Harvard Event: Critical Conversations and Bold Ideas

Archived Information

Harvard Event: Critical Conversations and Bold Ideas

September 19, 2014

Secretary Duncan was introduced by Marcos Suarez, a ninth grader at Tobin School in Massachusetts.

We should all go home now. It's all downhill from here. [Laughter] Please give another round of applause to the next Secretary of Education. You are so far ahead of where I was in ninth grade. I wish you all the best, and thanks for what you and your peers are doing to create a new example for what young men, and young men of color, can do.

I'll keep my remarks pretty brief. I look forward to a great conversation with Monica. One of the joys of my job is that I get to travel the country and visit schools. I always say: I don't learn much sitting in my office in Washington. I learn by getting out. I've been to—I think—over 350 schools.

We do this Back-to-School Bus Tour every single year. We did it last week. And, I just want to just give you a couple of reflections of what I learned there; how I've learned throughout my life,; a couple of challenges to the school of education here; and then have a great conversation.

We went through the south—Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.

We went to Carrollton, Georgia—a community I hadn't been to. It's a very poor, rural community. I met with a set of students who were all on the verge of dropping out, or had almost dropped out in the past. They have this amazing partnership with a company called Southwire, where the students work four hours a day for Southwire and get paid for their work. For the other four hours a day, they're in school.

I talked to the young people who are running this plant—literally running it. They're not just working at the plant—they're the supervisors. They're the troubleshooters.

We had a roundtable with about 10 young people. Seven of them are going to be the first in their families to graduate from high school. Now, I've talked with a lot of young people who are the first in their families to graduate from college. These are first in their families to graduate from high school.

One young girl there, both of her parents had been in and out of jail. Another young man, his mother was on her third husband. The most recent husband said he was "dirt," and kicked him out of the house.

And, with all the odds against them, they somehow found a way to keep going—because some adults in their lives gave them a chance to earn some money, and support themselves. Not only can these students graduate from high school, but they're going on to higher education and beyond that.

I went to Birmingham, Alabama. We had a fantastic My Brother's Keeper roundtable with a number of young men from that community. The mayor's doing an extraordinary job of creating the next generation of leadership.

I spent some time with Alabama State Superintendent Tommy Bice. We'll talk later about all the noise and rhetoric around high standards—but in a very red state, he is absolutely driving the state to higher standards. He fundamentally believes that what happened for the children of Alabama for far too long were low standards and low expectations. They have to raise the bar there.

I went to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I've been to many, many early childhood centers—they're obviously doing amazing work. I always say that the best investment that we, as a nation, can make is to increase access to high-quality early learning opportunities.

This is the first center that I've been to that is literally open 24/7, 365 days a year. Again, we were in a community that's a working class town. Moms there are working two or three jobs, or working the night shift. If you don't have someplace to put your child, you can't work. You're stuck in these cycles of poverty. I got to see the service that they're providing to over 300 students there, and to hear the testimonies of the family members, the parents, of what those early learning opportunities have meant to them.

But I also got to hear about the waiting list of another 300 students trying to get in. Without those opportunities, how do those families break the cycle of poverty and give their children a chance? So, amazing work—but also a long way to go, as a nation, in making sure our babies get off to a great start in life.

We went from there to Nashville, Tennessee. This is another community with a huge focus on increasing access to early learning opportunities—which we love—and a significant investment in it.

The superintendent there in Nashville, Jesse Register, has also shown real courage. He figured out they were also doing too much testing. He's a big accountability guy, and he wants to make sure they're doing evaluation.

But where they're being redundant, spending too much time on it, or being repetitive, he's said: Let's step back. Let's take a look at it, and reduce it. Let's not walk away from a high bar. But, let's be thoughtful about it.

He's shown real courage and leadership in that community.

I went from there and ended the bus trip in Memphis, Tennessee at Cornerstone Prep which, historically, was in the bottom five percent of schools in the state. In just a short couple of years, a different set of expectations, different adults, and a different culture of success created remarkably different results for those students.

I heard about another school they're turning around, where for the past couple of years, they've had an all-girls chess team. That chess team is now competing nationally, and being very successful. What I said there was: it wasn't that all of a sudden those women were chess geniuses. They've simply had an opportunity to display some skills, and to grow, in ways that just didn't exist before. They're starting to prove—not just on a local, but on a national level—what's possible, with real opportunities and high expectations.

Then, yesterday, I was in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at a district that was literally—and this is your hometown—in the bottom 1 percent for the state. The very bottom.

Massachusetts is obviously a very high-performing state overall—in many ways the highest-performing state in the nation. It would be very easy for [State Education Commissioner] Mitch Chester and others to say: let's just leave that community to the side. It's a little too difficult.

But folks here decided, with some real courage, to step in. They decided: These children deserve something better. Despite our state success, what's happening in Lawrence isn't good enough for these children. We'll never have a thriving community, and that community will never rebuild, if we continue to have a dropout rate of about 50 percent.

What I saw yesterday, after talking with teachers, and students, and parents, and family members, was extraordinary. Just a couple of years into this—they have a long way to go, and nobody is claiming success yet—they're getting radically different results. Same children, same socioeconomic challenges, same families, same school building, same community—but adults are behaving in very different ways, and students are more than meeting them halfway.

So when I travel, what always inspires me are these solutions to very real challenges.

Whether it's Jesse Register in Tennessee, in Nashville, saying: Let's hold ourselves accountable. Let's be thoughtful about it. Let's not be carried away.

Whether it's the state superintendent in Alabama, Tommy Bice, saying: We're going to put politics and ideology to the side. We have to educate our way to a better economy. The children of Alabama deserve something better. We are going to try to achieve high standards.

Whether it's Mitch Chester, and his team, here in Massachusetts, saying: Yes, overall, we're doing a pretty darn good job, but let's not be satisfied. Let's not be complacent. Let's look at ourselves in the mirror and see where we can be better. Let's have the courage to do that.

Or, whether it's the union leader down in Lawrence, Frank McLaughlin, who continues to take some significant heat internally. The union is doing some very different things there. Guess what? He's empowering teachers in very different ways.

Leadership matters. Courage matters.

The lessons we saw last night in Lawrence—what they're doing was just fascinating to me. Yes, the school has a huge focus on academic rigor, but also a tremendous focus on the arts and music. I saw an amazing musical by a bunch of seventh graders. Again, just a couple of years ago, those kinds of opportunities didn't exist there. So, they've said yes to academics and yes to art. Those aren't in conflict.

In Lawrence, they're offering more learning time. Longer school days. Summer work. Great work. But also a real focus on family engagement. They're not trying to "save" children from their families. It's about helping families help their children be successful, and helping parents get educated as well.

It's an increased focus on teacher autonomy. Teacher after teacher I talked to spoke about how much room they have to be creative, and to be innovative. At the same time, they're being held accountable for real results. They have measurable goals for each student, and are helping them be successful. It doesn't matter whether they're gifted, or in the middle, or have special needs, every child there knows what their goals are. They're engaged. And, teachers are now having an impact in ways that, historically, they simply weren't allowed to have.

So often in education, we're pitted against each other. It's arts or academics. It's more time at school, or with families. It's empowering teachers, or it's teaching to the test. All these things are false choices. We just need to figure out how we empower more people to be successful.

And the courage I saw—again, whether it's down South last week, or yesterday in Lawrence— is absolutely inspiring. It makes you so hopeful about where we're going as a nation.

The lessons I've seen in the past two weeks, and throughout my five-and-a-half years in this job—they all reflect things I learned growing up. As you may know, I grew up as part of my mother's inner-city tutoring program. She started it in 1961 on the South Side of Chicago. I was born in '64. She raised my brother, sister, and me as a part of her program. What I saw, all my life, was young people who came from extraordinary poverty, from very difficult family situations—often, communities plagued by gang violence—who went on to do amazing things because my mother and others were in their lives.

The young man who taught my group growing up was Kerrie Holley. Kerrie was like many of the young men in the community—never met his dad; his mother was in and out of his life; he was raised by his grandmother. He found my mother's program, stayed for a long time—through high school—and went to DePaul locally. Today, Kerrie Holley is one of the top researcher scientists in the nation working for IBM.

Ronald Raglin, who was part of that group growing up, was raised by his dad—a very strong dad. His mother wasn't in his life. Later, he helped me run the Chicago Public Schools.

Another was one of nine—we used to call his family the lion's den. He went on to become a doctor.

All from one little corner at 46th and Greenwood.

So that experience had this absolutely formative impact on me—to see what could happen, despite the very real challenges of poverty, and family issues, and societal issues, that children had. People in their lives loved them, and guided them, and had the highest of expectations.

After I failed in my professional basketball career—I tried out for the Celtics here and played overseas in Australia a couple years—I came back.

My sister and I had a tutoring program for six years, from 1992 to 1998. I ended up working in the same church basement as my mother. We were trying to prove that a set of young people from that community could be successful, despite challenges.

And, after six years, our students had an 87 percent graduation rate from high school. The class one year ahead of ours—same school, same neighborhood, same everything—had a 33 percent graduation rate from high school. We were just able to provide them a different set of opportunities.

When I went to run the Chicago Public Schools, over a couple of years we worked very, very hard to increase access to AP classes. We were so proud that over about four years, we tripled access to AP classes and doubled pass rates. While we celebrated those results, I reminded my staff every single day during those four years: our students didn't suddenly become twice as smart. They simply had a set of opportunities that they hadn't had historically.

So, whether it's growing up on the South Side of Chicago; whether it's in Lawrence, Massachusetts last night; whether it's in Alabama, Birmingham, Memphis, or wherever you might be, when we as adults raise the bar, when we have the highest of expectations, we stop fighting the wrong battles.

We think about the highest academic standards and the arts and family engagement and more time. Our kids will more than meet us halfway. So for all the challenges, for all the political noise and rhetoric, when we as adults come together and work with real courage to help our children—put them in a position to be successful—they can do extraordinary things.

Let me just close with two quick asks, or requests, for the Harvard School of Education. I cannot leave here without doing that.

Please give Dean Ryan a huge round of applause. He's doing an amazing job.

As you think about setting up your teacher prep program—on the undergrad side, as we all know, some teacher prep programs around the nation do a pretty good job; others are, frankly, pretty mediocre. They're struggling. So, in the Harvard tradition, I just challenge you to have the highest level of rigor, to hold yourselves to the highest level of accountability, and to focus on the outcomes that you want your future teachers to have when they enter the classroom. Hold yourselves accountable there and be very transparent about that.

And I would ask you to please make sure your future teachers reflect the tremendous diversity of our nation's children. For the first time in our nation's history, our nation's public school students will be majority-minority. And, we will never go back the other way.