Archived Information

Make No Small Plans

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Grantmakers for Education Conference in Chicago


Thank you, Terry, for that kind introduction. I've known Terry for years—and the work of the Chicago Community Trust was absolutely invaluable to me during my time as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. In many respects, Terry and the work of the Trust are leading examples of just the kind of education reform that the department is hoping to stimulate among non-profits and that I want to address today.

I must say, I love the theme of this conference—"Make No Small Plans." That theme is very much in keeping with the President's conviction and our department's commitment to education reform.

There is no doubt that our nation's public schools and colleges face steep challenges. But we also have a unique opportunity to transform our educational system—and an opportunity like this may never come along again in our lifetime.

It is not a time to make small plans. It is not a time to tinker. To quote the President's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, one should "never waste a good crisis."

Today, 30 percent of our children, or about 1.2 million students a year fail to complete high school on time. Only two-thirds of those who do graduate from high school go on to any form of college. Far too many students who do matriculate fail to earn a college degree. And as you know, every one of these troubling indicators is far worse for low-income students, minority students, and English language learners.

In America, education is supposed to play a far different role. As Horace Mann said more than a century ago, education is the great equalizer in America. No matter what your income, race, religion, or zip code, every child is entitled to a quality education. Today, we are failing to fulfill that American creed.

It is no secret that now, more than ever, education holds the key to being able to compete in the global economy. In the information age, where our students will be competing with their peers in China, India, Canada, and Denmark for jobs, we really don't have much choice—we have to educate our way to a better economy.

By 2020, President Obama wants the United States to regain the position it held not long ago as the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And he wants every American to have a least one year of college, trade, or technical training.

In practical terms, the president's goals require not just improved student outcomes but a dramatic boost in educational productivity. At a time where critical state funds for education have been cut, public schools, colleges, and research universities are being asked to get millions of additional students through high school and college, with millions of adults returning to school as well.

Now, the president's goals are ambitious. But the hard truth is that we cannot build a well-functioning cradle-to-career pipeline of college-ready students by continuing to do what we are doing now—if we only do it just a little bit better.

To meet the President's goals, we need transformational change. The islands of excellence that now exist in school districts have to become the norm. The promising solutions that you have all helped to create need to be brought to scale. And our existing market-based and political barriers to far-reaching reform have to recede.

In a word, America's schools need innovation. Educational innovation should not be confused with just generating more great ideas or unique inventions. Instead we need new solutions that improve outcomes—and that can, and will, be used to serve hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students.

Smart innovation and entrepreneurship are not the only way to dramatically accelerate achievement and attainment. But without them, we will surely fall short of our goals—and do a disservice to our children. As the president said in his inaugural address, "the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Traditionally, the K-12 system has not been considered to be a bastion of innovation and entrepreneurship. We have all seen the presentations showing that the early 20th century classroom looks eerily similar to many classrooms today.

The analogy may be exaggerated. But it is true that for much of the last century we have not cultivated a culture of innovation—or built the district-level systems needed to sustain a cycle of continuous improvement.

Starting a century ago, big, comprehensive high schools began to replace the simple schoolhouses of earlier eras. Schools adopted the factory model that was popular to produce graduates that mirrored the needs of the workforce at that time. A privileged few went to college, but most did not.

Teachers and students were then thought of as interchangeable widgets. Teachers were rewarded based on credentials and experience, not on their performance in the classroom. Instruction was not tailored to the individual needs of students but to providing education for the masses and new immigrants.

It is easy to forget today, but up through our parent's generation, public schools often seemed like immortal institutions of brick and mortar. There were no charter schools, turnaround schools, or virtual schools.

Comprehensive high schools were thought of as eternal edifices that defined neighborhoods for decades—and often educated both parents and their children. The standards and accountability movement didn't yet exist. Schools were judged more by inputs than by outcomes.

Now to be sure, the lack of innovation in educational options for students didn't preclude schools from experimenting with a variety of reforms. Schools and districts tried a slew of curricular reforms over the years but most of them had little impact or staying power.

In fact, part of the problem with K-12 innovation has been that it often was faddish, lurching from one pedagogical favorite to the next—without ever really rigorously assessing what works and what doesn't.

In the last two decades, those immortal institutions of the past have become far more open to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Today, change and entrepreneurship abound in the K-12 system, but it is still constrained by gaps in our knowledge of effective practices.

Online courses and online supplementation of course material are catching on fast. But we have made only limited investments in understanding which online instruction is most effective.

Smaller, themed schools have sprung up throughout districts. But we have yet to distinguish between approaches that really boost achievement and those that do not.

Personalized accommodations for children with disabilities are universal—in a system that once virtually ignored learning and behavioral disabilities. And yet we are just now starting to advance the practices with the greatest evidence of serving these students well.

We are on the cusp of a new era of innovation and entrepreneurship in education that was almost unimaginable a decade ago. I am convinced that every problem in education has been solved before, somewhere—and often with philanthropic support.

What we need to do now, with the help of the philanthropic and non-profit sector, is systematically identify interventions that work, evaluate them, and invest in taking them to scale. We need to move beyond the separate silos of education reform that have prevented districts, practitioners, and non-profits from sharing and replicating solutions in the past.

Now the responsibility for speeding that transformation lies not just with non-profits and districts but at the doors of the U.S. Department of Education.

I know what some of you are thinking. I was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for seven years. And I would be the first to admit that I did not always welcome phone calls from the U.S. Department of Education.

That was because the department has historically been an agency that monitored compliance with federal regulations. Too often our department has focused on bureaucratic compliance and audits, not on accelerating student achievement.

I want to fundamentally change that historical relationship; I want our department to become an engine of innovation, not a compliance machine. I want the department to provide powerful incentives to states, districts, and non-profits to innovate—but at the same time leave most of the creative thinking and entrepreneurship for achieving our common goals in local hands. The best ideas will always come from local educators, not from Washington.

I said earlier that we are at a unique moment in the history of education reform. We have what I call "the Perfect Storm for Reform." And that starts with, for the first time, truly having the resources to spur innovation.

As many of you know, the department's new $4.35 billion dollar Race to the Top fund dwarfs the combined sum of discretionary reform funding available to all of my predecessors as education secretary.

In addition, we have $650 million dollars in the Recovery Act to fund the Investing in Innovation program—which we are calling i3.

The department will release the Notice of Proposed Priorities for the i3 fund tomorrow and publish it in the Federal Register later this week. There will be a comment period, followed by an application and a single round of awards. We plan to make i3 awards next summer, with all funds obligated by September 30, 2010.

We think i3 will help build a framework to support innovation for years to come. Our aim is not to fund new programs for the sake of newness or to promote feel-good interventions. Instead, we are looking to create robust incentives to expand what works, invest in promising practices, and smartly innovate.

To start with, we're looking for programs that will be outcome-driven, not input-driven. We're looking for ways to boost student achievement, matriculation, and graduation rates—and we expect successful applicants will be able to demonstrate real success in closing achievement gaps, moving students toward proficiency, increasing graduation rates, and retaining high-quality teachers and principals.

In addition, we'll be looking for programs that can successfully be taken to scale and aren't just boutique reforms. i3 applicants will be expected to conduct an independent program evaluation and share broadly the results of those evaluations.

And finally we're seeking to fund sustainable innovation, not one-time flash in the pans.

Recognizing the fact that these are challenging times, we still expect that grant recipients will be able to line up at least 20 percent matching funding from the private sector to ensure programs have a broad base of support and are sustainable beyond this federal grant.

Unlike the Race to the Top program, which targets states and districts, i3 grants will be awarded to districts and non-profits who work in partnerships with LEAs or consortiums of schools.

Our basic operating premise in i3 is that grants for proven programs should be larger than those for promising but largely untested programs. Grants will fall into three categories:

  • First, Development grants of up to about $5 million dollars for promising ideas that should be tried.
  • Second, Validation grants of up to roughly $30 million for programs that need to build a research base or organizational capacity to succeed at a larger scale.
  • And finally, Scale-Up grants that will go as high as $50 million for programs with strong evidence that are ready to grow and expand.

We will be looking—though not exclusively—for proposals that advance the four reforms central to the other Recovery Act programs. Applicants will be expected to detail innovations that will:

  • First, enable educators, families, and other stakeholders to improve the use of data to facilitate tracking of student progress and improve classroom instruction.
  • Second, complement the implementation of college and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments.
  • Third, support effective teachers and school leaders.
  • And finally, support practices or programs that turn around chronically low-performing schools.

Already, we are seeing progress that would have been unthinkable a year ago. We are thrilled that 48 states and three territories are voluntarily working together to establish rigorous college-ready standards in language arts and math.

For education entrepreneurs, the common standards movement marks a leap forward because it opens up opportunities to innovate that were effectively closed off in the past. It is almost impossible to implement imaginative curriculum and assessments at scale when you have 50 different goalposts to march toward, all at once.

At the same time, many districts are beginning to use data everyday to drive instruction and supplement teacher evaluation.

It is true that we still have a great need for better models, to think differently about how to recruit, train, and support teachers—and to figure out what it will take to get talented teachers and principals to the schools where they are needed most. That is hugely important to me.

It has been very difficult to design tools and resources to truly support teachers and school leaders, without being able to assess which teachers have the greatest impact on student learning. That's a bit like trying to treat a patient without completing a physical.

Finally, we have roughly 5,000 schools in the country that have been chronically underperforming for years, and unfortunately, sometimes for decades. They include some 2,000 high schools that produce about half of the dropouts in the country, and 75 percent of our dropouts among African-American and Latino students. That is absolutely unacceptable.

We need to radically revise the current incremental approach to these dropout factories.

To close the achievement gap, we need to also close the opportunity gap. That will require new approaches to an assortment of longstanding challenges: Accelerating adolescents who are years behind; helping ELL students learn the language and the content; and assisting students with disabilities complete college-ready work.

So, in addition to supporting innovation in the four core reforms embedded in the Recovery Act, i3 will also bolster other aspects of the President's agenda to improve early learning and college readiness and better serve students with disabilities, those with limited English proficiency, and students in rural districts.

We will be encouraging districts and non-profits to expand and make better use of, both the school day and school year, and will support promising interventions with at-risk students.

Innovative college readiness programs, which prepare students to enter college without the need for remediation, are priorities too. Everyone knows that we need more intensive and more cost-effective college readiness and access programs. One guidance counselor for every 400 students is not going to get the job done.

I want to add that I am a huge fan of quality early childhood and afterschool programs. My sister, brother, and I grew up as a part of my mother's after-school tutoring program, located in the North Kenwood/Oakland neighborhood here in Chicago. Through that formative experience, I learned firsthand what so many of you know already—that a powerful connection with a caring adult literally can transform the lives of students. Opportunities, supports, and high expectations can erase the achievement gap.

I'm pleased to report that last month the House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide $8 billion to the Early Learning Challenge Fund during the next eight years. If approved by the Senate, this new program would channel a billion dollars a year to support early learning and care programs.

But again, we are not just looking to throw money at a problem or to replicate the status quo. The Early Learning Challenge Fund is a competitive grant program. And to qualify for grants, states will need to demonstrate that they are improving school readiness for disadvantaged children, implementing comprehensive standards-based reform of early learning, and boosting quality and performance of early childhood and preschool programs.

I recognize that innovation doesn't come easily. If it did, I wouldn't be here today asking you to help create a culture of breakthrough innovation that spans the educational pipeline from the cradle to college and careers. Successful innovations are often disruptive. We not only understand that, we welcome it.

We know that online content and courses often meet with skepticism and resistance—despite the fact that they make it possible for isolated students and hard-to-staff schools to have access to Advanced Placement courses, foreign languages, and networks of mentors. Here in Chicago we had to battle to establish a virtual charter school.

Now there is a tendency to think that innovation is driven only by technology. I don't doubt for a moment that technology is going to play a critical role in educational innovation and student learning in the future.

Yet as important as technology—and better use of technology—will be, new strategies, new tools, and new products are also important to educational innovation.

Think of the history of the Harlem Children's Zone, which Geoff Canada spoke of yesterday with such eloquence. The Harlem Children's Zone is an extraordinary program. President Obama was so impressed by the program that he has made it the cornerstone of the administration's Promise Neighborhoods proposal.

Nonprofits and community-based organizations will be the applicants for Promise Neighborhood grants. We expect to fund one-year planning grants for developing Promise Neighborhood applications next year, and will begin funding implementation grants in the last quarter of 2010.

But before I get ahead of myself I'd ask you to step back and think about why the Harlem Children's Zone has been such a success. The Harlem Children's Zone was not the first program to push for place-based policies—enterprise zones have been around for decades. The Harlem Children's Zone was not the first program to bring together a host of social services—states started co-locating social services back in the 1970s. And the Harlem Children's Zone was not the first program to recognize the importance of quality early learning experiences.

Don't forget that when Geoff Canada started the Harlem Children's Zone, it bore little resemblance to the Harlem Children's Zone we know today. The organization began in 1970 as Rheedlen, New York City's first truancy-prevention program. After the crack epidemic tore through Harlem in the late 1980s, the agency started offering after-hours community services at a public school. In the late 1990s, the Harlem Children's Zone ran a pilot project to bring a range of support services—to a single block.

In 1997, HCZ finally began a network of wraparound programs for a 24-block area. But even then, Geoff Canada was learning and expanding as he went. In 2000, he added the Baby College workshops; in 2001, the Harlem Gems pre-school program was added. Unhappy with the schools that students attended, Geoff Canada opened Promise Academy, a top-flight charter school in 2004.

As you think about this history I would ask you, what is it that made the Harlem Children's Zone so different from other programs? The answer, I think, is two things. First, the Harlem Children's Zone combined existing strategies and programs in a novel way to create an interlinked pipeline of support programs for children and families that extended from infancy to adulthood.

Second, the Harlem Children's Zone was relentless about measuring results and building a rigorous research base to document the impact of its programs. HCZ defined success in terms of achieving specific results for children and families—and they used data to manage the pursuit of those outcomes. When Geoff Canada saw that even the best wraparound services were not sufficient to close the achievement gap, he created an outstanding no-excuses school of his own that did eliminate the gap.

In a way, the Harlem Children's Zone is to community schools what FedEx is to the U.S. Postal Service. Fed Ex uses all of the same basic technologies that the post office does—trucks, planes, and tracking software.

Yet FedEx combined those technologies with a new strategy to fill an unmet need—overnight mail service. Now every delivery company has overnight service. And one day soon, I hope that every student in a high-poverty neighborhood will have access to effective schools and strong systems of support.

I tell the story of the Harlem Children's Zone because I want to remind everyone that breakthrough innovations sometimes come in unanticipated packages—and they don't come from the federal government.

Within the very broad parameters of the i3 program, we want to provide powerful incentives to districts and non-profits to develop a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

But we are looking to you—philanthropists and non-profits—to help build the next generation of education reform.

There are so many areas where non-profits and philanthropists are vitally needed to propel reform and leverage government dollars. But doing so will require non-profits to move beyond their customary silos and business-as-usual funding cycles as well.

My challenge to you today is to move outside your comfort zone, to become more nimble and entrepreneurial. Let me cite a few examples. We are expecting thousands of applicants for the i3 fund. Successful applicants will need to arrange a 20 percent match of funds, which will tap the resources of the private sector. But we know that ultimately, the department will not be able to fund many promising applications.

I want to encourage private funders to form a novel pooled fund to compliment the i3 awards by providing support for promising, high-risk innovations not funded through the federal program.

Grantmakers have similar opportunities to collaborate in the development of college and career-ready standards. There is a huge unmet need for cross-state collaborations on curriculum, learning tools, technology innovation, and teacher preparation.

Foundations can similarly play a critical role in enabling states and districts to make the best use of new federal funds from the Recovery Act. Help your states put together a great application for the Race to the Top competition—or help your district with the complex planning process for school turnarounds.

Finally, grantmakers play an essential role in supporting rigorous evaluations of education reform. Compelling research studies help make promising innovations a reality at scale.

With your help, your courage, your vision, and your commitment, we can transform not just our department but many districts and the non-profit sector from compliance monitors to engines of innovation.

This is a historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—and I have never been more hopeful about the difference we can make in the lives of our children.

Thank you.