February 22, 2016

Answering Arne Duncan’s Five Must-Answer Questions

In December, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan posed five must-answer questions to the presidential candidates. Since then, none of the questions have been addressed. So, we’ve taken the liberty of answering the questions ourselves.

Today we are 27th in the world in access to preschool. What’s your goal for preschool access in the next five years?

Decades of research by economists, neuroscientists, and educators prove that investments in the first five years result in long-term gains for students and produce significant savings for governments and taxpayers. If we want to improve outcomes for generations, fix our talent pipeline, strengthen our schools and communities, and produce long-term, meaningful savings to taxpayers, we have to invest in quality preschool for all of our children.

The next President must take this charge seriously, leveraging the energy of local initiatives like the Cincinnati Preschool Promise to significantly expand access to high-quality preschool education. These communities need a leader that will elevate the national conversation, invest in local infrastructure, and help scale quality practices to benefit children in every community in the nation.

High school graduation rates are the highest ever at 82 percent, but they are not nearly high enough. What’s your goal for high school completion in the next five years?

While graduation rates are important, a high school diploma that translates into readiness for college and a meaningful career is far more important. Our collective goal should not just be about raising the graduation rate, but also working to personalize learning so every student receives a rigorous education customized to his or her unique skills, interests and readiness. We have to move outside the four walls of a classroom to an education system where learning is challenging, ongoing and relevant to everyday life. When we stop designing for all and design for one, high school graduation is inevitable.

The federal government has a key role to play in this transition. Our country needs a President that will empower education visionaries at the state and local levels by giving these leaders the running room to innovative and scale strategies that will accelerate educational success for all students.

Today, far too many students graduate high school and still need remedial classes in college. What’s your goal for true college readiness in the next five years?

Early College is a way to blend high school and college experiences.The greatest problem with our education system is that it is designed around time instead of proficiency. We are so focused on credit hours and grade-level promotion that we lost sight of the one thing that matters most – whether our students master the core knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and career. A high school diploma is no longer a guarantee that a student is ready for the next stage of life. In fact, over half of community college students and twenty percent of students at four year institutions now place into remedial education classes.

Our next President must reverse this dangerous trend by embracing competency education, a new approach to teaching and learning that emphasizes mastery over time. Early adopters across the country are piloting this new approach with great success, customizing instruction to ensure every student masters required standards before advancement. Our goal should be to restore meaning to the high school diploma through widespread adoption of this approach. Students, parents, postsecondary institutions and the workforce deserve more transparency around education outcomes.

A generation ago, we were the world leader in the college graduation rate of our young people; today, we are 13th. What’s your goal for the next five years?

If we are serious about addressing college completion, we need to start with access. College costs have skyrocketing over the past decade, putting postsecondary education out of reach for far too many students. To make matters worse, the federal financial aid system, which was established to prevent this problem, has become increasingly disconnected from today’s students. The system continues to cater to the traditional student that graduates high school and immediately enrolls in a full-time postsecondary program. It does little to help the increasing numbers of non-traditional students that may seek to access college courses early or later in life, or to complete a degree part-time, or even to seek a second degree to reskill as their industries evolve.

Our nation should set an ambitious goal to overhaul the Federal financial aid system to ensure it is more flexible and reflective of today’s students. The system should enable students to access their total amount of Federal student aid based on their learning and financial needs, rather than being limited to arbitrary yearly limits that do not accurately reflect the cost or the nature of learning in a personalized learning environment. A fresh approach would give all students the opportunity to access a high quality education under reasonable financial terms that do not limit their future success.

Finally, for each of these goals, what are your concrete strategies to achieve them, and what financial resources and political capital are you willing to expend to get us there?

Our nation’s presidential candidates are uniquely positioned to raise the level of education debate in this country by offering concrete ideas for reform. We encourage them to visit www.educationplaybook.com to read ideas generated by KnowledgeWorks after soliciting feedback from teachers, students, policymakers, and education leaders across the country. These strategies will dramatically improve the state of education in this country and better position the United States to compete on the global stage. The voters deserve a plan and our students deserve a quality education.


(Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Lillian Pace

Written by: Lillian Pace

Lillian Pace is the Senior Director of National Policy with KnowledgeWorks.

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