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A Well-Rounded Curriculum in the Age of Accountability

Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at National Council for Social Studies Annual Conference

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


Good morning and thank you for having me here today.

I'm fortunate to have several social studies teachers on my staff. One is a former history teacher from Chicago and I also have a current history teacher from New Mexico who is part of our fantastic Teaching Ambassador Program. She is spending a year out of the classroom—and working with us to help shape our policy issues and on outreach with teachers.

Now I'm not going to kid you. They both warned me about Social Studies teachers. They said—with considerable pride—that social studies teachers are quite often the troublemakers in their schools—challenging authority—questioning everything—and gleefully poking holes in arguments.

But they also pointed out that if it wasn't for troublemakers—America would still be an English colony.

And if it wasn't for troublemakers—slavery might still exist—and women wouldn't be allowed to vote—and students with disabilities wouldn't get the extra support they need—and returning veterans and low-income students wouldn't get help to go to college.

If it wasn't for troublemakers, so many examples of social progress might not have happened—so I would like to begin by saluting America's social studies teachers and to thank you for all the trouble you have caused. Please give yourselves a big hand.

And given who you are—I fully expect some probing questions about our policies. I look forward to your questions.

In my remarks, I want to raise a fundamental question for you to think about today. I want to offer one answer—and then I want to hear your thoughts. The question is this:

How can we promote both a well-rounded education with rich offerings across all subjects—civics, geography, economics and history, the arts, foreign languages, physical education, the sciences etc.—and simultaneously create a system of real and meaningful accountability that doesn't lead to narrowing of the curriculum?

Going a little deeper—how can we build an accountability system that helps all teachers shape and improve instruction and strengthens the teaching profession by providing the kind of real-time feedback that students, teachers and administrators need and value? How can we do this in grades and subjects where there are no good assessments?

How do we measure student performance in subjects like history and art and how do we relate that to a school system's overall performance across a variety of other indicators—like attendance, graduation and college enrollment rates?

Teachers I talk with all across the country—whether they are art educators, physical education instructors or social studies teachers—insist that their work directly contributes to success across every measure—including test scores—and I absolutely agree.

It's both common sense and confirmed by research—that a strong social studies program will help boost reading performance—and that the numerical aspects of music contribute to a better understanding of math.

It is not surprising that success in one subject often breeds success in others. And it's beyond debate that engaging students in subjects and activities that they like will help them get through the ones they don't like quite as much.

And yet—over and over again, I hear people saying that a well-rounded education and a good system of accountability are mutually exclusive. They say that test-based accountability is driving real learning out of the classroom.

They cite examples of schools that have steadily reduced the amount of time students spend studying non-tested subjects. They talk about the pressure to boost test scores.

They lament No Child Left Behind's performance targets that label more and more schools as "failing"—triggering prescriptive federal mandates that eat up resources and divert schools from their core mission.

Add with budget pressures facing states and local districts today, and it's clear that something has to give. All too often that something is history, foreign languages, the arts or physical education—important subjects that contribute to a well-rounded education.

According to a recent report from the Fordham Institute, social studies now accounts for less than eight percent of instructional time. Federal data shows that by 2003, elementary school students got four weeks less of social studies instruction a year than in 1987. None of this is good for children.

Recent NAEP history results show modest gains in 4th and 8th grade history, but no gains for 12th graders. Less than half of them scored at NAEP's basic level in history.

And we know those ill-informed high school seniors soon become ill-informed citizens. Today, less than half of Americans can name all three branches of government.

Some educators in non-tested subjects like history have actually called for more tests—believing that if their subject is built into the accountability system—it will be valued and strengthened. They say—what's tested is taught and we treasure only what we measure.

Testing advocates are often outshouted, however, by those who view testing as the problem. They say that testing—especially fill-in-the-bubble, high-stakes standardized testing—is a flawed tool for evaluating students—let alone teachers.

Now it is absolutely true that many of today's tests are flawed. They don't measure critical thinking across a range of content areas. They are not always aligned to college and career-ready standards. They don't always accurately measure individual student growth.

And they certainly don't measure qualities of great teaching that we know make a difference—things like classroom management, teamwork, collaboration, individualized instruction and the essential and remarkable ability to inspire a love of learning.

So we can all agree that testing—as it is done today in many places—is not working as well as it should for students and teachers. Inevitably, this conclusion leads some people to call for retreat from test-based accountability.

All of you entered this profession to make a positive difference in the lives of children. You work long hours, nights, weekends and over the summer months to prepare your lesson plans. I respectfully ask you to resist this call to retreat from accountability.

As historians, you remember how we got here. You understand that we reached this point in American education after decades of extreme educational inequity, segregation and injustice.

Go back to Brown vs. Board in 1954—the Coleman report in 1966—and A Nation at Risk in 1983. Think about the current state of education—where a quarter of our children fail to finish high school on time and barely four in 10 earn any type of post-secondary degree and for children of color, outcomes are even worse.

The need for a useful, fair and rigorous system of accountability remains as urgent today as it ever was. Our children deserve it, the public demands it, and our system desperately needs it. American education cannot move forward without a system for knowing where we are succeeding, where we are improving, and where we are struggling.

For too long, we swept performance issues under the rug. We celebrated our success and hid from failure. Let's face it—American has been talking about the achievement gap for decades, but we weren't systematically tracking it until No Child Left Behind.

There are many, many problems with that law—but transparency around achievement gaps is not one of them. NCLB has forced a lot of painful but necessary conversations around achievement gaps and I believe we are stronger because of it.

NCLB falls far too short however, in how it holds states, districts and schools accountable. Rather than demanding college and career-ready standards for all, it perversely encouraged states to lower the bar and lie to children and parents about the quality of education they were providing.

Instead of measuring individual student growth and gain, which recognizes that children bring different abilities, challenges and backgrounds into the classroom, NCLB measures proficiency, which doesn't tell us who is learning well—and who is teaching well.

And rather than giving teachers, principals and administrators the flexibility to address educational shortcomings, NCLB prescribes top-down specific remedies and sets rigid timelines for intervening in underperforming schools.

Now—we're trying to fix it—through our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—but so far Congress has not acted. And given that we're four years overdue, the President directed us to use our waiver authority to offer states flexibility from NCLB. At least 40 states are pursuing our waiver package. To receive a waiver, states must do three basic things:

First, they have to adopt and implement college and career-ready standards. They don't need to be Common Core standards. They can be unique to each state. But they have to be college and career-ready—affirmed by their state universities. No more dummying down standards, no more lying to children and parents.

Three years ago, none of the so-called experts predicted it, but amazingly, 46 states have already voluntarily adopted college and career-ready standards—so the vast majority of states are well on the path to meeting this requirement.

Second, states must create their own systems of accountability that differentiate between schools at the top, schools at the bottom, schools with large achievement gaps, and schools in the middle.

Current law makes no distinction between a high-performing school with one under-achieving subgroup and a low-performing school where every subgroup is struggling.

Current law does not look at growth and gain and progress across multiple areas of performance.

Common sense tells you that the improvement plan for one school will not be the same for all schools. And yet federal law dictates the same solution for every school that fails to meet any of its performance targets. We want to give states much more flexibility to intervene as they see appropriate for the vast majority of schools and to reward excellence and improvement in ways that don't exist under NCLB.

We also encourage states to decide on their own if they want to include other subjects in their accountability systems—so those of you who want to see social studies become part of your state's accountability system—you can see that happen.

New York, for example is developing a middle school history assessment. Delaware is developing history assessments. Washington State is looking at a project-based assessment. Other states are drawing on readily available assessments.

At the same time, 49 states and D.C.—every state except Rhode Island—have developed history or social studies standards of their own. Unfortunately, according to some independent analysts, not all of these state history standards are rigorous.

A recent review of state standards by the Southern Poverty Law Center gave 35 states a grade of F for their standards around one of the most important chapters in American history—the civil rights movement. And today, sixteen states currently do not require any instruction about the civil rights movement. That is simply unacceptable.

The National Academy of Sciences also has a new report suggesting that high school social studies standards are not challenging enough.

But there are also real signs of progress. Today, 15 social studies professional organizations and 21 states are working together to develop new social studies standards, assessments and learning resources. They are scheduled for public comment this summer so that is very promising.

Yet even state standards that set a high bar can fail to guarantee that student learning in social studies will improve in the absence of meaningful accountability.

Today, just thirteen states include history or social studies as part of a high school exit exam, according to the Fordham Institute.

And just eight states are assessing, or plan to assess, social studies or history performance in both elementary school and high school.

Now—I want to re-emphasize that these are local decisions. They are not mandates from Washington. We should watch closely as states develop new accountability systems. We have to get better at this—and there is no single formula for success.

Our hope is that states and districts develop thoughtful metrics that work for teachers like you—portfolios, essays or oral exams—which reflect the critical thinking skills you are teaching your students.

I am also especially encouraged by increasing enrollment in advanced placement classes as one indicator of high school rigor. If you're preparing students for college-level work—and they are passing those exams—then you must be doing something really important—and you should be recognized and rewarded for it. AP success helps so many high school students, particularly first-generation college goers, truly believe that they can make it at the next level.

It strikes me that including AP social studies participation and passing rates in an accountability system directly promotes a well-rounded curriculum.

The last thing we ask of states seeking waivers is to develop a system of principal and teacher support and evaluation based on multiple measures—including student growth.

I really want this to sink in because—no matter how many times we say multiple measures—people say we're just about test scores. Nothing could be further from the truth.

By "multiple measures" we mean that student achievement is just one of several factors in a system of principal and teacher evaluation—a policy, by the way, that is supported by both national teacher unions.

Our policy says that some measure of student growth and gain should be a "significant" factor but we intentionally leave that undefined—because different states will have different approaches—and different confidence levels in their assessments.

Just to be 100 percent clear—evaluation should never be based only on test scores. That would be ridiculous. It should also include factors like principal observation or peer review, student work, parent feedback. It should be designed locally—and teachers should be at the table to help design it.

But I think it defies logic to suggest that a system of supporting and evaluating principals and teachers should not include any objective measures of student achievement and progress.

It must be a factor—weighed carefully with other factors—and principals and instructional leaders should be trained to support and evaluate their teachers based on these multiple measures.

Again, for social studies teachers, this requires valid measures of student learning. There is promising work under way and over time, I am confident that there will be many good models to choose from.

Now—in exchange for adopting these reforms—states that receive waivers will no longer have to meet the 2014 deadline that requires everyone to be 100 percent proficient. They set their own performance targets that are much more logical.

We also eliminate the mandated interventions for all but the very lowest-performing schools. We also eliminate the requirement to spend 20 percent of Title I dollars on choice or tutoring and let local educators decide how to spend that money. In tough budget times, without much new money, that frees up $1 billion dollars to be spent more wisely at the school and district level. And we eliminate the teacher quality provisions that focus on certification rather than effectiveness.

It is our hope and expectation that many states will move in this direction. So far 11 states have formally sought waivers and at least 28 others have signaled intention to seek them.

We also hope that when Congress finally gets past its dysfunction and finally gets around to fixing the law—that it will build upon some of these policies like college and career-ready standards—an accountability system that differentiates and rewards success—more flexibility with federal funds—and a system of principal and teacher support and evaluation based on multiple measures and student growth.

With this kind of a law in place and a narrow, more focused federal role built around supporting and replicating good work at the state and local level, I am confident that America will not have to choose between accountability and a well-rounded curriculum.

I know we can have both because you see it in our best schools and districts. Good school leaders know that the way to boost student achievement is not to eliminate history or the arts—but to expand these important subjects that engage their students.

Today, the Clayton County School District in Georgia is winning awards for its social studies programs.

In Clovis, California, they are integrating history content and standards into the English curriculum and results are so promising that they have been asked to present their curriculum to schools across California.

At Cleveland Middle School in Bledsoe, Tennessee the students are learning literacy by reading historical primary source documents. In La Joya, Texas, new immigrants use history content to overcome learning disabilities and acquire literacy skills.

The Locke Charter School in Chicago—which is entirely low-income, minority students—has a robust world studies program that is helping close the gap.

Finally in Dunbar, West Virginia, history and the arts are both integrated into the reading and language program—simultaneously strengthening skills in three content areas.

There are many, many success stories and we need more schools building on these models—integrating social studies into the curriculum and the accountability system—so that it accurately reflects your impact in the classroom. And you need to design it and implement it.

Today, you have a chance to help shape policy in ways that were unimaginable until recently. You have a golden opportunity right now as states seek waivers. We required states to seek your input—so I encourage all of you to get in touch with your inner troublemaker and let your states know how you want your schools, your students and yourselves to be assessed.

I'm asking you to do this first because I respect your work and I respect your field. But I'm also asking you to do this because something much bigger is at stake—and that is America's role as the world's strongest economy and the world's greatest democracy.

All of you know we can no longer take either for granted. Global leadership in on both fronts—in terms of economics and democracy—must be earned—and re-earned every year. We earn it in many different ways. We earn it by defending the basic human rights of others—often at the cost of American lives.

We earn it by challenging our trading partners and allies to abide by rules for treating workers with fairness and respect and for treating natural resources with awe and dignity.

We earn our status as global leaders by holding ourselves to a high standard of tolerance—embracing the poor from across the world as they arrive in America with nothing but courage and dreams of a better life for their children through education and hard work.

We earn it by making real the timeless words of equality and freedom in our founding documents—and by pursuing those ideals of truth and justice at the heart of the American experiment.

And ultimately we earn it—everyday in our classrooms—in your classrooms—by teaching our children that the unique American experiment will only endure if we recommit ourselves to the spirit of shared sacrifice and shared responsibility that produced America's shared prosperity.

I know that we can't easily measure civic consciousness or test it or boil it down to a number on a spreadsheet. But we value it and honor it because it is central to our identity as Americans.

More than any other subject, social studies teaches us what it means to be an American citizen—what it means to be part of this grand experiment. It forces us to think critically of ourselves in pursuit of the more perfect union our founders envisioned.

John Dewey said: "Democracy needs to be born anew every generation, and education is the midwife." It is no exaggeration to say that the future of this fragile but essential thing called democracy rests in no small part on those who teach it, explain it—and yes—sometimes even question it.

And so today, I salute you for your critically important work. And on behalf of your fellow Americans who rely on you to secure the foundations of a great democracy—child by child—day in and day out, I thank you for the remarkable difference you are making in the lives of your students.

Thank you for having me this morning and I'm happy to take your questions.


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