The Secretary and the Chairman: A conversation with Arne Duncan and George Miller

May 12, 2010

Attendees at the NewSchools Summit 2010 were treated to a special conversation between Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Representative George Miller, and NewSchools CEO Ted Mitchell.  The lively conversation covered the topical Investing In Innovation Fund (application deadline is this afternoon!), Race to the Top funding, special education, financing college, teacher training, and much more. Secretary Duncan rallied the troops, calling the educational reform movement a “generational opportunity”.

The excitement surrounding the administration’s focus of federal dollars on social innovation was palpable in the conference room. Secretary Duncan and Representative Miller received a standing ovation as they took the stage. In his opening comments, Secretary Duncan shared his confidence in entrepreneurs to lead the charge in systematic change throughout America’s underserved communities, saying, “we’ll keep moving until we move the entire country” towards success. His enthusiasm was warmly received.

With the increase in federal monies and national exposure comes a weighty responsibility, though, and the onus to deliver results in a field notorious for glacially-paced change. “We’re making a huge bet with our resources,” Duncan warned, “believing that these schools can be turned around.”  “This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. We’re doing this for the children.”

Echoing the Secretary’s emphasis on the urgency of the moment, Representative George Miller asked the audience to “think of that 3-, 4-, 5-year old child. The most devastating thing to them is a 5 year plan,” he said.

Many in the audience – themselves entrepreneurs and philanthropists – acknowledged the responsibility they now carry to prove they deserve this redoubling of money and attention. One questioner asked how best to continue advocating for federal support. Representative Miller responded that, in his view, “the most effective lobbying is local.” We’ll wait and see if reformers take note and refocus advocacy efforts on the district and state levels.

What does the alignment of reformers and federal policy-makers mean for the movement? The ideas that defined the education reform movement (standards, testing, and choice) must now prove their ability to dramatically improve student achievement or face the possibility of losing the nation’s trust.