Asserting Your Right to a Great Education for Your Child

Archived Information

Asserting Your Right to a Great Education for Your Child

June 26, 2015

I. Intro

Thank you.

I’m so honored to be back with all of you—this remarkable group of mothers, fathers and educators, who, together, make up the oldest and largest child advocacy organization in America.  Just to be clear, none of you are old—it’s the organization that’s old!

Today, the PTA is stronger than ever, and, for that, I want to publicly thank your outgoing president, Otha Thornton, for his hard work, leadership, and committed service.

I also want to congratulate your new Executive Director, Nathan Monell and your incoming President Laura Bay. You’re in great hands with their leadership, and I want to do everything I can to be a good partner to them.

And lastly, I want to thank all of you.

As parents, we know that nothing in our lives matters more than the wellbeing of our children.

And as educators, we understand that our life’s work is to secure a better future for our nation’s students.

And by joining the PTA, you’re saying that it’s not just about the kids you see each day, but about all children in this country. 

In taking that step, your actions make a profound statement. We need more adults to care about, and invest in—every child.  As a nation, we cannot afford to lose any!

That’s why I was so encouraged to hear of yesterday’s commitment by the PTA, to engage more Hispanic parents in local change efforts.

This school year, our public schools are estimated to be majority-minority for the first time, and I appreciate the PTA’s efforts to reflect our nation’s diversity, including those who have been historically marginalized.

II. School Change is Hard – And It’s Impossible Without Parents

If ever there was a time when American public education needed the wisdom and advocacy of the PTA, it’s now.

The world is in the midst of a massive shift—from the predictability of the Industrial Age to the uncertainty of the Networked Age. And public schools—as always—are at the center of that change.

Yet, whatever the innovation may be, the fact is that large-scale change is hard—and it’s impossible without parent involvement.

Otha Thornton has noted that more than 40 years of research shows that “no matter a family's income or socioeconomic background, family engagement in education is essential for student success.”

My friend, Dr. Tony Bryk came to a similar conclusion. Beginning in 1990, Tony and his team conducted a 15-year study across hundreds of elementary schools in my home of Chicago, to try and distinguish why some were able to improve and others were not.

What he found was that five organizational features of a school, regardless of where it is or what type of children it serves, will determine whether or not learning can thrive:

  1. A clear vision for instruction;
  2. A staff with the capacity to see that vision through;
  3. A student-centered learning environment;
  4. Skilled leadership; and
  5. Active and engaged parents.

But it wasn’t about doing one or two of these things in isolation. It was about doing them all in tandem.  We know that is not easy, but we also know that is reality—the work is always hard, and multiple factors always contribute to success that is real and lasting.

In fact, schools that did all five well were 10 times more likely to improve than schools that didn’t. Tony put it this way: “School development is much like baking a cake.”

You need every ingredient.

Dr. Bryk also identified a “special sauce” that emerged whenever you mixed all five together—a deep wellspring of trust between parents and educators.

It’s hard to define, but it’s critical to get right. Because the road to better relationships—and deep trust—between parents and schools cannot be paved merely by good intentions or “random acts of engagement.”

In too many schools, the basic components of parent engagement are missing. And it’s a two-way street: lots of parents feel either unwelcome or unable to contribute meaningfully to the life of the school.

And, lots of educators do not see a clear path to integrating parents and families more fully into the learning process, and struggle to find parents to engage in the life of the school.

You are helping to change those dynamics, along with organizations like UNCF, the National Council of La Raza, America Achieves, and many others by giving parents tools and ensuring they know how to ask the right questions to demand the best outcomes for all children.

But, we all have so much more work to do, together, to ensure that every child has the education that is her civil right. 

Giving every child an equal opportunity to learn is the central challenge of our era, and will determine whether our nation grows stronger or struggles in years ahead.  

Like every other civil right, this one has not been freely given to everyone. It’s taken a fight—and it will continue to.

I want to describe a set of educational rights that I firmly believe must belong to every family in America—and I hope you’ll demand that your leaders in elected and appointed offices deliver on them. They come together as a set of rights that students must have at three pivotal stages of their life, to prepare them for success in college and careers and as engaged, productive citizens.

III. Three Rights (& Responsibilities) That Can Unite Us

First, every child should have the right to attend a free, high-quality preschool.

Research confirms what every parent knows: that the first five years of a child’s life matter greatly in determining what sort of adult he is likely to become.

So if we are serious about providing all our children with good choices in life, if we are serious about our nation’s economic strength, it’s this simple: We must get rid of the obsolete belief that a quality education begins at age five and ends at age eighteen.

That isn’t enough to equip our kids for success today.

That’s why President Obama and I believe we must expand access to high-quality early childhood education. And we’re seeing a totally different conversation in this country than we were even a few years ago. In more conservative states like Texas and Alabama, and liberal states like Minnesota, Governors are providing real leadership on this. 

But there are still too many people in positions of influence who say we can’t afford this sort of expense.

To which I say, “Really?”

To quote Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

But it’s not just smart policy—high-quality preschool is the right thing to do to make sure every child is set up for success in school.

We must come together as a nation—to do the right thing for our youngest children. And we must hold our elected officials accountable.

Second, I believe all children have the right to high, challenging standards and engaging teaching and leadership in a safe, supportive, well-resourced school.

The demands of the real world have changed.  It’s no longer just about what you know—it’s about what you can do with your knowledge. It’s about problem-solving and creativity and working together with others to forge new solutions to complex problems.

It’s about schools that ask themselves whether they’ve truly engaged students and equipped them with the wide range of skills—intellectual, and socio-emotional that will translate into success in life.  That’s what I see great teachers doing as I visit classrooms across the country.

The great news is that, in so many places, educators have put into place many of the building blocks for these changes.

And, amid these huge changes, students are making vital progress, thanks to the hard work of those educators, families, communities, and our students themselves.

Our high school graduation rate has never been higher, and the dropout rate has never been lower, with especially strong progress for students of color. And college enrollment by black and Latino students is up by more than a million since 2008.

But it’s not just about more kids graduating. It’s about more kids graduating ready for their future.

That’s why, when I think about the ideal classroom, I think about teachers who recognize that learning occurs when kids see their classes less as isolated subjects and more as opportunities for exploration, discovery, and mastery.

That can only happen with resources and support—and unfortunately, that’s going to take a fight.

On Capitol Hill, just in the past week, in both the House and Senate, Republicans are proposing to cut billions from the education budget, and to end some of the efforts that are having greatest impact.

That’s exactly the wrong choice for our children and for our country. We need to fight for the resources needed to do the most important job in America.  Education should never be about politics. We should all want the best for our kids.

We also need to fight for high expectations for all our students, so students—no matter where they live—know that if they work hard and get good grades in high school, they’ll be ready for the challenges of college and careers.

We can’t go back to a time when we gave students with disabilities or low-income students far easier tests to hide achievement gaps. We need to fight for better, fewer statewide assessments that measure students’ progress every year.

That helps educators and school systems improve instruction for kids, but it only works well if everyone participates. I know that there are parents who have real concerns about testing, but I urge them to participate and continue to use their voices to improve how assessment works for children, parents, and educators.

Last year, I told this group that I share the concern of many parents that standardized testing has come to have an outsized footprint in the lives of many schools and educators. One part of the solution is simply to reduce the duplicative and unnecessary assessments some states and districts have layered on over the years, which is why I’ve proposed capping—limiting—the total amount of instructional time that can be spent on preparing for and taking tests. 

Yet in all of this, we must not lose sight of the larger goal: to create and develop schools that help young people fall in love with learning and discover their unique skills, talents, and passion.

That’s why I believe we must continue to advocate for making learning more personalized, customized, and relevant for each individual child—and for ensuring that our teacher preparation and licensure programs are giving our teachers what they need to be successful in today’s classrooms.

To do that, we must stop tolerating our own stubborn insistence that schools today somehow continue to closely resemble the schools of our youth.

We have the right to expect something more transformative for our children going forward. But we also have the responsibility to give educators better support than they have had in a time of great change.

The education our kids need can’t start in kindergarten and can’t stop at high school. The world has changed—there aren’t great paths out there for kids with just a high school diploma and nothing else. And there’s nothing that matters more to us than our kids having a secure, stable future.  All parents want their child to have a better life, and more opportunity, than they had.

That’s why I believe we must see an affordable, high-quality college degree as every child’s right.

Our collective goal must be for every student to graduate from high school and obtain some form of postsecondary training or degree.

To try to help us get there, our administration has produced the largest investment in student aid for college since the G.I. Bill.

The number of Pell Grant recipients has increased by 50 percent since 2008.

And we have eased burdens on students by capping repayment of loans for all eligible students at 10 percent of their monthly income.

We cannot rest until every student in this country has a path toward a high-quality degree they can afford and, frankly, we are not close yet.

We must also ensure that our K-12 system is actually preparing young people for the academic rigor of college. Today, college remediation rates are staggering, costing students time, and parents and taxpayers money.  It is not fair to anyone.

Just as Tony Bryk’s research made clear, these seemingly separate stages of the educational journey are actually deeply interdependent.  Access to early childhood, academic rigor in K-12, and affordable higher ed—each opportunity builds on the one before it. 

IV. Conclusion

When it comes to actually making those things happen, few voices are as powerful as yours.  Politicians—way too often—get away with calling themselves “the education candidate,” without having to put action behind those words. No politician runs as an “anti-education candidate,” but do many actually create better opportunities for our children?  Far too many do not.  You must change that.

Ask every politician—across the political spectrum—at the local, state, and national levels, what’s your plan to improve outcomes for kids? What’s your plan to ensure that students not only go to college in increasing numbers, but also graduate—and do so without a burden of debt that will hinder their life choices?  What is their concrete goal for high school graduation rates, and how will they accomplish it?  Will they fund high-quality early childhood ed or won’t they?

Challenge the people who need your vote. Ask them to earn your vote by doing right by your children, and by every child in this country. Demand that they deliver on the rights of your family and every family.

Finally, as one of the people who tries every day to earn and maintain your trust, let me simply say: thank you. Thank you for serving as essential partners with your children’s teachers.

Thank you for working to ensure that students and parents feel connected—and teachers feel supported.  Thank you for building the trust that needs to live in every school.

And thank you for having me!  Let’s continue this discussion after today. Please join me on July 1st at 1:30 PM, for a follow-up conversation about the importance of parent engagement on Twitter.

You can join in using the hashtag “PTChat.”  I know we have time for just a few questions so let’s jump into today’s conversation.

Thank you!