We have a tendency in our fast-moving world to focus on controversial-sounding soundbites, instead of the complex policy debates that underlie them. Unfortunately, I recently played into that dynamic. A few days ago, in a discussion with state education chiefs, I used some clumsy phrasing that I regret – particularly because it distracted from an important conversation about how to better prepare all of America’s students for success.
In talking about the importance of communicating about higher learning standards, I singled out one group of parents when my aim was to say that we need to communicate better to all groups – especially those that haven’t been well reached in this conversation. I have not been shy in letting the country know the enormous value of the state-led movement to prepare young people for college and careers. My goal was to urge elected leaders and educators to be more vigorous in making that case, too, particularly when recent polling shows that a majority of Americans may not even know what these higher standards are.
More rigorous standards for what students should know and be able to do have the potential to drive much-needed improvements in America’s classrooms. The state-created standards known as the Common Core are widely supported by teachers—three-quarters of whom have said in surveys that higher standards will improve instruction—and by leaders from both sides of the aisle. Republican Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas, has written, “From an economic and workforce development perspective, these standards are critical.” Democratic Governor Jack Markell of Delaware has said these standards emphasize “the ability of our next generation of workers – your kids, our kids – to apply lessons learned in the classroom to real-world situations.”
I want to encourage a difficult conversation and challenge the underlying assumption that when we talk about the need to improve our nation’s schools, we are talking only about poor minority students in inner cities.
This is simply not true. Research demonstrates that as a country, every demographic group has room for improvement. Raising standards has come with challenging news in a variety of places; scores have dropped as a result of a more realistic assessment of students’ knowledge and skills.
Every parent wants the best for their children. Every parent deserves accurate information about how their kids are doing in school. And every community can be doing more to challenge all its students and bring out their individual brilliance.
As a parent of two children in public school, I know no one enjoys hearing tough news from school, but we need the truth – and we need to act on it. The truth is we should be frustrated that as students, parents, and citizens, we’ve been hiding the educational reality, particularly as other countries are rapidly passing us by in preparing their students for today and tomorrow’s economy. However, we should use this passion to say that the status quo is not acceptable and that we want more for all students.
Good communication matters, because the transition to higher standards isn’t easy. While the work of implementing reform is absolutely challenging, it’s time to come together to do what’s necessary to provide all our students the educational opportunities they truly deserve.
Let’s get back to that conversation, because it’s an important one for our country.
Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education