Education Secretary Arne Duncan says US must stop playing catch-up

The Kansas City StarSeptember 19, 2012 

The nation’s education system needs to get out of “the catch-up business,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a rooftop audience Tuesday night at Kansas City’s Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley.

Duncan’s two-week bus tour across America came through the heartland and reached a midpoint here, where he joined Kansas City, Kan., native Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, to highlight concerns of the growing Hispanic community.

Duncan touted the Obama administration’s increase in support of Pell grants — need-based college funding — but worried about the number of high school graduates enrolling at Penn Valley and other colleges across the nation who are not college-ready and have to take remedial courses before earning any credits.

Unprepared students with limited time and money “are burning Pell grants,” Duncan said. “The colleges blame the high schools. High schools blame the middle schools. Middle schools blame the elementary schools. Elementary schools blame early childhood (programs). And early childhood blames the parents.”

The consequences of school systems working from behind — according to various statistics shared throughout the evening — are measured in the 3,000 fewer words on average in the vocabularies of children of color entering kindergarten. They are evidenced in a 25 percent dropout rate overall in the nation, with rates in some high-minority communities ranging to 50 percent and 60 percent.

Duncan called for more investment in social services for families and in early childhood programming, including the federal Head Start program and at the state level.

He also urged the audience to back the administration’s efforts to support the DREAM Act, which would give many undocumented children a chance to enter college and earn residency status.

Some more numbers: One in four students is Hispanic, and the Hispanic population is projected to drive 60 percent of the nation’s population growth over the next 50 years.

“I don’t see anyone who wants more to see their children succeed,” Murguia said.

And for all the concerns, Duncan said, his tour has also seen many of the best practices in education that promise to help end the “catch-up business.”

“There’s amazing stuff going on,” he said.

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