Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks school reformation

By Mike Kuntz, For the Daily
Published September 8, 2011

In a visit to campus yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the University’s School of Education and stressed the importance of education in helping to boost the economy.

Duncan joined a panel of School of Education faculty in the school’s Prechter Laboratory to discuss ways to promote excellence in classrooms throughout the country and address the needs of disadvantaged and under-served students. The secretary’s stop was part of this week’s “Education and the Economy” bus tour throughout the Midwest aimed at raising dialogue and awareness of key education issues.

University President Mary Sue Coleman appeared before a crowd of about 120 people to introduce the event. Her opening remarks focused on the importance of education in order to improve the future.

“Few professions are more critical to the well-being of our country,” Coleman said at the event

Addressing the audience, Duncan complimented the University’s teacher training, calling the School of Education “phenomenal” and School of Education Dean Deborah Ball “a visionary leader.”

“I think U of M can do so much here and across the country to elevate that work and make sure many more teachers start on day one ready to make a difference in kids’ lives,” Duncan said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

Duncan also talked about the link between growing inequalities in urban communities and educational opportunities.

“Education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” Duncan told the crowd.

Ball, who moderated a panel discussion at the event, echoed Duncan’s sentiment.

“Education, we now know, makes an enormous difference on kids’ opportunities,” she said in an interview after the event. “As Arne said, this is the civil rights issue of our time, and I really think he’s right about that.”

The panel, also including School of Education Profs. David Cohen, Annemarie Palincsar and Rob Sellers and Associate Profs. Peter Bahr, Bob Bain, focused on a variety of issues in the realm of education reform. The panelists discussed the challenges of working with aging teachers wary of new federal standards, how to address the needs of under-performing schools and the need to increase the presence of minority teachers in classrooms.

The panel also highlighted the need to prepare a new generation of teachers for the challenges of teaching in low-performing schools in diverse communities. Duncan, in particular, stressed the need of acclimating a new crop of teachers to challenges in today’s classrooms.

“We have a new generation of teachers who are going to come in and fill about a million jobs of teachers about to retire, and we have to do a much better job of preparing them to be successful from day one,” Duncan said.

Peter Cunningham, assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, also stressed in an interview with the Daily that improvements in education start with preparing teachers.

“This is a region of the country that has struggled some but also has tremendous potential, and a lot of that potential is in our classrooms,” Cunningham said. “We think that we need to do a better job of training teachers, and that really falls on the colleges and universities around the country that have schools of education to step up and do a better job preparing teachers to teach in classrooms.”

He continued: “We want to make sure that our young people reach their full potential and have every opportunity to succeed.”

The panelists also discussed the role of education programs in ensuring new teachers’ success in the classroom. The panelists stressed that classroom experience alone — through programs like Teach for America — doesn’t always give teachers the complete skill set they need.

In an interview with the Daily after the event, Ball highlighted the large number of University graduates who participate in the Teach for America program. In 2010, the University sent the second-most number of graduates into the teaching corps with 79 participants, according to Teach for America data. However, Ball said it would be beneficial for these students to have formal teacher training before starting in the classroom.

“The University of Michigan has an amazing number of undergraduates who are very in touch with improving education, and they’re so socially committed,” Ball said. “But one of the things I would like to invite more undergraduates to learn about is what it would mean to be skillful enough to work in an urban community well, even if it’s just for a couple of years.

“(The University has) sent a ton of people to Teach for America, and an alternative would be to come here (to the School of Education) and become very skilled so that you’re really ready to work in those communities.”