Excerpts from Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s prepared remarks at the Learning Forward conference today, Dec. 8

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Excerpts from Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s prepared remarks at the Learning Forward conference today, Dec. 8

December 8, 2015

What does this new law mean for your classrooms, schools and districts?

There’s lot to be figured out as the nation moves to implement this new law. But here’s what I can tell you today:

This new law will mean that you can continue challenging your kids to live up to new, higher standards that you have been working so hard to implement. Congress re-committed us as a nation to the work you’ve been doing to raise standards.

You will still measure students’ progress every year, typically with new and much better tests that offer actionable information about students’ learning – and still have information about how each group of students is progressing. Also encouraging states to cut back on excessive testing, so you don’t waste precious hours on tests that don’t contribute to real learning. There’s some money in the bill to help states to do that and that’s good news.

The action from Congress will increase investments in preschool, so that it’s more likely that the kids you teach are better prepared for school.

This bill says what we all know to be true: you can’t have a great school without great teachers and principals. Through this bill, districts can access federal dollars to invest in school leaders, and develop teacher leaders through mentorship, hybrid roles and professional development. And it ensures that there will be plans to put strong teachers in schools where they’re needed most.

It also commits to wraparound services and place-based interventions like Promise Neighborhoods, so you’re more likely to teach in a school where students are safe, healthy and ready to learn. And, building on the success of the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, there will continue to be innovation funding so educators like you translate your ideas into approaches that serve many more students throughout the country.

Whereas No Child Left Behind prescribed a top-down, one-size fits all approach to struggling schools, this law offers the flexibility to find the best local solutions—while also ensuring that students are making progress. That means states are required to identify and intervene in schools where we don’t see the results we need, schools where an unacceptable number of students don’t graduate, or schools where huge disparities remain. Wherever those inequities persist, the federal law demands that we see real action. It requires that local leaders act to transform the odds for students in their schools.

When those key decisions are made, states will rely on multiple measures of success—because as I have always said, no school and no educator should ever be judged by one test score alone. There are many ways to measure College and Career Readiness, and states have been leading important work to do that through ESEA flexibility.


When I came to Washington, I had been leading Chicago Public Schools for seven years. It was clear to me then—and I’m sure it was to many of you—that No Child Left Behind was well past its expiration date. In Chicago, we actually fought with the U.S. Department of Education over whether we could offer tutoring programs to our kids. That was exactly the opposite of what our schools needed – which was high goals and flexibility in meeting them. Instead, No Child Left Behind – despite good intentions, and despite some good things it did – ultimately hamstrung good and creative educators.

Through years of inaction from Congress, we provided states with relief from the most burdensome parts of the law. But what we always wanted, and pushed for, was a high-quality law that serves students well. And I’m proud that we’ve arrived there. This law is a good thing for our nation and a good thing for kids.

There are some people in Washington who want to make this bill about federal authority—or even about my own power as Secretary. I want to be clear about why that fundamentally misses the point.

For me, and for my colleagues at the Department, our role has never for one minute been about our authority, or taking power from local leaders. It’s always been about what was expected of our kids, what quality of education we’d offer them, and whether there would be change if they weren’t making progress. It wasn’t about what power I had. It was about what kind of opportunity Brandon, Russhaun, Federico Christina and Star have. Throughout our nation’s history, the federal government has played an important role in protecting their civil rights. And despite the rhetoric, the law that the House passed last week, and that the Senate is considering today allows us to continue to play that critical role in the lives of students across the country. Moreover, this law locks in much of the vision we have been developing with states and local educators for the last seven years.

Almost a year ago, I gave a speech at Seaton Elementary School here in D.C., where I laid out a vision for the next ESEA—a vision supported by some of the foremost civil rights leaders, educators, and political leaders in the country.

In that speech, I said America’s families deserve:

  • A law that would continue to hold all students to high standards, that genuinely prepared students for college and career, regardless of where they lived.
  • A law that would expect action when groups of students fell behind, whether they were from low-income areas, students of color, those with disabilities, those learning English, and others who have been marginalized, underserved, and undereducated in the past.
  • A law that would catalyze new ideas and innovations developed by local educators, and make a priority of preparing and supporting great educators like you.
  • A law that would ensure families and educators have valuable information about students’ progress, and also cut back on excessive testing.
  • And I called for expanding preschool opportunity so more kids would arrive in school ready to learn.

That’s what the House voted for last week. That’s what the Senate is voting on today.

This bill builds on our Administration’s vision for education, and the fact is, this new agreement actually embodies and codifies much of it. Let’s talk about 4 key ideas:

  • College- and career-ready standards
  • Focused support and attention for the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools
  • Expanding preschool opportunity
  • Support for local innovation and investing in what works

None of those existed in previous versions of ESEA. They’re ideas that this Administration put forward, and they’re in this bill. They’re here to stay.

Incredibly, this is a stronger bill than either the House or the Senate versions – it actually got stronger through bipartisan cooperation when the two bills were blended in a conference committee. I know this is inside baseball, but let me be clear: that pretty much never happens.

And it’s a bill that embodies much of the idea of clear goals and flexibility on means that I wish I’d had when I was running the Chicago public schools.

I’m not saying this is the bill I’d have written myself. No compromise ever is. But fundamentally, the idea of America as a country that expects more of our kids, and holds ourselves responsible for their progress – that vision is alive and well. And it’s a vision proven by the hard work of educators like you.