Excerpts from Secretary Arne Duncan’s Remarks at the National Press Club

Secretary Arne Duncan discussed President Obama’s education agenda in a speech at the National Press Club on May 29, 2009. A video of the speech is at the National Press Club’s website. Below are excerpts from the speech on three topics:
– raising standards
– turning around our lowest performing schools
– saving $4 billion each year with direct loans.

Raising Standards

We want to raise the bar dramatically in terms of higher standards. What we have had as a country, I’m convinced, is what we call a race to the bottom. We have 50 different standards, 50 different goal posts. And due to political pressure, those have been dumbed down. We want to fundamentally reverse that. We want common, career-ready internationally benchmarked standards.

One of the things I think that No Child Left Behind got wrong…is No Child Left Behind was very, very loose on the goals. We had 50 different goals and those got dummied down. No Child Left Behind was very tight, very prescriptive on how you got there. As we think about reauthorization, I want to fundamentally flip that on its head…. We’re going to be much tighter on the goals — again, clear, college-ready, career ready, internationally benchmarked standards…but give states and districts more autonomy and chance to innovate, to hit that high bar, hold them accountable for it….

You know, when I was in Chicago, I didn’t think all the good ideas came from Washington. Now that I’m in Washington, I know all the good ideas don’t come from Washington. The good ideas are always going to come from great educators in local communities. And we want to continue to empower them.

What is most troubling to me on the standards issue is that far too many states, including the state that I come from, Illinois — I think we are fundamentally lying to children. Let me explain what I mean.

When children are told they are “meeting a state standard,” the logical assumption for that child or for that parent is to think they are on-track to be successful. But because these standards have been dummied down and lowered so much in so many places, when a child is “meeting the state standard” they are in fact barely able to graduate from high school. And they are absolutely inadequately prepared to go to a competitive university, let alone graduate.

And so we have to stop lying to children. We have to tell them the truth. We have to be transparent about our data. We have to raise the bar so that every child knows on every step of their educational trajectory what they’re going to do. We have many students who think they are doing well and then they take the ACT or the SAT as a junior or senior, and their scores are devastatingly low, and they’re shocked. There should be no shock there. You should know in fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth grade what your strengths are, what you weaknesses are. And we should be working with teachers and parents, and students should be taking responsibility for their own education to really improve where they have deficiencies, where they have weaknesses. But do we have a high bar that everybody is pushing for?

Turning Around America’s Most Challenged Schools

I want to challenge the country to think about…the schools that are absolutely at the bottom nationally. Now say, what if we as a country thought about the bottom one percent of schools, a thousand schools a year? Schools that have become dropout factories — where 50, 60, 70 percent of students are dropping out. Elementary schools that don’t just have low absolute test scores…but where students’…growth is very low…and are falling further and further behind every single year.

What I want to ask the country to do is to think very differently about those schools at the bottom. More of the same incremental change, tinkering around the edges, is not going to work. We need a dramatic overhaul. We need to fundamentally turn those schools around. Our children have one chance to get a great education. And I would argue, at many of these schools, if you look at the data, these schools have chronically underperformed for years, sometimes for decades….

And there are many different ways to do this. But what we did in Chicago is we moved the adults out. We kept the children and brought in new teams of adults – same children, same families, same socioeconomic challenges, same neighborhoods, same buildings, different set of expectations, different set of beliefs. And what we saw was dramatic changes. We saw communities where children had fled, where in the first year 125 families came back to the school because something better was going on.

We had one school where we had so many discipline problems, so much violence that in the year after the turnaround, my security team, unbeknownst to me, went to out to audit the school because the numbers at dropped so much. They thought the school was lying. They couldn’t believe how safe it was. And they went out to check on, “What’s going on here?” Just a different climate. They weren’t lying. They were telling the truth — same children — peace, calm. Students were learning.

Saving $4 Billion Annually with Direct Loans

We’re doing some things that we think are common sense but a little controversial. We are asking in the FY 2010 budget to take our money out of banks, to stop subsidizing banks, and put all that investment into our children, into our high school graduates. Over the next decade, that will produce a savings of, conservatively – conservatively — $40 billion. And we can dramatically increase Pell Grants, Perkins Loans, the tuition tax credit to make sure that our students can have the chance to go onto high education and fulfill their dreams.

This has turned out to be a little bit controversial. There’s a lot of good debate and that’s healthy. But at the end of the day, I fundamentally think we should be investing in children, not in subsidizing banks.

Secretary Arne Duncan