Education Status Quo Unacceptable

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This op-ed by Secretary Arne Duncan appeared in the Denver Post.

If education reform was easy, we would have done it long ago and, like the mythical Lake Wobegon, all of our children would be performing above average. In the real world, reform happens when adults put aside differences, embrace the challenge of educating all children, and work together toward a common vision of success.

The theory behind the Race to the Top competition is that with the right financial incentives and sensible goals, states, districts and other stakeholders will forge new partnerships, revise outmoded laws and practices, and fashion far-reaching reforms. Despite the fact that the $4 billion Race to the Top program represents less than 1 percent of overall K-12 funding in America, it has been working.

Since the competition was announced last summer, more than a dozen states changed laws around issues like teacher evaluation, use of student data and charter schools. Meanwhile, 48 governors and chief state school officers raised learning standards, and a number of school districts announced progressive, new collective bargaining agreements that are shaking up the labor-management status quo.

In the program’s first phase, we received 41 applications. Two states, Delaware and Tennessee, won $600 million in grants based on the strength of their proposals in each area, their broad stakeholder buy-in and their statewide impact on children.

Now, 48 other states and Washington, D.C., have an opportunity in phase two to win a share of the remaining $3.4 billion. We urge every state to apply — not just for the chance to secure funds that can drive reform, but because the Race to the Top review process is driving a deep rethinking of education at the state and district level.

Regardless of whether states win, a bold reform plan with participation from school boards, superintendents, educators, unions and elected officials sets the foundation for progress. It positions states to better compete for other federal funds; it outlines needed legal changes; it offers a template for forward-thinking labor agreements; it establishes a common agenda; and, to be frank, it provides the political cover some stakeholders need to stretch outside their comfort zones.

In response to this unique opportunity, educators and lawmakers are engaging in open, spirited debate around a host of issues, from teacher evaluation and compensation to school governance, curriculum, testing, academic rigor and turning around under-performing schools. Those robust conversations are both healthy and necessary, but as the phase two deadline approaches, relationships are fraying. A handful of states have indicated they will not apply. A small minority of stakeholders have threatened to withhold support.

Still others have misread our intent in designing Race to the Top, believing that watered-down reforms with broad buy-in is the best strategy, although nothing could be further from the truth. Only the best and boldest plans will win. We are challenging all elements of the education system to get better, not in one or two areas that can lead to incremental improvements, but in every area simultaneously. Above all, we will reward political will, leadership and the courage to make the best choices for students.

When our children and our future are at stake, there is no excuse for walking away from the table. Someone once complained to French philosopher Voltaire that “life is hard.” Voltaire responded: “Compared to what?” Education reform is also hard, but compared to the status quo — with more than a quarter of our students dropping out of high school, and more than a third of our high school graduates unprepared for college or a career — America has no choice.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.