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A moment of crisis and opportunity in education

Education in America is at a crossroads, according to US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

“[I]t is a real moment of crisis and opportunity for education in America,” said DeVos during a recent discussion at the Milken Institute 2020 Global Conference. In separate sessions, DeVos and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the state of K-12 education and what should happen next with students, teachers, and learning and instruction.

Empower parents

Remote schooling has allowed parents to see how their children learn and as some have experimented with alternative learning options -- including learning pods and homeschool consortiums -- they are watching their children thrive in these environments. Funding and policy should support these efforts, said DeVos. “[W]e need to advance policies, both at the state and federal level, that are going to empower families with the resources to choose those options for their kids,” she said.

DeVos spoke about the School Choice Now Act, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. The bill would provide a one-time appropriation of funding to scholarship-granting organizations in each state. Those organizations would give those dollars to families for them to use for education purposes. This could include paying for private school, covering costs for homeschooling or accessing courses not offered by the local public school. The bill would also create a permanent tax credit for contributions made -- by individuals or businesses -- to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations. The goal, said DeVos, is to provide parents with the financial resources they need to choose or create the academic environment that works best for their children. “[T]his could empower families to make the right choices for their kids based on their experience,” said DeVos.

Do something radically different

Funding alone cannot solve the issues of academic underperformance and racial achievement gaps, according to DeVos. Fixing these problems calls for new strategies, she posited.

“[W]e've spent over a trillion dollars at the federal level alone since the Department of Education has existed with the express purpose of closing the achievement gap, and not only have we not seen it close at all, we've seen it open, in many of the measures and many of the cases,” DeVos said. “[W]ith just the request for more resources is, how can you expect to achieve any different result by continuing to do the same thing with more resources? We need to do something radically different.”

DeVos cited a recent visit to Phoenix, Ariz. where she and Governor Doug Ducey met with parents and education leaders who are exploring new ideas for schooling their students. Among the attendees were leaders from micro schools and some parents who are forming learning pods. “[W]e have got to do something radically different. And that radical difference means...really freeing and empowering those who are consuming -- the customers, the students and their families -- and allowing them to drive what education looks like in a whole new way.”

Make access to broadband ubiquitous

Learning should not be limited to the confines of a physical classroom and traditional school schedule, according to Duncan.

“The idea that kids can only learn when they're in a physical school building, you know, five days a week, six hours a day, nine months a year makes no sense,” he said. “I want kids --  whether it's here, in the city of Chicago, whether it's in rural American Appalachia, whether it's on [Native American] reservations -- I want them to be able to learn anything they want, anytime, anywhere.”

The key, he argued, lies in closing the digital divide. Technology access could help deliver more coursework and expand the reach of high-quality teachers. “[An] amazing algebra teacher teaches 100 or 125 students in a day,” he said. “What if they are reaching 1,000, or 10,000, or 100,000?”

Access to devices and broadband should be as ubiquitous as electricity, according to Duncan. “Every kid has a passion. Every kid has a genius,” he said. “We just have to give them a chance to find it.”

Rethink school calendars, seat time and tutoring

Many students fell behind after their schools closed this spring. Helping these students regain what they lost means reevaluating some of the traditional systems we have been using, according to Duncan.

“I don’t know why we have summers off for everybody,” he said, stating that the current school calendar is based on an agrarian economy. “Last I checked we didn’t have a lot of kids who work in the fields anymore. We have to think very, very differently about the school calendar for kids who need more help.”

Duncan also recommended replacing seat time with a competency-based learning approach (“[K]ids pass algebra when they know algebra.”) and advocated for a national tutoring initiative for students who need help catching up.

“We have kids that are four months, six months, a year behind. We cannot afford to let them slip through the cracks,” Duncan said. “We know high intensity tutoring, low ratios of adults and kids make a big difference.”

Elevate the teaching profession

Remote learning has made clear the very important and challenging work that teachers do daily, according to Duncan.

“[W]ith so many parents having to educate at home I think teacher polls have never been higher and teachers have probably never been more appreciated for the complexity and the difficulty of their work,” Duncan said.

But they need more support and better pre-service training. Many teachers enter the field ill-prepared to manage the challenges of teaching large classes, with students from different backgrounds and having unique needs, according to Duncan. As education moves forward, beyond the pandemic, it must aim to elevate the teaching profession, he said.

[T]here's a tremendous amount of work we must do to attract, retain, nurture, mentor [and] compensate better that next generation of teachers as we move forward for the next 10, 15, 20 years,” Duncan said.

Student needs -- not partisan politics -- should drive change

Partisanship has no place in education, said both DeVos and Duncan.

“We need to have a broad bipartisan coalition,” said DeVos. “Education should not be a partisan issue.”

Duncan concurred. “[E]ducation should be the ultimate bipartisan issue,” he said. “[I]f a great military is our best defense, then a great educational system is our best offense. We should all be on board here.”

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Workforce. Contact her at kanoe.namahoe@futurenet.com.

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