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Race to the top: Educating our way to a better economy

Arne Duncan

Race to the top: Educating our way to a better economy

Recently, President Obama challenged all Americans to overcome the stale debates that have paralyzed progress on education so that we can offer every child, everywhere in this country, the chance to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world. In the African American community, the need for real reform is an urgent matter.

Right now, the majority of African American children attend public schools while the dropout rate remains high compared to other demographic groups across the country. Improving our schools is the most immediate way to extend opportunities to generations of African Americans. That is a central mission of the budget that President Obama has submitted to Congress.

This budget makes a substantial down payment on our education agenda — an agenda aimed at preparing Americans from the cradle up through a career. That means raising the quality of early childhood programs; ending state caps on the number of allowable charter schools; rewarding good teachers and removing bad ones; adding learning time to the school year; and putting the dream of a college degree within reach for anyone who wants one.

It is an ambitious agenda and enacting it will require both resources and political will. We have the resources. But do we have the will?

I was heartened by the reaction to the president’s speech. Union leaders vowed to have an open mind on issues like performance pay, higher standards and charters, asking only that reform be done “with them, not to them.” Officials at every level of government are also broadly supportive.

They are also asking the right questions: How can we ensure that taxpayer dollars make a meaningful and lasting difference in the classroom? How can we make sure these funds are spent effectively?

The answer is simple. We are demanding absolute transparency for every tax dollar spent and we will use the power of the bully pulpit — as well as the power of the purse — to reward what is working and to reform what is not.

At a minimum, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will help keep teachers teaching and students learning in schools across America. But if all we do is perpetuate the status quo, we will miss this historic opportunity. That’s why states that are accepting funding from the recovery act must commit to making four reforms. They must:

• Adopt internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that better prepare students for college and a career. Today, some states intentionally lower standards, essentially lying to kids by telling them they are ready for college when they are not. A number of states are already raising standards. Every state should.

• Build high-quality data systems that track a student’s academic career, making it possible to tell which teachers, programs and schools are effective. Better data — on everything from quiz scores to dropout rates — can foster a shared understanding among educators and parents about what is necessary to improve a child’s education, creating, as President Obama said, “a culture of accountability.”

• Recruit more high-quality educators to underperforming schools, as well as to subjects like math and science, where there is a teacher shortage. If recruiting teachers and principals to the schools and subjects that need them most means offering them extra pay, we should provide it.

• Support effective strategies to turn around underperforming schools. Closing failing schools and replacing staff is admittedly tough medicine to swallow, but the alternative is unacceptable. Kids have only one chance at an education — and we need to ensure that they are receiving the best education possible.

To receive subsequent funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, states must develop a detailed plan to advance these reforms. States with the most comprehensive and cutting-edge reform plans can also win a share of a $5 billion “Race to the Top” fund — a portion of which will go directly to districts and nonprofit organizations that are achieving results.

In his speech, the president called on Americans to stop fighting with each other about education and start fighting for our kids. That means not only passing the president’s budget, but also doing all we can — as parents, teachers, principals, administrators and national leaders — to help restore America’s global leadership in education. That is how we will not only make America more competitive in the 21st century, but also ensure that all our sons and daughters have a chance to fulfill their God-given potential and reach for the American dream.

Arne Duncan is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

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