arne duncan, margaret spellings education 2020 ncsl base camp

Clockwise from top left: Moderator Gavin Payne of GPC Advisors, and former U.S. education secretaries Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan discuss education issues at NCSL Base Camp 2020.

NCSL Base Camp 2020: Arne Duncan & Margaret Spellings on Education During a Pandemic

By Julie Lays | Sept. 17, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned every policy area upside down, but especially hard hit has been education—from preschool to college.

Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings, both former U.S. education secretaries, joined Gavin Payne, an education policy consultant and former legislative staffer, to discuss what kinds of impacts the pandemic has had on the American education system.

After Duncan and Spellings both lamented a lack of leadership from Washington, D.C., which Duncan said caused “a natural disaster to morph into a man-made disaster,” they discussed whether the pandemic may be the catalyst needed for fundamentally changing the way we educate our children.

Experts argue that despite all the current chaos, this is exactly the right time to rethink education methods. In fact, many feel significant change is long overdue. “We need Operation Warp Speed for our kids,” Spellings said. “It’s every bit as important as a vaccine.”

Duncan shared one startling statistic: The U.S. spends $9 billion a year on remedial classes to prepare high school graduates for college.

“I don’t want to go back to education as it was. This is an opportunity to bridge the gap,” he said, referring to the digital divide between those with broadband access and those without and with no plan in place to get it. Early last spring it became clear that there was a growing split between students in school districts ready to make the transition to online learning with the technology and trained teachers needed, compared to students who were not as fortunate.

Both Spellings and Duncan discussed how the use of technology will only expand. It can improve one-on-one interactions with teachers, customize learning and help how we assess student progress.

Duncan described how technology could, for example, allow the very best of the best teachers to teach thousands of kids at once. We need to use teachers in smarter ways, said Duncan—and train them in the use of the technology, Spellings added. We’ve never supported teachers adequately, they agreed. Now may be the right time. Spellings said educators have been asked to go above and beyond, and, all across the country, they are rising to the occasion.

Although pressure to cut education budgets will be fierce, both Duncan and Spellings agreed this is no time to disinvest in education. Spellings pointed to early childhood education as so important that its funding should not be squandered. Duncan emphasized the need to base budget decisions on proof of effectiveness. When the evidence shows it works, he said, it is worth funding.

Even though some schools have asked for a hiatus from state and federal assessments, both Duncan and Spellings agreed that would be a mistake, noting that educators need to know where kids are if they are going to try and make up for lost time.

Julie Lays is editor of State Legislatures magazine.

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