This post first appeared on Scholastic Administr@tor magazine's website on September 21, 2015.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been doing back-to-school bus tours for six years, taking him from one end of the country to another. But it’s unlikely he ever got the question he faced when his bus pulled into Williamsfield, Illinois, last week.
“Did your bus clear the bridge?” Superintendent Tim Farquer asked him. Duncan’s trip to rural Williamsfield, population 600, might have involved the smallest town he’s ever visited. “This is a town I would normally not get to spend time in,” he admitted.
What brought Duncan and his Ready for Success bus to this rural corner of Illinois was nothing less than the future of education. Williamsfield, which boasts a one-story school that houses all 300 of the town’s students, from PreK to grade 12, has eschewed textbooks in favor of open educational resources.
The district started to make the switch two years ago when leaders considered buying a new math textbook. Instead, they decided to invest in Chromebooks and search for online resources. Initially, teachers struggled with bandwidth issues and finding reliable material. Illinois’s OER website helped by not only rating content but also by showing how it relates to state standards, and bandwidth issues have been resolved.
“This is remarkable to see a town of 600 literally leading the country where they need to go,” Duncan said. “This is a really big deal.”
At other stops on the trip, Duncan learned how Cedar Rapids, Iowa, teachers are taking on various leadership roles and creating an innovative teacher-coaching program. And in Des Moines, Duncan’s boss, President Obama, joined the secretary for a town hall meeting on college affordability. Taking questions for more than an hour at North High School, Obama said, “Higher education has never been more important, but it’s never been more expensive. No young person should be priced out of college.” He detailed the government’s new website, Collegescorecard.ed.gov, which allows students and parents to compare the country’s 7,000 higher education institutions on factors such as cost, graduation rates, and average graduate salaries.
Photo: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a panel discussion in Williamsfield, Illinois.Photo courtesy of the Department of Education