Approaching the Tipping Point: Technology in Education
A conversation with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Stephen Smith: There is a lot of focus on deficiencies in the education system. What good news is there that people might not know about?
Arne Duncan: There is actually an extraordinary amount of progress and momentum in spite of all the challenges we face; I am actually very optimistic about where we are going. In the past three or four years, educators’ jobs have been preserved, we have seen 46 states raise their internationally benchmarked standards, which no one thought was possible, and we have seen many states step up with creative responses to No Child Left Behind. One of the things I am most proud of is the increase in Pell Grant recipients: young people who are going to college and using our grants to help pay for it. Many are first-generation collegegoers. We’ve gone from 6,000,000 Pell recipients in 2008 to almost 10,000,000, so more than a 50 percent increase. There is clearly still a heck of a lot of work ahead of us, but there is so much to be proud of and thankful for, and to give us reason to be very hopeful about our ability take education in the United States to a different level.
Smith: We are in the midst of a rapid transition from print, paper, and pencil to computers, tablets, and digital content. What changes must occur to ensure that teachers keep pace with that integration of technology today?
Duncan: Well, obviously it is so critically important that our teachers lead this movement rather than be followers. I think technology has the ability to be an absolute game changer to increase equity—to help kids who historically haven’t had as much opportunity to increase excellence— and to have kids be able to work in a personalized learning environment. In terms of teacher training and support and professional development, technology brings a wealth of resources, not just from across the country but across the globe, which could not have existed five or 10 years ago. So in terms of empowering teachers, in terms of engaging students and parents, I am so hopeful about what technology can do. Part of my frustration is that changes in education have always come so slowly. Technology has already transformed how the world does business; it has transformed how everyone interacts socially; it has literally led to democratic revolutions. Technology has yet to change education, but I think we are approaching the tipping point.
Smith: Your national education technology plan recommends preparing students to be ethical participants in a globally networked society. Can you describe what your vision is for that and what it would look like?
Duncan: What we want to do is not just physically but virtually connect young people to their peers across the globe. I think in an increasingly interconnected world—a “flatter world,” where the economies of so many countries are interrelated— students are more comfortable and confident working with peers from not just their district, state, or country but from around the globe. This ability to interact globally puts them in position to be much more successful as they mature and grow older. Now fostering these connections in a way that makes sense is clearly important. But I think the chance for this exposure, which didn’t exist a few years ago, is amazing. Just one personal example: Last year in my daughter’s class—she’s in a local public elementary school—they were Skyping with children from Mali. When I was in school that would have been inconceivable. And it’s the kind of experience my daughter will never forget; it broadens her horizons in significant ways. What an amazing opportunity for her and her classmates, and for the students in Mali. We want to create more of those opportunities, and not only for high school students or college students. What are we doing for 6- and 7- and 8- and 9- year-olds to provide those kinds of opportunities? Let’s bring that opportunity to younger children as well.
Smith: The USC Shoah Foundation has a free website called IWitness, which lets students and teachers work with video from Holocaust and genocide survivor interviews. Do you think it is important to learn from survivors and from these painful chapters in history?
Duncan: I can’t overstate the importance. If we paper over or sugarcoat horrific times in our history, I think we do our children a great disservice. Having those honest, difficult, and painful conversations; having our children grapple with ethical issues and choices; allowing them to confront history in a very real way is one of the most important gifts that we can give to them. The more we engage our students’ hearts and minds when we’re teaching, the more it will resonate, the more it will stick, and the more they will think. The goal of education is not to get children to regurgitate facts; I think that misconception is a huge part of the problem. If the goal is to train them to think critically, to ask hard questions and grapple with very difficult issues, then I think we will empower them to be very successful.
Smith: You have been a real advocate for textbook publishers to go digital. What are the benefits, and is there a sufficient demand for them to make that transition?
“Technology has already transformed how the world does business; it’s transformed how everyone interacts socially; it has literally led to democratic revolutions. Technology has yet to change education, but I think we are approaching the tipping point.”
Duncan: I think it’s come too slowly, but the demand is picking up rapidly now. The idea of our 8- and 9-year-olds walking around with 30-, 40-, and 50-pound backpacks is ludicrous. It’s ridiculous that they have to do that. But if children have access to a device that puts information at their fingertips—exponentially more information than I had in my school library while growing up, and information that is updated on a continuous basis instead of every couple years, when a new textbook is published—why would we not want that for all our children? And why wouldn’t we want that with particular focus in disadvantaged communities, where often they have the oldest materials, the oldest textbooks, the least-current and relevant information? So we are doing everything we can to expedite the transition from print to digital. From an international benchmarking position, I keep asking our educators, “Do we as the United States want to be a leader in this area, or a “lagger?”
Smith: Is there anything parents, teachers, and school administrators can do at the local level to close the digital divide for disadvantaged communities?
Duncan: They can be advocates. It’s a more difficult conversation in these tough economic times, and I understand that, but I think we in education are uniquely bad at making necessary changes. We’re great at starting new programs, but we’re not good at changing course. Then you see a district in North Carolina, called Morrisville, which is not an affluent district by any stretch, but they simply stopped purchasing textbooks and put all of that money into technology. Already they are seeing some remarkable gains in learning, increases in graduation rates, and reductions in dropout rates. It proves that even in tough economic times, we have the resources. We spend billions of dollars each year on textbooks, literally billions. If we deploy those dollars in a different way, we can work through the transition from print to digital very quickly.
Smith: Many schools and communities don’t have the internet capacity needed for audio-visual resources like ours. How is this problem being addressed?
Duncan: Making sure schools have enough broadband is a huge part of our equality agenda. So we’re working with the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Agriculture— which has some important resources— and across the federal government to close the opportunity gap between schools that have sufficient broadband and those that don’t.
Smith: Many of our readers are Holocaust survivors, who have shared their stories in classrooms for many years. What would you say to them, as we approach a point in our lives when students will no longer be able to learn directly from the survivor generation?
Duncan: I would say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Their willingness to bear witness about that horrific time in their lives—to revisit that time on a regular basis for the benefit of younger generations—must be anything but easy. But what an impact they have. They are opening our children’s eyes and giving them knowledge that is critically important. I want to thank the survivors for their willingness and courage to give so much of themselves to our children.
Smith: Arne, you have been an educator all your life in different ways. What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a teacher?
Duncan: I am always an optimist, because I just know how much our children want to learn. And one of the joys of my job is getting to travel the country and go to schools, whether in urban areas or rural areas, in suburbs or remote, Native American reservations or villages in Alaska; everywhere I go, I am always struck by how much children want to learn, want to grow, and want to be challenged. And I think that the challenge for adults is to make sure that we continue to raise the bar and have the highest expectations. I talk to thousands of kids; rarely do I hear students say that they are working too hard. More often, they want us to challenge them more, and it’s incumbent upon us as educators and parents and leaders to listen to what our children are saying.
This interview originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of the Institute's PastForward digest