Former U.S. Education Secretary: 'We're top 10 in nothing'

Aarthi Swaminathan
Finance Writer

Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has strong opinions about how to fix the U.S. school system, and he’s skeptical that the current administration will deliver on key initiatives.

Duncan, who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2015 and just published a new book, says the country needs to improve access to early childhood education and increase wages for teachers to make the U.S. more competitive on the global stage.

“I think obviously the best investment we can make is in high-quality early childhood education,” Duncan told Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith on Midday Movers. “The brutal truth is that whether you look at early childhood education access to that, whether you look at math and science scores K-12, whether you look at college completion rates, we’re top 10 in nothing. And that’s not good enough.”

Duncan’s comments reflect how apart from college rankings, the U.S. lags behind most of the developed world — and even parts of the developing world — when it comes to education.

Former US education secretary Arne Duncan speaks with Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith on Midday Movers.

‘Relatively flat over the test’s history’

American students ranked 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. The exam measures ability, math, science and literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in a number of developed and developing countries.

The latest test, which is administered every 12 years, revealed how American PISA scores on all sections have been “relatively flat over the test’s history.”

American children also lag behind on early childhood education — which Duncan places heavy emphasis on — with enrollment rates for children under three below 30%, according to a report by OECD.

The overall enrollment of all 3- to 5-year-olds in the U.S. was 67%, which was the lowest out of all the OECD countries except Switzerland and Turkey.

Source: OECD

It’s not much better at the front of the classroom. Despite numerous teachers’ union protests, 1 in 5 teachers in the U.S. currently hold a second job just to make ends meet, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the median pay for kindergarten and elementary school teachers was $56,900 last year.

Duncan commented that “we say we care so much about teachers and how important they are. We don’t pay them as true professionals. We don’t train them as true professionals.”

‘These aren’t Democrat or Republican goals’

Duncan asserted that Obama-era policies had resulted in progress, and he hoped the Trump administration continued pushing those trends.

“We were very proud during our time in D.C. to get high school graduation rates up to 84%,” Duncan said. “I would love to see the current administration have a goal of a 90% graduation rate and keep getting better.” He added that “we were about 12th in the world now in college completion. I would love to see the current administration saying we should lead the world.”

The current administration’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, tried to make deep cuts to public education to fund school choice voucher programs in May that were rejected after fierce resistance from Democratic legislators. Overall, the Department of Education has shed about 13% of its staff as the administration attempts to merge the Education and Labor Departments.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Former Senior Advisor to President Trump Omarosa Manigault Newman accused Devos of being ignorant of how historically black schools were formed and claimed that President Donald Trump refers to her as “Ditzy DeVos.”

Duncan stressed that “these aren’t Democrat or Republican goals — these are nation-building goals. We have to educate our way to a better economy. … I don’t see the current administration talking about any of these goals.”

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