Let’s take ‘all children forward’

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from CNN

By Arne Duncan

In our first 100 days, the Obama administration has presented a comprehensive education agenda — from the cradle through college — that protects children and jobs in the short term and invests in the long term by advancing education reform.

We are using the power of transparency to expose the good, the bad and the ugly about American education as a first step toward raising standards, improving teacher quality and turning around low-performing schools.

To push our reform agenda, the president has challenged states, districts, unions and other stakeholders to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles to improvement, set aside ideologies and do what’s right for children.

That means eliminating caps on creating charter schools, paying more to teachers in high-need subjects and hard-to-staff schools, and implementing performance pay. He has challenged parents to take more responsibility for the education of their children by turning off the TV, helping with homework and reading with their children every night.

While recent national testing results confirm that we have a long way to go before every child will have the education he or she needs to compete in the global economy, there is much cause for hope. Today, innovative schools are posting achievement gains, districts are experimenting with compensation systems that encourage effective teaching and dozens of states are working toward higher academic standards.

The teaching profession is attracting more high-quality applicants than ever. New learning models are emerging in communities all across America. We have many pockets of excellence. The challenge is moving to systems of excellence.

I am especially grateful that the president and vice president — amid fighting two wars and trying to fix the worst economy since the Great Depression — are focusing so much time, energy and resources on education. Congress also deserves credit for investing $100 billion in our schools through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Already, $44 billion is available to states and districts — money that will keep teachers teaching and keep kids learning — while laying the groundwork for a generation of education reform. If governors, mayors and superintendents embrace the law’s core reforms, they could qualify for a portion of the $5 billion “Race to the Top” and “Invest in What Works and Innovation” funds.

These discretionary funds are a carrot for educators who will break the mold, scale up successful programs and transform whole school systems.

The president also set a long-term goal of producing a higher percentage of college graduates than any other country by 2020. To meet this goal, the Recovery Act provides $31 billion in Pell Grants and tuition tax credits.

In addition, the administration has proposed shifting to direct lending instead of subsidized private loans to free at least $50 billion over the next decade and help more young people and adults go to college. We are very hopeful that Congress and the lending industry will support this common-sense reform.

We have a historic opportunity to drive change and lift education to a new level. For the first time in decades, we have the funding to achieve our goals and committed leadership in Washington and in the broader education community. The question is whether we have the courage to face the truths about our current state of education and to pursue fundamental change.

We cannot be satisfied with a nation where one in four high-school students fails to graduate and half of four-year college students do not finish on time. We cannot be satisfied with a 180-day school year — up to 40 days shorter than that of other advanced countries. We cannot rely on 19th century traditions in a 21st century world.

I have spread our message of reform online, on air, in print and on the road — in nearly 70 interviews and media events. I have met with 300 individuals from education, philanthropic and business groups and I have traveled to almost two dozen cities and states.

In Minnesota, I joined Vice President Joe Biden to share how the Recovery Act will help the middle class and support education. In Miami, Florida, I spoke to students with the vice president’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, about boosting college access and affordability. In New Orleans, Louisiana, I encouraged leaders to disseminate the city’s promising school turnaround practices.

To build on the successes of the last 100 days, we will take the next 100 days to conduct a national “Listening and Learning” tour in states across America. We want to hear directly from educators, parents, students and administrators about what is working and what needs to be improved, especially with regard to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as “No Child Left Behind.”

By working together and staying focused on children, we can create an education system that instead of leaving too many children behind, takes all children forward. Let’s get to work.