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The Link Between Standards and Innovation: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to Innovate to Educate Symposium, Richmond, VA



It is pleasure to be here today.

Thank you, Governor McDonnell for convening such a great group of leaders to discuss how Virginians can use innovation to drive education reform.

Today, I want to discuss the often neglected link between standards and innovation. Even the very words "standards" and "innovation" seem at odds with each other.

When we talk about innovation, we usually highlight breakthrough ideas that experiment with new ways of doing things. But we overlook the importance of standards. When teachers and principals know what students are expected to know, they unleash the power of their own creativity and have the freedom to innovate.

At the same time, sadly it's abundantly clear that for too long our nation's schools haven't been expecting enough of our students. Innovation will only work if coupled with high standards—ones that prepare our students for success in college and careers.

Setting these standards and raising the bar for performance is the job of governors, chief state school officers, and educators in districts. You take the lead. In Washington, it's our job simply to support reform at the state and local level.

Because of Virginia's commitment to standards, you have a foundation for success—schools throughout the state have a platform on which to innovate.

In northern Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is considered by many to be the best high school in the country.

Here in Richmond, the district is focused on accelerating student achievement aligned to state standards and is committed to turning around low-performing schools. That hard work is desperately needed.

One of the remarkable stories is at Fairfield Court Elementary. This school is putting the lie in any myth that poor children can't learn or that poverty is destiny.

In Albemarle County near Charlottesville, the district is creatively integrating charter schools into its district's schools and has a model academy focused on the STEM subjects—Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. Success in those subjects is critically important to our country's long-term economic prosperity. We need more districts taking the lead on STEM.

Thanks to the governor's leadership, Virginia also is making a groundbreaking commitment to technology. You're embracing digital textbooks.

You're running a statewide virtual school that is breaking down the boundaries of learning by offering AP and honors classes online—even providing iPads for students who don't have access to textbooks. This is the future, and you are helping lead the way.

You're also pioneering the use of learning aps for mobile devices. Why shouldn't students have access to educational content 24/7?

Through Governor McDonnell's Opportunity to Learn initiative, Virginia will be expanding its work in virtual schools. The General Assembly showed real courage in this area.

The Opportunity to Learn initiative also is expanding public school options for students through charter schools and college partnerships.

By giving the state board of education a role in the charter school application process, Virginia will increase the opportunity for high-quality charters to grow and expand the portfolio of options for parents and students.

Through the college partnership lab schools, your state universities will create public schools that are examples of excellence.

These schools will not only serve the students attending them—but also help to prepare future teachers to work in other public schools. Developing that pipeline of talent is hugely important.

And I can speak from personal experience about innovation, as a father of two young children who attend an amazing public school in Virginia.

Their school has a science focus, but all of the teachers embrace the mission. The music teacher is an absolute rock star. Students sing, clap, and dance about solids, liquids and gases. They learned the solar system through song. It's just one example of how having clear standards for students drives innovation in a school.

But I'm not naïve. I know that in too many classrooms, in Virginia and across the nation, teachers don't feel free to innovate.

They feel pressure to prepare their students to pass the state tests. As a result, their instruction isn't original or engaging.

The students may learn the material, but they don't develop a passion for learning. We must do better and encourage creativity.

Experience shows that when students get a well-rounded education, they do more than fine on tests—but when schools just teach to the test, the students do not get the education they need to succeed.

That's why we are boosting funding for a well-rounded education, asking for $1 billion in next year's budget.

And that's why we need to support a culture of innovation in our schools. The promising solutions have to be brought to scale.

We need to engage better and teach differently—so that student achievement improves.

We need to assess student progress better—so that teachers know how to challenge their students to improve.

We need to attract more students and more students of color to math and science education—so that our economy is strong today and into the future.

We need to attack the dropout crisis differently—or else we run the risk of continuing to lose almost 1 million students to the streets every year.

We need to prepare students for success in college and careers—so that every one of them will be productive contributors in our globally competitive economy.

Despite the very real challenges we face, I am absolutely optimistic. We are on the cusp of a new era of innovation in education that was almost unimaginable a decade ago.

But coupled with that optimism, I feel a tremendous sense of urgency in our work for reform. A quarter—25 percent—of our high school freshmen drop out or fail to graduate on time.

This is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable.

In today's knowledge-based economy, there are no good jobs for high school dropouts. They are basically condemned to poverty and social failure.

Many of those who are lucky enough to graduate from high school are not ready for success in college. In two- and four-year colleges here in Virginia, 25 percent of your students must take remedial classes. That's simply not good enough. We must raise the bar.

Too many students use their precious financial resources to pay for courses teaching them what they should have learned in high school. We have to get higher education out of the catch-up business.

We need to dedicate ourselves to ensuring that every student graduates from high school ready to succeed in college and careers. Today, we're far, far from that.

Education is the key to our long-term economic prosperity.

As President Obama says, the country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow.

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

Just one generation ago, we led the world in college graduates. Today, we've fallen to 9th among young adults. That is unacceptable, and that's not who we should be as a country.

To help us meet the President's ambitious but critical goal, we've made an unprecedented commitment to reform.

But this is so much more than a federal effort—it's a national effort—a movement that is happening state-by-state, district-by-district and community-by-community.

The success of this work will rely on the courage and commitment of millions of people locally.

From the federal level, we're supporting reform at the state, local, and community level.

With $5 billion—less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on K-12 schools every year—the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation programs have unleashed an avalanche of pent-up education reform activity.

Through Race to the Top, 46 states and the District of Columbia have created bold, comprehensive plans for reform.

At the heart of all of these plans are standards that prepare students for success in college and careers. We've funded 11 states and the District of Columbia to lead the way.

The President has proposed $1.35 billion in fiscal 2011 to continue the Race to the Top competition and maintain the momentum for reform across the country.

By applying for Race to the Top in the first round, Virginia brought together stakeholders to build a comprehensive reform agenda and created a roadmap for reform.

We have other federal money to support your work on key elements of your reform plan. Virginia is receiving $60 million to turn around your lowest-performing schools and to use technology to support innovation.

We have awarded grants through the Teacher Incentive Fund to strengthen the education profession by rewarding excellence and attracting teachers and principals to high-need and hard-to-staff areas.

The Teacher Incentive Fund is providing more than $25 million to support projects in Richmond, Prince William County, and Henrico County that can be models for others to follow.

By using these federal dollars—along with state, local, and private resources—you can implement pieces of your Race to the Top program.

Also through Race to the Top, we're funding 44 states working in two consortia to create the next generation of assessments to better measure whether students are truly on track for success in college and careers.

These assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education.

For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers—and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction.

For the first time, teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support great teaching in the classroom.

And for the first time, children in Mississippi and children in Massachusetts will be held to the same standard and measured by the same yardstick. We will stop lying to children.

Beyond Race to the Top, we've invested $650 million in the Investing in Innovation program, or i3.

These grants are also supporting districts and higher education institutions as they take to scale reforms proven to accelerate student achievement.

The private sector has matched our grants with an additional $130 million, a wonderfully creative public/private partnership that leverages all of our resources. Particularly in tough budget times like today, these innovative public/private partnerships must become the norm.

With a $28 million grant from i3, George Mason University in Fairfax is leading a team of six universities to improve the quality of science teaching.

The partnership includes 47 school districts across Virginia. It will focus on professional development of uncertified and provisionally licensed instructors.

This is a group that is often overlooked, but one that we have to address if we're going to improve the effectiveness of our nation's science teachers.

Through Race to the Top and i3, we've made important investments in reform. But we know we can't stop there. One of my top priorities in 2011 will be to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and to continue our work in a bipartisan manner.

We want the ESEA law to support reform—not interfere with it. We want to provide national leadership, but not at the expense of local control.

We want to get accountability right so that it's fair and focused on the right goals.

You know the current version of the law as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Teachers complain bitterly that the law focuses too much on teaching to the test and that it stifles innovation. Educators say that the accountability system is broken and unfair—that it relies on absolute test scores and doesn't reward growth. And they're right.

One of the biggest problems with NCLB is that is doesn't encourage high learning standards.

In fact, it punishes states when they fall short of their standards and inadvertently encourages states to dummy down their standards.

The net effect is that we are lying to our children and parents by telling kids they are ready for college when, in fact, they are far from ready.

We have to tell the truth, and we have to raise the bar. Our failure to raise the bar is one reason our schools produce millions of young people who aren't completing college.

They are simply not ready for college-level work when they leave high school.

Our proposal will require states to raise their standards and verify that those standards are preparing students for success in colleges and careers.

They can do that by working collaboratively to create and adopt college- and career-ready standards or by enlisting state higher education institutions to verify that their standards will prepare students to succeed in college-level work without the need for remediation.

America needs a high-bar for everyone so that we're all on a level playing field.

States are responding by raising standards. Led by governors and chief state school officers, 48 states worked to raise the bar and create common college- and career-ready standards in reading and mathematics.

State officials took the lead when they realized that their standards weren't rigorous enough to prepare students for success.

This is very much a state-led process. It's one more example that reform can't be led from Washington; it has to be led by the states.

And these standards are receiving widespread support from state officials.

Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana compares these standards to the U.S. reforms in math and science education after the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik.

Today, we're faced with being outcompeted by high-achieving nations—and our country is responding by raising the bar.

In just a few months since the NGA and the Council Chief State School Officers issued their final standards, 37 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these standards—and I understand many more are preparing to do so when their legislators convene this winter.

Even Massachusetts—universally viewed as having the highest standards in the country—has adopted the standards. They recognize the importance of setting a common bar for success across states. I hope that Virginia will carefully review these common standards and consider adopting them.

States are responding with speed and courage because they know the status quo isn't good enough.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute—a Washington think tank that has been grading states' standards for more than a decade—recently compared the new common standards to states' existing standards. They found that the common standards are just as rigorous or more rigorous than all but a few states' standards.

The Fordham Institute gave high marks to Virginia's English/language arts standards—saying they're comparable to the common core.

But it says your mathematics standards are "clearly inferior" to the common core.

One way or another Virginia needs to raise its standards—whether it's by adopting the common core or by working with your higher education system to certify that your standards are preparing students for success in college and careers.

It's time for every state to take a serious look at their own standards and decide whether they measure up to what it takes for students to succeed in the global economy.

With standards that are truly college and career ready, teachers will transform what is happening in classrooms.

While these standards are an important step, their potential won't be realized unless assessments measure whether students are reaching those standards. That's why I believe the next generation of assessments that 44 states are developing under our Race to the Top competition will be a game-changer.

These assessments will create a common yardstick to measure whether students are meeting the ambitious standards set by state leaders.

They will give results throughout the school year—not just at the end of the year when it's too late for a teacher to intervene and help students who are falling behind.

Today, Virginia is not part of either group that is developing new assessments under Race to the Top.

But your state will have the option of using these assessments when they are completed.

Once we have the standards and assessments in place, we have to collectively work to ensure that the achievement targets are as ambitious as the standards themselves. These strategic levers: high standards, great assessments, and rigorous academic targets have to be aligned and challenging.

In response to No Child Left Behind, too many states—including my home state of Illinois—responded by lowering their cut scores. This makes politicians look good, but it is bad for children, bad for education, and ultimately bad for a state's economic vitality.

All state leaders need to look in the mirror and ask whether their state is expecting enough of our children. We all need to set the bar higher.

This work takes courage, but I'm confident that the vast majority of states will do the right thing. States like New York and Tennessee are already moving to raise the bar and tell the truth.

Collectively, we must challenge our students to achieve at the levels necessary for success in college and the global economy.

And I'm also confident that once faced with that challenge, our children will respond and meet our higher expectations. In fact, students across the country are pleading with us to raise our expectations for them.

We have the opportunity to transform our nation's schools. But we will only succeed if we get the standards and assessments right.

With these high-quality standards in place, we'll usher in a new era of innovation—one where teachers will be challenged to teach the higher-order, critical thinking skills so desperately needed in the knowledge economy. And with a new generation of assessments that move beyond today's bubble tests, teachers will be empowered to improve their instructional practice and track individual students' progress at every step of the way.

It's absolutely clear to me that America is responding to this challenge today.

Over the past 20 months, I've travelled to more than 40 states—eight this month alone.

At every stop, I see the courage and commitment of governors, superintendents, teachers, principals and parents. They are tackling issues once thought untouchable because they know that a quality education is more important than ever before and will be the foundation of a strong economy in the 21st Century.

Americans understand the importance of a world-class education—just as we have at decisive points in our history for almost 250 years.

At our founding, Virginia's distinguished leader, Thomas Jefferson, believed that educated citizens with civic knowledge and public service were the essential cornerstones of democratic government.

He said that our schools should "reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest."

Jefferson reminds us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. They can help bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

Of all of Jefferson's contributions to Virginia and this country, one of the most enduring is the University of Virginia—one of the greatest universities in the world today.

Now is the time for state and local leaders to work together to demonstrate courage and create the best schools in the world.

We have an economic imperative. We must educate our way to a better economy. We have a moral imperative. The fight for a quality education is the civil rights issue of our generation. We have a huge sense of urgency. Every year, Virginia loses about 20,000 students from its schools to its streets.

Together, we as adults must work together to make sure every child has a world-class education—and let that be our collective legacy for generations to come.

Thank you.