Insights for a Changing Economy:
Volume 3 – Bulletin #2

Secretary Arne Duncan’s Vision: Too Much, Not Enough, or Just Right?

Maguire Associates at the White House

Maguire Associates was pleased to participate in a White House forum on education, business, and the budget recently, sponsored by the New England Council.  At the session, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned that America “must get much better, much faster in education and get out of the ‘catch up’ business.”

Playing catch-up appears to be exactly what the United States is doing, however, when one considers the ambition of the Obama Administration’s “cradle to career” vision for education.  Understandably, Duncan makes no apologies for the scope and sweep of the President’s agenda.  “I’d love to just focus on one of these initiatives” – referring to the Administration’s three-part early childhood, K-12, and higher education agenda – “but we don’t have that luxury.”  “We have no choice,” he later said.

Several times in our briefing with him, Duncan called for a “much greater sense of urgency” about education in this country. Although he did not say it, one sensed frustration with a collective failure to work systemically and in the long term on an issue that can only be addressed effectively in holistic, structural terms.

The Business Community Needs to Step Up!

The White House is on a charm offensive with the business community these days.  This is precisely why our delegation also met with Bill Daley, the President’s chief of staff and a longtime banker and business leader, as well as regulations czar, Cass Sunstein.  President Obama’s team is wooing business support in advance of the November 2012 election.  Our delegation featured many top New England business leaders and some college and university presidents, too.

It was Duncan, however, who issued the most passionate call of the day for both broader and deeper business engagement in education.  He said there are “a couple of million high-skilled, high-wage jobs unfilled in this country because we don’t have enough knowledge workers.”  Well, that certainly got everyone’s attention, as Duncan listed many other head-spinning data points about the state of U.S. education including a 25 percent national dropout rate. In underscoring data about U.S. college and university persistence and graduation rates, Duncan emphatically told us that “We need to focus much more on attainment and not just access.”

Duncan said it was time for more business leaders to “step up” to the challenges of education.  He wondered out loud, “How can business find its voice in education?”  He seemed mystified that more business leaders were not engaged in – or even angrier about – this gap in knowledge workers.  For a company like ours with analysts, econometricians, and statisticians together in a KnowledgeWorks unit, we wonder whether and how a “knowledge worker gap” could play in the 2012 presidential election amid so much discussion of jobs.  Not well, we suspect, since unlike the “missile gap” of years ago, the “knowledge worker gap” may lack sufficient political resonance.  Too bad, since it is more real than 1960 claims of a “missile gap” that most historians now believe were more fiction than fact. 

Duncan used this “knowledge worker gap” to implore the business community to get tougher about educational expectations and outcomes. “The business community’s voice has not been tough enough; not demanding enough of government and educators.”  It was a refreshingly candid appeal.  And it also reminded several of us of the scene from the 1976 film Network in which Peter Finch opened a window and screamed, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Secretary Duncan must find that emotion very satisfying.

The Cradle-to-Career Continuum

Duncan, who spoke without a prepared text and was the best speaker of the day, outlined the Administration’s agenda along the continuum from early childhood education to K-12 and ultimately to higher education.  Three interesting take-aways included:

  • Dropout Factories: He said there are over 100,000 K-12 schools in the United States, of which roughly 35,000 are public and private high schools. He noted that only 2,000 of these schools - what he called “dropout factories” - account for over half of all dropouts.  He added that the Administration is actively tracking “1,000 schools in the U.S. in fundamental turnaround mode.”  Let’s hope most of them come from these 2,000 dropout factories.
  • Community Colleges: In stressing the “huge investments” the nation is making in community colleges, Duncan said that they are an “unpolished gem” for training “18, 30 and 50-year-olds” into the new economy.  While he did not cite specifics, Duncan, Labor Secretary Solis, and their staffs have been busy lately developing and announcing the criteria for the first $500 million in stimulus grants under the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program. 
  • FAFSA Simplification: Duncan underscored that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has been “dramatically simplified” recently, though he’d certainly get push back from those of you who think much more work is needed here.

No Laughing Matter

This was a serious gathering on a rather sobering subject.  Still, Duncan got a polite chuckle when he reminded this group of New Englanders that he had been cut by the Boston Celtics.  The biggest laugh of the day came, however, when longtime Obama colleague Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President, told everyone that the White House recently hosted a reception for the National Governors Association.  “Every Governor thinks about being President……so a lot of these folks were here measuring for drapes,” he said. 

Higher education is central to the pursuit of higher office or, for that matter, most any professional calling.  The Obama Administration’s ambitious “cradle-to-career” agenda seeks to overhaul the U.S. educational system, and there is no argument that it is sorely needed. 

After listening to Duncan, it’s clear that the Administration is hardly doing too little.  Far from it!  The risk here is one of being overwhelmed – or overmatched – by trying to do so much.  And yet there does seem to be little choice these days than to address the inadequacies of the American education systemically and ferociously.  The stakes are just too high to do otherwise.


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