No two schools are the same, and in a giant and diverse state like California, you need to visit a lot of classrooms and talk to a lot of teachers, administrators, students, parents and political leaders before you can even begin to understand the public education system’s accomplishments and challenges. Last month, I returned to the Golden State for a packed two-day visit to Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego.
At an education summit organized by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, I directly challenged the city’s leaders, community groups, unions, parents, educators and students. Los Angeles, I told them, is a world-class city with a second-class school system. They can use the current and very real budget crisis as an excuse to continue on the road they have been on, or they can take the road less traveled—the harder road. To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, that road less traveled will make all the difference.
At L.A.’s Fremont High School, I was greeted by the energy and enthusiasm of student leaders. In February, some of them came to Washington for a national youth summit that the Department of Education convened. These students have taken ownership for their educations and are demanding more from their schools and from themselves.
Another school with high expectations—and great results to show for it—is Tincher Preparatory School in Long Beach. There, I participated in a roundtable with Tincher’s fantastic principal, Bill Vogel. A music teacher, Laura Strand, asked me if I could pull off “a miracle” and solve California’s budget problems, which are cutting into arts programs like hers. I am proud that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has saved more than 300,000 education jobs over the last two years and supported state and locally led reforms, but I recognizethat schools in California and elsewhere are facing brutally tough funding decisions. There are smart and not-so-smart ways to make those decisions. The not-so smart ways include cutting back on arts and music instruction or implementing other cutbacks that harm learning in the classroom.
Education’s miracle workers are teachers like Ms. Strand who work magic with their students, and in very tough conditions. What those of us in Washington, D.C., can do is give states, school districts, schools and the educators who work in them greater flexibility—with accountability—to be creative in addressing their students’ individual needs. This is where the current federal education law known as No Child Left Behind(NCLB) falls short. While the law is rightfully credited for shining the spotlight on achievement gaps, it’s too prescriptive and too punitive. As President Obama said recently, we want to get this law fixed before students go back to school in September.
In the San Diego area, I was pleased that one of Congress’s leaders on education, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), agreed that this year we need to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the official name for No Child Left Behind—and fix NCLB’s problems. With Congressman Hunter, I visited Shoal Creek Elementary School. Then we joined current and retired military leaders at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. It is astounding to me that three out of four young Americans do not meet basic requirements to serve in our military; either they lack a high school diploma, they’re physically unfit, or they have a criminal record. This is a national security risk that we must address. And the best way to get our children ready for college and careers, including military service, is to invest first in high-quality early education programs.
March was a busy month for education. The President, Vice President and I, as well as other administration officials, visited schools throughout the country to emphasize the importance of investing in education to win the future. President Obama put it best when he said recently that “in the 21st century, it’s not enough leave no child behind. We need to help every child get ahead.”
Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education.