Supporting America's Educators to Expand Opportunity

Supporting America's Educators to Expand Opportunity

Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.
Philadelphia, PA
January 21, 2016

Thank you very much, Ms. Suliman, for that kind introduction. Good afternoon, everybody.

I'm grateful to Principal Sharon for organizing us, today, and certainly appreciate Superintendent Rivera for taking time to join us. I'm also grateful to all of you for making time for today's conversation. I very much appreciate the long school day that you have had already, and the time you have taken—time that could have been spent grading or on other activities—to be here with us. I appreciate that, and your hard work on behalf of students.

I want to start by thanking you—thanking you, and all the educators across the country, for the tremendous progress we have made as a country over the last seven years. Last year, we announced the highest graduation rate we've ever had as a country—82 percent. This progress was driven in no small part by the significant reductions in the dropout rate among African-American, Latino, and low-income students. We have seen a million more African-American and Latino students in college since the President took office. We are seeing millions more students getting access to higher education and access to high-quality preschool. And, data suggests that the most recent college graduating class was not only the largest class ever, but also the most diverse.

Last month, we also had an important achievement: the President signed the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESSA moves past the one-size-fits-all prescriptive model of approach of No Child Left Behind, and creates an opportunity for a reset in the national conversation about the future of schools and the path to educational equity and excellence.

As everyone in this room knows, the education policy discussions of the last few years have been characterized by more heat than light. Despite the best of intentions, teachers and principals, at times, have felt attacked and unfairly blamed for the challenges our nation faces as we strive to improve outcomes for all students.

Some politicians have exacerbated this difficult climate by painting with a broad brush of failure, or by denying the challenges students and their families face, or the glaring inequities in resources that impact our schools. And in one memorable case, someone even suggested that school people needed a punch in the face.

All of us—at the local, state, and federal level, the Education Department included—have to take responsibility for the climate that exists. There is no question that the contentious tone has made it harder to have productive conversations.

It has, at times, simultaneously obscured the tremendous progress we've made, and gotten in the way of constructive discussion about challenges we still face—and there are significant challenges.

Today, as you know, African-American, Latino, and low-income students stand far behind their peers in almost every indicator of school achievement.

Today, the most affluent students are still more than six times more likely to complete college than students with the lowest family income.

Today, our young people rank 13th in the world in their college graduation rate. A generation ago, we led the world.

And that's why I want to ask you, today, to lend your leadership and partnership to focus on three things:

  • One—doing more. We must all do more to ensure equity and excellence throughout our P-20 system.
  • Two—lifting up the teaching profession and school leadership.
  • And three—ensuring that students who began college and postsecondary training complete college and postsecondary training. This is particularly important for our low income students and our students of color.

The President signed the Every Student Succeeds Act because he believes it builds on the civil rights legacy of the original law. Having been a high school social studies teacher, I never pass up an opportunity to share a note of historical context. The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed in 1965—and it must be viewed in the context of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. ESEA, a civil rights law, was signed by Lyndon Johnson, himself a former teacher, because he saw education as central to America fulfilling the promise of equality of opportunity.

The new law succeeds in a many places where No Child Left Behind fell short—yet the passage of the new law marks not the end of a road, but the beginning. It is a moment of both opportunity and moral responsibility to apply the law in ways that honor its civil rights heritage.

Many educators will rightly view ESSA's broader definition of student success as a powerful step forward. We have long understood that strong reading skills, writing skills, and math skills are necessary—but not sufficient—for success later in life. We have long understood that English Language Arts and Math test scores do not tell us all we need to know about our students' progress, or their readiness for college and careers.

The new law ESSA creates the opportunity to reclaim the goal of a well-rounded education for all students: an education that not only includes strong numeracy and literacy but provides all students with access to science, social studies, the arts, physical education and health, and the opportunity to learn a second language. The new law has the potential to support the work that you are doing every day to spark excitement, whether their passions lay in poetry or painting, researching ancient civilizations, or testing hypotheses in the science lab.

The new law offers an imperative to strengthen connections between P-12 and higher education. It offers the opportunity to ensure equitable access to options—like AP courses, international baccalaureate programs, dual enrollment opportunities, and career and technical education programs—that will prepare students for the jobs of the 21st century. All of this progress is critically important, because we know that students' prospects are limited if they only have a high school diploma in the 21st century economy.

The new law has the exciting opportunity to build on recent research and evidence about the importance of socioemotional learning and skills, like perseverance, resilience, and the ability to collaborate effectively with peers. In implementing ESSA, we will better understand the importance of those fundamental skills to students' long-term success.

These new indicators of school success can be particularly equity-enhancing if they are paired with bold, meaningful interventions that help students achieve at high levels—even in the schools serving most at risk.

That may mean providing dual language instruction to an English language learner, so that the student is not only able to acquire English, but also to continue to make progress in other subjects.

That may mean creating a visual arts class that responds to students' passion for the arts and gives them a sense of the joy and purpose in schooling.

That may mean replacing exclusionary discipline practices with restorative justice to ensure school climates that are positive and safe for all students.

That may mean matching the chronically absent student—a student who is missing more than ten days of school, a predictor of being retained a grade or dropping out—with a mentor to provide support and coaching to provide support and coaching back on track.

Advancing equity may mean ensuring students have meals at school, so they are not distracted by hunger in their bellies. Ensuring equity may mean getting a student glasses, providing a place to play basketball after school, an after-school chess club, or just advice about navigating the college application process. It may mean encouraging a student who is worried that a college they are considering may be out of their league.

This law presents a new opportunity to focus on equity, but it will require vigilance on the part of educators, the civil rights community, and state leaders to ensure that new flexibility helps us to close achievement gaps rather than obscure them. It will require vigilance to ensure bold interventions in schools that are struggling, rather than mere compliance exercises.

So much of the change ahead rests on the leadership of educators in classrooms and schools. Indeed, it is what happens in classrooms that make the difference for our students in education—particularly those who have the odds most stacked against them.

I know that because I lived that.

As some of you may know, I grew up in Brooklyn, in New York City. When I was eight—October of my 4th grade year—my mom passed away. I was attending school at PS 276.

I then lived with my dad, who was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease, and passed away when I was 12.

The teachers that I had when I was at PS 276—and then at Mark Twain Jr. High School on Coney Island—changed my life. They saved my life. Those teachers are the reason I am alive today, the reason why I became a teacher and principal, and the reason why I am doing the work that I am doing.

They could have looked at me and said, "There is an African-American, Latino student whose family is in crisis in a New York City public school. What chance does he have?" But they didn't. They decided to invest in me, to see hope in me, and to support me.

It wasn't a straight line. In high school, after living with different family members and going to different schools, I applied to boarding school on the advice of a classmate at PS 276. I got in, and studied there—until I got kicked out of high school. Again, teachers could have given up on me. They could have seen the anger and frustration that I had with adults as a reason to give up on me. Instead, they gave me a second chance and supported me. It is their support—not only their academic support, but the real relationships we developed that helped me to get through difficult periods—that led me on a path towards success.

I think often of my teacher at PS 276, who made his classroom a safe haven, even though I was dealing with tremendous issues at home, not knowing what my father would be like day to day. Mr. Osterweil—my 4th, 5th, 6th grade teacher—was amazing. He would make the classroom this engaging place. We read the New York Times every day. We did productions of Midsummer Night's Dream, and Alice and Wonderland. He was the kind of teacher who, when you finished a book, he was there with the next. When you finished a math problem, he would say, "That's good, but here is one that is a little more challenging." He took us to the ballet and the museum, exposing us to the world beyond Brooklyn. That is the kind of teaching I was fortunate to have and his classroom and other classrooms. That is the kind of teaching that saved my life.

So, the challenge for us is to make sure that having a teacher like Mr. Osterweil isn't just a matter of luck. The challenge is to ensure that all students have access to great teaching and to great opportunities in the classroom. To do that, we must ask a lot of educators and we must provide a lot of support.

I want to briefly frame some of the areas in which I think support is crucial. Part of that support must begin with ensuring that educators are well-paid, particularly those who take on the most challenging assignments. Part of that support is strengthening teacher preparation, so that is grounded in the real-world challenges of the classroom. There were many great things about my teacher preparation program to become a high school social studies teacher—I want those "great things" to be the norm in more programs.

I love the opportunity to build my content knowledge, and to think about how to teach students research skills and analytical skills, and to tackle primary source documents. But we spend far too little time—almost none—on these practical skills. We need supports that give teachers the space to think about cultural compentencies. We need supports that ensure that teachers are ready to work in the diverse settings that characterize our schools.

One of the clinically rich teacher prep programs that we supported through Race To The Top funding in New York had a great strategy: before students do their ten-month residency in schools, they are required to take a summer internship at a community-based organization in the same community where they would be student teaching. That way, student teachers had the opportunity to get to know the community, get to know families and students, and to see them as whole human beings, before they started teaching.

We also must look at diversity in the teaching professions. Superintendent Riveria talked about this. We know that, today, a majority of students in the nations public schools are students of color. We know that nearly one in ten are English Languange Learners. Yet, only 15 percent or so of our teachers are African-American or Latino, and just 2 percent of our teachers are African American males. Too few of our teachers have language skills that allow them to communicate with students in their native languange. We need a more diversity—racially and linguistically—among our teacher population, and we need to ensure that we support states in their focus on that work. We need to ensure that all teachers are well prepared and effective in their classrooms.

We need to learn from the intensive models of our most successful international competitors and from medical residency programs, as the late Ron Thorpe of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards long advocated. And, we need to prepare teachers not just with academic skills, but with the cultural competency to connect with the students and families they'll serve. Today, students of color are significantly more likely to be assigned to teachers who are less prepared. We have to do more to ensure that we deliver on the promise which is embedded in ESSA, of equitable access to effective teachers.

We also must do more to ensure that once in the classroom—beyond through the initial induction—teachers have good support as part of a strong, collaborative, school environment. I often resented the one-shot workshops in school—workshops that substituted for real, meaningful professional development.

With the Every Student Succeeds Act, we have the opportunity to focus professional development on embedded experiences that build teacher collaboration. Many of our international competitors are much more committed to teacher collaboration—so I tried to focus my efforts there, as a principal. I was inspired by things, like a Japanese lesson setting. In Japan, a team of teachers will co-develop a lesson; then, one of the teachers teaches it in her classroom, while other teachers observe. After the lesson is over, the teachers debrief, give each other feedback, and revise the lesson, so that they can teach it again in another classroom. It is called polishing the stone—with the idea being that, through the collaborative process, the experience of students will improve.

We see similar success when teachers have the opportunity to look at student work together, or watch video of instruction together, or to co-plan and problem solve together. We have to create the time and the support for those activities in schools.

We also need to think more deeply about our approach to what, sometimes, can be the "elephant in the room" in these conversations: the evaluation and feedback process. I'll start by being frank—if maybe also obvious—and say that, over the past few years, this conversation has't always gone well. A discussion that began with shared interests and shared values—the importance of learning and growth for all children—ended up with a lot of teachers feeling blamed or attacked.

Teachers were not always adequately engaged by policymakers in the development of new systems. And when teachers disagreed with evaluation systems, it appeared to pit them against those who they cherished most—their students. That was no one's desire.

The ESSA gives us an opportunity for a fresh start on this conversation, a much needed do-over. Instead of going backward to the days where evaluations were one-size-fits-all, meaningless checklists, we must see this as an opportunity to reinforce shared values around importance of learning and growth for all our children.

I do think we start from a shared place. I've never spoken with a teacher who believes that support and evaluation systems should ignore the progress in student learning. Indeed, educators agree: student progress must play at role in how we provide evaluation and feedback. We've long said that measures of student learning should be a part—but only one part—of a variety of indicators, including observations by administrators and peers, as well as other indicators being piloted around the country, like student surveys and parent feedback. We need to figure out how to make those other indicators as high-quality as possible, and the principals and peer observers as well trained as possible, to ensure that those experiences are valuable.

With ESSA there is now a great opportunity to define those baskets of measures anew at the state and local levels.

What matters here is student learning—and there are many ways to measure that. For purposes of educator evaluation, it need not be defined by state tests. Creative leaders around the country are developing performance-based assessments to provide information on student progress and to provide feedback on student learning to educators. It is also essential that states whose systems are not working toward the improvement of teachers, revise those systems with the input of teachers.

Teachers and principals absolutely must be part of the state- and district-level conversations that will shape the future of evaluation and feedback. The conversations must be ongoing. All parties must be committed to continuous improvement, and to adjustment, so that all students meet high standards aligned with college- and career-readiness. All parties must work to right-size their assessments, to strengthen state and local tests, and to build the capacity of principals and peer observers. At the heart of these conversations should be a focus on continuous professional learning—not perpetuating of a "gotcha" system—and the unambiguous goal of ensuring equitable access to effective teaching.

On a related note, a few months ago we put out a Testing Action Plan to call on the country to take a new look at the right balance around assessments. That plan says, very specifically, that no test should be given solely for the purpose of educator evaluation. Later this month, we will build on that Testing Action Plan with new guidance on how states and districts can use federal dollars to eliminate unnecessary, redundant, or unhelpful tests, or—perhaps more importantly—to revise assessments that are already given to ensure they are as high quality as possible. The goal is to replace low-level test with a performance-based assessment, to provide richer information.

But support goes beyond compensation, preparation, or opportunities for collaboration; we must talk about working conditions—particularly here, in this city and in this state, where there has been so much debate about resources. We must be clear: no educator should be asked to work in a building that is dilapidated.

We all have had this experience: you take a group of students to the computer lab, where—in the 21st century—we should have the computers all locked in one room. But when you arrive with your students, there's just 18 computers for 23 students. Or, there are 18 students and 18 computers—but four of them don't work. We know that this situation is more common in schools that lack resources than more affluent schools. Affluent schools rarely see those sorts of basic resource challenges.

Ensuring good support for the profession must mean that we tackle issues of inequitable finance. We see that example in Philadelphia, in Detroit: places where we are not doing the right thing as a community of adults, and where we are not valuing each child as we value our own. So we must ask ourselves, as we look to support the profession: how do we ensure that the right working conditions are in place?

Finally, to strengthen the teaching profession, we also need to ensure that there are opportunities to lead—that leadership does not require leaving the classroom. We've tried to do that with our Teach to Lead initiative, launched alongside the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and ASCD. Teach to Lead is helping provide opportunities to not only bring 3,000 teachers together, but also to share their best ideas to improve their schools, districts, and communities. We must do more to invest in career ladder modules, and in communities where teachers have time to serve as mentors to colleagues or coaches to peers. These goals must be part of broader policy discussions.

We must also strive to create school communities that not only have diverse faculties, but also reflect in their student bodies a commitment to diversity. We should support locally-driven, voluntary efforts to achieve socioeconomic integration efforts in our schools. Whether it is a dual language elementary school, or a magnet arts program that serves a region and draws students from diverse neighborhoods, we should do more to implement smart strategies that achieve socioeconomic diversity in schools. We value that diversity, because that diversity can support academic achievement and because it is a helpful path to ensure the kind of resource equity that we need.

So let me close with this: when I think about possibilities in the profession, I think often about not only my experience in the classroom, but my experience as a principal in Boston—specifically Roxbury, a neighborhood that has many challenges, from poverty and violence. The students at the school that we started are virtually all African-American or Latino, and are largely all low income. Most of our students came to us two or three grade levels behind. Supported by the kind of collaborative educators that I described, and with the hard work of students and families, we saw great gains in achievement. Roxbury Prep became the highest performing urban public school in the state.

That is not actually what I am most proud of. I am most proud of when I think about the students who have now become a part of schools themselves. I think about the shy girl who hardly spoke a word in sixth grade, but who found her voice in seventh grade. She's now an administrator in a school. I think about the rambunctious boy who seemed always to be struggling with his commitment to his studies, who made his way through college in fits and starts. He's now working as a paraprofessional in a high school focused on supporting other young men, like himself, to make sure that they get a shot in life. I think about the student who started our math peer tutoring program because she was so inspired by her sixth grade math teacher. She went off to college, graduated, and came back to the school to teach sixth grade math.

I am inspired by their examples because they—like me—had the benefit of educational opportunities. They understood that their path to satisfaction in life could be found in giving back to others.

I'm also a proud dad to two wonderful daughters, who are nine and 12 years old. I think a lot about the profession, and about education, in the context of the world they will inherit.

I'm glad they are not facing some of the challenges that I faced growing up. But this week, as we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, I think of this quote—something he said to his children about education. It is a bit of a paraphrase, but he said: "You should never think of yourselves as better than the kids who didn't have the same opportunities that you did—the same educational opportunities that you did." In fact, he said to them—and I'm paraphrasing, "You will never be who you ought to be, until those other students have the opportunity to become who they ought to be." Dr. King was hitting on the notion that we are all bound up together—and that the fates of all our children across neighborhoods, across communities, and across states are intertwined.

The work we can do together to create opportunity for all students will determine not only the kind of economy we have, but also the kind of country we will be, and the kind of people we will be—whether we will become the nation we ought to be. I hope we can come together, and join in this work together. Education is the path to equality and opportunity that is at the heart of the American dream.

I look forward to our conversation, and I thank you again.