TORONTO - President Barack Obama's education guru says the United States could learn a lot from Ontario's education system.

From specialized skills training to full-day kindergarten, Ontario is finding creative ways to get kids off to a good start and keep them from dropping out, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday.

Duncan, who toured a Toronto high school with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, said he was impressed with the "level of innovation" used by educators to keep kids engaged in the classroom.

He praised a program that teaches students specialized skills in computers and manufacturing, as well as the school's efforts to reduce violence by having kids — both victims and aggressors — work together to solve their problems.

"We're trying to dramatically improve the quality of education in the United States," Duncan said after speaking with students at Weston Collegiate Institute, one of the city's oldest schools.

"We have a dropout rate that's too high, not enough of our high-school graduates today are actually prepared to be successful, either in college or the world of work.

"There are many countries that we want to learn from. But the work going on here is something that we've taken a particular interest in."

Duncan said he's a "huge fan" of McGuinty's "relentless" work in education, including his push for full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-olds.

The program — launched in Ontario last week — and is "the best investment we can make" to get young kids off to a good start, he said.

Duncan, who was Chicago's public school chief before joining Obama's cabinet, said he pushed hard for early childhood education when he was an administrator.

"We have children entering first grade who haven't been read to, who sometimes don't know the front of a book from the back of a book," he said.

"How does the best first grade teacher in the world teach that wide disparity of ability levels coming in?"

Education at the "front end" is needed if you want to level the playing field and give each child the opportunity to reach their full potential, he added.

"Half-day kindergarten ... doesn't work for working families, doesn't work for teachers who are trying to make an impact, and you need that time," Duncan said.

"The more we put into early childhood education, the more we make that an absolute quality experience — not glorified babysitting — and the more it's a real school day, I just think there's tremendous benefits for the children, for the families, for the community over the long haul."

Duncan was in Toronto for a two-day education summit hosted by McGuinty, which is expected to attract participants from Russia, France, Australia and Britain.