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By Chris Kenrick
Palo Alto Weekly
A top federal education official laid down a challenge to Silicon Valley Thursday: Use cutting-edge cognitive science to re-invent testing for students.
Calling for top-to-bottom reforms in America's lagging K-12 system, U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter challenged scientists to figure out how to cut in half the time students spend taking tests while improving test content to yield instant, high-quality data.
"We should be able to know where students are in real time, just like we use text messaging," Kanter told an audience assembled for a breakfast fundraiser in Menlo Park for the nonprofit Aim High. The group works with low-income middle- and high-school youth to inspire a "lifelong love of learning and sense of community."
Aim High operates 12 Bay Area sites, including two at charter schools on the Peninsula: the Stanford University-sponsored East Palo Alto Academy High School and Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City.
Citing a familiar litany of failures in the U.S. education system, Kanter said the Obama administration's $4.3 billion "Race to the Top" program employs "Silicon Valley-style competition" to incite fundamental reforms.
High on the reform list is creating some linkage between teacher compensation and student achievement, a concept historically opposed by teachers' unions.
But "unions are coming to the table," Kanter said.
"They are a very important partner in this. Contracts are being redefined, and you see lots of innovation. We want to capitalize on those centers of change around the country."
Unions and managers have found common ground in some districts through a mutual interest in student achievement and the need of teachers to "feel inspired," Kanter said.
Other administration goals are raising academic standards, improving teaching quality and increasing graduation rates in both high school and college, she said.
"We need to double the rates of achievement. The president said he wants us to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."
Currently, she said, more than half the nation's college students do not earn a degree in six years and, in community colleges, only 25 percent finish in two years.
Kanter said she met this week with leaders of education schools -- the source of 85 percent of the nation's teachers -- to discuss the administration's reform agenda.
Another Obama initiative -- to require teachers in the federal Head Start preschool program for low-income children to have bachelor's degrees -- has proven controversial within the program's ranks.
"We have some of them who don't have much schooling, but we believe 0 to 6 is a critically important time in the life of people in the country and we need well-trained people," she said.
The winners in "Race to the Top" so far, Delaware and Tennessee, are models for the kind of reform the administration wants to see.
Because Delaware and Tennessee are such small states and required comparatively less money, most of the Race to the Top money will be allocated this fall in a second round, for which 38 states have applied, Kanter said.
Before her appointment by President Obama last year, Kanter lived in Cupertino and was chancellor of the Foothill De Anza Community College District from 2003 to 2009. Prior to that she taught at De Anza College.
She will be the commencement speaker June 5 at Palo Alto University, which recently changed its name from the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.
To the crowd assembled at the Menlo Park office of the global law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Kanter reiterated commonly cited statistics from researchers at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: U.S. 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 developed nations in math literacy, and 21st out of 30 in science.
"We're losing ground. We're not as competitive as we were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
"When we look at high school graduation rates, we're 18th out of 24 industrialized nations."
Kanter said America's national high-school dropout rate is 27 percent and more than 50 percent in some cities, including Detroit.
"It's a tremendous challenge for our country," she said.