Duncan Touts Obama’s Past Ed Achievements, Future Plans

Summer vacation is almost over, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is using the occasion of the beginning of the new school year to talk about the problems still facing the nation’s education system. He also takes stock of the accomplishments of the Obama administration in instituting higher academic standards and making school curriculum better rounded and less focused on results of yearly standardized tests.

Over the past three years, the Department of Education has allowed the states to opt out of the onerous benchmarks set out by the No Child Left Behind and allowed them to chart their own path towards achieving better academic outcomes. In response, 48 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to adopt the Common Core Standards, which were developed with cooperation of all the states’ education authorities. The federal government has also allocated billions of dollars to aid in overhauling under-achieving schools and replacing them with charters, if appropriate. The federal government has also taken the lead in encouraging states to institute teacher evaluation systems where student achievement metrics took a primary role.

Duncan discussed these progress markers and said that he expected that the experience of students this year will reflect the changes that have taken place since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

The Secretary of Education expects that being freed from NCLB benchmarks means that schools will broaden the range of topics they cover in class instead of focusing strictly on those that are covered by the law’s metrics. The Common Core adoption should place more focus on tasks that develop critical thinking faculties, especially in earlier grades. These changes should eventually lead to more students tackling advanced subjects, higher graduation rates, and most importantly, high school graduates who are prepared academically to take on college-level work.

One result of waivers is a hodgepodge of individual state accountability plans for student performance and achievement. Duncan said these state plans could help guide Congress in coming up with a comprehensive plan to fix the No Child Left Behind law, which Republicans and Democrats alike say is broken.

“To see so many great, innovative, creative, courageous ideas coming from states, I think, is literally leading the country to where we need to go,” Duncan said.

Some critics say that NCLB waivers granted by the Obama administration are nothing more than a bow to inevitability. One of the benchmarks all the school districts in the nation had to hit by 2014 is to have all students at their grade level in mathematics and reading, which many states thought impossible. Still, according to Duncan, even if NCLB’s ambitious goals were beyond most states, the law illuminated income and minority achievement gaps and forced education advocates all over the country to come up with creative ways of closing them.