U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's speech today at the National Press Club wasn't billed as a campaign speech, nor was it delivered to an audience of regular voters or donors, but the contents and tenor of his remarks indicate that the education secretary is an important messenger for President Barack Obama's re-election effort.
The title of the speech, "Moving Forward, Staying Focused," plays off of Obama's "Forward" campaign slogan. And deep down in the speech, according to prepared remarks, Duncan gets to the crux of the campaign message: "[T]he choice facing the country is pretty clear: some people see education as an expense government can cut to help balance our budgets. The president sees education as an investment in our future."
UPDATE, 1:55 P.M.: During the Q-and-A period, Duncan reiterated that point. He was asked to predict the biggest difference in education policy between an Obama administration and a Mitt Romney administration. He said the difference was "clear" and "stark," that the Obama administration sees education as an "investment," while Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan see it as an "expense."
During his speech, he acknowledged the frustrations teachers are feeling at the high-speed push for performance-based evaluations—and teachers make up a core voting bloc for Democrats.
"I also know that some educators feel overwhelmed by all of this change. Teachers support accountability and a fair system of evaluation. They want the feedback so they can get better. But some of them say it's happening too quickly and not always in a way that is respectful and fair."
In this first major address after the Chicago teacher's strike, Duncan—a superstar of sorts in Obama's cabinet—made a tacit acknowledgment of the labor-management kerfuffle in his hometown.
"I can report that—while the hard work of improving schools is difficult and challenging and requires many people to move outside their comfort zones—the mood is largely positive. People are working hard and—for the most part—they are working together." (Emphasis added.)
And, he acknowledged the sentiment that there is too much teaching to the test.
"We continue to hear frustration with standardized tests. Two consortia of states are currently developing new assessments that will be better aligned to what teachers are teaching and better measure critical thinking—but we're not there yet."
Duncan used his speech to tout the Obama administration's education record: Race to the Top, waivers, expansion of the common core, school turnarounds, and saving teacher jobs.
On the congressional front, he points out there is "little appetite on the Hill to help" protect teachers' jobs, perhaps implying that the choice in the presidential election may be even more important. He also said: "If some members in the House [of Representatives] have their way, programs like Head Start, Title I and IDEA could take a big hit—so we need to continue to fight for these programs that protect children at risk."
And he laid out his goals if his boss is re-elected: more early education for low-income children, more personalization in the classroom, more science and math teachers, and passage of the DREAM Act. (That's the short list.)
"We have had an ambitious agenda over the last four years," he said, referring to things like the School Improvement Grant program. That program, he said, resulted in two-thirds of schools seeing gains in math and reading. (SIG guru and co-blogger Alyson Klein tells me this is newsy, as the Education Department hasn't released this data yet.)
"Now," Duncan said, "it's time to double down on what we know is working—steadily moving forward while staying focused."