Arne Duncan: Why can’t we be more like South Korea?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (By Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

For years, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has lamented that the United States isn’t anywhere near as serious about educating its young people as the South Koreans. He did it in 2010, for example, in a speech in which he told the story about how South Korea’s then-president, Lee Myung-bak, once told President Obama that his country’s biggest educational challenge was that “parents are too demanding.” And he just did it again, in a Jan. 13 speech to a parents summit sponsored by the National Assessment Governing Board, in which he told the story about how South Korea’s then-president, Lee Myung-bak, once told President Obama that his country’s biggest educational challenge was that “parents are too demanding.”

(Duncan needs a new story.)

In his latest speech, Duncan also said that the South Koreans “walk the walk” while Americans only “talk the talk” when it comes to developing great teachers, because in South Korea, teachers are selected from “from the top 5 percent of their high school cohort” while in the United States “a significant proportion of new teachers come from the bottom third of their college class.”

He also said that in South Korea, “students from low-income families are actually more likely than students from rich families to have high-quality teachers.” He did not note, however, that it was his Education Department that persuaded Congress to include in the definition of “highly qualified teacher” student teachers and Teach For America recruits who get five weeks of summer training before being assigned to some of America’s neediest classrooms.

Duncan did say in this speech that Americans should not try to emulate South Koreans in all things educational, noting that the pressure to study in South Korea “can get out of hand” and that kids there are so tired that they wear pillows on their wrists in school to take a nap. But most of his Korean references are in the context of “Why can’t we be like that?”

Here’s the text of Duncan’s Jan. 13 speech, as provided by the Education Department:

Thanks, David, for that warm introduction, and for all your leadership. I’m delighted to see leaders whose work has been so important to empowering parents: Otha Thornton of the National PTA; Janet Murguía of the National Council of La Raza; Marc Morial of the National Urban League; and Kati Haycock of The Education Trust.

But, just like me, they all came here as part of their day job. I want to give a special shout-out to the many parent leaders here. You have taken time out of your busy lives to come to Washington, to think about how you, other parents, and your communities can improve education. That means a lot, and I want you to know the story behind this event.

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea, and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were “too demanding.” Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. President Lee was very serious. Korean parents were relentless and had the highest of expectations – insisting their children receive an excellent education.

I told that story when I spoke to the National Assessment Governing Board a couple of years ago, and said that I wished our biggest challenge here in the US was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

Well, David and his fellow board member Tonya Miles took me seriously. They invited you – parents, leaders in your communities, people who care so much about education – to come together and raise your voices for better schools and increased educational opportunity.

I’m so grateful that all of you are here. As you think about how to use your voice, your time, and your energy, I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child? If your answer is no — that no child in America deserves any less than a world-class education — then your work is cut out for you.

Because right now, South Korea – and quite a few other countries – are offering students more, and demanding more, than many American districts and schools do. And the results are showing, in our kids’ learning and in their opportunities to succeed, and in staggeringly large achievement gaps in this country.

Doing something about our underperformance will mean raising your voice—and encouraging parents who aren’t as engaged as you to speak up.

Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home. Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders – and to ask more of their kids, and themselves.

And all of those will be vital in a time when we are losing ground.

It’s not that we are failing to make progress in the U.S.

For example, last year, math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders edged up to a new high on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Dropout rates are down and college-going is up, especially for African-American and Latino students. This is real and meaningful progress.

But, as we saw last month on a major international assessment of the skills of 15-year-olds – the PISA exam –other countries are progressing much faster, leaving us behind.

In today’s knowledge-based, global economy, jobs will go, more and more, to the best-educated workforce.

That will either be here, or it will be in places like South Korea, Singapore, China, and India. Let’s look at the facts. Your children aren’t competing just with children in your district, or state – they are competing with children across the world.

America now ranks 22nd in math skills and 14th in reading among industrialized countries — and our achievement gaps are not narrowing.

Now, some would like you to believe that our mediocre achievement results are due just to the presence of large numbers of low-income and minority students in the US – that without them, we’d be the world leaders.

Not true. That’s an excuse.

While we’ve been treading water, other countries have moved ahead.

Just one generation ago, we were Number 1 in the world in college completion among young adults. Today, we have dropped to Number 12 in the world. Dropping from 1st to 12th – that’s not something any of us can be proud of.

President Obama has set regaining world leadership in college completion as our educational North Star.

That Number 1 spot is now occupied by – guess who? — South Korea. So, you may be asking: What are countries like South Korea doing for their kids that we aren’t? The answer is, a lot.

There’s a new book out called “The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way.”

The author, Amanda Ripley, found an interesting way to compare American schools with those in top-performing countries.

She spent time with American students who did a year of school abroad, and with students from other countries who went to school in the United States.

One of the countries she compares us to is South Korea.

Amanda came away believing that these other countries are doing a lot better than the United States in education because – simply put — they’re more serious about it.

And that seriousness, that sense of educational purpose, has its roots in both policy and in culture.

On the policy side, as one example, Korea is serious about developing and rewarding great teachers.

That means recruiting top college graduates into teaching, training them effectively for the job, and making sure vulnerable students have strong teachers.

Both South Korean and US citizens believe that the caliber of teacher matters tremendously, and the great teachers make a huge difference in children’s lives. The difference is: they act on their belief. We don’t. We talk the talk, and they walk the walk.

In the United States, a significant proportion of new teachers come from the bottom third of their college class, and most new teachers say their training didn’t prepare them for the realities of the classroom.

So underprepared teachers enter our children’s classrooms ever year, and low-income and minority kids get far more than their share of ineffective teachers.

In contrast, in South Korea, elementary teachers are selected from the top 5 percent of their high school cohort.

Teachers there get six months of training after they start their jobs. They are paid well, and the best receive bonus pay and designation as “master teachers.”

And please, listen very closely to this: in Korea, according to an international study, students from low-income families are actually more likely than students from rich families to have high quality teachers. Students from low-income families are actually more likely than students from rich families to have high quality teachers.

Why? Because teachers get extra pay and career rewards for working with the neediest kids.

Their children who need more, get more. Our children who need more get less.

And it’s not just about teachers.

Many countries that outdo us educationally hold high standards for all students – an area where we’re just trying to come up to speed.

South Korea isn’t a standout in providing public preschool, but many of the other countries that also out-educate us help kids start strong, by making sure they can attend preschool.

We have to expand access to high quality early learning here.

And they know that they have to give their schools modern tools – including high-speed Internet.

In Korea, 100 percent of students have access to broadband Internet. Here in the United States, it’s more like 20 percent.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying we should be just like South Korea, where – as President Lee told President Obama – the pressure to study can get out of hand.

In her book, Amanda Ripley talks about how Korean authorities have to enforce a 10 pm curfew on extra-tutoring schools, and students so exhausted that they wear napping pillows on their wrists in school.

We absolutely shouldn’t aim to emulate all aspects of Korea’s education system – there should be a sense of balance and common sense.

But we need to act on what we know about countries that are out-educating us – and your role as parent leaders is vital.

Amanda Ripley’s most intriguing point – maybe her most unsettling point – isn’t just about schools, it’s about culture, too.

It’s about what we as a country, and as parents, expect of our children.

The high-performing countries she looked at set high standards for what students should learn, and measured mastery with tests that mattered.

In too many schools with low expectations here in the United States, everyone who comes to school passes, because, she writes, “kids deserved a chance to fail later, not now.”

Repeatedly, she found that school in the United States was simply easier than in higher-performing countries.

That’s a point that was echoed, with devastating clarity, at a panel she moderated recently with me and a group of foreign exchange students from Korea, Brazil, Germany and Australia.

Some of them were going to really strong high schools here in the United States – but they all said that school here was easier than at home.

Four teenagers, from four different countries, and all said they were challenged more back home.

And Amanda points a finger at you and me, as parents – not because we aren’t involved in school, but because too often, we are involved in the wrong way. Parents, she says, are happy to show up at sports events, video camera in hand, and they’ll come to school to protest a bad grade. But she writes, and I quote:

 “Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergartners learn math while they still loved numbers.”

 Here’s her point: We love going to our kids’ games and seeing them perform on stage in a play or in a concert.

Parents who volunteer and raise money are the lifeblood of schools – especially those that are stretched for resources.

But to really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here today. You’re here because you’re committed to raising your voice. But you’re also a leader of other parents. And this is a singularly important moment.

So let me speak to you as parent leaders, and leaders of parents, because you have the power to drive change. Don’t ever underestimate the power of your collective voice.

America’s schools are undergoing some of the greatest changes in decades right now.

Forty-five states and DC have adopted new, higher, internationally benchmarked standards for what students should learn – standards that call for more critical thinking and deeper problem solving.

Most school systems will give a dry run this year to new assessments that measure mastery of those standards.

These assessments are better than what you’ve seen in the past, but there’s a reason for the dry run.

The new assessments will be taken on line, and I can guarantee you there will be technical glitches, as well as some questions that won’t make it past this “field test” stage.

Teachers are working really hard to come up to speed with these new standards, which are driving big – and positive – changes in the classroom.

Schools are putting new systems in place to use data on students’ growth and improvements in learning to support and evaluate teachers, which is a really good thing for the teaching profession – but it also causes anxiety.

Great teaching matters tremendously – we have to get better at recognizing and rewarding excellence.

Every part of this sea-change in the classroom is about schools expecting more of students, helping teachers be more creative, telling the truth about our performance, and improving teaching and learning.

It’s about giving our kids a fair chance to succeed, to compete, to become part of the middle class – to do better than you and I did. Our children deserve the best – we have to stop settling for less.

These changes are hard. They’re controversial. And your support can make so much difference.

Take, for example, what’s happening in Louisville, Kentucky.

The transition to higher standards is going well there, and parents are a huge part of why.

The 15th District PTA began training parents on the state’s new, high standards there in 2011, holding workshops at 36 schools, 42 community groups, and every single library in Louisville.

They reached over 15,000 parents and community members face-to-face. And, in part because these new standards are more rigorous, the PTA sponsors an afterschool assistance program at Middletown Elementary where teachers volunteer and parents provide support.

That’s the kind of engagement, communication, and academic enrichment we need in communities across the country.

Your voice matters, too, in how schools handle discipline.

Last week, Attorney General Holder and I announced new guidelines aimed at reducing inappropriate suspensions and expulsions.

Too often, students – and disproportionately, students of color and those with disabilities – are put out of school for relatively minor infractions.

That discrimination that still exists today in too many of our schools and districts is unacceptable and must be challenged by all of us.

Please, work with educators to support them in setting high expectations for appropriate behavior and safety at school – and to fight back against unnecessary out-of-school discipline. You can learn more at our ed.gov website.

What we, as parents, do now matters so much.

Please raise your voice for excellence–and against complacency.

Organize other parents.

Ask your political and school system leaders what they’re doing to support higher standards, to improve teaching, and how you can partner with them in this difficult, but critically-important work.

Ask the hard questions, even when it means shaking things up and challenging the status quo.

And — regardless of politics or ideology — in the voting booth, cast your ballot in local, state, and national elections for those who will invest in education – in quality preschool, in college opportunities that families can afford, in schools that offer more to your kids.

Every politician says they are pro-education – but how many get beyond the platitudes and easy sound bites, and actually walk the walk? The answer is not enough – but it’s our fault, not theirs, because we don’t hold them accountable.

Collectively, parents have the power to transform educational opportunity in this country. We must stop fighting the wrong fights and unite against our common enemy – and that’s academic failure.

Thank you so much for what you have done and, more importantly, thank you for what I know you will do going forward.

I look forward to your questions.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 18