U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said repeatedly that he wants to use the economic stimulus aid for education to accelerate improvement in schools. He has even volunteered some ideas that he knows are not very popular. Speaking to about 400 students at a public school in Denver this week, Duncan said that kids need more time in school. "Go ahead and boo me," he told the crowd of middle and high school students, the Associated Press reports. "I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short, and our school year is too short." He went on: "You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, 11, 12 months a year." Instead of boos, the AP reports, the students offered Duncan "bored stares."
Duncan isn't forcing schools to adopt a longer academic year just yet. But he is making other demands from state governors who recently received a total of $44 billion in education stimulus aid and hopes the governors respond more enthusiastically than the students in Denver. Some education observers are skeptical. They believe that school leaders will happily accept the stimulus aid but not use it to adopt meaningful reforms. If that turns out to be true, the next time Duncan takes the stage, he actually might be booed off.
To keep states that want more federal funds on the school reform path, Duncan attached some conditions to the stimulus money released earlier this month. He even asked governors for data that could potentially embarrass them. The data could show that few districts in the country, if any, use student achievement to evaluate teacher performance and that most teachers, even the least effective, are given glowing evaluations. It could also reveal that few states have made serious efforts to improve or shut down chronically underperforming schools and that an alarming number of high school graduates are not prepared for college. Duncan could use this information to shame states with poor records into actual reform.
But that might not be enough motivation for some states to change, some experts say. Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of the independent Education Sector think tank in Washington, D.C., recently blogged that the Education Department "is now playing a weak hand in a game with some accomplished bluffers" and that states might ignore or try to fool the department by manipulating their school performance data. "Anyone who still thinks that shining a light on states is enough to get them to dramatically improve their schools hasn't been paying attention—for decades." Other education observers believe Duncan needs to demand more from the states. "We've got to admit that we're shelling out 12 figures for the school system and getting almost nothing in return, except for some 'data' that a couple of us think tanks could cobble together ourselves in the matter of a few days," Mike Petrilli, who oversees education policy research at the D.C.-based Fordham Institute, said in his blog.
There is another, perhaps more effective, way for Duncan to get states on board with his education reforms. He has created a $5 billion "Race to the Top" fund for states that have made progress on the following fronts: 1) improving teacher effectiveness, 2) creating better assessments aligned to rigorous standards, 3) fixing failing schools, and 4) using data systems to track student achievement. The details of how states can qualify for this money will be released later this year.
Tell us what you think of Arne Duncan's performance so far. Is he doing enough to make sure that states are spending the education stimulus dollars wisely? What changes do you want to see in your schools, and when do you expect to see them?