U.S. Education Secretary Gives 'Call to Teach' Address at U.Va.

October 12, 2009 — U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to the University of Virginia on Friday to deliver the first of three addresses he's giving this month to recruit an "army of great new teachers" to close the achievement gap among students and help ensure the country's long-term prosperity.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story:

"I can think of no better place to start recruiting teachers than in Thomas Jefferson's hallowed halls," he told the capacity crowd, made up mostly of U.Va. teacher-education students, gathered in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. Duncan said he was addressing not only them, but also college students, professionals, military veterans and retirees who might consider teaching.

"No question that our country needs you," he said. "Our children need you. Unlike earlier generations, you and your children will be competing for jobs in a global economy."

Duncan said the education that millions got in the past simply isn't sufficient today. In 2016, four out of every 10 jobs will require advanced education or training, he said, noting that the 30 fastest-growing fields will require a minimum of a bachelor's degree.

In America, education has always played a unique role. Citing Jefferson's views on a universal education that would "bring into action that massive talent which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development," Duncan said, "Two centuries later, we still haven't achieved the dream. Thirty percent of students drop out or fail to complete high school on time each year. That's 1.2 million students."

The need for great teachers and a quality education "is only half of the issue," Duncan said. "The other half is baby boomers."

The Department of Education estimates a national need for 1.7 million new teachers by 2017 due to anticipated retirements of baby boomers and attrition. Included in President Obama's fiscal 2010 budget request is $30 million to support a national teacher recruitment campaign. If the request is approved by Congress, the Department of Education would launch a comprehensive effort to recruit and provide support for students and professionals from other fields to become teachers, according to a release issued Oct. 9.

"Jefferson thought that teaching, an educated citizenry and public service are the cornerstones of a great democracy," Duncan said.

"A great teacher can change the direction of an individual's life. The quality of a teacher is what determines the success of the students more than anything else," he said. Many presidents were first teachers, he noted, among them Woodrow Wilson (a U.Va. alumnus) and Lyndon B. Johnson.

"Unfortunately, good teacher training is lacking today," Duncan said. "It's theory-heavy and curriculum-light. Many education schools don't prepare teachers for what awaits them in the classroom" or track their careers after graduation.

"I'm pleased to say," he added, "U.Va.'s Curry School is a happy exception."

In laying out his call to teaching, Duncan said he wants to "expand avenues to get good teachers in the pipeline." He cited Teach for America, which will prepare 10,000 certified teachers this year, and challenged future teachers in the Dome Room to "go to barrios or inner-city schools where you're needed most."

Prior to his appointment as Secretary of Education in January 2009, Duncan served as the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools from June 2001 through December 2008. Before that, he ran the nonprofit education foundation Ariel Education Initiative (1992-1998), which helped fund a college education for a class of inner-city children under the I Have A Dream program. From 1987 to 1991, he played professional basketball in Australia and worked with children there who were wards of the state.

As a student in Chicago, Duncan spent afternoons working in his mother's South Side tutoring program and also worked there during a year off from college. He credits this experience with shaping his understanding of the challenges of urban education. Duncan graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1987.

Following his U.Va. address, Duncan fielded students' questions.

One asked how to replicate the success of charter schools in public school systems.

"Charter schools alone aren't the answer," Duncan said. "However, they are some of the best in the country. Why? They're working harder and longer. The have a ‘no excuses' mentality. The culture even in poor communities is that college is the norm. Students in third grade are talking about where they're going. We need more good schools like these in the country," he said.

"What roles do schools and teachers have in the health care initiative?" asked another student.

Duncan responded that schools that become the "centers of the community" will be "very successful." Students need to feel safe, physically and emotionally, and their health needs must be met, he said. "Teachers and other caregivers could be part of this."

His vision includes organizations such as the Girls and Boys Clubs using schools as their centers. "Nonprofits should get out of the bricks and mortar business," he said, also suggesting that health care clinics be set up in schools or be built next to them.

One student said that she was taking on lots of debt to become a teacher. "I'm passionate about teaching, but I won't be making a Wall Street salary," she said.

Duncan reminded the crowd of a law Congress passed in July, an income-based loan repayment plan. "Loan repayments will be based on your future salary," he explained.

Regarding a question about pay for performance, Duncan said, "Money can't be the primary motivation for going into teaching." He added, however, "I absolutely think we need to reward excellence. We need to reward those who'll go into toughest communities and who enter hardest-to-fill math and science teaching posts."

Before Duncan spoke, U.Va. Executive Vice President and Provost Arthur Garson Jr. and Curry School Dean Robert Pianta welcomed the Secretary and audience. Duncan was introduced by Virginia Teacher of the Year Stephanie Doyle, a sixth-grade history teacher at Breckenridge Middle School in Roanoke.

Earlier in the day, Duncan had visited Charlottesville's Greenbrier Elementary to recognize its success as a 2009 National Blue Ribbon School.

On Oct. 20, Duncan will convene a group of at least 50 teachers from the Washington, D.C., area for a nationally broadcast virtual town hall meeting on the topic of elevating the teaching profession. He will also address the needs of the nation's colleges of education during a speech at the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York on Oct. 22.

— By Rebecca Arrington