Education in America: ‘We are top 10 in nothing’

When it comes to the quality of school systems and curriculum, does the U.S. need a reality check?

ARNE DUNCAN: I believe that a strong military is our nation's best defense, but our nation's best offense is a world class, is a great, great educational system and I think there's so many different reasons. The only way I know how to end cycles of poverty is by giving children, who happened to be born in poverty, which is never their fault, a chance to get a great education. If we want to have upward mobility, if we want to have a growing middle-class the only way I know how to do that is through education. And quite honestly these days I'm starting to worry about our democracy and our democracy fraying at the edges. And if we're going to have a civically engaged citizenry, if we're going to have an active participatory democracy the only way I know how to do that is through education. So just as we have a military that's led at the national level, I think it's important that the national level we be clear about how important education is.

Where we are now today quite candidly isn't good enough. If you look at early childhood we rank 30th in terms of access to pre-K; it's a dismal record. If you look at math and reading science scores at the high school level we're somewhere usually between 15th and 30th internationally; you look at college completion rate we're about 16th. To sum all that up we're top ten in nothing. And we live now in a flat world, in a globally competitive economy. And good jobs, high wage, high-skilled jobs are going to go to the nation that does the best job of educating their citizens. And I desperately want those jobs to be here in America. I'd rather them of the year than in China or India or Singapore or wherever else, South Korea wherever else you might talk about. For us to do that, we as a nation have to embrace the opportunity I would say the imperative of having a great, great education system.

We should be very tight on what I call goals and as a nation we should have a goal to lead the world in access to high-quality pre-K. We were very proud during the Obama administration to get high school graduation rates to 84 percent. I desperately wish the current administration would set a goal for themselves of increasing that from 84 percent to 90 percent. And so I think we should be as a nation very clear and I would say tight on goals, but we should be very loose and give lots of flexibility, lots of room to innovate at the local level on the best strategies to achieve those goals. And what works best in Harlem here in New York might be very different than what works in Montana, it might be very different than what works in California, but we're all striving to those goals. And again, let me reiterate for me those goals aren't R or D or left or right, those are nation-building goals, those are paths to the middle-class and upper mobility. And so being tight on goals but very loose on the strategies and have lots of, again, honest debate because no one has all the right answers for the best way to achieve those goals, and let's scale what works and let's stop doing what doesn't work. So that's from a policy perspective that's how I view it. At the individual child, the individual student level, for me this is always about what we call personalizing instruction. In the goal of great teachers today is not to teach to the mean, to the average of a class of 25 or 30 students, it's to help every single child flourish. And every single individual child has different strengths and weaknesses and how we help them fly where they can fly, how we help them get additional help when they need help, that's what great teachers are doing every single day today. And while there are amazing bright spots, there's stuff that's so inspiring that I traveled the country and was lucky enough to see every day we have to get better faster and we have to do it with a real sense of urgency.

  • America's best offense is an exceptional education system, says former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. But right now, a higher standard needs to be set.
  • Currently, U.S. high school math, reading, and science scores rank somewhere between 15th and 30th internationally. This, Duncan says, is not good enough and should be reason for setting loftier goals.
  • By setting these nation-building goals of increased innovation and personalized instruction, the system opens new paths of upward mobility for its students.

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