American school children need to be in school more -- way more -- if the nation is to compete with students abroad, the nation's top educator said Tuesday.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said American schools should be open six days a week, at least 11 months a year, to improve student performance.
"Go ahead and boo me," Duncan told about 400 middle and high school students at a public school in northeast Denver. "I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short."
"You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; eleven, twelve months a year," Duncan said.
Instead of boos, Duncan's remark got an unsurprising response from the teenage assembly -- bored stares. But the former Chicago schools superintendent went on to talk about school reforms he believes are coming from the Obama administration.
Duncan praised Denver schools for allowing schools to apply for almost complete autonomy -- which allows them to waive union contracts so teachers can stay for after-school tutoring or Saturday school.
Duncan also applauded Denver's pay-for-performace teacher pay system, a scheme that some Democrats and teachers' groups oppose. In visits to two schools Tuesday, Duncan quizzed school administrators about Denver's reforms, including the pay system, longer hours and waiving tenure rights for new hires.
"Talent matters tremendously. ... It's important that great teachers get paid more," Duncan said.
"We have a $5 billion 'Race To The Top' fund. It's a unprecedented amount of money that we're going to put out to a small number of states that are willing to lead the national conversation (on school reform) and I would love to see Colorado actively competing for those dollars," Duncan told 7News.
He also said he's "heartbroken" Colorado has rejected a proposal to allow resident students in-state tuition regardless of immigration status.
Duncan told a group of mostly Latino high school students at Bruce Randolph School that he was saddened by the Colorado Senate's rejection of the proposal.
Duncan visited at the invitation of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who was Denver's schools superintendent from 2005 until his appointment to the Senate this year. The city's pay-for-performance plan was one of Bennet's chief accomplishments while in charge of the 75,000-student system.
Similarly, Duncan hasn't shied away from challenging Democratic positions on education since joining Obama's cabinet.
Last month, he said that poor children getting vouchers to attend private schools in the District of Columbia should be allowed to stay there, putting the Obama administration at odds with Democrats trying to end the program. Duncan talked up school choice during his Denver visit, though he didn't mention vouchers or elaborate whether he meant private schools, too.
"I'm a big believer that students and parents should have a choice what school they want to go to," Duncan said.
Bennet, greeted by hugs from teachers lining the hallways of the two schools, sided with Duncan. Bennet told reporters he wanted to help steer any education reform proposals from the White House through the Senate.
"A change needs to come, especially in urban school districts, and it's not going to be easy," Bennet said.
He added, "I will do absolutely everything to get myself in the middle of that conversation."
Colorado, along with other states, is prepping to apply for some $5 billion worth of federal education grants coming through the economic stimulus package. Duncan said details of how that money will be awarded haven't been decided.
Already, the federal Department of Education has released $44 billion to the states for education. According to Colorado estimates, the state is due about $487 million for K-12 education. The principal at the high school Duncan visited announced to the students and teachers that the school has already received its portion, about $200,000.
"It's here!" principal Kristin Waters cried, to cheers from the staff.
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