Arne Duncan — Some questions about education

It was almost balmy running this morning at 5 a.m. Must have been around 30 degrees or so. Expect that will change today as another storm approaches. Oh well. Steelers weather.

And more important than the weather is the confirmation hearing in Congress today for Arne Duncan, Obama’s choice for secretary of education. Don’t expect that the Chicago schools superintendent will have any problem getting the Senate OK. By all accounts he is a competent leader, and he represents somewhat of a compromise choice. Here’s from an article in The New York Times:

He represents a compromise choice in the debate that has divided Democrats in recent months over the proper course for public-school policy after the Bush years.

In June, rival nationwide groups of educators circulated competing educational manifestos, with one group espousing a get-tough policy based on pushing teachers and administrators harder to raise achievement, and another arguing that schools alone could not close the racial achievement gap and urging new investments in school-based health clinics and other social programs to help poor students learn.

Mr. Duncan was the only big-city superintendent to sign both manifestos.

He argued that the nation’s schools needed to be held accountable for student progress, but also needed major new investments, new talent and new teacher-training efforts.

In straddling the two camps, Mr. Duncan seemed to reflect Mr. Obama’s own impatience with what he has called “tired educational debates.”

Tired educational debates. Ouch. And yet true. We’ve been trying to reform education in this country now for more than 40 years. Has anything really changed? And if not, why not? I first became involved with the policy debate over reforming our system of public education in the early 1980s when I was at BFGoodrich. At that time, in the wake of A Nation at Risk, the business community believed that all you had to do was manage schools like businesses and we would see substantial improvements. And I was off to Washington working with the Business Roundtable, Heritage Foundation and other organizations.

But the problem was and is bigger than “business management” — touching on a whole host of issues and challenges, some in the classroom, many involving our society in general. And if we have learned nothing else during the past four decades, there are no easy answers here. Now after spending almost 10 years in the classroom and working with students at Kent State I’m back working on education issues with an advocacy group, Corporate Voices for Working Families. I remain convinced that this is the single most important issue facing this nation — even bigger than the current economic meltdown. And we’re not going to fix the economy over the long run without fixing education, K through graduate school.

So I don’t know if Arne Duncan is the right choice to head the federal education establishment. Let’s hope he is.  But in any event I’m encouraged by the attention that Obama is placing on education — and on the thoughtful debate that is taking place now in the media, in public policy organizations, in local school board meetings and, hopefully, in homes throughout the country.

Here’s an example, from Tom Friedman’s column in The New York Times Sunday, “Tax Cuts for Teachers“:

My wife teaches public school in Montgomery County, Md., where more and more teachers can’t afford to buy homes near the schools where they teach, and now have long, dirty commutes from distant suburbs. One of the smartest stimulus moves we could make would be to eliminate federal income taxes on all public schoolteachers so more talented people would choose these careers. I’d also double the salaries of all highly qualified math and science teachers, staple green cards to the diplomas of foreign students who graduate from any U.S. university in math or science — instead of subsidizing their educations and then sending them home — and offer full scholarships to needy students who want to go to a public university or community college for the next four years.

J.F.K. took us to the moon. Let B.H.O. take America back to school.

But that will take time. There’s simply no shortcut for a stimulus that stimulates minds not just salaries. “You can bail out a bank; you can’t bail out a generation,” says the great American inventor, Dean Kamen, who has designed everything from the Segway to artificial limbs. “You can print money, but you can’t print knowledge. It takes 12 years.”

And from Margaret Spellings, the current educaton secretary, writing in The Washington Post this morning, “A Word to My Successor“:

Many people believe that No Child Left Behind can be improved. I agree. In fact, constant improvement is the very point of the law. We have worked closely with states and school districts to implement it fairly and tailor it for their needs.

But I urge you to resist calls to dismantle the core accountability provisions that give the law its power to identify and help children in need. Without it, we’re back to doling out dollars and crossing our fingers.

You will need allies in this fight. And you will find them in the unique and growing nationwide coalition of reformers. These civil rights, business and community leaders understand that recovery on Wall Street and Main Street depends on reform in the classroom. They recognize, as do you and President-elect Obama, that when we raise expectations, we achieve results.

“Recovery on Wall Street and Main Street depends on reform in the classroom.” Without question.

And yet there is not going to be any reform in the classroom until we find ways to hire the best teachers; pay them in a manner that reflects the skills, training, dedication and hard work that they demonstrate each and every day; provide them with the training and support they need to succeed; support their efforts in the classroom and out; and value as a nation teaching once again as an honorable and important profession. I’m not sure that all the policy wonks really get these points. But I’m trying.

If I had the opportunity today as part of the Senate hearing I’d ask Duncan what he plans to do to help classroom teachers raise expectations and achieve results. If we can figure out the answer to that — and then stick with something that works and that receives proper funding from governments at all levels — we’ll finally make some progress in helping our young people succeed in an economy that demands workers with a whole range of new 21st-century skills.

We’re writing a lot about this now at Corporate Voices for Working Families. And — here’s a shameless promotion. Allison Tomei, a recent PRKent grad, is working with me at Corporate Voices. She just recently completed a complete update of our website. Go ahead. If you’ve read this far you have another minute to take a peek.

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