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Notes from Education Nation: Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Address

NBC Universal

On Monday Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave an address at Education Nation, moderated by Tom Brokaw. The highlights from Secretary Duncan’s speech:

 -Elevating the teacher profession. One of Duncan’s key points is that we, as a society, need to place a higher value on the teaching profession – and particularly on effective teachers. “Talent matters,” said Duncan in his speech. “We need to pay great teachers more, and reward their excellence. Teachers do the most important work in society…Great teachers are like Picasso and Michelangelo, performing miracles every day,” Duncan said. Making the teaching profession prestigious and better-respected is especially important because according to Duncan, “we’re going to need about a million new teachers in the next five years,” as the baby boomer generation retires. There better be some fast work done on this, though – it looks like the need for new teachers might surpass the time we have to change the way society treats and values teachers. In fact, the need for new teachers is starting now: the newly-launched website has hundreds of teacher job openings posted. Ten thousand science and math teachers are in particularly high demand.

 Still, Duncan’s Department of Education has increased financial incentives for teachers, pouring $400 million in funding for STEM educators and rolling out the income-based repayment plan, where teachers would make student loan payments not to exceed 15% of their income, and, after 10 years of service, all of their loan debt would be absolved.

Duncan also emphasized not only attracting and hiring great teachers but retaining them – and not bogging them down with test requirements to be deemed effective. “Teaching is a craft,” said Duncan, and we can’t leave new teachers high and dry with no support system – 46% of them will leave within five years because of that. “We can’t let young teachers burn out in the first few years.” And we need to stop making teachers teach for a test, said Duncan: “No Child Left Behind saw a narrowing of the curriculum…we spend far too much on testing. Less fill-in-the-bubble sheets is the right thing for students.”

-Education is the civil rights issue of our time. “If you can ride in the front of a bus, but you can’t read, you’re not free,” said Duncan during a press conference after his address. “We have to educate our way through a better economy…what we’re doing now simply isn’t good enough.” Our nation’s children must all feel physically, socially and emotionally safe before they can put their minds to doing well in school. Duncan referred to his work in the Chicago school systems, where some students would say, heartbreakingly, “if I grow up…” instead of “when I grow up.” There needs to be a feeling that school is a place of safety, happiness and learning for all – a refuge for children who don’t get that feeling at home.

Duncan also called for greater diversity in the teaching force. African-American and Hispanic males make up a mere 3.5% of teachers today -- and yet those minorities are the ones who traditionally suffer worst in public schools. Male Hispanic and African-American students need teachers as role models. “It’s hard to dream about something you can’t envision.”

-Parents matter. The government has plenty of messes to clean up in our education system, but in order to usher in true education reform, Duncan said we all need to step in. “The parental piece is huge,” he said. “Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers.” Duncan plans to double spending in parental engagement programs in FY’11, and said that this is an area in which “we’ve significantly underinvested.” Keeping schools open longer hours and inviting families in – “our schools have to be the heart of the neighborhood,” said Duncan – is a start to helping increase parental involvement.

Overall, Duncan remains optimistic about the success of our schools. We all know our schools desperately need reform, and there are even some districts that have been quite successful in that. The challenge? “There are so many islands of excellence,” said Duncan. “We have to make them the new norm.”

I think Secretary Duncan did a good job of pointing out the major areas of improvement needed to reform education, but I wish he had more time to go into specifics of parental involvement and how else he plans to motivate and recruit new teachers besides those tied to money. Readers, what do you think about the main points of Duncan’s address?