The State of Education


Secretary Duncan spoke on the state of education at the National Press Club. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

“States and districts, schools and communities are driving more change than ever before,” Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters during a speech at the National Press Club yesterday. “Educators at every level are being more and more creative — pairing good schools with struggling schools, creating smaller, more manageable districts, and building partnerships between both high schools and colleges – and between colleges and industries,” he said.

During his speech and follow-up question and answer, Duncan reflected on the Department’s recent Education Drives America cross-country back-to-school bus tour, as well as explained how far we’ve come in last three years, and how far the country still needs to go.

On Flexibility Under No Child Left Behind

Above all there is enormous enthusiasm at the state level to build more effective accountability systems through the waiver process we began last fall – and now affecting more than 60 percent of the schoolchildren in the country in 33 states – with about 10 more in the pipeline.

Waivers are not a pass on accountability – but a smarter, more focused and fair way to hold ourselves accountable. In exchange for adopting high standards and meaningful systems of teacher support and evaluation:

  • States set ambitious but achievable targets for every subgroup.
  • More children at risk – who were invisible under NCLB – are now included in state-designed accountability systems — including low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.
  • Finally, local districts decide the most effective way to intervene in underperforming schools, instead of applying rigid, top-down mandates from Washington.

On Race to the Top

Our job — for the last three and a half years – has been to support that work – to support bold and courageous reform at the state and local level. That’s what Race to the Top was all about.

We offered the biggest competitive grants in our department’s history – and 45 states raised standards and 33 states changed laws – in order to compete and accelerate student achievement. In a fascinating lesson on the power of incentives, we have seen as much reform in states that didn’t receive a nickel as in states that received tens of millions of dollars.

The fact that 45 states have now adopted internationally benchmarked, college and career-ready standards is an absolute game-changer. Virtually the entire country has voluntarily raised expectations for our children.

On Strengthening Teaching

I also know that some educators feel overwhelmed by the speed and pace of change. Teachers I speak with always support accountability and a fair system of evaluation. They want the feedback so they can get better and hone their craft.

But some of them say it’s happening too quickly and not always in a way that is respectful and fair. They want an evaluation system that recognizes out-of-school factors and distinguishes among students with special needs, gifts and backgrounds.

They certainly don’t want to be evaluated based on one test score – and I absolutely agree with them. Evaluation must be based on multiple measures.

On Investing in Education

And the choice facing the country is pretty stark – we are at a fork in the road. Some people see education as an expense government can cut in tough economic times. President Obama sees education as an investment in our future – the best investment we can make, especially in tough economic times.

Duncan ended by calling for the country to unite behind the cause of public education and realize that the solutions won’t come from one party or ideology, but that all of us need to challenge and hold ourselves accountable.

Read the entire speech here, and watch the video from C-SPAN here.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital engagement at the U.S. Department of Education


  1. With budgets so tight these days, I fail to understand why half days are worthwhile. Faculty and busdrivers are paid. Fuel has to be paid for and other considerations while students are only interested in one thing. Getting out early. No one is learning anything. Grant parish schools are let out from half day wednesday through friday for a fair in Rapides parish when we have a festival coming soon to Colfax. Does anyone wonder why our children are so far behind, or does anyone even care.

  2. As we near the upcoming November elections I find it is important to know your approach or how you will manage the position of Superintendent. Rather than all aspects, I question one particular aspect, safety in the schools.

    The current primary campaign against bullying addresses “awareness”. In that awareness will identify and remedy bullying in the school environment and store a safe learning environment as well as a safe workplace for faculty and staff.

    Do you agree that awareness of a problem solves the problem and will continue the existing campaign?

    Working people in America have certain basic legal rights to safe, healthy and fair conditions at work. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) was passed to prevent workers from being killed, bullied or seriously harmed at work. The law requires employers to provide their employees with working conditions that are free of known dangers. By definition, bullying is considered a risk factor resulting in an unsafe working environment!

    This law is further supported by DOL and AFL_CIO, state and local laws, Human Rights Consortium, and numerous unions, as well as good sense. The International Labor Organization was formed in 1919 as part of the League of Nations to protect worker’s rights. The ILO later became incorporated into the United Nations. The UN itself backed workers rights by incorporating several into two articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which is the basis of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 23, 1 reads: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. This is also stated in our Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    The Safe Schools Improvement Act does not disallow any of the pre-existing federal or state rights to a safe work environment for teachers or faculty; or a save learning environment for students. In fact, the Act specifically says it those laws must continue to be enforced and adhered.

    Under all laws, in order to provide a “safe environment” it is necessary to remove the threat. It is common sense! Why do the schools not have a “zero tolerance” policy against bullying? That simply means that administration, students, faculty and staff will enforce and abide by federal, state, and local laws; as well as practice good sense; restoring the schools to a safe learning environment and safe workplace.

    Enforcing these laws does not conflict with the “every child has a right to an education”. So, why would you not take the steps to provide a safe learning and working environment? Why would you continue to sanction the practice of breaking so many laws? What kind of example are the schools setting?

    The US Department of Education issued guidance to support educators in combating bullying in schools by clarifying when student bullying may violate federal education anti-discrimination laws. The guidance, explains educators’ legal obligations to protect students from student-on-student racial and national origin harassment, sexual and gender-based harassment, and disability harassment.

    “We’ve got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not,” said President Obama. “We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids. Every single young person deserves the opportunity to learn and grow and achieve their potential, without having to worry about the constant threat of harassment.”

    “Bullying is a problem that shouldn’t exist. No one should ever feel harassed or unsafe in a school simply because they act or think or dress differently than others,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “To every student who feels threatened or harassed—for whatever reason—please know that you are not alone. Please know that there are people who love you. And please know that we will protect you,” Duncan continued.

    “Students cannot learn if they feel threatened or harassed,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Russlynn Ali. “We want to keep students safe and learning and today’s guidance will help us do that.”

    Well, school administration, faculty and staff, are not protecting our students, or the staff and faculty!

    The remedy is so simple, and legal. Why is it so difficult to see.

  3. I also believe that teachers should not be evaluated on test scores alone. There are so many qualities that make a great teacher and they should not be evaluated by what they score on a test or by how well their students perform. I do not believe a standardized test can measure everything a child knows. As an educator, I am aware that students have different needs and that they learn in different ways. There are visual learners, hands-on learners, and many more learning styles so how can we limit our students to a standardized test?
    I am pleased that states have agreed on Race to the top and the government along with the states have agreed upon a curriculum that are aligned with each other and provides more rigor for student acheivement.
    Finally, I agree with Obama that education is our investment for the future and it is the best investment we can make. If the government invests more in education instead of cutting it then our students will benefit. It is important for our children to benefit in education because they are the future leaders of society.

    • This was very well said. I agree that cutting funding to education is NOT the answer. We must think, in order for us to have the jobs that we have, we needed to learn how to do it. Most of our foundation comes from our education when we were young people. The challenge we have now is that we are not just teaching math and reading, we are teaching life and technology so that our students will know how to function in a society that is run by technology. To teach them that cost money. If we cut funding for education, we cut the opportunities for our students to learn effectively. This is just simple; not even scratching the surface.

    • I could not agree more that Teachers should not be judged on a test. HERE IS AN IDEA…..No matter what is implemented in schools, no matter how it is implemented, teachers will never be able to impact students to their full potential without parent support. Until someone starts to hold the students accountable and the parents accountable, Teachers will continue to be the doormat, and blamed for everything wrong with kids today. Until someone steps up and gets rid of the fact that kids are not allowed to fail more than once in a grade cluster (k-5, 6-8), then we will continue to have students who enter high school not being able to read…and then a teacher in a high school will lose their job because that kid did not pass the state testing…EDUCATION IS A JOKE…..and until someone with some “stones” steps in and says it, NOTHING WILL CHANGE. PARENTS WILL GET A PASS, KIDS WILL GET A PASS, AND TEACHERS WILL BE LOOKED AT AS FAILURES…When it is actually the parent and the child….and the governments’ system….everyone is afraid of saying the wrong thing or people will sue….Grow a set and start holding the right people responsible for their actions….

      • I dare any parent to spend a week teaching! Government and Parents are the reason why so many NH teachers have no jobs. When are people going to wake up!

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