Education Secretary Arne Duncan Challenges PNBC Delegates
Barrington M. Salmon | 8/17/2011, 8:42 a.m.
"The school calendar is based on the agrarian calendar," he asserted. "How many students do you know who are going out into the field? We have a 19th century model trying to prepare kids for the 21st century."
Parents play a critical role, Duncan said.
"We need parents to be strong, turn off the TV and videogames and read to their children," he said. "My mom and dad were kind of crazy. We had no TV in our house so I had to sneak to a friend's house to see a ballgame."
"You can't just be a child's friend; you have to be their parent. They may want a Wii and sneakers but buy them a book! Be willing to say no, challenge your children."
Duncan listed some dismal statistics to illustrate the nation's dilemma. For example, more than one million teens drop out of school annually, a number that represents a 25 percent dropout rate; of these, between 40 and 60 percent are African Americans. America has fallen from first to ninth in the number of college graduates produced each year; in addition, two million high-skilled, high-wage jobs are currently vacant because companies cannot find qualified applicants to fill them.
Believe it or not, Duncan said, a child's attendance in kindergarten is a good predictor of whether that child will drop out of school later on.
"We have to look in the mirror," Duncan said. "For too long the US Department of Education was part of the problem. We're working to change that. Part of that is telling the truth, highlighting our successes and calling people out."
But every adult also bears some of the responsibility, he added.
"We have to get our babies off to a good start. I am tired of seeing where some children are reading, learning, and studying languages and others don't know the front of the book from the back. Our 2, 3 and 4-year-olds need to be in environments where they are learning socialization skills, literacy and reading. A great foundation is the predictor of success."
Duncan said federal education officials have allocated $500 million to the states to increase parent access to high-quality elementary education. In addition, he said they have a renewed focus on community colleges, which he described as 'unpolished gems.' It is there that workers are being retrained and retooled as they contend with a rapidly changing job market. Two billion has been made available to increase community college capacity.
Another area the feds are reworking is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law of 2001.
"NCLB is fundamentally broken and Congress is broken right now so we're going to the states and work directly with them," said Duncan. "The law is too restrictive and lacks flexibility."
Administration officials seek greater flexibility for states and school districts to attain the standards by fashioning solutions "to the unique needs of students." Duncan said it is counterproductive for schools to make noticeable improvements in standardized scores and yet be punished when they fall short.