A Report Card on Education Reform

David Leonhardt:

I sat down last week in Washington with Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, and Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor and current Purdue University president, after they had met with several dozen chief executives of big companies to talk about education. Their meeting was at the office of the Business Roundtable, the corporate lobbying group, and joining us for the conversation was John Engler, the former Michigan governor who runs the Business Roundtable.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images, for The New York Time Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Mr. Duncan is a Democrat, of course, and Mr. Daniels and Mr. Engler are Republicans. But they all sympathize with many of the efforts of the so-called education reform movement. I asked them whether the country’s education system was really in crisis and what mistakes school reformers had made. A lightly edited version of the first part of our conversation follows; the second part will appear on Economix on Thursday.
Leonhardt: You always hear we’re in crisis. But what is the bad news, and what is the good news, and are we making any progress?
Duncan: I do think we have a crisis. I do feel tremendous urgency. If you look at any international comparison – which in a global economy is much more important than 30 or 40 years ago – on no indicator are we anywhere near where we want to be. Whether it’s test scores or college graduation rates, whatever it is, we’re not close. So we’ve got a long way to go. That’s the challenge.
Why I am hopeful is we have seen some real progress. Some things are going the right way. The question is how do we accelerate that progress. College graduations rates are up some. High school graduation rates are up to 30-year highs, which is a big step in the right direction.
The African-American/Latino community is driving much of that improvement, which is very, very important. There is a huge reduction in the number of kids going to dropout factories. We are seeing real progress. The question is how do we get better faster.
Daniels: I am glad that the secretary didn’t pull any punches. I don’t know any other way to read it. In Indiana, we just had, by far, the best results we’ve ever seen in our state. Everything was up. The high-school graduation rate is up 10 percent in just four years. Test scores, advanced-placement scores too. But we’re just nowhere near where we need to be. And the competition is not standing still. So we need many more years of progress at the current rate, and it still maybe too slow. I’m afraid this is a half-empty analysis, but I think it’s an honest one.
Engler: The president of Purdue and the president of the Business Roundtable – we are the consumer groups here at the table. All the products of K-12 system are either going to go to the university or they are going to the work force. The military is not here, but they’re not very different.

Related: Madison’s long time disastrous reading scores and wisconsin2.org