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Arne Duncan: Americans Are Fighting the Wrong Education Battles

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In a speech he delivered at the Askwith Forum, Harvard Graduate School of Education on Feb. 7, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Americans are fighting the wrong education battles, according to the U.S. Department of Education. As far as Secretary Duncan is concerned, we should not view education initiatives, such as those aimed at standardized testing and teacher evaluation procedures, as "either-or choice[s]," but rather, we should find the merit in each policy suggestion and work together to determine how it can benefit our nation's students.

One such education issue Secretary Duncan's speech focused on was the impact that factors such as poverty have on student performance. Duncan conceded that "...poverty matters and affects school performance. But everyone who has witnessed the life-altering impact of great teachers and great principals knows that schools matter enormously too." He went on to cite the great work Massachusetts schools have done to fight the poverty battle and improve education. They "invested in school reform," "created rigorous assessments," and have "college and career-ready academic standards."

The key word in Duncan's position? "Invested."

I wholeheartedly agree that schools play a fundamental role in eliminating poverty and creating opportunities for underprivileged children. But there's only so much a school can do with so little.

Without a doubt, more states need to follow Massachusetts' lead and make this investment in students' public education a priority, starting with my own home state of Michigan.

On Feb. 9, Gov. Rick Snyder presented his state budget recommendations for 2013-2014 to the legislature, according to the Office of the Governor. While he plans to give back about a third of the $1 billion he took from public schools last year, part of that will be devoted to rewarding schools whose students perform well on standardized tests alone.

How about investing that standardized test money in something that might actually benefit students in need, like after-school programs that foster encouragement and provide tutoring, support systems many underperforming students do not receive at home? These are much more likely to elicit real learning gains down the road than will threatening districts with funding loss based on misleading data and encouraging educators to teach to the test.

I agree with Secretary Duncan that we are fighting the wrong battles, that we should not view education policy as all-or-nothing, maintaining that those who believe in standardized testing are against "teaching a well-rounded curriculum" or accusing those who want more state-level freedom of being opposed to "accountability." I also believe, however, that the answers to the "education wars" we are currently battling are not as simple as agreeing to see the positives in each proposal.

As an educator, I maintain that cutting from our schools and basing their funding on snapshot assessments like standardized tests are not only ineffective, but they're unethical as well. All children, no matter their race, religion or economic status, have a right to a quality education, and the way to achieve that is to fully invest in our public schools - in their resources, their staff, their professional development opportunities, and their support programs. Only then will we begin to address the deficits we see in our schools' instruction and our students' achievement.

Laura Sauer is a high school English teacher in Michigan. She holds a BA in English and is pursuing her MA in Curriculum Development and Instruction.

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