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Duncan: Kids Connect through Extra-Curriculars

Tingley-021 colorSecretary of Education Arne Duncan was in town last week participating in a panel discussion at the College of William and Mary.  The official topic was “College, Cost, & the Commonwealth:  A Presidential Roundtable,” and it was an interesting as it sounds until Duncan spoke up.

The panel was composed of presidents or chancellors of several colleges and community colleges, and a lot of the questions were fielded by Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, the chief bureaucrat at the DOE.  Kanter was necessary, of course, because she has at her fingertips all the statistics and mechanics of the department, and she took pains not to steal the spotlight from Duncan, even though he appeared just vaguely interested in the topic.

Most of the discussion traveled the usual route.  Duncan said that a generation ago, the United States was first in college graduation rates.  Now we are 16th.  He said that he believes that everybody who works hard should have the opportunity for some kind of higher education, although 40 states cut funding for colleges last year. 

Kanter brought up the usual drivel about schools “partnering” with business, a comment that provoked some in the mainly university audience to note that such partnerships usually come with strings attached that may in fact limit the independence of the university.   She also opined that she believed more college Arne Duncan students were working today than in her generation (which looked to be mine as well).  Frankly, I find that hard to believe since just about everyone I knew in college (including me) was working someplace either on campus or at the local restaurants.  The difference between then and now is that college expenses at state schools were so low in those days that a student could actually earn nearly enough money for tuition and living expenses by working during the summer and during school.  Today, of course, the gap between what a student can earn and what college actually costs has widened tremendously, making it virtually impossible for most students to graduate without substantial loans.

The panel also talked about the importance of community colleges, noting that many community college students eschew four-year schools because they prefer specific training in an associate’s program or even a certificate program.  A year at a community college, one president noted, typically costs one-third of what it would cost at a four-year institution.

What was never discussed was how four-year colleges themselves could cut costs to become more affordable.

Duncan, the only guy on the dais in shirtsleeves, failed to inspire until the discussion moved to K-12 schools and how they could better prepare students for college or careers.  Suddenly the Secretary became engaged and eloquent.  “A lot of people drop out of high school not because it’s too hard, but because it’s too easy,” he said.  Schools are failing to connect with kids, he said, noting that he is a “big supporter” of extra-curricular activities like sports and music and clubs.  People may not like to hear it, he said, but often the only reason kids come to school is for sports or drama or music or whatever turns them on.  Unfortunately, he noted, extra-curriculars are the first to be cut when schools are faced with tight budgets.   Kids need mentors, coaches, and role models, he said.  “Any kindergarten teacher can tell you which kids don’t have support at home,” he said, noting that that’s why schools need to provide kids with some adult connection.

His sudden burst of interest left me wishing the panel discussion had been about K-12 education and not about college costs.  It would have been interesting to ask the Secretary, for example, how all those tests kids have to take help them connect to school.  Or whether schools would have to cut extra-curriculars if states didn’t have to send money that might have gone to schools to testing companies instead.  Or whether it’s really necessary to test every kid every year.   Because when the Secretary talks about K-12, he doesn’t sound like a bureaucrat, but like a school person who wants to do the right thing and wishes the path weren't as cluttered as it is with regulations, turf issues, personalities, and self-interest. 

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