Duncan supports Indiana’s school reforms

Secretary of Education visits Northwest Indiana

September 9, 2011

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(Photo courstesy of Jeffrey Nicholls/Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana)
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks at a forum in Merrillville, Indiana on Thursday.

Indiana’s schools Superintendent Tony Bennett has been getting a lot of heat for his state’s aggressive move to take over five poor-performing schools in recent weeks.

Even as recently as Thursday afternoon, Bennett was in Gary to once again defend the state’s decision to replace management of Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy with that of a privately run company.

But the Republican Bennett got some reassurance that Indiana’s on the right path -- most notably from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Bennett said he spoke to Duncan just days before he announced the state of Indiana would be taking over the five schools, including four in Indianapolis.

“Secretary Duncan didn’t say ‘Tony, is it popular?’ He didn’t say, ‘Tony, will you be getting push-back?’ Secretary Duncan said it’s the right thing to do. And if people want to hear what I think, have them call me,” Bennett said in introducing Duncan at a Thursday evening event at the Radisson Hotel in Merrillville, about an hour south of Chicago.

Duncan visited Merrillville as part of his bus tour of Midwestern cities. The former Chicago schools CEO gave the keynote address at the One Region, One Vision initiative put on by the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council. More than 300 of the region’s movers and shakers in business, higher education and economic development attended.

Duncan said he’s familiar with the track record of poor-performing schools in Northwest Indiana cities such as Gary, Hammond and East Chicago. He said schools in more affluent suburban areas are doing better, but they need improvement, too.

“It’s true that the school system here in Northwest Indiana has been described as balkanized. You have some of the top-performing schools in the state in affluent areas. You also have some of the lowest performing schools in the urban cores. But in my view those differences are actually exaggerated,” Duncan said. “The higher performing schools in the region are not doing as well as some people might think. At the same time, the performance of low performing schools are not as ‘entrapped’ as some residents may believe.”

Duncan spoke shortly before President Obama was to have delivered his major jobs creation speech before Congress.

Duncan said better education can be a catalyst for economic growth because some employers in Northwest Indiana, a five-county region of more than 800,000 residents, complain about not having enough skilled or educated candidates to hire.

He challenged educators on every level – from elementary to college – to do better at preparing students for success.

“Successful reform requires tough-minded collaboration, not confrontation. Complacency, clinging to the status quo and continued tinkering around the margins will not solve Northwest Indiana’s sweeping educational challenges,” Duncan said.

Those challenges in Northwest Indiana, he said, include elevating career- and college-readiness among high school students; developing a more robust college-going culture; encouraging innovation; and providing the highest quality of math, science and technology instruction.

Bennett said that Duncan, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, proves that improving education is not about politics.

“Our children do not walk into our schools with D’s and R’s stamped on their tails,” Bennett said. “Secretary Duncan has probably been the model of bipartisanship at the national level. Secretary Duncan is a man who believes that we have to tackle the most important issue as it pertains to the future of our nation. And that is the issue of building a college and career ready workforce that rivals anywhere else in the world.”

Duncan’s bus tour will visit Milwaukee on Friday before wrapping it up in his hometown of Chicago in the late afternoon.