Education Research: Charting the Course for Reform — Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Institutes for Education Research Conference

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Education Research: Charting the Course for Reform — Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Institutes for Education Research Conference

June 29, 2010

Thank you, John.

John and I had a wonderful partnership in Chicago. The research he and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research produced was like a compass for those of us who were working so hard to reform the schools there. Wherever possible, our key decisions were driven by data and scrutinized very closely. To be honest, I did not always look forward to John's reports because they were so rigorous—but I always took them very seriously.

Many of our reforms were the direct result of work done by John and his colleagues. Whatever we did, we turned to John and his team to evaluate it. We couldn't have made so much progress in Chicago without our strong partnership with the research community.

I'm glad to know that work is continuing. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Consortium released a report that found Chicago is taking significant steps toward improving teacher evaluations. That's a critical issue for all districts right now. I hope the consortium's report will inform the work of schools in Chicago and across the country.

John has brought to IES that same commitment to independence and integrity—and I'm deeply grateful for that. He is building the bridge between research, policy and practice—and I want to encourage all of you to establish similar partnerships with policymakers and practitioners in your states and communities.

Research is the compass for education reform—guiding us forward and showing us when we're headed in the right direction—when we need midcourse corrections—and when we are just plain wrong.

In the world of education, many people make decisions based on impressions—and I don't discount the capacity of a seasoned educator to know what is and is not working—based on observation, instinct and experience.

Good teachers can look in the eyes off a student and know if the concepts are sinking in. Principals and identify effective teachers. As a superintendent, I could walk into a school and within minutes I had a pretty good idea if the school was good, great, or needed improvement.

But gut feelings aren't good enough. They don't give us a complete and accurate picture of what that school needs to do to get better. That's your role. We need you to tell us whether we're on the right path. You need to point the way for the future of education reform. You give us the cold hard facts and help us navigate our way to providing a world-class education to every child.

Right now, we're falling short of that goal.

Just last month, NCES released an update of graduation rates showing a 2 percent gain. The progress is good news, of course, but we're still far, far short of where we should be. Twenty-five percent of our students are not graduating on time: that means more than 1.2 million students leave the classroom each year for the streets.

We know that our students aren't performing well—especially in science and math—subjects where we need to excel to drive innovation in our economy. And we know there's an achievement gap that is far too wide and isn't closing.

But I am very hopeful, because of the tremendous progress we have made on school reform just in the last 18 months. 48 States developed a common set of college- and career-ready standards and 15 states already have adopted them.

Today, school district leaders and union leaders across the country are working together to improve teacher evaluation systems. They're making tough decisions about tenure and assignment, so that the best teachers are working in schools where they're needed the most.

A year ago, the idea of turning around our lowest-performing schools wasn't a priority for our nation's educators. If a school had failed to make its achievement goals under NCLB for five, six, seven years, the districts shied away from the tough options the law gave them to fundamentally turn around those schools. Ninety percent of the time they chose the "other" option—which too often was the easy way out.

Today, district leaders are making those tough decisions. They're collaborating with teachers to truly transform these schools from dropout factories to college-going academies. Sometimes, they're partnering with charter schools or making the tough decision to close schools. This isn't always easy. But for the first time, educators across the country are having the difficult conversations and making the courageous decisions to fix their broken schools.

46 states and the District of Columbia have produced comprehensive plans to reform their schools through their Race to the Top applications. Delaware and Tennessee won the first round and we expect 10 or 12 states to win in the second round—but every state that participated in the process is a winner because they now have a blueprint for education reform.

Beyond that, the Investing in Innovation program has 1700 applications from entrepreneurial districts and nonprofits. These groups are producing the ideas that will advance school reform community by community.

And we have almost 900 community-based groups applying for the Promise Neighborhoods program—which puts education at the center of community-based efforts to improve the lives of children and their families in some of the country's most distressed areas.

Today, the school reform movement is as active as ever. We are building on the lessons learned from almost 30 years of work. We're developing the ideas to advance reforms for the future. And I'm happy to report that education researchers are part of the process.

Both Delaware and Tennessee—our first round winners in Race to the Top—are teaming up with researchers to guide their reform agenda.

Tennessee is working with a consortium of researchers based at Vanderbilt University to evaluate their work under Race to the Top. The research team will be deeply involved in teacher evaluation. We all know that a teacher's evaluation shouldn't be based on a single test score—or even multiple test scores. We need to include principal evaluations and other measures, too. The research will inform the work on teacher evaluation in Tennessee—and elsewhere.

In Delaware, researchers will be tracking the impact of the state's innovative plans for professional development. The research community will be surveying teachers and evaluating the student achievement of their students. Based on their research, the state will de-certify professional development providers who aren't producing results.

This is exactly the type of research we need—research that produces action. Let me highlight a few other examples.

Bob Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University has done as much as anyone else to document the dropout crisis. He identified the 2000 high schools across the country that are producing about half of the nation's dropouts.

And he has put his research into action developing the Baltimore Talent Development High School. Serving one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, this school offers extended learning time. It sets high expectations for students and puts them on track for advanced coursework. It engages the parents and communities. The school creates what it calls a "nagging-but-nurturing" environment where adults challenge students every day—even tracking them down when they're absent to find out why.

And it has produced results. In the Baltimore school, the graduation rate is 20 percent higher than other high schools in the city and higher than the statewide average. These are remarkable results—and they are possible only because researchers put what they learned into practice.

Catherine Snow of Harvard University is another example of putting research to work. Her research organization is linking researchers and practitioners to address the needs of students and teachers. Catherine led a group of researchers who created a middle school reading program specifically designed to prepare students for success in high school. Educators have embraced the program—and the researchers and educators are seeing improvements in student achievement as the students go into high school.

Catherine and her colleagues are now working together on a new IES grant for the Reading for Understanding Institute. This grant will work directly with practitioners in Massachusetts and California to respond to what they need to improve the reading comprehension of middle school students. We expect exciting things to come out of these collaborations that will help chart the course for solving a challenge educators are facing across the country.

Researchers such as these prove it's possible to move out of the Ivory Tower and into the schoolhouse. Thank you so much for your hard work and your contribution to improving education. Thanks to you—we know much more about what is needed in our schools, what is working in our classrooms, and what is making a difference in the lives of children.