MERRILLVILLE | U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan brought a sobering, oft-repeated message to Northwest Indiana saying that Northwest Indiana students are not measuring up to their counterparts in other states and the nation.
"It's a tough truth, it's a hard truth," he told a crowd of about 600 business people, educators and government leaders. "Many other nations and many other states are outperforming Indiana, including some of your highest-performing schools."
Duncan visited Merrillville Thursday during his "Education and the Economy" bus tour where he was the keynote speaker at the One Region, One Vision committee's annual meeting. Duncan focused on the importance of engaging all sectors -- public and private -- in education, and the role education plays in restoring and sustaining a vibrant economy.
Duncan said when he grew up in neighboring Chicago, students could drop out of school and still get a good job and earn a living, but that's not true today.
"Today, Northwest Indiana students are not just competing with other states but globally with students in India, Israel and Indonesia," Duncan said. He noted he was at an education summit in Iowa last month and more than half the applicants for a company there were Chinese and had earned a perfect 800 on the math portion of the SAT.
Quoting from the 2010 State of the Workforce Report for Northwest Indiana, Duncan said 57 percent of the region's labor force does not earn enough to support a family of four. He noted that Northwest Indiana is home to seven colleges and universities but only Valparaiso University had a graduation rate of more than 70 percent while the others had less than a third of its students graduate.
Duncan said Ivy Tech Community College Northwest reported that 70 percent of incoming freshmen needed remedial education. However, Duncan said it's time for colleges to stop blaming high schools, and high schools to stop blaming elementary schools, because it's everyone's problem.
Duncan said people often like to say 'my school is good, my child is doing well, that's the other school,' but he urged people not to hold on to that vision but to look within themselves. He noted that as many as 1,000 students leave high school without a diploma and those dropouts drain the economy.
Duncan said he was thrilled Indiana was finally addressing the issue of chronically underperforming schools. He said it's important to turn around schools that long have been considered drop-out factories.
Looking at local schools, Duncan said Northwest Indiana has some of the highest-performing and lowest-performing schools in its region, and it's "no time for complacency."
He commended the work done at Calumet High School to implement New Tech, a project-based form of study, and the work at Hammond High School to get off probation. He also noted that more than 700 students at Crown Point High School had earned dual credits, and added "I love dual-credit programs."
Duncan, who supports charter schools, long has criticized the federal No Child Left Behind law, which will require states to have 100 percent of students pass standardized tests by 2014 or face serious sanctions. Duncan said leaders in Washington are looking at the law, and changes will be made.
Portage Superintendent Mike Berta said he was surprised by the amount of data Duncan recited about Indiana, and that he made some compelling comments. "I was also glad to hear him address the nuances in NCLB, something many of us have talked about for years, and the obstacles it creates to improving education," Berta said.
East Chicago School Board member Constance El-Amin said she liked what Duncan had to say about the importance of teachers, treating them professionally and paying them what they are worth.
Georgette Davis, a field representative for the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University, said she appreciated Duncan's call for unity. "There is no reason for traditional schools and public charter schools to have an adversarial relationship. We need to take a real look at ourselves and work together because it's all about the children," she said.