Remarks by Secretary Duncan at Arizona State University + Global Silicon Valley Education Innovation Summit

Archived Information

Remarks by Secretary Duncan at Arizona State University + Global Silicon Valley Education Innovation Summit

April 7, 2015

Thank you. Please give another round of applause to Carmita—I'm a huge, huge fan. If I could invest in someone as a stock I'd be investing in her right now. You guys should take a note.

Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be with all of you. Thanks for taking the time and inviting me, and I want to begin with a story. And I want to tell you a story about a young man named Rashon Johnson.

Rashon is twelve years old. He lives in a small town in South Carolina. His mother dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with him at the age of sixteen. She works two minimum wage jobs in two different towns, up to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.

Because his mom works so much, Rashon is often alone. Because he lives in the country, he doesn't have consistent, high-speed access to the internet. Because his family has very little money, he's not spending those idle hours playing learning games many of you develop on a family tablet or computer. His family doesn't have a tablet, and they don't have a computer, either.

That doesn't mean that he doesn't have access to technology. In fact, he uses it all the time at school and, whenever his mom's not working, he monopolizes her phone to play games and to connect with his friends.

But the reality is that Rashon is growing up during the most globally connected era in human history. And yet for him, technology is a tool of distraction, not discovery. He's not finding new worlds, he's simply filling time. As all of you know, there are millions, millions of other young people just like Rashon all across the country. Students who have the chance to connect to an active, evolving network of ideas and possibilities, but are not yet doing so in any way that will help them become actual players in that new world.

My question to all of you is: how will all of you help them? What can you invent that helps Rashon become a part of and a contributor to that network that feels as attractive, as irresistible to him as the games on his mom's smartphone. Every day, people like you are offering up ideas and solutions that would boggle the minds of previous generations. I'm absolutely convinced that, when technology is used to power true innovation, it can become a game changer for education. Because it has the ability to bridge gaps for those who have the least and open pathways that in the past were inaccessible.

Technology has the potential to drive both equity and excellence—the core values that motivate so many of us who do this work every single day. But we also know that technology can just as easily widen the lead for those who already have every advantage and exacerbate the devastating opportunity gap that today confines too many of our children to the margins of society. If the technology revolution only happens for families that already have money and are already well educated, then I don't think it's really a revolution. So we need to do so much more for Rashon and the millions of other students just like him who, simply because of their zip code or their parents' income, the language they speak at home, their disability, or some other factor far beyond their control experience school at a disadvantage.

Technology can't just be a tool for engagement, it has to advance equity.

Let me shift gears now. This right here is Tanesha Dixon. I visited her classroom about a year ago, and what she was doing for her students there simply blew me away. Tanesha teaches at a neighborhood school back in D.C., where 99% of the children she serves are low income. It's also a school that shifted to a blended learning model at the beginning of this school year.

Tanesha is here today. She's an amazing leader at her school. She's creative, she's compassionate, she's caring, and she's not afraid of change. In fact, she's driving it. She's also relentlessly optimistic and she's got a job that, no offense, makes developing apps seem like child's play. Tanesha's job, every day, is to bring the world of ideas to life for an entire room full of students, each with their own unique mix of strengths and interests. That's the challenge that fuels Tanesha's passion for her work over the past twelve years in the classroom. That's also what has her so excited about the promise of blended learning and being able to meet the individual needs of each child more effectively than she ever has before.

But bringing about that sort of shift in a school takes more than just a one-to-one program. This past summer, Tanesha had to get the year's worth of curricula ready for prime time, all by Labor Day. She had to convince skeptical colleagues, the adults in the building, that what the school was going through was actually a good idea. She had to calm the nerves of parents who saw something very strange and unfamiliar happening and wondered why things had to change. And she had to spend many late nights working on her lessons and preparing for a completely different sort of a school year. As a result, Tanesha was exhausted before the school year even began and for the first time in her career she felt like she was, I quote, "180 days away from retirement." And the reason was, as she put it, "I feel like we're building Rome and the road to it at the same time." Even for someone as committed, as hopeful, and as skilled as Tanesha, that's too much for any of us to sustain over the long haul.

As a nation, we are making very real progress. High school graduation rates are at all-time highs, dropout rates are down significantly. Between 2008 and 2012, more than a million additional students of color went on to college. Our nations K-12 schools are in the midst of some of the biggest shifts in decades, from providing every student with high expectations and better assessments, to uncovering the potential of every single child. But the reality is, that the dramatic changes we hope for simply won't be real, and they definitely won't stick, unless we all give principals and teachers like Tanesha the tools and the supports they need to fully reimagine teaching and learning. And as her struggles this year demonstrate, we're not there yet, and in fact I don't think we're even close.

But here's why it's so important that we find ways to help students like Rashon and teachers and principals like Tanesha. It's because they epitomize both the challenge and the amazing opportunity we have before us today. The opportunity is to give every student a meaningful, relevant and deeply personal education that prepares them to lead fulfilling lives. And the challenge is that until we get the systems and the supports right, teaching, which is already an extraordinarily difficult job, is a lot harder than it needs to be.

Technology is a critical piece of that puzzle. It's the gateway to a different dynamic between the teacher and her students. And it's a tool that can open up limitless new ways to engage children, to empower teachers, and to bring parents into the learning process. To get there, we need to go way beyond using technology to simply recreate the tools of the 20th century. The transformation will occur when the tools and apps that you all create are not just meeting Rashon's needs, but also helping his mom to engage with his school and community in new ways, and actually moving the needle at scale in terms of student achievement and success. The transformation will occur when those tools and apps are not just helping Rashon learn new content, but also providing him with a portal to a larger world that, in the past, would have remained completely and unjustly out of his reach. The most beautiful airplane in the world doesn't do much for a kid who doesn't have a ticket or doesn't have a passport and, for too many children today, that's exactly what technology is.

So this is our collective challenge. I'm here to tell you that what we need is your most innovative thinking on this that stretches beyond what most of us have done up to this point. That's the bottom line, because if we want to transform education to what students, particularly disadvantaged students, need for what's in the future, we have to behave in a very different way. But I'm also here to tell you that we know that we all need to do our part. We must be all in together.

This day I'm really pleased to announce something that we hope will be a helpful step in the right direction. Our first ever Ed Tech Developer's Guide from our U.S. Department of Ed. It's intended to be a handbook for entrepreneurs, companies, and nonprofits who want to be sure that they're designing the tools educators and students need to transform the system, not just to recreate the current system online.

Under the fantastic leadership of Richard Culatta and his team, we've had people crisscrossing the country for the past two years talking to ed tech entrepreneurs, district leaders, parents, principals, teachers and students, ed tech coordinators, funders, accelerators, and thought leaders. We canvassed the entire education ecosystem to try to ensure that the guide will truly help you meet the needs of real folks out there doing this hard work every single day. What we discovered was that many of the existing solutions don't address the most urgent needs in education and the ones that do often don't become widely adopted.

So we've outlined some questions to ask about the tools that you develop. Are they addressing a real need? Do teachers have the training they need to use your app effectively? How will you protect student and family privacy? Who makes the decision to purchase the tool, and how long does that purchasing cycle take? Can you app transition seamlessly from school to home? What features are most important to parents and to educators and to students themselves? As helpful as finding concrete answers to those questions might be, all of this work must be in the service of some meaningful goals. So I'd like to outline three goals and I'm convinced that, if we can achieve them, we will both revolutionize the way we help kids learn and the way we help teachers teach all across the country.

The first goal is we must use technology to make education more equitable. To underscore this desperate need, here are some basic yet brutal facts that define our education system today. Only one is seven high school sophomores from the lowest income quartile earn a bachelor's degree within ten years, while sophomores with families from the highest income quartile are four times more likely to graduate during that same time period. A four-year-old who is living in poverty will have heard thirty million fewer words than her wealthier peers by the time she starts school. One in five poor children cannot read at grade level in the fourth grade. African American and Latino students, primarily boys, are suspended and expelled from school at much high rates than their white peers starting as early as preschool. The School to Prison Pipeline, too many places, is real. And finally, at a time when STEM fields and going to college have never been more important, only 57% of black high school students are lucky enough to attend a school where a full range of math and science classes are offered. Simply put, the status quo is unacceptable. These facts are an affront to our founding principles. Historically, we maybe didn't always connect them to questions of educational technology, but the reality is that all of this, all of this, revolves around the issue of equity and your innovations will either help to mitigate or exacerbate these very real challenges. The growth of freely available open educational resources is a positive step in the right direction. We need all of you to become a more active part of that movement.

President Obama's ConnectEd Initiative demonstrates his commitment to ensure that 99% of American students will have access to high-speed internet in their schools by 2018. The FCC and Chairman Wheeler have dedicated very real resources to this work. And thanks again to the leadership of Richard Culatta and his team, more than 1800 school districts across the country have signed a Future Ready pledge and committed to make district-wide cultures that embrace the use of technology to tackle some of the most persistent challenges that they face. Simply put, that means the demand is growing for a very different model of schooling. But we need to do more. We need to provide young people with more equitable access to expertise so that every child can have the same opportunity to learn from the best teachers and the best resources. We need to leverage technologies in ways that help children with special needs become full participants in their own learning. We need to connect parents of all backgrounds to their schools in ways that allow them to become more active, informed advocates for their children, even when they cannot be there in person due to work or family commitments. And we need to help students and their families make better decisions about their options in higher education, particularly for first generation college goers. When we do those things and all of you help us do those things, you won't just be innovating at the edges, you'll be bringing us closer to a more just society. You'll be increasing social mobility and giving hope to many, many more young people and giving them a real chance to fulfill their dreams and aspirations.

Our second goal is we must make learning more personalized. For the past century, students like Rashon usually ad to get pulled through the same curriculum at the same pace as every other student who happened to be born in the same year in the same town. Today, we have the chance to put Rashon in charge of his own path at his own pace. But it's more than just putting him in charge of his own learning, it's a way of helping him to become more self-aware, self-directed, and self-reflective as a result. The way to do that is not by giving him a string of adaptive worksheets on a computer or by somehow replacing his peers with a computer screen. The way to do that is by turning him from a digital consumer into a digital creator. How can we give many more young people like Rashon more opportunities to design and experiment and create, to connect with peers and experts not in their town but across the globe, and to collaborate with them in the practice of solving real world problems? This is what the future requires and what your future creations must make possible on an unprecedented scale.

Finally, our third goal must be to make teaching more sustainable. We must better attract and retain extraordinarily talented and committed individuals like Tanesha. And Tanesha's here, let's have her please stand. Where is she? She's over here—please give her a big round of applause. If you haven't been to her classroom yet like I have, please go check her out.

In the end, our ability to reimagine education all comes down to Tanesha and her colleagues, and our ability, through better policies and platforms, to put them in a position to do something that has never been done before. As I listen to great educators all around the country, many say the same thing: teaching is both the most difficult and the most rewarding job that you could ever have. It's the most rewarding because your job is literally to transform the ways that young people see themselves and the world around them. And it's the most difficult because too often their efforts are not fully appreciated or supported or rewarded. The implications of those deeply held beliefs are clear: if we want to make teaching a more desirable and sustainable profession, we need innovative approaches that amplify the rewards, enhance the connectedness, and diminish the difficulties of being a teacher.

One way all of you can help is by building tools that provide the same sort of help and personalized feedback to teachers that we expect them to be providing to their students. We need tools that ease the administrative burdens of the job in order to free teachers up to spend more time interacting with and providing feedback to the students they serve. We need tools that make it easier for educators to make sense of all the information they're going to have access to about their students and apply it in real time to help unleash the curiosity and imagination of students like Rashon Johnson. And we need to more actively solicit the input and wisdom of teachers in everything that will impact their work from policy to product development. And let me repeat that: we need to solicit the input and wisdom of teachers in everything that impacts their work.

So I hope a few of you find Tanesha at the next coffee break and ask her about the reality of her daily work. I know that takes time and energy, but nothing is more important than building strong partnerships with teachers and principals, and students and parents to directly inform everything that you do. Please also hold us accountable to do our part, whether it's trying to support districts that want to make learning more personalized, investing in promising innovations, or setting the conditions for teachers to amplify their voices. If we truly want teachers like Tanesha to reimagine teaching and learning for young people like Rashon and not get burned out along the way, that requires your best ingenuity and innovation. We cannot, we cannot get there without all of you. The future's about putting all of us in a position once and for all to leave behind the notion of students as empty vessels and education as an assembly line. There's a remarkable opportunity before us to use technology, to use your skills, to use your creativity and energy to make society more just and more fair.

Thank you so much for what you have done, and thank you so much for your commitment and the difference I know you will make going forward in the lives of children who simply need a chance. And I promise you, I promise you, they will more than meet us halfway. Thank you so much and I look forward to your questions.