Archived Information

The Road to a Rust Belt Renaissance

Remarks to the One Region, One Vision meeting, Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council

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


For the past week I've been on a bus tour of the Great Lakes Region. Everywhere I've gone, I've talked about the urgent need to elevate education to build a better workforce and an expanding economy.

And yet everywhere I've gone, I've heard a tale of two cities.

I've been inspired by meeting with compassionate teachers, visionary principals, caring parents, courageous union heads, and community-minded college leaders—all committed to accelerating student learning and turning around schools that once were considered dropout factories.

But I've also been told that the educational challenges of the Great Lakes region were largely problems for other people's children and schools. It was the urban minority students, the remote rural students, the immigrant children who are English language learners that are the real problem.

I heard people say 'my child, my school is doing fine.'

If you hold to that split vision of educational progress, I'm here today to strongly urge you to reconsider. I'm here today to support the idea of one region, one vision for Northwest Indiana.

To paraphrase Michael Jackson, a native son of Gary, to achieve a world-class school system in Northwest Indiana, to make our schools a better place, people need to take a look at themselves—and then make a change. And I'm talking about everyone involved in shaping our public schools, community colleges, and universities—parents, educators, principals, superintendents, business leaders—and yes, absolutely, the federal government, too.

We must move beyond the pass-the-buck blame game that stifles education reform. It is time for college professors to stop blaming the high school educators for students who don't learn, while the high school educators blame the elementary school teachers who in turn blame the parents. We are all in this together. These are all our children.

It's true that the school system here in Northwest Indiana has been described as balkanized. You have some of the top-performing schools in the state in affluent communities. And you have some of the lowest-performing schools in urban cores and remote rural areas.

But in my view those differences are exaggerated. The higher-performing schools in the region are not doing as well as some might think. At the same time, the performance of low-performing schools is not as intractable as many residents believe.

So let me start today by talking about the region's high-performing schools. Why do I say that this is no time for complacency about their performance? Because the world has changed.

Education is the new game-changer driving economic growth. In the future, the countries that are out-educating us will out-compete us. And, here in Indiana, the hard truth is that many nations and states are today out-educating the Hoosier state, including some of your high-performing schools.

When I was growing up, the global job market didn't exist. A teenager in Chicago could drop out of high school and still land a good job at the stockyards or steel mills. They could still earn a living wage, support a family and buy a home.

But in the information age, there are no good jobs for high-school dropouts. And today, Northwest Indiana's students are competing not just with students in Indianapolis, but with students in India, Israel, and Indonesia.

Last month I was in Iowa and spoke at the Governor's Education Summit. The impact of global competition hit home there. How many of you are aware that, at Grinnell College, a wonderful small liberal arts college in Iowa, nearly one in ten applicants is now from China? And that half of those Chinese applicants have perfect scores of 800 on the math portion of the SAT? That is the new reality of the knowledge economy in 2011.

Now, in assessing the educational challenges that face this region, I'm going to draw today on the findings of WorkOne's 2010 State of the Workforce Report for Northwest Indiana. It is an important, revealing report.

According to the WorkOne report, 57 percent of the region's labor force does not currently earn enough to support a typical family of four. Translated, that means that more than half of Northwest Indiana's workers earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

As the report spells out, education is the key to raising wages in the region, and in the long-run, reducing unemployment. It projects that over the next decade, Northwest Indiana's fastest-growing occupations will all require some post-secondary education.

It is deeply troubling that Indiana-based employers and manufacturers are reporting they cannot find enough skilled labor—even in a time of high unemployment.

I'm talking now about leading Indiana businesses like Paragon Medical, a manufacturer of medical cases and trays; Wabash National Corporation, which makes semi-trailers; and Brightpoint America, which distributes wireless devices across the country.

All of those Indiana corporations are having trouble finding workers with the technical skills needed to fill their openings.

The WorkOne report highlights a number of other warning signs that suggest Northwest Indiana is falling short of creating a world-class education system and providing students with the 21st century skills they need to succeed.

In nearly three years on the job, I have yet to talk to a major employer who is satisfied with the job readiness of high school graduates. The 21st century skills needed in the knowledge economy—the ability to communicate clearly, work collaboratively, and innovate—are missing or deficient in too many of our graduates. And I hear much the same concerns from college educators about the reasoning, writing, reading, adaptability, and creativity of incoming freshman.

Northwest Indiana is no exception to these patterns. In the last decade, Northwest Indiana has benefitted from robust job growth in health care, especially outpatient health care.

But employment in information technology, management, and jobs that require higher-order math skills have all declined in the region. These jobs in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—are absolutely critical drivers of economic growth. And STEM education must be reinvigorated to propel prosperity.

The WorkOne report also suggests that communities in Northwest Indiana need to do much more to foster a culture and expectation that students will attend and complete college or postsecondary career-training—especially in rural areas and the inner-city. As many as a 1,000 students a year in the region leave high school without a diploma—and those high school dropouts are a costly drain on public treasuries in crime, housing, and welfare costs.

When area students do graduate from high school and matriculate to college and career-training, many of them are ill-prepared. We've been lying to them for far too long, telling students that they were college-ready when they were far from it. Ivy Tech Community College-Northwest reports that as many as 70 percent of their incoming students need remedial classes before they can begin their programs of study.

Collectively, Northwest Indiana is home to seven not-for-profit colleges and universities, and nearly a dozen for-profit schools. But apart from Valparaiso University, which graduates about 75 percent of its students, most of the not-for-profit colleges and universities in the region fail to graduate even a third of their students.

That is unacceptable and economically unsustainable. It puts the region's students at a profound competitive disadvantage. And it's not surprising that students who do persist to get their bachelor's degree often leave the area to pursue work elsewhere, further weakening the local economy.

You are all here because you are committed to helping Northwest Indiana transform that brain drain into brain gain—and become a destination of choice for more young college-educated adults.

In a global economy, it's important to put the performance of Indiana's students in international perspective.

Last year, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and his colleagues released a study that did just that. It showed how well each state did at producing high-achieving students in mathematics. The Hanushek study broke out its results separately for white students and students with at least one college-educated parent.

But even after separating out disadvantaged minority students, Indiana's students performed poorly in international and national comparisons.

If the state of Indiana was its own country, the Hanushek study suggests that it would rank 59th in the world in producing students at an advanced level of math, behind 33 nations and 25 U.S. states.

But the results for Indiana's white students alone are even more telling. In 30 other U.S. states, white students are more likely to be advanced in math than white students in Indiana. And all students—all students—in 31 nations and provinces are more likely to be advanced math students than just the white students in Indiana.

Hanushek's study suggests that countries like Slovenia, Iceland, and Estonia produce a higher proportion of advanced math students across the entire student population than the Indiana school system does among its white students alone.

The reality is tough: Those countries are out-educating Indiana. Plain and simple, they are doing a better job of promoting educational excellence.

I know my message today about Northwest Indiana's educational system has been a sobering one. But I don't believe that we do our children or our nation any favors by sugarcoating reality. We must deal with these challenges openly and honestly, and with a sense of urgency that has been missing for far too long.

Despite the real challenges that Northwest Indiana faces, I am actually optimistic that the region is taking important steps to provide students with the world-class education they need and deserve.

Northwest Indiana has a lot of strengths to call upon. As I look around this room, and as I read about the One Region, One Vision coalition, I was struck by the strong sense of community spirit and commitment that is a Hoosier tradition.

I absolutely believe that every sector of the community must be involved in dramatically improving the schools here. But I don't favor community partnerships just for the sake of a feel-good opportunity to join hands and sing Kumbaya.

Transforming education is tough, tough work. It takes commitment. It takes courage. It takes knowledge and smart policies. It takes honesty. And it requires persistence. If the educational status quo in Northwest Indiana was easy to transform, you would have done so a long time ago.

That is why I am so heartened to see the concrete initiatives that the One Region, One Vision coalition has supported and promoted, and that Governor Daniels has supported.

Bill Masterson, Jr., the publisher of the Northwest Indiana Times, one of the founders of the coalition, has committed to shining a white-hot spotlight in the paper on the good, the bad, and the ugly in the region's schools, week in and week out. We need that transparency and dialogue it generates.

At the same time, school leaders, unions, postsecondary institutions, teachers, and employers are bolstering students' college and career-readiness and providing training tailored to the needs of the region.

About 700 students in the Crown Point School system have earned dual credit for college courses while still in high school through an innovative partnership with Purdue University-Calumet and Indiana University Northwest. I love those dual enrollment programs.

That partnership is reducing remediation and college costs—and increasing college completion. The program is expanding to other schools. Purdue University North Central is already partnering with 31 high schools in Northwest Indiana to offer dual credit courses.

In rural Starke County, local manufacturers in Knox faced shortages of qualified applicants. So private employers and public officials teamed up to form the Starke County Initiative for Lifelong Learning. More than 600 students from 12 school systems in Starke County and other counties have now completed training in automotive technology, computer proficiency, welding, body shop, hotel and restaurant hospitality, and other career fields. Students can earn up to 14 hours of college credit. That program is also now being expanded, to provide mid-career training opportunities to adults looking to retrain and retool.

Some years ago, when schools in Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago developed teaching shortages, Indiana University Northwest stepped in to create a partnership with local schools to aid in teacher preparation and development.

The result was the Urban Teacher Education Program, or UTEP. It enables undergraduates in the school of education to do a year-long training in an urban school while obtaining certification. Graduate students who had obtained degrees in subjects other than education also could do a year-long internship in a partnership school and obtain certification in a secondary education field.

To date, participating schools districts have hired more than 200 UTEP-trained teachers. That talent is staying in the area—and is committed to the community.

Employers aren't standing on the sidelines either. To meet the need for more skilled workers in the steel industry, ArcelorMittal created an innovative educational program with Ivy Tech Community College-Northwest that combines on-site and classroom training. Their 2 ½-year long Steelworkers for the Future training program leads to an Associate of Applied Science degree and prepares graduates for careers as a mechanical or electrical technician.

Finally, it's enormously encouraging to see teachers, union leaders, school heads, and superintendents turning around some of Northwest Indiana's lowest-performing schools. In the past, districts and schools typically did little to intervene in chronically underperforming schools.

This is some of the toughest, most controversial work in education. But I know it can ultimately be some of the most important and rewarding work in an educator's career.

Thanks to the hard work, commitment, and courage of great teachers and school leaders at Calumet High School and Hammond High School, students now have opportunities to pursue their dreams that they never had before.

Teachers and principals at these schools are showing every day that poor kids can learn and struggling schools can be transformed. They are showing that educators are not just helpless in the face of demographic disadvantages. They are debunking the insidious claim that poverty is destiny.

Several years ago, Hammond High School was a school in chaos. Half the student body would arrive late to school. More than 150 fights broke out on campus. The school stopped hosting a pep rally before the homecoming game because fights would erupt. How tough is that reality?

More than 40 percent of students dropped out or failed to graduate on time. Less than 30 percent of students were proficient in English and just eight percent were proficient on the state math assessment.

Working closely with local union president Patrick O'Rourke, the district and the school brought in a new principal, Leslie Yanders, and replaced half of the staff. The new school leadership created professional learning communities with common planning time for teachers. They created Freshmen and Sophomore Academies, extended learning time in reading, and extended the school day from 3:00 pm to 5:30 pm.

With a federal turnaround grant of $2.9 million and a Teacher Incentive Fund grant, Hammond High hired social workers to provide family and student support and hired instructional coaches to assist teachers.

In just one year, educators and parents are starting to see results—though Hammond still has a long way to go. Less than 10 percent of students are tardy to school. The number of fights on campus plummeted. And graduation rates and test scores rose, too.

At Calumet High School, dedicated teachers and its new Principal, Tim Pivarnik, have also worked together to raise student achievement and boost graduation rates.

Calumet adopted the New Tech model. It formed close partnerships with businesses that provided mentoring, internships, and enhanced career-skills. Teachers and staff went door to door in the community to talk to parents and better engage the community on their turf.

An after-school program extended the day for students and provided tutoring. Guidance counselors identified juniors who were behind one to five credits—and then they put those students in a credit recovery program so they could graduate on time.

The results have been dramatic. The graduation rate of the class of 2011 is reported to have gone up to 82 percent, a jump of 14 percentage points from just two years ago.

In just the last year, the percent of students proficient in biology almost doubled. In algebra, the percent of students who were proficient rose 10 percentage points and jumped 14 percentage points in English.

Now, I know not every school transformation is going to meet with the same success as Calumet. But I know there will be many, many school turnaround success stories in the years ahead. I challenge the press to dig in and cover those efforts, as the Times has done in Lake County. These stories aren't just important locally, they have national implications.

All of these initiatives demonstrate that school reform is not simple and cannot be done in isolation. It takes a community to transform a school system. Successful reform requires tough-minded collaboration, not tough-minded confrontation.

So, to sum up, I think Northwest Indiana faces three great educational challenges. The region needs to dramatically elevate career and college readiness; create a more robust college-going culture; and do a better job of encouraging innovation and providing high-quality math, science, and technology instruction.

And please know that as much as I am challenging you here today, we are challenging ourselves as hard or harder.

I would be the first to admit that the federal government has often been a stumbling block to transformational change. We have not been sensitive enough to the needs of states and rural districts.

As you know, President Obama is addressing Congress and the American people tonight. He believes deeply that we must invest in education to win the future.

I anticipate that he will speak tonight to the urgent need to put Americans back to work—including right here in northwest Indiana—to rebuild and modernize dilapidated schools for the benefit of our children. This is not a partisan issue. The physical conditions at some aging schools today are shameful. They are no place for children to learn.

Now, when change is happening, where states and districts are moving in the right direction, we must support you—not stand in your way.

That's one reason I feel so strongly that we also need to fix the broken No Child Left Behind law as soon as possible—so states can continue to lead the way on raising standards, supporting effective teachers and leaders, and closing achievement gaps.

America needs a law that supports teachers, students, and parents at the local level, not one that is so punitive and prescriptive. And as Congress is too slow to do anything positive these days, we are prepared to work directly with states like Indiana to prepare regulatory relief that is fair and flexible.

Hoosiers, the truth is that we need you to help lead the country where it needs to go. From Gary to Winamac that commitment to transformational change must start with the recognition that accelerating student learning and expanding educational excellence are not just challenges for other people's children. They are challenges that profoundly affect all of us.

Complacency, clinging to the status quo, and continued tinkering will not solve Northwest Indiana's sweeping educational challenges. As a region, as a nation we are at a critical fork. I implore us, together, to take the tougher path, not the easy one.

Children get only one chance at a great education. It's time that Indiana—and every state—renew the promise of providing all children with a world-class education. With your leadership, and with your collective courage, I'm convinced that we can fulfill that promise.


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