Keeping the Promise to All America's Children
President Obama and I believe that every child deserves a world-class education. When the president says every child, it is not just rhetoric--he means every child, regardless of his or her skin color, nationality, ethnicity, or ability. The truth is, however, that virtually everyone professes to believe that all children deserve a world-class education.
Yet today, a significant gap between our aspirations and reality persists. And here is the harder, unspoken truth. Subtle, unexpressed prejudices and lingering roadblocks still prevent children with disabilities from receiving the world-class education they deserve. No belief is more pernicious in education than the conviction that disabilities and demography are destiny--that the burdens of poverty, disability, and race mean the children cannot really succeed and should be treated with low expectations.
We should never forget the past. Even in my lifetime, public schools virtually ignored children with disabilities. Many children were denied access to public schools, and those who attended didn't get the individualized instruction and appropriate services they needed and deserved.
Over the past 35 years, we've 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 people and organizations like the Council for Exceptional Children, six million students with disabilities are in school—and millions of them are thriving.
Yet unfortunately, many children with disabilities are not getting a world-class education. The President and I are committed to doing everything in our power to make that bedrock American promise of equal educational opportunity a reality. With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we have a historic opportunity to move closer to fulfilling that promise for all students.
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 Americans of all ages and abilities going to college and getting degrees in far greater numbers than they are today.
And we know, more than ever before, that in a global economy, a country's economic security depends on the skills and knowledge of its workers. The country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow. America does not have expendable students.
But education for all is more than an economic issue. It's a moral issue. I have often said that education is the civil rights issue of our time. In March, I had the opportunity to speak at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on the 45th anniversary of one of the most important events of the Civil Rights movement. On that bridge, police savagely beat several hundred peaceful protesters with clubs, lashed them with bullwhips, and stung their eyes and throats with tear gas—all because the protesters wanted to secure the right to vote. Our nation wept with shame that day. Within months, Congress passed the landmark voting Rights Act of 1965.
The civil rights protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge weren't in wheelchairs and they weren't marching on behalf of students with dyslexia, learning disabilities, ADD, or other disabilities. But their spirit and commitment emboldened the disability rights movement. In education, no victory for disability advocates was bigger than the 1975 law that guaranteed students with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education. On the 35th anniversary of that law's passage, it's important to remember many students with disabilities were turned away from school altogether. Others were put in separate classrooms – sometimes a place as unwelcoming as a converted broom closet. Very few ever interacted with peers without disabilities. Today, six million students are guaranteed a free, appropriate public education.
Great advocates continue to work tirelessly on behalf of persons with disabilities. In Congress, we are fortunate the education committees are led by two great champions for students with disabilities – Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller. As you know, Senator Harkin has dedicated much of his career to protecting the rights of people with disabilities. He was an author of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Representative Miller is a passionate advocate for people with disabilities. He takes a back seat to no one in his commitment to accountability for educating students with disabilities.
I look forward to working with both of them to reauthorize ESEA. We'll be working closely with Republicans as well, including Senator Enzi, Senator Alexander, and Representative Kline.
Senator Harkin, Chairman Miller, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey also have introduced legislation to save education jobs. In this tough economy, hundreds of thousands of education professionals could be facing layoffs. Maybe you are one of them – maybe one or your colleagues or friends is. I look forward to working with them to pass an education jobs bill. Education reform and saving education jobs go hand in hand.
Because of the leadership of Senator Harkin, Chairman Miller and many others the lives of children with disabilities are so much richer today than a generation ago. The nation has made significant progress for students with disabilities – but we have more work to do.
Today, 57 percent of students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their day within the regular school environment. Overall, 95 percent of students with disabilities attend a neighborhood school. We're working to put an end to the days of students with disabilities being bused across town or put into a separate school solely because they have a disability. Students with disabilities are learning alongside their peers. They're eating lunch with them. They're making art with them. They're becoming friends with them. And once they graduate they will be working side-by-side.
I know that you'll be hearing from Tim Shriver on Friday. As the chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics, Tim is a strong advocate for including students with disabilities across community groups. He recounts story after story to illustrate how people with disabilities enrich the lives of all children.
One story he shared with me came in an essay by a girl named Kaitlyn Smith from Conifer High School in Colorado. She wrote about her best friend, Kathleen. Kaitlyn and Kathleen met while they were paired off as partners in P.E. class. They quickly became best friends and they do all of the things best friends do. They eat lunch together every day. When neither of them had a date for the Homecoming dance, they went together as friends.
Kaitlyn wrote that Kathleen taught her what truly matters. It's not dressing well, doing your hair right, or making sure everyone likes you. In fact, when high school bullies made fun of Kathleen, her response was to look them in the eye, smile, and ignore them. Kaitlyn wrote about their friendship: "Right from the moment I met her, I knew my best friend was a blessing. I needed someone in my life that was going to change my perspective and give me a different outlook."
Kathleen happens to have Down syndrome. But the story about Kaitlyn's and Kathleen's friendship shows how the inclusion of students with disabilities benefits more than just the student with the disability. Inclusion benefits the whole community. Sometimes, parents, students, and teachers fail to recognize the great leadership that students with disabilities can provide our school communities.
But I'm sure you can tell me hundreds of stories of how inclusion enriched the lives of everyone in a school. These are stories we need to tell, over and over again. So many students with disabilities have gone on to become insightful and effective leaders for children who followed in their wake.
Judy Heumann was the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services under Secretary Riley. She contracted polio when she was 18 months old and grew up using a wheelchair. The New York City Public Schools refused to enroll her – not because she wasn't smart enough, not because she couldn't learn – simply because she used a wheelchair. When she was old enough for 4th grade, she was allowed to enroll in school. She went on to graduate high school and then college. She applied for job as teacher in the system and was turned away again. Once again, she didn't give up. She eventually got a job as a teacher -- but only after suing the school board.
Judy knows that a disability shouldn't stop any child from attending school, pursuing a career, and making a difference in the lives of others. In addition to eight years of public service at the Department of Education, she has been a strong advocate for persons with disabilities. She has worked with the World Bank to ensure that it addresses disability issues in its work with countries throughout the world. Today, she is the director of the Department of Disability Services in the District of Columbia.
Her work and dedication are reminders of the power of determination and the time-honored truth that disabilities alone do not define us or our work and worth as human beings. Students like Kaitlyn and Kathleen – and adults like Judy – show us that disabilities are not destiny.
The work you do as special education leaders and teachers is vitally important for the students you work with – and our society as well. Children no longer have to fight to be enrolled in school. People who use wheelchairs no longer need to sue simply to have their job application considered by public school districts or other employers. And students like Kathleen can be important parts of a school community – learning with her peers and teaching her peers important lessons about respect, self-confidence, and friendship.
Those are civil rights victories truly worth celebrating. But we haven't fulfilled the promise of education for students with disabilities. The struggle for equal opportunity in our nation's schools and universities did not end with the passage of IDEA or at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We will work with schools and enforce laws to ensure that all children, no matter what their race, gender, disability or national origin, have a fair chance at a good future. We will make sure ESEA doesn't lose track of these students, who in many cases are making significant progress.
The data show us that we're making progress. In 2007, nearly 60 percent of students with disabilities graduated high school with a regular diploma, compared to 32 percent twenty years earlier. And a third of students with disabilities were enrolled in postsecondary education – up from just one in seven two decades ago. More adults with disabilities are employed than ever before. By just about every measure, students with disabilities are better educated today than they were a generation ago.
But while America can justly celebrate those successes, we have a long way to go before we rest on our laurels. The graduation rate, postsecondary enrollment rate, and employment rate are all increasing, but they're still far too low. Too many students with disabilities are leaving school, without the knowledge and skills they truly need to succeed.
From Washington, we're working hard to ensure that we have the right policies and incentives in place to help states and districts accelerate achievement for all students, including those with disabilities. This year, I'm working closely with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to fix the No Child Left Behind Act through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We want the law to be fair, flexible, and focused on the right goals. We want a law that ensures all students are prepared for success in college and careers. Our proposal will set a goal that all students graduate high school ready to succeed in college and careers. We want to make sure that students with disabilities are included in all aspects of ESEA, and to continue the measure achievement gaps and work to close them. We want to align ESEA with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act so that we create one seamless system that addresses the needs of each child.
Under our proposal, students with disabilities will continue to be full participants in accountability systems. One thing NCLB did right was hold schools accountable for all students and highlighted the achievement gaps between subgroups of students. We absolutely want to continue that. But NCLB doesn't measure student growth. If students start the year two grade levels behind, and, through excellent teaching and strong supports, progress so much that they end the year just below grade level, their school is still labeled a failure instead of a success.
Our accountability system will be based mostly on student growth. Schools where students show large gains in learning over the course of the school year will be rewarded. And the emphasis on student growth will ensure that schools have an incentive to improve the academic performance of our highest-achieving students as well. While we will reward and recognize the best schools, the vast majority of schools will have more flexibility to implement locally designed plans to reach the benchmarks they set for themselves. But schools with chronically low performance and persistent achievement gaps will be required to take far-reaching steps to help students.
We'll maintain that focus on achievement gaps from NCLB. Our proposal would continue to hold schools accountable for teaching students with disabilities but will also reward them for increasing student learning. Our proposal will also include meaningful district accountability. That means even where achievement gaps aren't apparent in schools with small numbers of students with disabilities, we will see these gaps at the district level and ask districts to focus on closing them.
While we're confident that our accountability system will be fair and flexible, we recognize it won't be flawless. To build a first-rate accountability system, states have to significantly improve existing assessments used to measure our students' growth and move beyond fill-in-the bubble tests. Our ESEA Blueprint and Race to the Top Assessment Competition will invest in that next generation of tests to measure student growth and achievement. And it will enhance states' use of technology and advances in the field of testing to evaluate a range of skills, including those that have traditionally been difficult to measure.
The Department plans to support consortia of states, who will design better assessments for the purposes of both measuring student growth and providing feedback to inform teaching and learning in the classroom. All students will benefit from these tests, but the tests are especially important for students with disabilities.
Today, we have a complicated set of rules around assessing students with disabilities. The majority of students with disabilities take the regular state tests based on the state's standards for all students, with appropriate accommodations to ensure that their results are valid. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can take alternate tests based on alternate standards and other students with disabilities may take an alternate test based on modified standards.
Developing these alternate assessments requires specialized expertise. The Department intends to run an alternate assessments competition that will be managed by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, with a notice inviting applications later this year.
We need to move toward assessments that allow practically all students to take tests that report results tracking their progress toward college- or career-readiness. Our Blueprint also recognizes the uniquely transformative power of teachers on students. We will invest almost $4 billion in programs that recruit, prepare, develop, retain, and reward effective teachers. That's an unprecedented amount. Our proposal goes further by bolstering traditional and alternative pathways to teaching – especially for those teaching in high-need areas – such as special education – and those teaching in high-need schools.
This reauthorized ESEA will provide the building block for the reauthorization of the IDEA that will follow. Alexa Posny will be leading our work in IDEA reauthorization, and she will be a strong advocate for students with disabilities in ESEA reauthorization as well. You'll be hearing from her tomorrow morning. Alexa and I look forward to hearing your voices and working with you as Congress shapes this very important law.
Before I close, I want to want to issue a challenge to each of you individually and to the whole field of special education. Everything we do at the U.S. Department of Education is aimed toward meeting the President's goal that by 2020 America once again will lead the world in college completion. We cannot get there unless students are earning postsecondary degrees at record levels. I know you've made tremendous progress over the decades, but there's still significant work to be done. I want to challenge each of you to be personally responsible for the success of your students once they graduate. This will mean helping students not just in school but assisting them to plan their transition from high school to college or careers.
I know you already work hard on this, but I'm asking you to redouble your efforts. The success of your students, the well being of our communities, and the economic prosperity of our nation depends on creating a cradle to career educational pipeline, not an education system that continues to function in its separate silos.
Working together, and with your courage and commitment to challenging the status quo, we can create an 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.