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Duncan: Pace of reform “stunning”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan used Tuesday’s unveiling of the Race to the Top finalists to air his views on where education reform is heading and what the federal role should be.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan

In a half-hour speech Tuesday at the National Press Club, Duncan argued that “a quiet revolution is underway in our homes and our classrooms,” with teachers, parents and public officials working locally to reform schools.

Scroll down to read national reactions.

Duncan said the Obama administration “is playing a modest role in this quiet revolution.”

“I’ve learned a lot about the proper federal role in education,” Duncan said, listing the “bully pulpit,” ensuring transparency and “incentives like Race to the Top” as the three things Washington can do in education.

He said, “We need to stop labeling so many schools as failures” and instead give recognition to high-performing schools and give middling schools “much more flexibility to improve.”

“The only place where we are explicitly proscriptive is with the bottom 5 percent of schools. … If we don’t mandate real consequences … nothing will change.”

He noted that R2T funding equals less than 1 percent of national K-12 annual spending and said the reform impetus created by the program is perhaps more important than the actual grants:

“As we look at the 18 months, it is absolutely stunning to see how much change has happened … because of these incentive programs.”

Duncan added, “It’s really not about the money [but about] willingness to drive reform at the local level. … We really unleashed this huge amount of innovation and reform around the country.”

He noted that 13 states have liberalized their charter-school laws and 17 states have reformed their educator evaluation systems since R2T was announced.

What others said

“Here’s my final projection of round-two winners … Colorado”
–Justin Snider, The Hechinger Report

“There is nothing modest about the administration’s role in driving reform … ”
–Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post

“Even states that made it into the finals the first time around took big steps to bolster their chances … Colorado, for example, passed a sweeping new state law …”
–Michele McNeil, Education Week

“Only a few surprises in the RTT finalists announcement … Money won’t go so far with this group … ”
–Andrew Rotherham, Eduwonk

He claimed that the total package of federal stimulus money for education should be credited for “literally staving off an education catastrophe in our nation’s classrooms.”

Here are some other remarks from Duncan’s speech, several of which quickly made their way onto Twitter:

“No one thinks test scores should be the only factor in teacher evaluation.”

“I also challenge reformers to stop blaming unions for all the problems of education.”

Asked about the recent firings of nearly 200 teachers in the Washington, D.C., schools – “I don’t think anyone’s going to fire their way to the top.”

Duncan also mentioned Denver in a list of cities where “district and union leaders are moving beyond the battles of the past.”

The secretary took another half hour of questions before naming the R2T finalists.

Questions ranged from the civil rights aspects of a quality education to career and technical issues to whether basketball superstar LeBron James should have gone to college. Duncan passed on answering the last one.

Related: Colorado make R2T finalist list

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