REDWOOD CITY -- U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan got his show on the road here Wednesday, hyping the promise of technology to transform education as he embarked on a series of back-to-school pep talks across the country.
In two days in Silicon Valley, Duncan displayed the enthusiasm for change that has marked his 3½ years as educator-in-chief and defended the Obama Administration's relentless push for higher standards and achievement, better teaching, education equity and now, technology in the classroom.
"Our challenge is to make great education the norm," he told an auditorium full of students, teachers and community leaders at Sequoia High School. He lauded the progress at the school, where 51 percent of the students come from poor families and 25 percent are undocumented immigrants, yet 68 percent of juniors and seniors take at least one honor course and nearly all graduates continue to some kind of colleges, according to Principal Bonnie Hansen.
Duncan touted the federal Dream Act, which would allow undocumented students to enroll in college, join the military or legally work. "We can't afford to keep that talent on the sidelines," he said to applause.
In pushing the promise of technology, Duncan and others stressed that digital innovation is not about replacing teachers. Equipping "great teachers with great tools is going to save education," said Catlin Tucker, an English teacher from Windsor High in Sonoma County,
On Tuesday, spending a day at Stanford University with high-tech leaders, Duncan said that education technology pioneers are helping to change the world. Among them are Sal Khan, whose online Khan Academy posts free videos on everything from addition to art history that are used in 15,000 classrooms. Khan, appearing with Duncan at Sequoia on Wednesday, said his goal is "to teach 100 million students in the next five years."
Likewise, Stanford professor Andrew Ng has founded a firm, Coursera, offering free, online interactive courses taught by professors at some of the nation's most selective universities. On Wednesday he spoke of an institution where a four-year education costs more than $200,000 offering classes for free.
Duncan appeared with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who touted the commission's "Conect2Compete" initiative that aims to offer low-income families with schoolchildren broadband service for $10 a month. The program is expected to start nationwide by January, FCC spokesman Neil Grace said.
The messages about expanding educational access resonated with students. "I liked it," said Sequoia senior Juan Valdez, 17, referring to increased online courses. "It's going to be really hard to get money for a four-year college."
But the applause for Duncan and his panelists didn't compare with students' rapt attention and cheers for a student-produced music video and for a clip of Printz Board of the Black Eyed Peas, who helped with production.
Duncan took questions from the audience via Twitter, and said afterward that he sends his own tweets (he has 53,000 followers). "It's a great way to get feedback," he said, and to reach young people.
While his talk Wednesday promoted the promise of technology, on Tuesday evening Duncan touched on the federal agenda for change.
He stressed the importance of preschool. "The only way we can stop playing catchup in education is if our babies enter kindergarten ready to learn." And he touted the administration's record of school reform, enticing nearly all states to embrace tougher standards and better performance.
He sees teacher training, support, compensation and retention as areas ripe for reform. "The entire teacher pipeline is fundamentally broken," he said. While in high-performing countries like Singapore and Finland, the top 10 percent of college graduates are recruited for teaching; in the United States, two-thirds of the teachers come from the bottom third of their class.
Ironically, from the man who has perhaps prodded more change than any education secretary before him, Duncan echoed a criticism often voiced by teachers. Reform, he said, "is way too top down." Administrators should ask teachers what they need to teach better, he said.
But, he said, he wants to encourage demand from parents for more educational change. "The biggest critique is we are going too fast. Actually, we are going far, far too slow."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.