Top official ponders future of education

The Modesto BeeSeptember 18, 2012 

— Modesto Bee education reporter Nan Austin spoke with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Wednesday about his technology initiative and issues facing our area:

QUESTION: Rural and especially mountain areas face huge technical challenges in bringing their students into the digital age. Are there federal dollars to see that they are included?

ANSWER: There are. I think this is so critical, that we close the digital divide. There are programs through the FCC, the Department of Agriculture (and others). We're continuing to invest, but there's still more work to do.

Q: Technology offers ways for teachers to connect with the very diverse students of the Central Valley. But will there be a training program to help teachers make good use of these new tools?

A: I think it's so important. I do worry that, while there are some great things happening for teachers, I worry our teacher training schools are sometimes not keeping up with this area. But there is a huge amount of support between teachers, it's happening nationally. It's very organic, very viral. I'd like to see 18- and 19-year-old aspiring teachers have access to those networks.

Q: Is technology the new vision, in essence rebuilding the little red schoolhouse?

A: I think you need both the physical school and the technology. Kids go to schools, where they have great teachers, and those teachers and students have access to learning, access to knowledge. They need access to connect any time, anywhere, any subject, pursue their passion. Great teachers coupled with great teaching tools. That's where you get that personalized instruction.

Q: Funding for schools is based on seat time, attendance. Will future funding be more flexible to give more options for using technology?

A: We're seeing lots of movement away from seat time and toward competency-based models. Teaching everything the same way at the same time doesn't make sense any more.

Q: California's lack of regularity and dependability, in addition to lack of dollars, is wreaking havoc with local school budgets. What is the federal view of the strain this puts on education here?

A: It's a huge challenge. I just left a meeting in Sacramento. I'm very, very frustrated. This work is tough enough, and without the resources, it makes very difficult work even tougher. States need to give the educators a much greater sense of stability. All of us need to empower the great work going on with principals and teachers in the classroom.

This is hugely important. I was a superintendent. I lived on the other side of that instability. This one's a really personal (issue) for me.

Q: Common Core focuses on deeper learning and critical thinking. Do you see this as transformative change for all schools and, if so, what do you see ahead for the transition?

A: I think it's a huge step in the right direction, lining up with international tests and those expectations. It's a game-changer. But it's going to be choppy during the transition.

It's going to be hugely important, and a couple of years down the line, we'll see it.

Q: Looking at the Central Valley, which mirrors many struggling areas across the country, how does the United States make sure our schools walk forward in step with the very best?

A: We just want to be a great partner. Whatever we can do to help; for example, linking districts with other districts facing similar challenges. We're fighting for more resources, but we can lend support by helping districts work together. Knowledge is a great way for educators to do the most with scarce resources.

Q: Any parting thoughts?

A: What we're trying to do is let people know that education is so important to developing our economy. We have to educate our way to a better economy. It's so important that we come together on this. Education is really the most important thing we can do for our country.

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