US Secretary of Education kicks off tour at California high school

Arne Duncan comes to Sequoia High School in Redwood City, Calif. to speak with a panel about technology in education.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, visited Sequoia High School in Redwood City, Calif. on Sept. 12 as his first stop on the “Education Drives America” tour. Speaking in Carrington Hall to a packed audience of students, educators, and technology experts, Duncan moderated a panel of experts from Silicon Valley about the need to promote technology in education.

“[Technology] is not about replacing humans, but empowering them,” said founder of Khan Academy and panelist Salman Khan.

Principal Bonnie Hansen opened the assembly, which focused on how technology can support teachers. She emphasized equal opportunities for all students in the public education system despite income inequality.

“Families have chosen Sequoia because they want their kids to go to school with the rest of America,” said Hansen.

Duncan also touched on the issue of the DREAM Act, which was passed in California in 2011, but has not come through on a federal level. The Act allows undocumented students to qualify for state financial aid and attend state universities without paying out of state fees.

“Nationally we have to pass the DREAM Act,” said Duncan. “We as a nation can’t afford to keep that on the sidelines.”

Amidst the excitement of the “Education Drives America” tour, The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus arrived a few days prior to Duncan’s visit. The Lennon Bus collaborated with students chosen by Hansen to create an original song and music video inside the mobile recording studio that debuted at the assembly.  

The bulk of the assembly was a panel discussion with Duncan, Kahn, Andrew Ng, Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and co-founder of Coursera, and Catlin Tucker, a high school English teacher and author of “Blended Learning for Grades 4-12”. They all highlighted technology as a tool for teachers to close achievement gaps and allow students to work at their own paces.

“Technology is not going to save education [on its own], great teachers with great tools are going to save education,” said Tucker.

Examples of these tools include interactive digital textbooks, which the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Education hope to move U.S. schools to implement in the next five years. They also hope to implement Connect2Compete, a program that would offer low-cost broadband plans to families with students on free or reduced lunch starting in 2013.

“The irony is that technology is making the classroom more human,” said Kahn.

The Khan Academy is an example of a way for students to connect on a global level, giving them more opportunities for success.

Sequoia was the first of 23 stops on the nationwide tour. Other stops will include public libraries, universities, middle schools, community colleges, elementary schools, and a local tire company. At each stop Duncan will focus on a different aspect of education.

Given that the Silicon Valley is  home to the nation’s biggest name technology corporations such as Google and Apple, as well as the leading region for innovative start ups, the Redwood City panel had a heavy focus on technology and computer science.

“It is well stated that technology is not the answer, but a great tool when partnered with great educators,” said Alan Sarver, President of the School Board.  “We are committed to modernizing technology in our schools and modernizing the curriculum.”

The Sequoia community had a variety of reactions to Duncan’s visit.

"It was great to see the music video,” said sophomore Alicia Menendez-Brennan, a singer in the “We Are the Future” video. “It was pretty much the culmination of all the fun we've had this past week. The people we worked with were the best and I appreciate everything they did for us."

Over 400 Twitter comments were posted during the day about the event, many praising and agreeing with the panelists’ ideas.

However, the panel was also met with protesters who disagreed with Duncan’s policies.

Race to the Top is a program by the Department to give incentives for innovation in education.

“No Child Left Behind gave schools a stick. Race to the Top was supposed to be more of a carrot, but the problem’s in the name, ‘race’,” said Spanish teacher Edith Salvatore. “If you take all the kids in the country, who deserve free education, and you have a race, some are going to lose. I disagree that anyone should lose”

At the event Greg Gruszynski, a Woodside History teacher stood during the assembly with signs reading “Arne Duncan: Stop Closing and Privatizing our Schools” and “We Support Chicago Teachers and Schools.” Others stood in solidarity with the Chicago teachers union strike by wearing red.

“I think they’re working real hard together.” said Duncan. “I have great confidence in the teachers and the union, and I hope they resolve it as quickly as possible and get everyone back together in the classroom.  I know everyone has students’ best interests at heart and that they will put egos and personalities aside to work together and figure this thing out,”

Regardless of contentions over Duncan’s policies, the visit highlighted the need for innovation in our public schools.

"High quality education is not a privilege, it is a fundamental human right," said Ng.

Additional reporting from Dalia Jude, staff reporter.  



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