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Success as the Norm

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the KIPP Annual Dinner


I have a confession to make tonight. I am getting impatient with talking about "islands" of educational excellence. If no man is an island, no school should be either.

In the world of education reform, success is all too often an orphan, while failure has many fathers. We don't talk about success nearly enough, celebrate it, and replicate it. I want to flip that presumption. I want to stop treating success as though it was a one-off, attributable just to heroic teachers or charismatic principals. I want to ask instead: Why can't success be the norm?

For all the educational challenges we face, I am actually extremely optimistic. We have many more examples of schools today that beat the odds than ever before. And no system of schools testifies to that fact more powerfully than KIPP's 82 schools and 21,000 students.

Earlier today, I spoke at Senior Signing Day at Yes Prep, another extraordinary school network headed by Mike Feinberg's friend and co-conspirator, Chris Barbic. Every year, 100 percent of graduating seniors at Yes Prep are accepted into four-year colleges—and this is despite the fact that almost all seniors are low-income minority students, raised by parents who were not lucky enough to attend college themselves.

You may have seen in the news recently that at Urban Prep Charter Academy—an all-male, all-black school in Chicago—every one of the 107 seniors in its first graduating class has been accepted at four-year colleges. Perhaps you heard that Urban Prep students were selected by a random lottery.

What you may not know is that Urban Prep is a turnaround school. It was one of three schools established in Chicago to replace a failing school in the high-poverty Englewood neighborhood. As freshmen, just four percent of those seniors read on grade level. Four percent. In every class of 25 students, one adolescent read at grade level.

Four years later, you take the same students, same parents, same neighborhood, and the results are radically different. What a difference a school makes: Top-notch teachers and outstanding school leaders literally alter the trajectory of students' lives.

Now, I am not going to kid you. For the most part, the education establishment has responded to the success of so-called no excuses schools by making excuses about why their record doesn't really count. The skeptics claim that the success of a KIPP school or YES Prep is due to the efforts of a remarkable teacher or principal and can't be copied. Or they say that gap-closing schools—even ones that admit students by random lottery—must be creaming the student population and only work for gifted students.

Thankfully, in the 15 years since Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin opened their first KIPP school in Houston, the KIPP network has debunked the myth that great schools are one-offs that cannot be replicated. And in recent years, rigorous studies of high-performing charter schools in Boston and New York show it is the school, not the characteristic of the students that explains the bulk of the difference in academic outcomes.

So I come back to the question with which I began: Why can't success be the norm?

I think two obstacles still stand in the way of taking success to the scale—though I'm glad to report that they are beginning to fade. The first obstacle is the belief that poverty is destiny. I've had too many people tell me that poor children can't really be expected to learn, that we have to eradicate poverty before we can educate students. I couldn't disagree more. The only surefire way to end poverty is by providing a quality education. As President Obama has said, a good school is the best anti-poverty program of all.

The second stumbling block is the trap of the blame game. We all know that sometimes the educational system serves the interests of adults better than those of children. So often I see adults blaming each other for the shortcomings of schools. The colleges blame the high schools when students aren't ready. The high schools blame the elementary schools. The elementary schools blame the preschool programs, and the preschool programs blame the parents. When educators refuse to get out of their silos, when parents refuse to acknowledge that their schools and their children can be either part of the problem or its remedy, finger-pointing takes hold—but solutions do not.

Adults may care about whether a high-performing school is a charter school or a traditional neighborhood school. But children do not—and neither do I. I've said that I am not a fan of charter schools. But I am a big fan of good charter schools. By the same measure, charters that do not work need to be shut down much faster than they are today. As President Obama and I have said repeatedly, we care about what works to boost student learning—not about ideology, rhetorical purity, or political party.

In many respects, the Administration's agenda promotes a number of the reforms that have made KIPP schools a success. I have learned so much from you, and have so much admiration for your work, your courage, and your commitment. Look through the four assurances in the Recovery Act, in the Race to the Top and i3 programs, and our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and you'll find a lot of common ground.

Like KIPP, we think that better student achievement data is crucial and should be used to drive a cycle of continuous instructional improvement in the classroom. We believe in the value of competition and innovation. We believe student learning should be an important factor in teacher evaluation. And I've been an advocate for an extended school-day and school year for years.

I've said that when it comes to teaching, talent matters tremendously. That might almost be a fitting KIPP motto. KIPP not only recruits and develops great teachers, but has developed its own training programs for school leaders and teachers.

Like KIPP, we believe schools must set high expectations for all students and prepare all students for college and careers. No one foresaw it a year ago, but 48 governors and 48 chief state schools officers have now banded together of their own accord to reverse the dummying down of standards that took place under NCLB. The states are creating common, career- and college-ready standards in math and English language arts for the first time in our nation's history.

I applaud KIPP for showing that a rigorous math and English curriculum is not at odds with a well-rounded curriculum with access to the arts, physical fitness, foreign language, and robotics and animation. In Houston, 90 percent of KIPP students matriculate to college. But all elementary students in KIPP in Houston take Spanish at least twice a week. By the end of first grade, all Houston KIPPsters are reading and writing on grade level in Spanish.

The hour is getting late. But before I wrap up, I want to say that I can't thank Dave and Mike enough— and the hundreds of dedicated leaders and teachers at KIPP who, every day, are bettering the lives of tens of thousands of students. You are living proof that in America, education truly can be the great equalizer.

Finally, I want to give a special shout-out to KIPP for being the organization that has led the way in taking success to scale. Next year, KIPP will have almost 100 schools with 24,000 students.

In Houston alone, you'll have 17 KIPP schools serving 6,000 students. Five years from now, KIPP aims to reach more than 60,000 students nationwide. That is a lot of students—more than in the DC or Atlanta public school systems.

As you all know, KIPP has selected Houston as ground zero for education reform. It's here where you are trying to create a critical mass, a tipping point of high-performing schools that will transform the entire Houston public school system.

KIPP, in tandem with YES Prep, is on target to serve more than 30,000 students at more than 40 campuses in the Houston area within the next decade. That would mean that roughly 15 percent of the 200,000 students in the Houston independent school district would be enrolled in high-performing charter schools. With those kinds of numbers, no one can claim that gap-closing schools are boutique initiatives for talented students.

Still, I want to be even more ambitious. I want that other 85 percent of the student body in Houston to be in great schools, too.

I'll continue to follow the KIPP experiment in Houston with great hope and anticipation. I hope you do reach that tipping point, where a sharing of ideas and a healthy competition from high-performing schools helps the district to improve education for all public school students. I'm so encouraged that Houston school superintendent Terry Grier, who is here tonight, has welcomed this partnership to improve schools for all students in Houston.

If you are going to take reform to scale—not just for tens of thousands of students but district-wide and state-wide—I want to challenge you to make that partnership a well-trafficked, two-way street. I want to encourage KIPP to again consider running turnaround schools. Other high-performing CMOs, like Green Dot, the Academy for Urban School Leadership, and Mastery Schools, are making a difference in this space. If you want to fix dropout factories, you have to go to the schools where, tragically, hundreds of thousands of low-income students are dropping out and cheated out of quality education, year after year.

I respect that KIPP's maiden effort at a turnaround school in Denver faltered. And I recognize that KIPP has pursued a different model than turnarounds, opting instead for opening small, new schools to nurture and mold KIPP's culture of high expectations. Simply put, your model is extraordinary.

Still, I know that Mike, Dave, and Richard Barth all believe passionately not only in taking reform to scale but in the urgent mission to transform our entire education system for low-income students. In terms of sheer numbers, there is no getting around the fact that transforming the lowest-performing five percent of public schools is an enormous, unparalleled opportunity.

Historically, we have never really tried to turnaround chronically-underperforming schools in this country. Instead, we have allowed the status quo to languish in underserved communities, sometime not just for years, but literally for decades. For the first time, Congress and the federal government are providing an unprecedented $4 billion to support far-reaching changes in struggling schools.

And I think successful CMOs can think creatively about how to get involved with school turnarounds—including replacing existing schools over a period of years and using the benefits of co-location. In fact, in our upcoming $50 million CMO competition, we hope a number of high-performing CMOs will partner with districts to serve students in turnaround schools.

I would be the first to acknowledge that the extraordinary teaching, the shaping of student character and future leaders that is at the heart of KIPP's daily mission is hard, relentless work.

But as I learned in Chicago, school turnarounds are also tough, tough work. I cannot think of a more important, more urgent step in the struggle for equal opportunity than remaking the nation's dropout factories and the elementary schools that feed them.

Ever since Dave and Mike began KIPP, they have been told "it can't be done." When they pulled up to a sign that said "Do Not Cross", they went ahead anyway— if they thought it was in the best interests of children.

I cannot wait to see what the next 15 years of KIPP brings. And I cannot wait for the day when educational islands of excellence become districts and states of excellence. I want to thank all of you for your passionate support of Dave and Mike's vision, and for helping demonstrate to the country what is possible.

Many years ago, Martin Luther King wrote in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail that "human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through tireless effort and persistent work." Our children get only one chance at an education. Let us recommit to that tireless effort and that persistent work. Dr. King had it right: We cannot wait.


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