Rhode Island's small size can help the state create big change when it comes to education reform, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a town hall meeting yesterday. Duncan fielded questions from both the roughly 200-person audience and a five-person panel at the event, held at the Providence Career and Technical Academy.
This August, Rhode Island won $75 million in the second round of the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition, placing fifth in a field of 35 states, as well as the District of Columbia.
"You guys earned that money because we believe in you," Duncan said. He added that the Ocean State's tiny size makes education reform easier to implement quickly.
Outside, about 30 people gathered to protest Duncan's policies. The group was mostly composed of members of Occupy Providence and the Coalition to Defend Public Education, which organized in response to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras' decision to fire all of the city's teachers in February. Protesters held up signs reading, "Duncan — you are in need of corrective action," referring to plans intended to turn around failing schools, and chanted rhymes like "Hey hey, ho ho, Arne Duncan has to go."
Questions were mostly directed at Duncan and came from the panel of community and school leaders who sat on the stage with him, as well as from the audience, which included teachers, students and community groups.
Duncan repeatedly mentioned his pride in the state's education reform efforts and his belief in the potential for further change.
Many asked Duncan what the next step will be for the state after winning Race to the Top funds.
Some, including Adeola Oredola '02, a panel member and executive director of the community organization Youth in Action, stressed the importance of taking into account students' perspectives. Most of the people who create improvement plans for schools have no firsthand experience in those schools, and it is vital that young people are "co-constructors" of these plans, she said. Duncan said he agreed that students should be heard at every level of the process but offered no concrete ideas on how to solicit this input.
Other questions centered on whether the Race to the Top funds will be sufficient to fix the state's education system. Duncan said initiatives like Race to the Top are a start, but more investment in education is critical, especially given the country's weak economy.
"There's a set of folks in Congress who don't think we should invest in education," he said.
Jessica Hallam, a senior from Ponaganset High School on the panel, asked Duncan how he thought the government could motivate students to engage with their coursework. Good teachers and principals are important, Duncan said, but so is student involvement outside the classroom. He proposed keeping schools open after the end of the academic day to give students ample opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities both at school and in their communities.
Duncan also gave a keynote address at the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council's Annual Meeting last night.