U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made several stops in New Jersey on Wednesday, pushing a program aimed at recruiting more teachers to work in urban and rural areas.
Duncan hosted a town hall meeting at a Newark youth and employment center to talk about the Department of Education's TEACH Campaign, which provides educational materials, information and job listings to encourage people to pursue teaching jobs in underserved areas. One of the primary objectives is to get more African-American and Latino teachers -- especially men -- into the schools.
"I see this as the civil rights issue of our generation," Duncan said, arguing that he was optimistic that even "the poorest kid, from the toughest community from the most dysfunctional family" can thrive when given a good education. "But put that child in school that has a 40, 50 or 60 percent dropout rate, where the norm is to go to the streets rather than to go on to college, then we as educators, we're perpetuating poverty, we're perpetuating failure," he said.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, community leaders and educators at the meeting told Duncan it wasn't enough to recruit new teachers, but there needed to be effective ways of retaining them to put a stop to high teacher turnover rates in urban schools that contribute to destabilization. Suggestions ranged from expanding internship programs for education majors in urban schools to alternative certification programs or more financial incentives -- including higher wages -- to persuade teachers to work in urban areas.
Revamping Newark's education system has been a priority for Booker. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million last fall toward the effort, and discussions are ongoing as to how to transform underperforming schools in the city into a nationwide model for urban education.
"There is nothing that is more in important in this city's pantheon of challenges than educating our kids," Booker said, adding he believed that the inability of America's public schools to educate children at high levels of excellence was the greatest threat to the country's national and economic security.
Duncan said a key to America's success is to have classrooms that are more reflective of the nation's diverse student body. Citing statistics that only one in 50 teachers today is an African-American man, and less than 2 percent of teachers are Latino men, Duncan said schools must find ways to attract more minority teachers as well as more educators willing to work in urban schools. He was also planning to speak later in the day at Princeton University, to urge people to pursue teaching as a way of serving their country.
The Obama administration has set a goal of recruiting 1 million new teachers in order to make the U.S. the top nation for the number of college graduates by the year 2020. Duncan said he'd been studying examples of innovative programs from around the U.S., and in other countries, on how to improve the education system when resources are scant.
At a time when the vilification of teachers unions has gained political traction across the country -- and in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie's much publicized fight with the state's powerful teachers union has garnered headlines -- both Duncan and Booker emphasized Wednesday that improving education is a bipartisan cause.
"We've got to stop focusing on personalities," Booker said, "and start focusing on progress."