Duncan at Harvard

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the Askwith Forum at Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is impossible for public figures not to have detractors, but it is difficult to read his speech without coming away impressed at the secretary’s boldness of vision. He talked of having the “wrong education battles” that offer only either-or approaches, when, often, the best way forward lies in a “both-and” strategy. He also reminded his listeners that the urgent need to improve our education system should outweigh the fact that not all attempts at improvement will succeed or that we do not know all the answers.  As he explained:

[T]he perfect, too often, becomes the enemy of the good. And the dysfunctional status quo persists, hurting children and teachers—and ultimately, our country's economic competitiveness as we continue to under-educate far too many of our nation's youth…. We shouldn't be asking "is this a perfect solution?” We should be asking "is this a much-better solution?”

As a researcher, what I found particularly refreshing about his speech was his reliance on evidence to make his case.  In particular, he called out some significant research that I’ve cited often in this space, much of it indicating that time, among other factors, is a core component of the “what works” equation:

   • Roland Fryer, who identified the key elements of accelerating academic achievement include having more instructional time and high-dosage tutoring;

   • Thomas Kane and colleagues, who found that students of Boston’s charters far outperform their district peers (Though Duncan doesn’t mention it, a follow-up study by AIR identified significantly longer days and years as a key difference between the two types of schools.);

   • A Mathematica study that singled out the nearly universal ability of KIPP schools to advance student performance beyond that of their district peers;

   • Tom Kane’s MET (Measuring Effective Teaching) research that has, even in its preliminary stages, found that value-added measures are fairly accurate year to year with the same teacher; and

   • New research on the economic and societal benefits of having good teachers

I would be remiss if I did not mention that we were pleased that he specifically called out the Expanded Learning Time initiative in Massachusetts as a leading model for the country.

What was most important, I think, was Duncan’s emphasis on pushing ourselves—the adults who care about developing a top-notch education system—to come together on behalf of children. In his words:

The educational challenges facing our nation are massive and urgent. But I am convinced that the capacity, the courage, and the commitment of our nation's teachers, school leaders, parents, and students' themselves, is up to the challenge. Let's stop defending the status quo when it hurts children. Let's wage the right education battles. Together, let's work collectively to advance achievement and a love of learning in America.