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Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Why buy textbooks?

Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, speaking at the National PTA Conference at the Charlotte Convention Center, Friday, June 26, 2015.
Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, speaking at the National PTA Conference at the Charlotte Convention Center, Friday, June 26, 2015. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

At a Friday morning session in Charlotte of the National Parent Teacher Association’s annual conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wondered why school districts still buy textbooks.

Every year, Duncan said, the U.S. spends $7 billion to $9 billion on textbooks that are “basically obsolete” by the first day of school.

“We in education move too slowly to change,” he said.

Duncan envisioned a school where the pace and topic of a lesson is personalized for each child – and the key to this, he said, is technology.

Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, described how his district fought for wireless access in churches and sports fields and partnered with a local broadband provider to get inexpensive Internet in low-income students’ homes.

The PTA can help by fundraising for initiatives like equal Internet access, using technology to keep in touch with parents who aren’t able to be as active in schools and “setting high expectations” for all students, Duncan said.

Reducing inequality, in public schools and in the PTA itself, was another theme for Duncan and PTA leaders.

“I know we’re not serving all children well today, and that’s heartbreaking to me,” Duncan said.

“We’ve made some real progress, graduation rates are at all-time highs, dropout rates are at all-time lows, so we’re going the right direction, but we have to get better faster.”

The demographics of the PTA , which is 70 percent Caucasian, don’t reflect U.S. schools – “not yet,” National PTA President Otha Thornton said.

Thornton said the PTA’s leadership board is more diverse than the PTA overall, and they’re working on inclusiveness at lower levels of the organization.

Good intentions aren’t enough to establish trust between parents and schools, Duncan said.

“Lots of parents feel either unwelcome or unable to contribute in a meaningful way to the life of the school,” he said.

Duncan said giving parents tools for advocacy, as the PTA does, will help them engage in their children’s educations. Helping parents figure out what questions to ask teachers makes a difference, but parental advocacy can go further.

Duncan recommended that PTA members ask all the 2016 presidential candidates to clarify their views on early childhood education, reasonable testing methods and how to reduce educational inequality.

Wester: 704-358-5169

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