Education and Destiny: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the 96th Annual Hampton University Ministers' Conference in Hampton, Virginia

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Education and Destiny: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the 96th Annual Hampton University Ministers' Conference in Hampton, Virginia

June 9, 2010

Good morning. It's a great honor to be here today among America's faith leaders. It's an even greater honor to follow in the shoes of heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke here in 1962.

Not a day goes by that I don't think of him, and draw inspiration from him.

His crusade for justice and equality is what education reform is all about. As President Obama has said, there is a reason why the story of the civil rights movement was written in the classroom.

It's because education must be the great equalizer. It's the one way the children of the rich, middle class and poor can meet on a level playing field and where talent, hard work and perseverance matter more than family connections and personal wealth. So thank you for this opportunity to be here today.

I have also had the privilege of knowing on a personal basis some of the other distinguished speakers who have shared this stage.

Reverend Jesse Jackson has been a good friend and a great partner in improving education in Chicago. More recently, Reverend Al Sharpton has joined with me to tour the country promoting education reform. His passion and commitment to education reform is inspiring.

And of course, President Barack Obama came here in 2007.

President Obama's thoughtful and compassionate leadership on issues from education and the economy to health care and global relations is renewing the American Promise to a nation beset by historic challenges and a changing world seeking courage, hope and inspiration.

These leaders -- and so many others -- have come here to pay tribute to the vital role America's faith community plays in shaping our society. You are the conscience of society -- the trumpets of conscience as Dr. King put it.

You hold us accountable to the core values of fairness, justice and truth at the heart of the American experience.

These values have sustained us through war, economic depression, and social upheaval.

They prompted our ancestors to set up schools like Hampton to serve young African American men and women who were denied access to the White schools.

The African-American church played a critical role in creating these schools, and we need you now more than ever before. Today, through the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges, which is led by Dr. John Wilson, we want to strengthen this historic partnership. We are investing heavily in HBCU's and providing more student grants and loans to pay for college. We ask that you join us in promoting a college-going culture in your communities.

These values of fairness, justice and truth also created the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education -- giving us the power and authority to drive equity in the classroom.

Equity is woven through our entire agenda from critical formula programs that serve low-income students to bold new grant programs that are driving state-level reforms.

This year we have also launched dozens of equity investigations around issues like school discipline, teacher quality and access to rigorous high school courses that prepare students for college.

When it seems like only black boys are being disciplined, or where disadvantaged children lack access to quality teachers and rigorous coursework – we have a moral obligation to challenge the status quo. These values drive our overall reform agenda which is focused on closing the achievement gap, getting great teachers and principals into schools serving low-income and minority students, and encouraging high standards that prepare all of our students for college and careers. We must stop dummying down standards – when districts and states do that and tell children they are or – that they are not – we are in effect, lying to children and families. We can't just speak truth to power – we in power must speak the truth.

Throughout our history these values of fairness, truth and justice have also inspired faith leaders to devote their energy and often their lives so we could enjoy the fruits of freedom.

We owe it to them to keep faith with these core values and to make them real for every new generation.

It is now our turn to lead. This is our moment to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

This is our chance to define a new destiny in a new century -- in a world where knowledge is the currency and global competition is the reality.

So -- will we rise to the challenge? Will we shape our destiny? Or will we stand aside and let others take the lead and shape our future?

President Obama's answer is straightforward and unequivocal. He insists that we continue to lead. He has challenged America to have the highest-percentage of college-educated workers by the end of this decade. It's an ambitious goal that will ask much more of everyone.

And we are not shy about asking. We ask parents to be more responsible for their children. Parents must turn off the TV at night, read to their children, stop calling their children bad or stupid or no good and partner with their children's teachers so that we are all working together.

We ask students to be more responsible for themselves and commit to working hard to get a great education. The President has said that if you drop out of high school. You are not just giving up on yourself, you are giving up your country. We ask educators to be more responsible for what happens inside the classroom. Everyday great teachers are transforming student's lives, helping students discover gifts and talents they didn't ever know they had inside them.

We ask community leaders like you to be more responsible for what happens outside the classroom. And across America, faith and community leaders have stepped up to meet this responsibility.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, an after school program funded by the Minnesota Council of Churches provides academic enrichment with a focus on African-American studies.

In Phoenix, Arizona, the Tanner AME church runs a non-profit organization to engage fathers, help ex-offenders get readjusted, and support early learning programs.

In Pomona California, the Primm Tabernacle AME is helping area students prepare for college entrance exams.

In Orlando, Florida, Churches are adopting neighborhood schools and needed services in the Sunday bulletin to encourage their members to volunteer.

In Zeeland, Michigan, a faith-based program called Kids Hope provides mentors to students in desperate need of meaningful adult relationships and positive role models.

In Harlem, the Abyssinian Baptist Church actually runs a school named for Thurgood Marshall that sends most of its students to college -- even as nearby high schools struggle to get even half of their students to finish high school.

There are countless other examples of faith leaders creating schools, programs and activities that are making a difference for children and I just want to thank you for that.

My personal views about education were also formed because of a generous pastor who allowed my mother to run a tutoring program for local children in his church basement or the South Side of Chicago.

In 1961, several years before I was born, a neighborhood pastor on the South Side of Chicago asked my mother to teach summer Bible study to a group of nine-year-old girls. The group had only one Bible, and my mother figured everyone could read a few sentences and then pass the Bible to the next girl. My mother was horrified when she discovered that not one of her students could read.

She decided to do something about that—and opened a free, after-school tutoring program in June of 1961.

From the time we were born, my brother, my sister, and I all went to my mother's after-school program every day. When we were little, the older students tutored the younger kids, and 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.

My mother was challenged early on, her program was fire bombed, her life was threatened. But, over time the community came not just to embrace her, but to protect her. And forty-nine years later, she is still going strong.

From the corner of 46th and Greenwood, some remarkable success stories emerged. The teenager who tutored my group when we were growing up, Kerrie Holley, today is an IBM engineer who was named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the nation. Another student became a brain surgeon. Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood, where he starred in "The Green Mile." Ron Raglin eventually helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools.

In those church basements I learned that a high-quality tutoring program can be a good thing. But a high-quality tutoring program run by caring adults is a great thing. It can literally help transform lives.

That experience has stayed with me my whole life and whenever I hear people say that poor children can't learn -- I just tell them my mother's story.

And I tell them about schools like Urban Prep in Chicago -- which is an all male, all Black school we opened four years ago in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city.

Urban Prep replaced a public high school where only four percent of incoming freshmen were at grade level and more than half the students were dropping out. Today, as Urban Prep graduates its first class of seniors, all of its young men are headed to a 4-year college. Same children, same families, same school building, same violence in the community -- but dramatically different outcomes.

And the question is -- how can we make Urban Prep the norm -- instead of the exception? How can we make every school a place where expectations are high and learning is valued? How do we get the nation to understand that is it opportunity, not poverty, that shapes children's destiny? When will we stop making excuses for poor performance, both for adults and for children?

Two days ago, I joined the President at a high school commencement in Kalamazoo, Michigan where most of the students are going to college.

This school had struggled for years with racial tension and low student achievement but the community came together and -- thanks to generous donors -- they made a promise: every student who achieved a decent grade would get a scholarship to college.

This is just one of a thousand high schools around the country that competed for the President to come speak at their graduation.

He chose them not because they were the highest achievers -- but because they were working so hard and making such big gains against the odds. What we saw was inspiring – a culture of high expectations, a doubling of students taking Advanced Placement classes and students both celebrating their diversity and supporting one another as they pursue their college dreams.

And that is the philosophy at the heart of our efforts to reform public education.

We know that children do not all start from the same place. We know that children from poor communities face greater challenges and often have fewer resources.

And we know that literally tens of thousands of teachers are doing a great job with students who are years behind -- and helping them catch up -- but the current system doesn't recognize or reward or learn from that teacher. I believe that great teachers are the unsung heroes in our society. We must do better for them, we must do better for our children, and we must do better for our country.

It starts by telling the truth and not lying to them and lying to ourselves by pretending that 50 different standards across 50 different states are going to make America competitive or help our children succeed in life.

Instead, today we only track whether a student has met an arbitrary standard -- which is different in every state. Here in Virginia -- we say that a student is at grade level -- but that same student might be far behind in Massachusetts. Anywhere you play basketball, the basket is hung 10 feet high, and in football the field is always 100 yards long. A 3-pointer is always worth three points and a touchdown is always worth six. Until now, why have we resisted leveling the playing field in education?

We are lying to children -- telling them they are ready for college -- when they aren't.

That's why so many of our young people need remedial education when they get to college. And that's why so many of them drop out.

We are lying to them and lying to ourselves by pretending that 50 different standards across 50 different states are going to make America competitive.

We know those who are hurt the most are poor kids in inner-city and rural schools who are more likely to attend a school with low expectations.

Thankfully, our nation's governors and chief state school officers are working together to solve this problem by developing common standards that raise the bar are designed to prepare every student for college and careers. They were released last week and 5 states have already thrown out the old and adopted them.

This is not a federal mandate. This is driven by states at the local level -- as it should be and we are absolutely supportive of this process. If states don't want to adopt them they can create their own -- but they have to be rigorous and prepare students for college and careers. No more lying to students and parents.

And once states have meaningful standards and better assessments in place, we can do a much better job tracking how students are learning each year.

Are the ones behind catching up? Are the advanced students being challenged or are they bored in class and tuning out? And are we closing the achievement gap?

Year after year -- children of color and children of poverty trail behind white, middle class students -- in terms of test scores, high school graduation rates and college completion rates.

But if you look at each school and each child -- you will see isolated pockets of remarkable success -- schools that have closed the gap and teachers that have closed the gap. For all the challenges we face, I am actually incredibly optimistic – we have never had so many gap-closing schools across the country.

And as we identify them and learn from them -- we can eliminate America's achievement gap.

To do that, however, we must recognize and reward the schools that show the largest growth and the teachers making the largest gains. We can honor them, reward them or just give them more resources to replicate their success. That's a local decision.

At the same time, the schools at the bottom -- that continue to fail year after year – schools where as little as 10% of students are at grade level or less than half graduate high school -- will get the resources they need to get better -- but only if they are willing to change.

It makes no sense to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

Schools must be willing to change -- and do the kind of things they did at Urban Prep -- like lengthen the school day, provide tutoring, mentoring and be available after school to help students.

At Urban Prep, they started talk about college the first day they show up as freshman. But the time they are seniors -- they have their list -- they have visited schools -- they know what they want and they go after it with everything they have.

If having the students dress in a tie and jacket helps to change the culture, schools should do it.

If getting parents to sign a contract to get their child to school on time every day, schools should do it. We must stop making excuses for failure. And this is where I need your help.

Communities need to be willing to demand and support this change. Turning around a struggling school is hard, hard work. How best to do this must be determined at the local level.

It may mean making difficult decisions around staffing. When tough decisions are being made about the future of a school that has not provided its children the education they desperately need and deserve – you must demand real change -- and stand with school leaders, support them.

And then you can hold them accountable for results.

Today, our nation's drop-out rate is 27%. One point two million students leave our schools for the streets each year. What chance in life do you have today without a high school diploma? We have 2000 high schools- dropout factories- that produce over half our nation's dropouts, almost 75% from the minority community, our African American and Latino young men and women. This is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable.

Right now, our administration is distributing $4 billion dollars to states all across America to turn around our lowest performing schools. Many of those schools are in inner-city communities.

We're offering up to $6 million dollars per school over three years -- which is a lot of money -- over and above what they normally receive. Our resources will help, but what is most lacking now is the courage to change and the clear vision of what's possible.

The local leadership can choose from several different approaches to transition student achievement. Some require staffing changes and some don't.

Most require more training, a better curriculum, and more learning time.

You can also turn over the school to a private operator like a charter school and I want to take a minute to talk about charters because a lot of people are confused.

As many of you know -- since some of you have your own schools -- charter schools are public schools.

They serve our children with our money. They are accountable to us -- just like regular public schools.

One big difference is that they have more autonomy. In many cases they hire non-union teachers -- but not always. One of the best charter operators in the country is Green Dot in Los Angeles and they use union teachers. People forget that the charter school movement began with Albert Schanker, the legendary leader of the American Federation of Teachers.

Like Urban Prep in Chicago -- they tend to have a longer school day and a longer school year. Many of them are open on Saturdays.

They are not always successful -- but in some cases they are performing miracles and they overwhelmingly serve minority children in the inner-city.

The best of them -- like the schools in the Harlem Children's Zone led by Geoffrey Canada -- also provide social services and include parenting classes for young moms. They give parents books to read to their children. And they stay with them every step of the way, from Baby College to real college.

I urge you to visit these schools and see what they are doing but let me absolutely clear about this:

I'm not advocating for charter schools. I only want good schools. I don't care if they are charter schools or traditional public schools. We need both. We desperately need high-performing schools, the vast majority of our children will always be education in traditional public schools.

I only want success -- especially for historically underserved low-income and minority students -- and that's what the president wants.

If we want our children to compete in the global economy, we cannot tolerate failure any longer. We must demand excellence and devote ourselves wholeheartedly to this cause.

I need you to tell the parents in your community that they have a responsibility -- not just to their children but to their country -- to get involved. Tell them to go to school with their children every morning. Tell them to sit down with homework every night. Tell them to stop in at school every week and meet with their teachers.

Tell them that the teachers need their help and want their help and partnership. If they don't value education they cannot expect their children to value it.

Street gangs and drug-dealers figured out a longtime ago that their future members and customers file out of schools every afternoon -- and they are sitting right there waiting for them day after day, after day.

That's where the community needs to be -- standing outside school every afternoon -- waiting for their children to emerge so they can take their hand, walk them home or take them to a community center or church basement for a tutoring session, arts, sports or mentoring program.

I know what's possible when a community comes together and demands educational excellence and holds itself accountable. I know what's possible when the strongest voices in the community unite for children.

I'm here today to ask you -- in your role as community leaders, and as historic change agents -- to join me in shaping our destiny -- by meeting the President's challenge and making educational equity and excellence -- not just a goal -- but a slow movement.

I'm here to ask that you be the voices of reform in your communities. You are the trumpets of conscience that Dr. King called for.

When you see your children being cheated of a quality education, demand excellence -- demand more -- and demand equality in education.

This fight for education reform will be won school-by-school, and community-by-community. But it will only be won if community leaders are demanding it and defending it.

This is about so much more than education. This is about social justice. The fight for quality educatin is a fight for social justice. No other issue offers the same promise of equality as education.

No other issue can end the cycle of poverty -- of teenage pregnancy -- the prison pipeline -- and all of the social sicknesses plaguing our communities.

There are more than 90 million adults in America with basic or below-basic literacy skills.

They could be ex-offenders, immigrants, teenage moms or former factory workers who have lost their jobs. They may be members of your church. Lead them back to school.

One-point two million children drop out of high school each year and they hit the street corners. Go out and find them and lead them back to school.

Go to those young mothers in your community and explain to them that learning starts at birth -- not first grade. Give them a book, teach them to teach their kids to love learning. And lead them back to school.

And then together we'll lead them on to college and to success.

In Chicago we had a slogan -- every child, every school. Every child matters. Every school can succeed. Every community can win -- but only if all of us take direct and personal responsibility for shaping our children's destiny.

Education is not just a moral obligation. It's an economic imperative. We not only should improve education. We must improve education. We don't have a choice.

In 1966, Martin Luther King went to the West side. His visit, and the protests he launched, helped to push the government to channel billions of dollars into communities for everything from job training, to housing, to drug rehab and health care.

But when I became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools 35 years later, 95% of children in North Lawndale schools lived below the poverty line.

Why was that? Because the one thing that didn't change is the most important anti-poverty measure of all—and that is the quality of education that our children receive. Martin Luther King is my hero—and no one did more to advance the cause of social justice. But as we continue King's battle to realize equal opportunity, let us add to that legacy by living up to our national creed. Let us finally make education the great equalizer in America.

Thank you and God bless.