $2.55 billion in coming years. That means better courses, facilities, and programs for you.
  5. Interested in pursuing a career in math or science? The Department of Energy, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, will dedicate $19 million in funds for its undergraduate and graduate fellowship, scholarship, and traineeship programs.

Click here for more information on President Obama’s agenda for higher education.