Beyond Bubble Tests and Bake Sales: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the 114th Annual National PTA Convention

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Beyond Bubble Tests and Bake Sales: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the 114th Annual National PTA Convention

June 11, 2010

Thank you. It's an honor to speak to the nation's oldest and largest volunteer child advocacy organization.

Ever since Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst founded what would become the PTA in 1897, the PTA has led the fight to improve the education and health of our nation's children. We take many of the PTA's successful campaigns for granted today, from installing sprinklers and fire alarms in schools, to mandatory immunization of children, to the creation of kindergarten classes and hot lunch programs.

Yet it is easy to forget how hard-fought many of those struggles were—and just how profoundly parental involvement has altered the landscape of public schools over the last century. When Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Heart first formed the National Congress of Mothers, they did so at a time when women could not vote and were not supposed to speak out about education. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the merger of the National PTA and the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers—a pointed reminder of the decades-long shame of segregated schools that echoes to this day in Memphis and elsewhere.

I want to suggest to you today that it is time for the PTA to take the lead again in preparing students to compete in the 21st century. President Obama has set an ambitious goal for the nation. He wants America to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. That goal is the North Star for all of our education efforts. To reach it, the college degree attainment rate must rise from 40 percent to 60 percent. President Obama and I are convinced we have to educate our way to a better economy.

We will not attain the 2020 goal by doing what we are doing now--only just a little bit better. Our educational system needs transformational change. To achieve that transformational change, parents and educators need to start thinking beyond the limited vision of student achievement and family engagement that have often defined education reform in the past.

It is time to think beyond assessing students with narrowly-focused bubble tests. It is time to think beyond the bake sale- barometer in promoting parental involvement. And it is time to think beyond the focus on math and English alone, and give every child a well-rounded education. We must stop narrowing the curriculum. Our children need—and deserve—so much more.

My hope is that PTAs around the nation can be leaders in pressing for higher standards, better assessments, for a richer vision of parental involvement, and for a well-rounded curriculum.

You have already begun to redefine the notion of family involvement by promoting the importance of fathers, grandfathers, and male mentors at school and at home. Chuck Saylors is the first male president in the history of the National PTA, and Byron Garrett, my good friend and your great CEO, is the first African-American male to run the national PTA. Please give them a round of applause.

Male membership in the PTA has increased five-fold in the last decade, from about two percent to 10 percent. That's still not as high as it should be—but you are moving fast, and in the right direction. I thank you for your commitment, and for your real progress.

It seems so obvious that fathers, grandfathers, and uncles, must be involved in their children's education and school--and not just as boosters at athletic events. Yet when the PTA conducted a survey to find out why fathers were not joining the PTA, they discovered the main reason was surprisingly simple: No one had ever asked the men to join.

Build it, and they will come; ask and you shall find—it's a disarming policy idea, but one that I think is often overlooked in discussions of education reform. I absolutely applaud your One Million Hours of Power campaign, which has set a goal of having 350,000 men volunteer three hours of service to America's children during the upcoming school year. I promise to do my part to help you reach that goal. And I am so glad to see that Tony Dungy, who has done an outstanding job of promoting responsible fatherhood for thousands of men, spoke with you earlier today. He is one of my heroes.

In America, the subject of parental involvement in school has, at times, frankly proved elusive. Just about everyone is in favor of parental involvement. But it has been harder to define what good parental involvement looks like--and policymakers have struggled to find and identify effective policy interventions to stimulate parental involvement.

Part of the explanation for that gap between rhetoric and reality is that there is no simple, single answer, no one-size-fits-all prescription for parental involvement and effective family engagement. What matters, first and foremost, is that parents engage in supporting their children's education, whether it is making sure they have a quiet place to study, organizing book drives, or making brownies for the bake sale. But I do want to encourage the PTA leaders gathered here today to think ambitiously about parental involvement. And I would urge you to think about how schools, districts, and the federal government can do a better job of supporting effective family engagement.

My vision for family engagement is ambitious. I want all parents to be real partners in education with their children's teachers, from cradle to career. In this partnership, students and parents should feel connected--and teachers should feel supported.

Parents can serve in at least one of three roles: Partners in learning, advocates and advisors who push for better schools, and decision-makers who choose the best educational options for their children.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by ambitious engagement. When parents demand change and better options for their children, they become the real accountability backstop for the educational system. Parents have more choices today than ever before, from virtual schools to charters to career academies. And our schools need empowered parents, although I know not all school administrators welcome that.

We need parents to speak out and drive change in chronically-underperforming schools where children receive an inferior education. With parental support, those struggling schools need to be turned around now because children get only one chance at an education.

Parent engagement is, of course, a two-way street. Parents sometimes disengage when schools fail to welcome their input. Too often, parents come in to school only when there is a problem—rather than touching base regularly to see how students are progressing.

A good parent and family engagement program removes the obstacles that parents face to getting involved--and it encourages them to be good role models for their children. In communities where adults need better literacy and language skills, more schools should be running family literacy programs where adult education classes take place afterhours--with transportation and child care provided so students can study at school, too.

There is no doubt that the nature of parental involvement in schools has changed since I was a kid. More parents today are single parents--and fewer families have stay-at-home moms. Parents are sometimes working two, even three, jobs to try to make ends meet, or desperately looking for a new job to support their family after getting laid off. It is tough out there today.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family with two well-educated parents who read to us each night. But not all parents grew up in middle class families where they acquired information along the way about how to support student learning.

That is why schools should be places that honor and respect families, that meet parents on their own terms—even if it means teachers giving out their cell phone numbers to field questions at night and calling back the single mom who missed her parent-teacher conference because she was at work.

Unfortunately, that mutual support and engagement is still missing from too many schools. As First Lady Michelle Obama told a National PTA conference in March about the problem of childhood obesity, "our kids didn't do this to themselves." She pointed out that "our kids don't decide what's served in the [school cafeteria]. They don't decide whether it's time for recess or gym."

Now, while it is hard sometimes to define effective parental involvement, my experience is that you know good parental engagement when you see it.

We are lucky to have an incredible PTA at my daughter and son's public, elementary school in Virginia. The PTA is just so imaginative. On Wednesday night, I was at the PTA's annual book swap/ice cream social. For several days beforehand, the children brought in books and got one ticket for each book they donated. At the book swap, the students pored through the collection of books, which had been sorted by type and reading level. Using their tickets, the students got, in effect, to "buy" a book with each ticket. It was a great way to kick off summer reading—plus I'll admit my children didn't mind slurping on an Italian ice.

Our PTA similarly jazzed up the annual auction by adding an innovative student raffle. The students got to buy raffle tickets in the morning before school, up to a maximum of five dollars. Those tickets went into a tin, and then each morning prize winners were drawn and announced on the morning announcement TV show. Some of the most coveted prizes were to spend extra time with teachers.

We were thrilled that our kindergartner, Ryan, won an after-school "jam session" with his music teacher. And we were secretly relieved he didn't win one of the prized homework passes. Last but not least, around Christmas time, the PTA collects wrapped presents for families at the school who are struggling, and quietly makes sure every child has a gift for the holidays.

Like many of you, I learned about the importance of school engagement firsthand from my parents. From the time we were born, my brother, sister, and I all went to my mother's after-school program every day in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago. When we were little, the older students tutored the younger kids. As we grew up, we tutored the younger students. Her philosophy was that everyone should be both teaching and being taught at the same time. Despite the challenges they faced growing up in a violent neighborhood, my fellow students in her tutoring program just wanted a chance to succeed.

To see the extraordinary potential that every child has, no matter where they come from—that is what I learned from my mother's work--and that is what continues to drive me today. The fight for a quality education is about so much more than education—it is a daily fight for social justice. We cannot let any child fall through the cracks, regardless of what is happening in their homes, regardless of the obstacles they face to becoming successful. Poverty is not destiny.

We have all heard the saying that parents are a child's first and most important teacher. It is true--parenting is the most important job that every parent takes on. No other activity in our lives carries the same degree of responsibility or influence.

But educating a child also takes caring and talented principals, teachers, and guidance counselors. It takes non-profits that provide opportunities for recreation. It takes government agencies that provide health care and counseling. It takes mentors from the community and the churches who teach children the virtues of art, science, community service, leadership, and self-discipline. And it takes high-quality after-school and early childhood programs.

We have a long way to go before all schools support student learning and healthy growth. Yet parents aren't off the hook here either in this partnership between schools and families.

President Obama often urges parents to turn off the TV and shut off the Xbox. But many parents think that warnings about the impact of heavy electronic media use really aren't for them but rather for other parents. I couldn't disagree more.

Earlier this year, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that showed the problem of heavy media use and lax supervision is far more pervasive than many people imagine. The study's findings almost defy belief: The average teen today is exposed to nearly 12 hours a day of media. The figure is even higher for Black and Hispanic teenagers--and includes almost six hours of television every single day. By contrast, teens spend about 25 minutes a day reading a book.

One of my predecessors, my good friend Richard Riley, once said that the "eight magic words [from children] that can solve all of our education problems are: 'Shut off the TV—I'm trying to read'." As you know, we don't often hear those magic words--and the days where families shared food and lessons learned at the dinner table are fading fast as well. Two out of three young people say they usually eat dinner with the television on during the meal.

Like the childhood obesity problem, children didn't just create this oversaturation of electronic media themselves. Only about a third of the parents in the Kaiser study reported setting any rules on how much time their adolescents can spend watching TV, playing video games, and using their computer.

Children can naturally rebel against the limits parents set--whether it's removing sweets from the dinner table or insisting that children finish their schoolwork before playing video games. But it's a time-honored fact that the job of parents is to parent—to lovingly give a child direction and to set reasonable limits. Too many adults are abdicating that responsibility.

Now, the promise of new media is still real, and potentially transformative. Children can play educational games, take online courses, research online, and watch educational TV programming. They can make connections online or through chat groups to explore interests and other cultures. They can learn to socialize, communicate, and write through social networking sites. But it is fair to say that the hopes of new media proponents have only been partly realized, and that heavy electronic media use often impedes student learning.

I'll admit I was not raised in the vanguard of the technological revolution—actually quite the opposite. My parents were a little crazy, and I grew up without a TV in the house. But I am not naïve. We are never going to put the electronic genie back in the bottle--nor should we try. Parents, though, can do a better job of setting limits on children's use of electronic media--and work toward using it more creatively to support student learning.

What is the role here of educators and government in supporting effective family engagement? Unfortunately, for most of the last half-century, the federal government has pursued a parade of parental involvement policies. At various times, Congress and the department have promoted parent advisory council meetings, volunteering in school, school-parent compacts, and helping children learn at home. Regrettably, these policies have rarely been shown to move the needle on student achievement. The truth is that our department has been too concerned with monitoring for compliance—and not concerned enough with improving student learning and boosting meaningful family engagement. Simply put, our department has been part of the problem.

I said earlier that I have an ambitious vision for parental involvement--and let me mention two critical examples where I think the PTA can help lead the way. As I traveled the country during the last 18 months and visited some 35 states, I heard two consistent concerns about public schools from parents and teachers. First, they feared that schools were "teaching to the test." And second, they worried that the curriculum was narrowing, as school districts placed too much emphasis on boosting test scores on fill-in-the-bubble tests in math and English.

The least-appreciated elements of President Obama's education reform agenda are his determination to address these two very problems: A narrowing of the curriculum, and an over-reliance on fill-in-the bubble tests.

There is no doubt that math and reading are vital core components of a good education in today's global economy. But the President and I reject the notion that arts, history, science, writing, foreign language, physical education, geography, and civics are ornamental offerings that can or should be cut from school when times are tough. In fact, in the information age, a well-rounded curriculum is not a luxury but a necessity.

We all know that the study of history and civics helps provide a sense of time beyond the here and now. The study of geography and culture helps build a sense of space and place. And the study of drama, dance, music, and visual arts helps students explore realities and ideas that cannot be summarized simply--or even expressed in words and numbers.

That complexity forces students to grapple with and resolve questions that do not have a single, correct, fill-in-the-bubble solution. And those higher-order skills help children build the ability to adapt and innovate. Only by moving beyond basic skills and bubble tests, can children develop the critical-thinking skills that will one day give them the ability to compete successfully in the global economy.

I applaud the National PTA for its recent exemplary work in supporting the Common Core standards, which were developed by the states. Clearer and higher standards for career- and college-readiness are absolutely vital to the future of the country--and our children.

For years, we have actually been lying to children and lying to ourselves by pretending that 50 different standards, in 50 different states, will make America competitive and help our children succeed in life. We have to stop pretending. We have to tell the truth. And we have to raise the bar for all children.

Today, here in Tennessee—or in my home state of Illinois, and in too many other states around the nation-- a student that is deemed to be at grade level might be far behind grade level in Massachusetts.

When you play basketball, the basket is always ten feet high. In football, the field is always 100 yards long. A 3-pointer is worth 3 points, and a touchdown is worth six points. Yet until now, we have resisted leveling the playing field in education. I'll put it plain and simple: When you tell students that they are ready for college and they are not, you are lying to children when they most need your candor and help. Thanks in part to the PTA's leadership and advocacy, we have 48 states working together on raising the bar, and seven states have already adopted these higher standards. This work, I'm convinced, is a game-changer.

Let me stress that our commitment to a well-rounded curriculum is not rhetorical. In fact, the administration has proposed to devote more than $1 billion to support a well-rounded education in high-need schools—including $265 million in grants to strengthen teaching and learning in the arts, foreign languages, history, civics, and financial literacy. Our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act allows states to include subjects other than math and English language arts in their accountability system because we want to encourage the teaching of a well-rounded curriculum. Student and school performance should never be assessed solely by test scores but by a range of indicators, such as graduation rates, attendance, matriculation to college, and other measures.

Unlike in the past, our ESEA proposal also emphasizes measuring student growth, not just absolute test scores. I'm much more interested in growth and gain than in absolute test scores. I want to know how much individual students, schools, districts, and even whole states are improving each year.

The administration has also set aside up to $350 million for a special Race to the Top assessment competition. That competition will support state-led consortia to build a new generation of better assessments—to test not just basic skills on bubble tests, but the higher-order skills that students need to survive and thrive in the 21st century. This has never been done before. And these assessments must give us objective, real-time data on student progress—not just end-of-year results.

Finally, our blueprint to reauthorize ESEA supports family engagement in a host of ways. We support programs that actually ask families how they feel about their child's school and educational experience—giving parents a real voice and opportunity to engage. We must do a much better job of listening to our children and to their parents. Their honest feedback will absolutely drive improvement.

The blueprint enhances information and transparency in school report cards about academic performance and school climate for parents. And it empowers families with additional high-quality school options.

As the PTA smartly recommended, our proposal allows family engagement to be included as one measure of success in teacher and principal evaluations. And we want to define professional development of teachers and school leaders to include working with families. These were great suggestions we got from you that were incorporated into our blueprint.

Finally, we're putting even more resources into family involvement because we need to do more--and do it better. Based on feedback we received about the blueprint, we have proposed to double funding for parent engagement-- from one to two percent of Title I dollars--or a total of $270 million.

At the same time, to drive innovation, we will allow states to use an additional one percent of Title I dollars—about $145 million—to support, incentivize, and help expand district-level programs that promote family engagement, empowerment, and responsibility.

We want districts to think big about family engagement--to propose new strategies and hone in on best practices that raise student achievement. And for programs and strategies that work, our proposal will allow states to support and disseminate best practices. We must take those best practices to scale.

Parent Information and Resource Centers, who are here today, can compete for these funds, along with districts, community-based organizations, and other non-profits. I commend the PTA's model partnerships with PIRCs. Those partnerships aim to leverage resources and the capacity to scale up research-based family engagement practices that improve outcomes for children.

The PTA-PIRC collaboration can help show both how to align PIRC and PTA family engagement work with emerging federal initiatives, and flesh out innovative ways to implement promising practices.

We don't have all the answers yet about how states, districts, and schools can effectively support family engagement. But with your courage, your commitment, and your capacity to support better family engagement, I believe we can make educational breakthroughs again, just like those the PTA helped achieve in the past.

The need today is urgent, the opportunity is great. So, together, let us ready the nation's students to flourish in the 21st century. We owe our children and our country the very best.