Increasing Educational Opportunity through Equity

Archived Information

Increasing Educational Opportunity through Equity

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Tri-Caucus Plenary Session

October 1, 2014

Thank you so much.

Before I begin please give another round of applause for Alex and all her hard work.

I want to thank CHCI so much for giving me the opportunity to be here.

I want to take this back a little bit before I get to the reason why I'm here today.

In 1961 my mother started an inner-city tutoring program on the south side of Chicago. It was actually only about two miles from where we lived. And she raised my sister and brother as part of her program. And what I saw all my life growing up—I was going to an after-school program before I ever went to regular school. I saw children who happened to come from a very violent community; who happened to all be African-American; who happened to be very poor. Despite many real challenges, many went on to do extraordinary things.

The young man who taught my group of kids growing up, Kerrie Holley, never met his father, and was basically raised by his grandmother. Today he is one of IBM's leading research scientists, not just in the United States but around the world.

Corky Lyons who was one of nine children became a doctor.

Ronald Raglin, whose father would stay up all night trying to protect his family's apartment, helped me lead and manage Chicago Public Schools.

And these young people had my mother and others in their lives who believed in them, and despite real challenges, when given opportunities, and love and support and guidance, went on to do extraordinary things.

In my first real job in 1992—when I stopped playing basketball for six years—I ran an “I have a Dream" program along with my sister, and we ended up working in the same church basement as my mother. And for six years, we worked with a group of sixth graders. And at the end of that, 87 percent graduated from high school.

The class ahead of ours, from Shakespeare Elementary School, had a 33 percent high school graduation rate.

Thirty-three percent versus 87 percent. Same families, same communities, same socioeconomic challenges, very different set of opportunities.

When I led the Chicago Public Schools, we doubled the number of black and Latino students passing AP classes. And while we celebrated that accomplishment, I reminded our staff every day that our children weren't twice as smart as before, we simply had increased opportunity for them.

And the reason I give you these little stories is that all my life, I've seen what our young people do, despite very real challenges, when we as adults have the highest of expectations for them and present them with a real educational opportunity.

Low-income students and students of color have made real progress in recent years. Particularly in high school graduation rates, reducing drop-out rates, and college enrollment rates.

High school graduation rates for the nation—I'm pleased to report—are at an all-time high—80 percent. Dropout rates are down significantly. Black dropout rates cut by about 45 percent. Latino dropout rates cut literally in half. And that is translated from 2008 to 2012 with over a million more black and brown young people going on to college. That's a huge step in the right direction.

And we should absolutely celebrate and revel in that progress and that increase in educational opportunity. But despite those very real improvements, everyone here knows that significant gaps remain, especially in academic efficiency.

Justice, and our nation's economic health, require that we close what I call the opportunity gaps by ensuring quality education for all.

If we want to increase upward mobility, we must increase educational opportunity.

If we want to reduce income inequality, we must increase educational opportunity.

If we want to build a growing and a thriving middle class, which is what this conference is all about, we must increase educational opportunity.

I'm absolutely convinced that so many of society's challenges would literally be solved if we simply increased educational opportunity.

This work is about so much more than education. It's a daily fight for social justice.

And that's why the President launched My Brother's Keeper, to address persistent opportunity gaps, faced by boys and young men of color. And to ensure that all young people can reach their full academic and social potential.

We believe that the key to improving the lives of all of our youth is to make sure communities are investing in them. And that means everyone.

In far too many of our nation's communities, gaps in essential resources exist, and too often, as we all know, it's students of color that receive less, not more.

These inequities are unjust and they violate the law. These gaps today include:

  • Students of color are more likely to be assigned to teachers that are inexperienced, and out-of-field, and less effective teachers than other students.
  • Students of color have less access to rigorous coursework. As just one example: a recent study of the computer science AP states found that in 11 states, no black students—zero—took that exam. And in eight states, no Latino students, zero, took that AP computer science exam.
  • Only 57 percent of black students, and two-thirds of Hispanic students, attend a high school where the full range of college prep—math and science—are offered. That is simply unacceptable. We cannot improve college graduation rates, cannot reduce the need for remediation in college, and we cannot increase the STEM pipeline, if our students don't have access to the basic coursework that they need.

Finally, students of color are more likely to go to schools with lower-quality facilities, such as temporary portable classrooms.

About 45 percent of schools, with over half their students of color, have temporary buildings, compared to only 13 percent of schools, with less than six percent of their students are of color.

These facts, and this reality, compels us to act. We cannot simply wring our hands and admire the problem.

The Obama administration is committed to partnering with educators to ensure equity in education. So that all students—all students - can succeed in school, in careers, and ultimately in life.

So I'm very pleased to announce that today we are releasing a Dear Colleague Letter that's providing guidance to educators to ensure that all students have equitable access to the resources that they need and deserve and are their right. Such as academic and extracurricular programs, strong teaching, facilities and instructional materials.

And I want to thank Catherine Lhamon who is here, if she could stand so we can give her a round of applause.

Catherine and her team at the Office for Civil Rights have done an amazing job with this Dear Colleague Letter.

The letter draws on many of the findings published in the Excellence in Equity Commission's 2012 For Each and Every Child Report and responds to those findings. And I want to personally thank the Commission so much for its leadership and courage.

The Equity and Excellence Commission took a clear and strong stance on issues of resources and fairness by establishing a baseline expectation that states and districts that receive our federal dollars must distribute resources in a fair and equitable manner.

The Commission's hard work has driven important conversations both inside and outside of the federal government. And today's guidance provides more details and concrete information to educators on how to ensure compliance with the standard set and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

This will put important tools in the hands of schools and communities and school districts and states to ensure that all young people receive what they need and deserve.

We will be a partner in that effort and we will be a watchdog. Because we are serious about increasing education success and attainment for all students, we must also be serious about increasing equitable access to opportunity and ending the tired, decades-long practice of offering students of color, less than what we offer to other students.

This guidance recognizes and will bolster states, school districts, and school's ongoing efforts to improve resource equity, including improving data transparency, developing better education evaluation and support systems, and equity plans, and transitioning to new higher standards and better assessments.

We've long enforced laws to ensure that students receive the educational resources that they're entitled to. But today's letter provides needed clarity for many schools, communities, districts, and states.

As we push for equitable resources, we must continue to promote our focus on educator equity and diversity.

For example, more than 35 percent of public school students today are African-American or Hispanic, but less than 15 percent of our nation's teachers are black or Latino.

This school year represents a seminal moment. For the first time in our nation's history, our nation's public school students will be majority minority.

We want great teachers in every classroom, but we just want our teachers to reflect the great diversity of our nation's students.

We've begun this work with the announcement of the Excellent Educator's for All initiative in July.

And we've also launched the Latino's Teach campaign, shining the light on the need for more Hispanic teachers in our nation's classrooms.

And I want to take a moment to talk about the work of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Just moments ago here, as you saw, the Initiative signed an MOU with CHCI to support President Obama's goal of leading the world again in college completion rates.

And during Hispanic Heritage Month, the Initiative is kicking off its Anniversary Year of Action, commemorating their upcoming 25th anniversary.

This significant milestone is an opportunity for the nation to come together and celebrate the tremendous progress the Hispanic community has made over the past 25 years, from cradle to career, while looking forward, and continuing to work on real and urgent achievement and opportunity gaps.

We continue to make critical investments in Minority Serving Institutions, including [Hispanic Serving Institutions], which play a vital role in ensuring that every student has access to a high quality postsecondary education.

The federal government is investing more than $1 billion over 10 years in these schools to renew, reform, and expand higher education programs for Hispanics.

And earlier this week, we announced the winners of the First in the World grant, which will support innovative practices at institutions across the country.

Minority-serving institutions, including HSI's and one HBCU, will receive nearly $20 million.

Across the board, MSI's receive very high scores in the First in the World competition, demonstrating they can and do drive innovation and creativity.

Their proposals to discuss some really exciting work. And I hope that competition spurs not just conversation, but action on campuses across the country.

Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court declared in Brown vs. Board of Education that public education “is a right which must be made to all on equal terms."

And despite major progress in some areas, many students today—as we all know—continue to lack the opportunity to receive a quality education.

It has never been more important to ensure that all children, not just some, receive a world-class, well-rounded education.

As President Obama has said, education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it's a prerequisite for success.

This fight is a fight to strengthen families, strengthen communities, and ultimately to build a stronger nation.

Fighting for equity in education is our mission. It's why we come to work each day and what fuels our passion.

And I promise all of you, we will not slow down or tire in that struggle.

Thank you so much and keep up the great work.