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If I Were Arne Duncan…


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I remember the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the standardized test of my youth. It’s not the most emblematic memory of my school days; it’s not my favorite memory or even my least favorite.

It’s not even a very vivid memory.

I remember the smooth surface of my desk and the rough, curved edges. I remember the tops of other students’ heads, their bodies slouched, their jaws hanging slack. I remember freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils and crisp Scantrons, little black bubble after little black bubble.

I don’t remember the questions or, for that matter, the answers. Note: I do however remember the first article I wrote for my junior high “newspaper.” I’m just saying…
Thus is the reality of standardized testing—days spent filling in bubbles as opposed to, oh I don’t know, learning or experiencing or learning by experiencing. Of course, those standardized tests often do come in handy: showing the floundering math and science scores of our kids; literacy rates among the American poor inferior to those in some undeveloped nations; and lagging basic knowledge of basic subjects.

We are a reactive culture with a reactive government, and years from now, we will finally react to the stagnant, uncreative, and archaic educational system we seem to hold dear. And it goes beyond No Child Left Behind; though, NCLB was in need of reform even before it started shutting down underperforming schools. While I don’t claim to be an expert or a pundit, I wouldn’t mind playing dress up in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s navy blue suit and red tie and salt and pepper hair and taking a shot at some good old-fashioned reformation. I’m not talking about this Race to the Top ballyhoo. Our public schools don’t just need a stimulus; they need an overhaul.

I wouldn’t mind axing test-driven curriculum—those Scantrons and little black bubbles—and adding new graduation requirements that include volunteerism and internships. I wouldn’t mind programming that inspires and innovates. I wouldn’t mind a sensible mechanism for teacher recruitment. As Sen. Michael Bennet told me in a recent interview, “We have to think differently about how to attract and retain people who want to be teachers and want to be principals and want to serve our kids—because our entire system of training and compensation…springs from a labor market that discriminated against women and assumed that women only had two professional choices: one was being a teacher and one was being a nurse. And 40 years after that’s been true, I think it’s time we start to think about it like it’s a 21st century profession—instead of one designed deep in the middle of the century.”
Indeed, Sen. Bennet, indeed. And how about providing full funding to charter schools that are leading the way in innovation? How about federal action and accountability for ensuring that every child is given a good education? How about turning around underperforming schools?

Education reform is the sort of domestic policy—much like health care—that if done right, can be leveraged to create massive amounts of positive change. “True reform of the country’s public education system will occur when all federal dollars are tied to innovation, not merely through individual programs…” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, in a recent statement.

For this issue, I interviewed several individuals who have used the education they received at local public, charter or private schools to do incredible things. Their successes were built on a solid foundation of basics. And their educations included diversity in curricula, experiential learning and teachers who encouraged passion, drive and opinion. They were lucky.

But we can’t count on luck forever.

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email no info send march17th/09

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