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Look to Secretary of Education for State of the Union initiatives, columnist says

Published: Friday, Jan. 24 2014 3:20 p.m. MST

FILE - In thie June 20, 2013, file photo, Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits with young students at the St. Benedict Center for Early Childhood Education in Louisville, Ky.

Dylan Lovan, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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The President of the United States addresses Congress about his view of the state of the union around this time every year, but not in 2014. At least so says Thomas Friedman, who hopes the president just reuses a speech already given by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

In a New York Times opinion piece, Friedman said he believes that Duncan has fulfilled his own constitutional imperative to recommend for our consideration such measures as he believes are necessary and expedient, and that it is “a State of the Union speech the country needs to hear — and wouldn’t forget.”

Duncan asked one big question in a speech to the National Assessment Governing Board Education Summit for Parent Leaders last week: Why are we as a country falling behind in education? The answer was unwelcome, at least to some observers.

Duncan floated a thesis that, in today’s American culture, “too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough.”

Excellent teachers and administrators exist, and so do high-quality programs. High-quality education includes open communication, responsiveness, authoritative — not authoritarian — pedagogy, reliability and sufficient resources.

But first-rate tutelage isn’t always enough, according to Duncan. If students don’t want to work and aren’t open to learning, even heroically good tutelage does not succeed.

Indifference is becoming endemic, Duncan said. One veteran teacher told Friedman that “we are dumbing down our classes” to answer student insouciance. A second teacher chimed in, noting that cutting curriculum is irrelevant when the only solution is “physically picking up their hands to write for them.”

Duncan’s solution: Channel the largely unused power of parents in the United States.

“Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home," he said. “Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders — and to ask more of their kids.”

A wide body of research supports this observation: a crucial determinant in academic achievement is parents, who may be more important than the school.

Duncan referred to South Korea, where President Lee complains the biggest challenge in education is “too demanding” parents. Even the “poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children.”

A respected teacher told Friedman of the “inexorable downward progression” of educational quality. A second teacher said that high and successful academic programs are being thrown out because principals insist that — in an era of high-stakes quantitative evaluations — no student is “allowed to fail.”

Duncan insists, “We have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids.”

There are dissenters. Diane Ravitch, a leading voice in education, believes Duncan has resorted to blaming “everyone but the obvious perpetrators: failed federal policies.” She believes that initiatives from both Republican and Democratic administrations are largely disastrous, undermining teacher autonomy, cutting budgets, closing libraries and eliminating staff like social workers. These trends combine with the highest child poverty rate of any advanced nation, and all Duncan and Friedman can do is place “blame in all the wrong places.”

Regardless, Friedman is correct that, rather than orate “the usual laundry list that wins applause but no action,” Duncan fixed upon a single, simple action we can take as a nation with the potential to vastly improve our society.

Says Friedman: Obama would be wise to listen.

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