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Mom Congress Conference – Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Kathryn Young Thompson

One speaker that everyone was anxious to hear from at the Mom Congress on Education and Learning conference was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and not just because he comes with secret service and may transfer presidential cooties when he shakes your hand.

The Mom Congress delegates are passionate about education policy and will never be happy listening to political jargon without holding the speaker accountable for his words.  They wanted to hear what he had to say and then closely watch how he would follow through.

Secretary Duncan gave a short speech and then opened the floor up for questions, a change in format from last year that was well received by the delegates. 

He talked about the power of strong moms, reading every night with their children, and what a huge impact they can have.  He preached and the choir responded well.  He said, “Education is the most important investment we can make” and emphasized that since we don’t have as much to invest right now across the board, we need to work smarter in these tough economic times.

Continuing with his discussion about the economy, he said that we’re not producing enough skilled workers to fill 2 million jobs currently available in our country.  This is a failure in the education of our young people and “incremental change is not going to get us where we need to go.”

“We have to do better and it all starts with our babies,” he said.  I agree that the key to fixing education in this country is improving early childhood education.  We need to give children the best start possible so they have the chance to succeed in school and in life.

Secretary Duncan said we need to “stop lying to children and dumbing down standards.”  We should be helping children improve, not manipulating test scores in order to make it look like they’re succeeding.  He seemed very encouraged by the 42 states who had already adopted the Common Core Standards.

It was a good speech and he hit all the points that this group cares about but like any political speech there were things he promised that we all walked away skeptical about.  For one, he said the administration planned to double funding for parental engagement and increase funding for early childhood education.  Those are hard promises to make when the budget is tight and we do not have bi-partisan agreement (or even single-party agreement) on budget priorities.  To make this happen, he and President Obama would need to bring a lot of people along who are not used to agreeing on things.

Then last week, it was announced that the Department of Education was cutting funding for Parent Education Resource Centers (PIRCs), the only government program directly focused on increasing parental engagement.  To me, this sounds like a failure to deliver. 

The Mom Congress delegates had a strong positive reaction to Secretary Duncan’s assertion that we need to fix No Child Left Behind and its residual effects of narrowing curriculum and dumbing down standards.  He said we need to get back to a well-rounded curriculum at every level, not just in high school.  He wants billions of dollars to support schools who are investing in well-rounded curriculums.  I want billions of dollars for that too so I clapped along with everyone else.

He said that we are often presented with a false choice between The Arts and STEM and that they can work hand in hand. 

Secretary Duncan raised the idea of using school facilities more heavily and more effectively, turning them into community centers, open long hours with all kinds of classes, activities, and possibly health centers attached.  This could happen if schools partner with non-profit groups and start thinking differently about how to use their resources.

The administration is working to dramatically simplify financial aid forms for college, making them more accessible to those who need them most and Secretary Duncan mentioned a program to forgive all school debt for teachers and other public servants who serve for ten years after graduation.

He said that his best advocacy advice is, “Be engaged and demand excellence.”  

When asked about the overabundance of standardized tests many students are facing, he said that it would be better if teachers conducted low-stakes formative assessments throughout the year so they could be more able to help kids all the way along in the areas where they need improvement.

When asked about investing more money in professional development for teachers, Duncan said that the federal government is already spending $3 billion per year on professional development and we need to do better with that money before we can get more.  I want to find out where that money is going and fight to have it used effectively.

In the end, he said that the president fundamentally thinks that education is an investment, not an expense.  “Budgets reflect our values.”

I was impressed with Secretary Duncan.  He seemed caring, engaged and intelligent.  He’s a good speaker with great big plans, goals and ideals and I’m so glad he came to speak at the conference.  It was an interesting window into the administration’s stance on education and motivational to me personally.  I appreciate what he had to say and who he is but I don’t believe that everything on his wish list will actually be accomplished.  That’s not how things work in a democratic nation with so many voices and agendas fighting for funding.  We need to make sure that our voices are heard, fighting for the programs and initiatives we care most about.

Please check out 2011 Mom Congress delegate Melissa Taylor's Blog for more from Secretary Arne Ducan’s 2011 speech at the Mom Congress on Education and Learning conference.

Kathryn Thompson is a mom to two school-aged kids, a toddler, and a deceased betta fish. She can also be found at The Parenting Post, and occasionally the gym.