Building Bridges: Fostering Innovative Leadership and Learning

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the IDEA Leadership Conference, July 29, 2013

Contact:  
Press Office, (202) 401-1576, press@ed.gov


Thanks, Mike, for the kind introduction. It's a pleasure to join all of you.

The theme of this leadership conference—"building bridges"—is fitting.

Today, I'd like to talk with you about how the Administration and the Department of Education are continuing to support education reform and success for all students in the second term.

Much of this work depends upon building a strong bridge for students that supports them in their journey from cradle to career.

As all of you know, children with disabilities are a part of, not separate from, the general education population. Special education—ensuring that every student is provided with quality services that meet his or her unique needs—both complements and strengthens all education reform initiatives.

We know that a great amount of work still needs to be done to improve educational outcomes and results for the over six million children with disabilities. President Obama and I are committed to doing everything in our power to ensure the American promise of equal educational opportunity is a reality for children with disabilities. All means all. When I talk about students, I mean all students, regardless of race, disability and demographics. Children with disabilities are an important part of this Administration's college and career agenda. The bridge of educational support and improvement that we're continuing to build in the second term includes: President Obama's Preschool for All plan; a continued focus on the reforms of the first term; personalized learning through technology to increase college- and career-readiness; and increased college access and affordability.

I'll talk more about each of these areas in a minute. Taken together, these areas of focus must continue to close achievement gaps, provide life-transforming opportunities to children, expand educational opportunity, strengthen the middle class, and prepare all Americans for the challenges of the 21st century.

In a globally competitive economy, a country's prosperity depends on the skills and knowledge of its people. In order to win the future, as President Obama has challenged us, we must provide every single American with the tools to reach his or her full potential—and in my book, all means all.

Every child, regardless of income, race, background, or disability can learn and must learn. And, our system of education—spread across 50 states, 15,000 school districts, and 95,000 schools—must embrace this core belief every day in every possible way. If our children are not learning, then we, as adults, have failed.

That is why educators, advocates, parents, and policymakers need to make sure that students with disabilities have access to the general curriculum and are held to the same, high standards as their non-disabled peers.

We can work toward this by: creating a culture of high expectations; ensuring students with disabilities have full access to college- and career-ready learning opportunities and assessments; and supporting students with disabilities so that they may excel in the general curriculum for college and career success.

It's critical for schools to prepare all of their students for success in one society, not a general ed society and a separate special ed one. That world, thankfully, simply doesn't exist.

That's also why it's critical that everyone in this room—and around the country—continues to highlight the devastating impact of sequestration.

Sequestration cut special education funding by nearly $600 million, forcing onto states and districts the cost of approximately 7,200 teachers, aides, and other staff supporting students with disabilities. It's not fair to you, and it's not fair to our children. We need you in this fight. Your voices must be heard.

Too many politicians here in Washington believe education is an expense that can be cut in tough economic times. I believe education is an investment—the best investment we can make—especially in tough economic times.

Through the President's Preschool for All plan, we have an opportunity to give every child in America an equal chance to succeed.

For the past several weeks, I've traveled the country talking to educators; parents; business, military, and faith leaders; and community members about the importance of early learning. My message to you is the same.

Studies show that children who have less access to quality early education are less likely to enter school prepared to learn and thrive.

High-quality preschool ensures children have a strong start that leads to higher graduation rates, increased employment, less likelihood of being involved in crime or relying on public assistance, and better jobs at higher salaries.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has a long, successful history of ensuring that infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities have access to early education services. We will use what we have learned from those programs as we move forward in supporting the development of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds.

Currently, of the nearly 746,000 preschool children served in IDEA-funded preschool programs, about 35 percent are in segregated settings. We want to see all children participating fully in quality, inclusive programs.

Preschool for All will result in many more inclusive early education options for preschoolers with disabilities. The availability of more good programs also will help to identify children with disabilities earlier, so that they can receive strong supports for learning from the start.

Finally, high-quality preschool will also mean fewer children will be placed in special education in the first place, as they enter kindergarten with their academic and socialization skills intact.

Over the past 40 years, our education system has made great strides in delivering on the promise of a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities.

Thanks to the advocacy and hard work of so many organizations and people like you, millions of students with disabilities are meaningfully engaged in our schools—and millions of them are thriving. The progress has been real.

Yet, unfortunately, far too many children with disabilities still are not getting a world-class education. The President and I are committed to doing everything in our power to make the American promise of equal educational opportunity a reality.

The President has set a goal that, by the end of the decade, America once again will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

That ambitious goal will require our educational institutions to produce eight million new graduates with two-year and four-year degrees.

We simply cannot achieve that goal without our students—of all abilities—receiving the highest quality supports at every stage in their educational journey—from preschool until they reach the college door.

Supporting and protecting disadvantaged students—those living in poverty, from minority backgrounds, and who have special needs—have always characterized the federal role in education.

The four "pillars" of reform in the Administration's first term resulted from a recognition that there are no silver bullets to improve education for all students and reach the President's bold goal. Comprehensive and coherent reforms were necessary.

We needed to focus simultaneously on the "what," "who," and "how" in education. Let me take a little time to describe each of those things.

First, standards and assessments define the "what." Standards help to determine what students should know and be able to do. Assessments help to decide the level of rigor and whether students are, in fact, learning.

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia now have voluntarily adopted internationally benchmarked, rigorous college- and career-ready standards. Improved assessments, aligned with those standards, are now being developed by two consortia of states to better gauge all students' level of achievement.

Teachers and leaders are the "who" in education. They help students to understand academic content and navigate the education system. Nothing is more important than getting great talent into every classroom and better supporting that talent.

Today, most children with disabilities are served in general education classes for the majority of their day, so the effectiveness of general education teachers is critical to the success of children with disabilities.

Our Department is supporting great teachers through the RESPECT initiative to strengthen, elevate, and transform the teaching profession.

The Excellent Instructional Teams program also includes a number of initiatives to fund state and district efforts to increase the effectiveness of teachers and principals, such as the Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund, School Leadership Grant Program, and Presidential Teaching Fellows.

Technology and data are increasingly becoming the "how" in education. Technology helps teachers to present information and assess learning. It enables students to interact with content in engaging ways. And data is critical for teachers to analyze student performance and determine areas of strength and weakness in instruction.

Exciting, new developments in the realm of educational technology have been occurring over the last month, with the President's ConnectED plan, which I'll return to shortly.

Finally, the fourth pillar of our first-term education agenda combined the "what," "who," and "how" of education into a concept called school turnaround.

We recognized that the nation's lowest-performing schools require rigorous interventions across a full spectrum—expectations for student achievement, assessments, teaching, leading, and using data and technology to substantially raise student performance.

We know that students with disabilities tend to be over-represented in low-performing schools, so the school turnaround effort is especially important for this population. Some reports have found that low-income students are twice as likely to be identified for special education services.

We know that, too often, students may be placed in special education because of weak academic programs that cause them to fall behind. We must ensure that students are identified for special education because of legitimate needs and disabilities.

In the second term, we're committed to supporting the "what," "who," and "how" in education, and our theory of action remains the same.

The federal role in public education is to support and partner with states, incentivize innovation, and to help identify what works so that we can strengthen teaching and learning, and accelerate achievement for every student.

We're demonstrating this theory of action through initiatives like ESEA flexibility—from the broken NCLB—for which 39 states and the District of Columbia have taken advantage of so far.

ESEA flexibility supports students with disabilities by requiring that all states demonstrate a strong commitment to educational equity by: first, ensuring that students with disabilities are taught to college- and career-ready standards; second, by evaluating and supporting the effectiveness of teachers of students with disabilities; and, finally, by holding all schools accountable for subgroup performance.

To ensure the success of every subgroup of students, schools and teachers are asked all the time to "personalize" instruction for each student's strengths and needs, which is obviously important. But it's really hard to do.

Schools and teachers are asked to know how each student is motivated and to match that to the right content and instructional approach. That's powerful, and it's also hard. More and more, technology is helping to turn those goals, those lofty aspirations, into reality.

Just last month, President Obama unveiled a bold, new initiative called ConnectED to connect America's schools and students to the Internet and cutting-edge educational technologies through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless.

ConnectED challenges the Federal Communications Commission to wire pretty much every school in the country with fiber-optic connections over the next five years. It challenges districts to stop spending money on textbooks that are generally outdated the day you purchase them, and hasten the transition from print to digital.

It challenges states to train teachers to use technology in their classrooms. And it challenges the private sector to make digital devices as affordable as textbooks.

For students with disabilities, assistive technology can be vital to their success in school, and can help them participate in more learning activities along with the rest of their peers.

It improves function and increases access to learning opportunities, thereby enhancing the ability of students to lead increasingly independent, secure, and productive lives.

The FCC just released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to modernize the federal E-Rate program to meet ConnectED's goal. You can find the notice on the Federal Register's website. The public comment period is open through mid-September.

And, I encourage all of you to submit your comments and share how increased access to broadband can make a difference in how students with disabilities experience and engage in school.

The final component of the bridge of educational support that we're continuing to build in the second term is increasing college access and affordability.

The good news here is that students with disabilities are more than four times as likely to attend college now than when IDEA was enacted in 1975. That is real, measurable, objective progress we should all be proud of.

But, we need to continue supporting students with disabilities who wish to pursue college degrees and certificates, and who are transitioning into the workforce. Students with disabilities, just like everyone else, must be college- and career-ready; because we know that the good jobs of the future will require more than just a high-school diploma. And when they have the education they need to succeed, they will be self-sufficient and live productive, independent lifestyles.

That's why I want to challenge each of you to be personally responsible for the success of your students once they graduate from high school. This will mean helping students not just in school, but assisting them to plan their transition from high school to college and/or careers.

Our Department offers tools that help with the college planning process. The online College Affordability and Transparency Center includes a College Scorecard, which offers essential information about a particular college's graduation rates and the average amount its students borrow. The Scorecard will become increasingly sophisticated and personalized over time.

Our Department also offers a Financial Aid Shopping Sheet and Interactive Loan Counseling Tool to make it easier for educators, parents, and students to compare important information about college. This difficult process must become more transparent and less complicated and opaque.

The proposed Race to the Top College Affordability and Completion competition is aimed at driving much-needed improvements in higher education policies and practices.

And the First in the World Fund would make competitive awards to encourage innovation in higher education that can support every student—including those who enter higher education with special needs.

In conclusion, everyone in this room today knows there is no disability that is bigger or more powerful than our collective will to improve the lives of our students, and there's no greater hunger than the hunger of a child to learn.

I look forward to working together with all of you to create a seamless education system that delivers a world-class education to every learner. This is a promise we must keep to our nation's students with disabilities, and to all of America's children.

Thank you for your hard work, your commitment, and the difference you are making in our students' lives.



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