Fixing Our Schools
Having uniform standards and rejecting old excuses would help, the new education secretary believes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

COUNT US as among those who worried that the economic stimulus plan's huge infusion of new money for education would produce only more of the same failed programs. So it was heartening to hear Education Secretary Arne Duncan describe an unacceptable status quo of broken schools in this country. Not only does he aim to use stimulus dollars to drive reform, but Mr. Duncan envisions this moment as the start of a historic opportunity to dramatically improve the education of children.

"Our job, my job is to fight for kids," Mr. Duncan told Post editors and reporters yesterday as he sketched his plans for the more than $100 billion in new stimulus spending and his ambitions for U.S. education. He made clear that school systems in search of the new federal dollars must be willing to pursue his agenda for change and that his reforms will be built around programs with proven records of success. Refreshingly blunt in describing a "crisis" in education, Mr. Duncan lambasted the system of 50 different states setting 50 different standards for student achievement. He is right to call it a "race to the bottom" in which neither parents nor students know where they stand in relation to the rest of the country, much less the world. Mr. Duncan is not prepared yet to require national standards, but he made clear that a single set of standards, aligned for college readiness and benchmarked to international standards, is where the country needs to be headed.

Equally exciting is his push for improved student assessments as well as sophisticated data systems to track the effectiveness of teachers and the education schools that produce them. Mr. Duncan, former head of Chicago's public schools, has firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by schools and of what works. For example, he knows that students need more time in schools -- and that "talent matters," so schools have to reward excellence, put the best teachers where they are most needed and get rid of bad teachers. He realizes that it's important to reward everyone who is involved in helping a school succeed. But he's learned that there are bigger differences in teacher performance within schools than between schools.

We admire the fact that Mr. Duncan has absolutely no use for those who would use the social ills of poor children as an excuse for not educating them. "They are part of the problem," he said with disdain, arguing that education is the best way to end poverty. No doubt there will be opposition to his ideas from those traditionalists accustomed to the status quo. But Mr. Duncan made clear that his only interest is in what works.

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