Education Secretary Arne Duncan proves a ‘tough grader’ in assessing Minnesota’s education programs

Education Secretary Arne Duncan today criticized Minnesota's "sense of urgency" on education efforts.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Education Secretary Arne Duncan today criticized Minnesota’s “sense of urgency” on education efforts.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s “report card” on Minnesota’s education system — and the nation’s — shows the need for plenty of improvement.

During an address today to the state Chamber of Commerce, he particularly criticized complacency in Minnesota and in the nation’s education system.

Duncan chided Minnesota leaders for not exhibiting a “sense of urgency” about the trouble facing education. He urged business leaders at the event to continue steady investment in education and to get involved in shaping policy.

“I think we’re fighting for our nation’s economic security,” he said.

Also, Minnesota officials have done too little to bridge disparities among groups of students, often called the “achievement gap,” Duncan said.

“Other states were able to see much more movement [on the achievement gap] than Minnesota was,” Duncan said. Louisiana in particular has made strides tracking which teacher training programs are effective in tackling the gap.

“We do believe, as he believes, that this is urgent,” Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnestrista, said in response to his comments. “The burden on my heart in education is closing the achievement gap.”

Early childhood education — the priority of some education-oriented lawmakers in St. Paul — and alternative teacher licensure can help bridge the disparity, Duncan said.

He expressed shock that no alternative teacher licensure law currently exists in the state. Legislation to address the issue is likely to be the first education reform passed this session.

In his remarks, Duncan also outlined several efforts his department and the Obama administration support, including the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind act, a third round of Race to the Top funding and increasing K-12 and special education aid.

This year, the department is looking for $1 billion in new money to promote a “well-rounded education” for students that would embrace a wider subject curriculum, as well as doubling “parental engagement” funding to $280 million.

“We have to invest more, but in reform, not in the status quo,” Duncan said.

Race to the Top emerged as a $4.35 billion allocation in the federal stimulus bill aimed at turning around underperforming schools and increasing education standards. The funds were awarded as part of a competitive application process.

“We absolutely hope there will be a Round 3 of Race to the Top,” Duncan said, noting that additional dollars could go directly to school districts, rather than state governments.

Minnesota failed in its attempt to qualify for Round 1 funding, and offiicials decided not to try for Round 2. Gov. Mark Dayton, however, has expressed interest in going after any future opportunities for federal aid.

Duncan brought a sense of urgency and harsh honesty with him from Washington. The United States has a 25 percent high school dropout rate, he said, and the number of people graduating from college has floundered while other countries have increased their rates monumentally.

The Obama administration has made moves to reverse the trend, including $2 billion in funding for the nation’s community colleges, college tuition tax credits, simplifying federal financial aid forms and increasing Pell grant funding by $40 billion over the next decade.

President Obama’s goal to reclaim America’s No. 1 ranking on college graduates from a generation ago meshes with Duncan’s work to move the Education Department away from its history as a “large compliance-driven bureaucracy.”

Part of that would come from NCLB reform.

Duncan said the current structure is too top-heavy and punitive, where it should reward excellence and innovation. He called the act “fundamentally broken” and said certain provisions are “bad for children.”

“We need to get Washington out of the way,” Duncan said.

That sentiment trickles down from the state to the district level, as well. Republican lawmakers in the House support more local control for districts.

Following his address, Duncan joined 2nd District Republican Rep. John Kline, who heads the House Education and Workforce Committee, to tour a Lakeville school.

James Nord, a University of Minnesota student, is a MinnPost intern.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Annie Grandy on 01/21/2011 - 09:54 pm.

    “He expressed shock that no alternative teacher licensure law currently exists in the state.” Too bad that President Obama selected a dedicated ‘union buster’ as Education head. He is obviously set on busting the teachers’ unions with his insistence on alternative teacher licensure – how many ‘learned professionals’ in other professions have any idea what classrooms are all about? The stupid things in the press said about education should be proof enough that very few, outside trained teachers, have any idea what goes into running a classroom and determining if students are learning or if they have problems which require intervention. This guy likes charther schools (another name for vouchers), too, which drain resources and dollars from the public schools to educate an elite few while ignoring the problems of providing the best education for the most students. (Most don’t do well finacially either.)This is not the guy to listen to and he is definitely the wrong person to be heading the Department of Education.

  2. Submitted by William Pappas on 01/22/2011 - 08:15 am.

    Well said, Annie. No education reform can be enacted without including the state’s teachers. That is why our application for Race to the Top funds were previously rejected. Alternative teacher licensure will have absolutely no effect on the improvement of education in Minnesota. First of all NCLB and Obama’s focus is on improving the educational outcomes of our lowest achieving students. In Minnesota, while that is a problem, the other end of the spectrum, producing college ready High School graduates testing high in college aptitude tests, is nearly unequaled in America. We don’t need altlernative licensure to improve that. Early Childhood Education would be the most effective means of reducing the achievment gap, not reducing Minnesota requirements to teach in a classroom. The teacher’s in our state are achieving success in turning out college ready students that should be the envy of every state in the union. Instead, the process of focusing on the achievment gap has been a way for opponents of teacher’s unions, like Pawlenty, to change the vocabulary of the discussion. Had Pawlenty touted our State’s success in education for the last eight years instead of badmouthing it I believe Minnesota would have a better national reputation and be more attractive to business than it now is. That’s called sacrificing a huge state asset for the sake of political ideology.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/22/2011 - 09:50 am.

    It continues to frustrate and amaze me that President Obama, whose experience as a community organizer in Chicago should have taught him a very different set of lessons would appoint an education secretary who brings a decidedly conservative, “why can’t every school just magically become like the high-functioning-suburban school systems” perspective to the job, yet who has so little understanding of the cultural problems which lie beneath that conservative bugaboo, “the learning gap,” and thus proposes NO useful ideas for resolving it.

    Minnesota has ALREADY tried most of Mr. Duncan’s solutions with VERY mixed and inconclusive results.

    The cultural divide within Minnesota and especially in the twin cities metroplex is, and always has been the primary cause of the “achievement gap.” Indeed the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul area remains one of the MOST racially AND economically divided areas in the nation.

    The “learning gap” is a reflection of that cultural reality. It will NOT be resolved until we invest the time and energy needed to bring healing and wholeness to a very wounded population; to lift children from broken, drug infested, violence-prone, impoverished homes (which are not necessarily those of people of color) up and out of their circumstances.

    The school performance of such students is only a symptom of the deep wounds and massive stress inflicted upon the majority of them by the routine events in their daily lives.

    Until we respect and seek to address and ameliorate the handicapping nature of growing up in such difficult circumstances – seeking to help and heal the vast majority of such populations rather than just pointing to the few whose own naturally resilient personalities allow them to bear up far better than average in such circumstances, pronouncing all others to be defective because their own personalities do not allow them to do the same, we will never resolve this problem because we will never address its true causes.

    We will continue to allow the rightwing demagogues (of which Duncan, sadly, is clearly one) to propose solutions not aimed at the problem at all, but only aimed at destroying the professional organizations of teachers who are the ONLY ones who are, day in and day out, seeking (without any actual training in how to do so) to figure out how to do as I’ve described.

    How about if we STOP blaming the teachers and START trying to address the problems in the society which surrounds their schools?

  4. Submitted by William Pappas on 01/22/2011 - 11:43 pm.

    Thank you Greg, that was said as well as I’ve ever heard it.

  5. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 01/23/2011 - 07:06 pm.

    It’s kind of telling that, for people so, so concerned with the achievement gap didn’t visit one of the Minneapolis or Saint Paul schools. They visited Lakeville.

  6. Submitted by Brad Robinson on 01/25/2011 - 12:50 pm.

    Why would putting less qualified teachers into the classroom improve education? At a time when we expect greater results from students we are providing them with amateur educators.

    BTW, EdMN has a proposal that if alternative licensure is to be pursued, they should have a period of mentorship until a qualified teacher to be sure they have the necessary skills to teach. That is certainly the minimum standard to be held.

  7. Submitted by Timothy Schafer on 02/18/2011 - 12:37 pm.

    The issue with schools can be made complicated or it can be quite simple.

    “A school can only be as great as the student”s respect for their teacher.”

    Our schools success depends largely on the students willingness to learn. A hunger to know and then to do their best at what ever they undertake. It starts with parents in homes having time for there kids. Why don’t they have time?? Because the generation where one spouses income can support a family..is gone. In other words, we are seeing the symptoms of greater economic fall, but also a loss of motivation and direction.

    There is a way out of this. But it will take work and generosity.

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