Fighting the Wrong Education Battles

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Fighting the Wrong Education Battles

Remarks of Secretary Duncan at the Askwith Forum, Harvard Graduate School of Education

February 7, 2012

I was pleased to hear that today's event in the Askwith lecture series was sold-out. But I hope that no one here today is under the impression that they are going to hear from Lady Gaga. I'm the warm-up act—she is later this month.

All kidding aside, it's great that Lady Gaga is striving to reduce the serious problem of bullying in schools, especially for LBGT youth. She has a true passion and commitment to protecting children, and to reducing violence and abuse, that I absolutely applaud.

I want to speak to you today not about Lady Gaga's advocacy, but rather about well-intentioned advocacy that goes awry.

I want to talk about advocacy that inadvertently becomes less about helping children and making tough choices—and becomes more about maintaining ideological purity and making false choices.

The dysfunctional gridlock in Congress today is no secret. Reauthorization of ESEA, or the No Child Left Behind Act, has been stalled for years—even though no one thinks the law is acceptable as it is. We all know it is fundamentally broken.

But I am not just talking about the politics of paralysis in Washington. In schools of education, in the blogosphere, in school board meetings, in superintendent's offices, in union halls, and in think tanks, too many educators, researchers, parents, and advocates are fighting the wrong battles.

The wrong education battles tend to follow a pattern. You can almost close your eyes and still know exactly how things will unfold, as everyone plays according to type.

Well-intentioned advocates on both sides present policy choices as an either-or choice—not as a "both-and” compromise, however imperfect, that needs to be ironed out.

So, being "for” more state flexibility means you must be "against” accountability.

Supporting the use of student achievement data in English and Mathematics as one element in assessing school performance means you must oppose teaching a well-rounded curriculum.

Being in favor of high-quality career and technical education means you must oppose giving those students a high-quality college-prep education.

In the wrong education battles, tough-minded collaboration gets dismissed as weakness, not as a way to work out a breakthrough win for children.

In the wrong education battles, the perfect, too often, becomes the enemy of the good. And the dysfunctional status quo persists, hurting children and teachers—and ultimately, our country's economic competitiveness as we continue to under-educate far too many of our nation's youth.

Today, I want to talk about two challenges that, too often, end up as the wrong education battles. The first is the debate over the impact of in-school influences, like teachers and principals, on student achievement, versus the impact of out-of-school influences, like poverty and poor health.

The second, related battle is over reforming teacher evaluation systems and the use and misuse of student achievement data in teacher evaluation.

Before diving into those debates, I want to make a couple of points.

I'm not in any way opposed to vigorous debate. In fact, I welcome it. I recognize these are issues that stir strong passions and opposing viewpoints. There's a good reason why these controversies are referred to as "the education wars.”

I want to hear from teachers, and principals, and lawmakers, and union heads who disagree with me. That's the democratic process at work, and I treasure it. The best way to sharpen your understanding of complex issues is to have your ideas challenged.

I'm so grateful to Harvard professor Monica Higgins for bringing many of the smartest minds and most accomplished practitioners to meet with our management team for a wide-ranging series of listening and learning sessions. There is lots of spirited debate in those discussions.

Now, while I welcome debate, I don't find that debate which is detached from real-world challenges, or driven primarily by ideology, advances the interests of children. And unfortunately, those distorted debates happen too often in the field of education.

In 2012, our nation has urgent educational problems. In a globally-competitive, knowledge-based economy, it is a stain upon our nation that one in four American students fails to finish high school on time or drops out. In many of our black and Latino communities, 40 to 50 percent of students are dropping out. That is morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.

In a single generation, the U.S. has gone from having the highest college attainment rate in the world among young adults to being 16th. And in international comparisons, our performance is mediocre at best. It's telling that the only thing our students lead the world in is self-esteem. The hard truth is that many nations are out-performing and out-educating us. It is this compared-to-what litmus test that educators, school leaders, and parents must constantly keep in mind. Someone once complained to Voltaire that "life is hard”—to which Voltaire replied, "compared to what?”

Educational failure is hard, too. But the first question we should ask of reforms is, would these changes significantly, even dramatically, enrich and accelerate learning for students and teachers?

We shouldn't be asking "is this a perfect solution?” We should be asking "is this a much-better solution?” Does it help us challenge the status quo and accelerate student achievement?

For me, this sense of urgency about dramatically improving our educational system comes from personal experience. It is deeply ingrained in me.

From the time we were born, my brother, my sister, and I all went to my mother's after-school program every day on the South Side of Chicago, which she began 50 years ago, in 1961.

When we were little, the older students tutored the younger kids. As we grew up, we tutored the younger students. My mom always tried to have students teach and be taught at the same time.After we were done our studies and chores, we played basketball. Everyone knew our program was a safe haven where kids were nurtured, respected, challenged, and taught right from wrong.

The students and my peers in my mother's program lived in a poor community plagued by violence and many faced severe challenges at home. Yet because of the opportunities my mother and others created, we saw remarkable success stories bloom.

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 country. Corky Lyons, one of nine children, became a surgeon. He was raised by his grandmother—and never met his father.

Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood, where he starred in "The Green Mile.” And Ron Raglin eventually helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools. Building upon the experiences that shaped him, Ron brought the AVID program to Chicago to strengthen the vital, non-cognitive skills of disadvantaged students.

I know what's possible when we give young people long-term guidance, educational opportunities, and the commitment and connection of a caring adult. I know our students can be successful, regardless of their zip code and background.

What drives me every day is the recognition that we have this huge untapped academic and social potential that our nation is leaving on the table. I absolutely believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation.

When I became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I tried to take that lifetime of lessons to scale.

Everyone who has worked with poor children knows that poverty matters and affects school performance. But everyone who has witnessed the life-altering impact of great teachers and great principals knows that schools matter enormously too.

Boosting student achievement is not an either-or solution. Educators and the broader community should be attacking both in-school and out-of-school causes of low achievement.

I am a big believer in high-quality out-of-school programs, including full-service community schools. When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, the city became the national leader in large-scale adoption of community schools. By the time I left, Chicago had more than 150 community schools—the most in the nation. Many of those schools—35—have full-service health clinics.

It never made sense to me that poor children should be expected to learn just as readily as other students when they couldn't see the blackboard, or when their mouths ached from untreated cavities and gum disease. So we dramatically expanded our free vision and dental programs in the schools.

Six years ago, about 12,500 students in the Chicago Public Schools received free vision services—and roughly 10,000 students got prescription eyeglasses.

Three years later, the number of students receiving free vision services and eyeglasses had both more than doubled. The dental care program grew even more dramatically, going from treating 1,250 students to more than 50,000 students. Obviously the need didn't increase at that pace; it was simply beginning to be addressed.

Since taking office, the Obama administration has also rapidly expanded funding for out-of-school supports for students. Starting with the Recovery Act, the Administration invested $5 billion in growing Head Start and Early Head Start. That expanded access to quality child care for 150,000 additional children.

This December, we invested another $500 million through an unprecedented Early Learning Race to the Top competition. For the first time, states are designing comprehensive plans, not just to increase access to high-quality early learning but to better coordinate the patchwork of programs that now exist in every state. I congratulate Massachusetts. It was one of nine states to win a Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant.

And don't forget President's Obama's health care legislation. Under the new law, the administration has provided more than 275 school-based health clinics with about $100 million to provide more health care services at schools nationwide. Those grants will enable school-based health clinics to serve an additional 440,000 patients—a jump of over 50 percent.

In short, from day one, we have pursued a cradle-to-career education agenda. And it is very much epitomized by our Promise Neighborhood grants, which support a program of high-quality wraparound services and strong neighborhood schools modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone.

I want to underline that great schools and great teachers are the most effective anti-poverty tool of all. And that's why a good school is at the heart of every Promise Neighborhood.

Even back in Chicago, people used to warn me that we could never fix the schools until we ended poverty. As I say, I am a huge fan of out-of-school anti-poverty programs. I was raised in one. But I absolutely reject the idea that poverty is destiny. Despite challenges at home, despite neighborhood violence, and despite poverty, I know that every child learn and thrive. It's the responsibility of schools to teach all children—and have high expectations for every student, rich and poor.

Geoff Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone and one of my heroes, discovered firsthand that even a continuum of high-quality wraparound services isn't enough to dramatically boost student achievement. You have to have a great school to close the opportunity gap.

HCZ's parenting classes, their first-rate preschool program, and the supplemental services inside Harlem's schools—the tutors, the computer labs, the after-school reading programs—collectively they weren't doing nearly enough to boost student achievement. So Geoff Canada decided he had to create an outstanding school.

Then he did something else—he commissioned a rigorous study of the Harlem Children's Zone by Roland Fryer, a brilliant young economist here at Harvard.

Fryer's research showed that while support services helped increase student achievement for children in the neighborhood, it was Canada's school, Promise Academy, which dramatically boosted student learning and closed achievement gaps.

Professor Fryer didn't stop there. He asked, what are the characteristics of high-performing charter schools—and can they be applied in traditional public schools? We must stop being satisfied with pockets of excellence—and start taking to scale what works.

Roland's question wasn't an ivory-tower, academic exercise. Instead, he went to Terry Grier, Houston's superintendent of public schools, and said, 'let's try adopting the practices of high-performing charter schools in Houston's lowest performing public schools and see if they work.'

The preliminary results of the Houston experiment, which affects more than 7,000 students in nine schools, are now coming in—and the results are encouraging.

After just a year of implementation, student achievement in math is up dramatically, and reading scores are increasing. Enrollment in four-year colleges is up by about 40 percent.

Even more encouraging, Roland Fryer's Houston experiment is just part of a body of exciting new research on a new generation of gap-closing schools.

Rigorous research that uses random assignment comparisons is documenting that high-poverty schools can dramatically narrow achievement and attainment gaps.

The Boston Foundation has documented the big impact on student learning of great schools here in Boston. Mathematica has documented the large gap-narrowing impact of 22 KIPP middle schools from around the nation.

Harvard's Tom Kane has documented the benefits of KIPP Lynn for English language learners and special needs students. Other researchers have found that new, small high schools in New York City are boosting student learning and narrowing the attainment gap.

Now, if a curious visitor from another country plunked down in the midst of our education debates, he would likely find this new generation of gap-closing schools to be very exciting news. He would find them a wonderful testament to the power of outstanding teachers, great principals, and strong community partners to transform the life chances of children.

But in fact the response of some in the U.S. education establishment to schools that produce dramatic gains in student learning has been much more critical, even dismissive.

That curious visitor would be puzzled by those who respond to successful no-excuses schools by making excuses for why they don't really matter.

Of course, no one should object to understanding the limitations and strengths of this new research on gap-closing schools. But the skeptics of successful schools have jumped from critique to critique, none of which have found much confirmation in rigorous research.

It is telling that advocates wedded to the idea that school achievement is simply a reflection of poverty seem determined to diminish the value of great teachers and great schools. That disrespects the hard work, talent, and tremendous commitment of the teachers and principals at these schools, who dedicate their lives to working with disadvantaged children because they know they can make that special connection that changes children's lives.

You don't have to look any further than Massachusetts' excellent educational system to see that in-school and out-of-school challenges can be tackled at the same time. Over the years, Massachusetts has deeply invested in school reform. It has created rigorous assessments. It created college and career-ready academic standards, instead of dummying down standards, as many other states did. Academic achievement and attainment has gone up substantially. And in many respects, Massachusetts is the highest-performing state in the entire country.

But Massachusetts also addressed out-of-school factors that impede student learning. Under the courageous leadership of Governor Deval Patrick, it has invested in creating the largest extended learning time experiment in the country. It has one of the best-coordinated early learning systems in the nation.

In 2010, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that calls for chronically underperforming schools to have a significant health and social services components in their turnaround plans. To better integrate social service supports, the state established a Child and Youth Readiness Cabinet, co-chaired by the secretary of health and human services and Secretary of Education Paul Reville.

The both-and solutions can and must be done—and they are being done, right here in Massachusetts. Instead of resting on its laurels, Massachusetts is helping to lead the country where we need to go.

Now, the second, false choice that I want to talk about today is the debate over whether teacher evaluation should include measures of student achievement and growth.

Again, I reject the idea that this should be an either-or debate. Critics of standardized testing make a lot of good points. It is absolutely true that many of today's tests are flawed. They don't measure critical thinking across a range of content areas. They are not always aligned to college and career-ready standards. They don't always accurately measure individual student growth.

And they certainly don't measure qualities of great teaching that we know make a difference—things like classroom management, teamwork, collaboration, and individualized instruction. They don't measure the invaluable ability to inspire a love of learning.

As I have said, over and over again, teacher evaluation should never be based only on test scores. It should always include multiple measures, like principal observation or peer review, student work, student surveys, and parent feedback.

That's one reason why we're putting real resources into moving beyond fill-in-the-bubble tests. Our $350 million Race to the Top assessment competition is funding two large state consortia, covering 44 states and the District of Columbia, to develop a new and much-improved generation of assessments.

Massachusetts, thanks to Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester, is helping lead one of those efforts. For the first time, teachers will consistently have timely, high-quality formative assessments that are instructionally useful and document student growth.

And for the first time, the new assessments will better measure the higher-order thinking skills so vital to success in the global economy.

Still, the shortcomings of today's tests don't mean that we should simply abandon the use of standardized testing in schools and teacher evaluation.

In the last decade, I have talked to literally thousands of teachers and school leaders. I have yet to speak to one who thinks teacher evaluation in America works well today.

Let me be clear: Teacher evaluation today is largely broken and dysfunctional. No one can say who the great teachers are, how teachers in the middle can improve, or which teachers should be dismissed if they fail to improve, even after receiving help and support.

California has 300,000 teachers. It's top 10 percent of teachers—30,000 teachers—are world-class teachers and some of the best in the world. Its bottom 10 percent of teachers should probably not be in the classroom. But today, no one knows who is in which category.

Again, we have to ask the compared-to-what question. Is an evaluation system that uses at least some measure of student achievement and growth, even if imperfect, preferable to an evaluation system that takes no account of student learning? I've learned a lot in Washington. But I was literally stunned when I discovered that several states had laws on the books that actually prohibited using student achievement in teacher evaluation. Think about how crazy that is—and what a perverse signal that sends about the entire teaching profession. Thanks in part to Race to the Top, those laws are now all gone.

The use of value-added analysis to measure student growth is still very much a work in progress. But it is, with all its imperfections, a big improvement over a system that takes no account of student growth in the classroom.

Thanks to groundbreaking research by Raj Chetty and John Friedman here at Harvard and their colleague at Columbia, Jonah Rockoff, we know now that the long-term impact of good teachers on students in adulthood is profound. Their study was not about good teachers creating short-term bumps in test scores; it demonstrated how teachers, for better or worse, literally altered the trajectory of their pupils' lives.

Their analysis of the long-term impact that teachers had on 2.5 million children found that simply replacing a teacher in the bottom five percent for advancing student growth with an average teacher would increase the students' lifetime income in that classroom by more than $250,000.

And improvements in teacher quality also significantly reduce the chance of having a child while a teenager and increase college matriculation. Want to increase earnings potential, decrease poverty, and reduce teen pregnancy? Then please spent a lot of time thinking how to attract, retain, and reward great teachers, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

We're still learning about how to improve teacher evaluation and incorporate measures of student learning. But the work of Tom Kane at Harvard and the MET project, which is based on classroom observations of 3,000 teachers, is the largest study of instructional practice and its relationship to student outcomes ever undertaken. As a result, we know much more today about how to do teacher evaluation right than ever before.

Now, some folks will point out, correctly, that most teachers don't teach in tested subjects. So, how can student achievement be factored in to teacher evaluation in non-tested subjects? It's a great question. But I have every faith that teachers themselves can come up with solutions. They already are.

Just last week I met with Dru Davison, a fantastic music teacher in Memphis. Arts teachers there were frustrated because they were being evaluated based solely on school-wide performance in math and English. So he convened a group of arts educators to come up with a better evaluation system.

After Dru's committee surveyed arts teachers in Memphis, they decided to develop a blind peer review evaluation to assess portfolios of student learning. It has proved enormously popular—so much so that Tennessee is now looking at adopting the system statewide for arts instructors. If we are willing to listen, and to do things differently, the answers are out there.

I can't finish this discussion without recognizing the extraordinary contribution of Paul Toner, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Paul courageously led his union to include three-year trends in student growth as one measure in teacher evaluation in tested subjects. And that's just the kind of informed, carefully tailored, and localized collaboration that school districts need.

The truth is we need more labor and management leaders who are willing to engage in tough-minded collaboration and step outside their comfort zones.

I applaud those who do, like Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, and Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. They are challenging the status quo, together. They recently co-authored an op-ed calling for major improvements in teacher preparation programs, many of which desperately need an overhaul.

Even though they may be at odds on a number of issues historically, they are still seeking common ground, instead of firing salvos from their separate silos. In some quarters, this simple display of mutual respect and collaboration was greeted with suspicion and disapproval. Some folks seem to prefer the Hatfield-McCoy feuds—which go on forever and accomplish nothing productive.

In my experience, tough-minded collaboration in education is typically more successful than tough-minded confrontation. And Massachusetts has helped set the example, under the leadership of Paul Reville, Mitchell Chester, and Paul Toner. I wonder if they could stand to be recognized for the tough work they have done—and will do—together on union-management issues?

I love the fact that none of them are passive or complacent. They know that Massachusetts, for all its triumphs, still has a long way to go to close achievement gaps.

Collaborating with people who you disagree with doesn't mean you have to give up on transformational reform. You just have to give up on the idea of getting everything you want, under the terms you want.

In Chicago and in Washington, I've often been told: "Don't aim too high.” "You are going too fast.” Or: "It will never happen.” But I think the skeptics underestimate the commitment to change in the classroom—and the capacity and desire of teachers and principals to advance student learning.

When the Obama administration took office, the President and I started talking about the need for states to stop dummying down academic standards. We said we had to set a higher bar for success.

Creating common, higher standards—college and career-ready standards that were internationally benchmarked—was supposed to be the third rail of education politics. It was never going to happen. But no one, not one of the experts, predicted what rapidly unfolded.

Thanks to courageous state leaders, and with federal encouragement, 45 states and the District of Columbia, in a state-led effort, have now adopted the Common Core standards. That is an absolute game-changer for our schools, our teachers—and most importantly, for our children. For the first time in our nation's history, a child in Massachusetts and a child in Mississippi will measured by the same yardstick.

I have also talked repeatedly about the need to transform the way districts and schools did turnarounds in chronically low-achieving schools. I said school turnaround efforts had been far too timid—and that we had to stop tinkering in schools that were cheating generations of children out of their one chance to receive a quality education.

Again, I was told, "don't aim too high. It's impossible to turn around struggling schools at scale.”

We're now starting to get the preliminary results from the first year of our School Improvement Grant programs. Nothing is final yet, and we obviously have a number of years to go before we can really judge the success of this effort. The hard work is just beginning.

But after just one year, I'm pleased to say that the impact on student achievement is more encouraging than the experts anticipated. Many schools, like Orchard Gardens K-8 in the Orchard Park projects near here in Roxbury, are showing double digit gains in both reading and math proficiency in their first year. Change is possible—if you are willing to do things differently.

So, in closing, I'd encourage advocates to stop fighting the wrong education battles. Seek common ground—knowing that it will both take you outside of your comfort zone and require tough-minded collaboration.

The educational challenges facing our nation are massive and urgent. But I am convinced that the capacity, the courage, and the commitment of our nation's teachers, school leaders, parents, and students' themselves, is up to the challenge.

Let's stop defending the status quo when it hurts children. Let's wage the right education battles. Together, let's work collectively to advance achievement and a love of learning in America.