Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, a set of uniform benchmarks for math and reading. Thirty-two states and the district have been granted waivers from important parts of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. Billions in federal dollars have gone out to improve low-performing schools, tie teacher evaluations to student growth and encourage states to expand the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Duncan said he believes students will see the concrete effects of those changes when they head back to class.
Putting in place Common Core standards, which began in many of the early school grades last year, could mean a greater emphasis on critical thinking. Waivers for No Child Left Behind should translate into a greater focus on a broader range of academic goalposts, including increasing the number of students who graduate, pass Advanced Placement classes and tests and leave high school ready for college or a career, Duncan said.
One result of waivers is a hodgepodge of individual state accountability plans for student performance and achievement. Duncan said these state plans could help guide Congress in coming up with a comprehensive plan to fix the No Child Left Behind law, which Republicans and Democrats alike say is broken.
"To see so many great, innovative, creative, courageous ideas coming from states, I think, is literally leading the country to where we need to go," Duncan said.
Although the law has been credited with helping shine a light on the need to improve the performance of low-income, minority and other student subgroups, the nation is far from reaching one of its central goals that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
As that date approaches, more and more schools have been labeled as out of compliance with the law and subject to a set of interventions. The waivers are designed to grant states reprieve from that requirement and greater control over how to close achievement gaps and lift low-performing schools.
One of the most important changes as a result of the waivers, Duncan said, will be a renewed focus on subjects such as science, social studies and the arts. In many schools, they received less attention in the push to improve math and reading scores.
"Many, many states are emphasizing again not just the basics but a world class education," he said.
For those in states where the Common Core standards are being implemented, students could see more emphasis on critical thinking and spending a longer time gaining a deeper understanding of a more limited range of concepts in math. The standards were independently adopted and created by the states, but the Obama administration encouraged their expansion through its Race to the Top competition, which has awarded more than $4 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia to pursue education reforms.
Most states began putting the standards in place in the early school grades last year; some, such as North Carolina, will have them ready in every grade this fall. For the majority of states, it will be by 2013-14.
"That's going to take some time to get there, but there's a huge amount of interest and momentum behind that," Duncan said.
Proponents of the standards say they will better and more equitably prepare students for higher education or a career and make it easier for students who change schools across states. Critics point out they are being implemented across the country without any kind of pilot, and a Brookings Institution report found that states with high academic standards don't necessarily have higher achievement.
Duncan said the transition to the standards might be "a little bumpy or choppy, but it's a huge step in the right direction."
Another big development has been the rapid expansion of charter schools. The number of students in charter schools has passed 2 million, according to the nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
While the growth of charter schools means more options for students, it can make the process of deciding which school to attend more difficult. Many charters are still new, and there is limited research on how effective they are on improving student outcomes.
Duncan said it's important for parents to visit schools and make an informed choice.
"Every child learns differently," he said. "Every child has strengths and weaknesses. Get a sense of the right learning environment for your son or daughter."
He urged all parents to contribute to their child's school, whether it's through donations and volunteering, helping coach a team or keeping kids on track with their assignments.
"I always say parents are their children's first teachers, and I think, by definition, their most important teachers," he said.
Duncan said his two children, who are in public schools, continue their learning in the evening through Khan Academy, an organization that offers thousands of free lessons online. He said making sure children in disadvantaged communities have access to technology will be critical.
"To me, that's a huge part of creating a more equal educational system," he said.