Arne Duncan, the United States secretary of education, said that the country was lagging far behind its international competitors, and that he supported New York's efforts to implement a reform agenda.
He told an audience of foundation leaders that he supported revisions to teacher evaluation systems, new learning standards and the tests to assess them, all to ensure that students leave high school with "21st century skills."
"The biggest challenge I think we all face is that we're all told we're going too fast," he said. "When in fact we are going far, far, far too slow. The world is passing us by."
Mr. Duncan was joined on stage by the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., and the New York City schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, at the annual meeting of Philanthropy New York, a group of foundations based in New York.
Their conversation covered most of the hot-button education issues, with special attention paid to the Common Core Learning Standards, and building better state assessments to test the new standards.
The Common Core focuses on higher-order thinking skills, like problem solving, making effective arguments and thinking creatively. New York City started its transition to the new curriculum last school year, and state math and reading tests are expected to integrate Common Core standards next year.
"We've got to build assessments that do a better job measuring exactly the skills that the Common Core requires," said Dr. King. "So if we want to encourage teachers to do more writing with evidence, we've got to ask questions on the assessments that require students to provide evidence."
He added that the tests should integrate new technology. New York State plans to begin computer-based state assessments in the 2014-15 school year, Dr. King said.
"That will give us the opportunity to have more innovative items, to ask students to create mathematical models on the screen, to have students type their essays rather than write their essays to be able to make the sort of edits that they'd have to make in the workplace to their writing," he said.
When asked by WNYC's Beth Fertig, who moderated the panel, Dr. King acknowledged the problems in this year's state tests designed by Pearson. Because of some faulty test questions, the state and Pearson came under withering attack by critics and the news media.
He vowed improvements going forward but also decried the tone of the testing debate.
"The tenor of the discourse is so acrimonious, and there is such a sort-of gotcha culture around assessment," he said, "in part because we are asking more of the assessment system."
Mr. Walcott added that the "state got really knocked around" with this year's criticisms of the state tests, referring to media headlines and what he called a tabloid society.
For Monday's audience members, who have a vested interest in private foundations' role in education, Mr. Duncan was encouraging.
"I'm actually not coming here to ask you to give a lot more - although that would be great too - but to be really smarter in what you're giving," he said, and told the audience members to get a good return on their investment.
"There are great early childhood programs and there are terrible early childhood programs," he said. "Quality matters."