Moving Forward, Staying Focused

Archived Information

Moving Forward, Staying Focused

Remarks of Arne Duncan, National Press Club

October 2, 2012

Three weeks ago, we began a cross-country bus tour in California to visit schools, meet with educators and students, get feedback and listen, and generally take the pulse of people after nearly four years in office.

I can report that – while the hard work of improving schools is difficult and challenging and requires many people to move outside their comfort zones -- the mood is largely positive.

People are working extremely hard and – for the most part – they are working together. They know that it takes strong partnerships to raise standards, improve performance, tackle dropout rates, and strengthen the teaching profession.

Our theme this year was “Education Drives America.” People everywhere understand that education and the economy are closely linked. They know that the path to the middle class runs right through our classrooms.

They know that it starts with high-quality early learning programs – especially for children at risk -- and they want to see Head Start and pre-school programs protected and strengthened. 

It continues in K-12 with great teachers and leaders, high standards, and a rich, well-rounded curriculum -- and more and more states and districts are committed to all of these goals.

People also know that college is no longer a luxury for the few -- but essential for the many.  With more than 3 million unfilled jobs in this country, they understand that we have a skills gap that can only be closed if America does a better job training and preparing people for work. Whether it is a two- or four-year college, trade, technical or vocational training – some form of learning beyond high school must be the goal of every student.

They also know that it is not just our economic security that is at stake--but our national security as well. A strong military remains our best defense, but a strong education is our best offense.

They feel pressure in a recovering economy, and they understand that it will take time to dig our way out of this hole. And they believe that investing in education is the right way to do it – though they rightly worry about where the money will come from.

School budgets are tight and that’s having a real impact on the classroom. In too many places, resources are shrinking for arts, sports and after-school programs. Counselors, school nurses and other support staff are stretched thin – or eliminated altogether. None of this is good for children.

In our first two years with the Recovery Act and the American Jobs Act, we helped protect 400,000 education jobs—but that money is mostly gone. In the last two years, an estimated 300,000 teachers lost their jobs – and unfortunately there is little appetite on the Hill to help.

Nevertheless, within the education space, there is enormous energy – what I called a Quiet Revolution the last time I spoke here.

States and districts, schools and communities are driving more change than ever before around complex issues like standards, evaluation, assessments, turnarounds, and technology.

Above all there is enormous enthusiasm at the state level to build more effective accountability systems through the waiver process we began last fall – and now affecting more than 60 percent of the schoolchildren in the country in 33 states – with about 10 more in the pipeline.

Waivers are not a pass on accountability – but a smarter, more focused and fair way to hold ourselves accountable. In exchange for adopting high standards and meaningful systems of teacher support and evaluation:

  • States set ambitious but achievable targets for every subgroup. 
  • More children at risk – who were invisible under NCLB – are now included in state-designed accountability systems -- including low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities. 
  • Finally, local districts decide the most effective way to intervene in underperforming schools, instead of applying rigid, top-down mandates from Washington.

Under flexibility, states also recognize growth and progress in more and more schools rather than having to label them as failures -- even when they’re improving. That used to drive me crazy. It was so demeaning and wrong.

Let me cite a few examples:
Columbus Park Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts, was among the lowest-performing schools in the state under NCLB, even though they were closing achievement gaps. Under waivers, those gains count for something.

Kingsbury Middle School in Memphis, Tennessee, made gains for nearly all groups of students and was in the top 5 percent of its state in terms of student growth. Under NCLB, it would have failed to make AYP.

That is not to say these schools no longer have educational challenges. Obviously they do – but they have achievable targets, a plan to close gaps and they are getting results. Contrast that with NCLB – which set lofty goals for all kids but didn’t require high standards-- and many states took the easy path. About 19 states lowered one or more standards and 35 states set proficiency levels in 4th grade reading at below basic levels on NAEP. Children and families were being lied to – told they were on-track for success and often, they are not even close.

The fact is, many educators didn’t take NCLB seriously because it assumed all children start from the same place and learn at the same rate. That’s just not reality. 

And the record on NCLB is clear: performance is up slightly and achievement gaps have narrowed somewhat but not nearly enough. Under waivers, we will accelerate that pace -- but you don’t have to take my word for it:

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said, and I quote, “The waiver will make for a fairer system that focuses on what matters most: getting the whole system to perform better in terms of student learning.”

And Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper told me that flexibility gives his state the ability to advance a “carefully designed and ambitious accountability agenda.”

All across America today, educators at every level are being more and more creative -- pairing good schools with struggling schools, creating smaller, more manageable districts, and building partnerships between both high schools and colleges – and between colleges and industries.

Today, we are asking much more of ourselves and much more of each other – and everyone is stepping up – parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders – and, importantly, students themselves.

Let me tell you about a few of the people we met on our bus tour.

In Silicon Valley I met a 9th grade English teacher named Catlin Tucker who wrote a book on how teachers and technology work together in the classroom to empower teachers and better engage students.

I met Sal Kahn, whose free video lessons have been viewed over 196 million times, including by our two children.

I met Andrew Ng – who runs Coursera – and Sebastian Thrun – who runs Udacity -- offering free college courses online to students all over the globe.

In Sacramento, I met with California Mayors and school superintendents who are working together to align city services with their schools’ needs and speaking collectively on behalf of their children.

In Reno, I held a town hall at a state university with students desperate for the American Dream. They wonder why their country – our country – denies education to children of undocumented immigrants.

Senior leaders met with Native-Americans in Elko, a turnaround school in Salt Lake City, and a community college in Wyoming.

Along with two U.S. Senators and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, we ate locally-grown produce at a school in Denver and even tried to dance the Cupid Shuffle – which won’t happen again.

We visited the historic site in Topeka, Kansas, where Linda Brown’s lawsuit demanding the right to attend her neighborhood school forever changed the course of public education in America. We talked about our historic commitment to equity and acknowledged the promises still unmet in the hope of Brown v. Board.

If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap we have to get serious about closing the opportunity gap – and as a country, we’re not even close.

With NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, we went to the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Emporia, Kansas, and held a town hall with some amazing future teachers. In Kansas City we met with parents of ELL students.

The bus continued through the eastern part of the country, visiting Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.  AFT President Randi Weingarten joined us in rural West Virginia.

We visited Roanoke and Richmond before concluding here in Washington with a rally, a college fair and a concert.

All told, we did over 100 events in a dozen different states involving the entire senior staff in the Department and countless partners in big cities and small towns all across the country. Our Teacher Ambassador Fellows did 50 additional roundtables with their classroom colleagues.

The trip was a powerful reminder for all of us that the real work of improving schools doesn’t happen in Washington but in cities and towns all across America – where parents, teachers and community leaders work together toward a common goal.

Our job -- for the last three and a half years – has been to support that work – to support bold and courageous reform at the state and local level. That’s what Race to the Top was all about.

We offered the biggest competitive grants in our department’s history – and 45 states raised standards and 33 states changed laws – in order to compete and accelerate student achievement. In a fascinating lesson on the power of incentives, we have seen as much reform in states that didn’t receive a nickel as in states that received tens of millions of dollars.

The fact that 45 states have now adopted internationally benchmarked, college and career-ready standards is an absolute game-changer. Virtually the entire country has voluntarily raised expectations for our children.

At the same time, states are doing more than ever before to strengthen teaching. We started a national conversation with thousands of classroom teachers to think boldly about how to create career pathways, evaluate and support each other based not just on test scores but on multiple measures, how to boost their pay, attract great talent and ultimately transform the entire profession.

To further elevate teaching, we’ve joined with national teacher unions and associations representing superintendents and schools boards and together publicly embraced a set of bold reform principles. We’ve redefined labor-management collaboration as a tool of school improvement.

And our partners are stepping up to meet the challenge. Today, in fact, the NEA is announcing a new effort to train STEM teachers – building on a successful pilot program in New Jersey – and I want to salute them for their commitment to help fill an area of critical need.

Our first term set an ambitious pace for change – and as America looks to the future, we all have to make sure that all of this change proceeds in a logical way and delivers results.

I also know that some educators feel overwhelmed by the speed and pace of change. Teachers I speak with always support accountability and a fair system of evaluation. They want the feedback so they can get better and hone their craft.

But some of them say it’s happening too quickly and not always in a way that is respectful and fair. They want an evaluation system that recognizes out-of-school factors and distinguishes among students with special needs, gifts and backgrounds.

They certainly don’t want to be evaluated based on one test score – and I absolutely agree with them. Evaluation must be based on multiple measures.

When it comes to building systems of evaluation and support -- teachers must be at the table – shaping the terms. That’s exactly what they did in Jefferson County, Colorado, where management and labor came together to develop a performance pay model based on a robust system of evaluation.

They established new leadership roles for teachers that allow them to earn more and both stay in the classroom and have a greater voice in how their schools are run. That’s common sense and revolutionary at the same time.

Just last week we announced $290 million in grants to support performance pay and new models for teacher leadership and advancement. The winning proposals had the input and support of management, teachers and labor leaders.

We continue to hear about frustration with standardized tests. Two consortia of states are currently developing new assessments that will be better aligned to what teachers are teaching and better measure critical thinking--but we’re not there yet.

Some people also want all of us, collectively, to do more to address poverty, and I share that concern as well. I grew up working with children in poverty, and in Chicago, 85% of my 400,000 students lived below the poverty line. I know the kinds of challenges facing our children, their families and our schools. By far, my biggest concern in Chicago was for my children’s safety, and far too many lost their lives to senseless violence in their communities.

Together, we absolutely must do more to serve low-income children, and we must find the bipartisan will to address their needs and close the opportunity gap.

Honestly, however, it’s a challenge in the current political climate. If some members in the House have their way, programs like Head Start, Title I and IDEA could take a big hit – so we need to continue to fight hard for these programs that help protect children at risk.

We all know it’s harder to teach in disadvantaged communities – and it unquestionably demands more of teachers and principals.

But in the world of today – where we don’t always have all of the supports we would want – none of us can shrink from this responsibility to educate all children -- no matter what their circumstances. In fact, that exact challenge is what drives so many of us in our daily work.

Clearly – not everyone is cut out for this hard work – but those who are deserve our deepest respect and appreciation. And I just want to salute one more example – where committed educators have made heroic progress with disadvantaged students.

Emerson Elementary School is one of over 1,300 schools across the country to receive a federal School Improvement Grant. It was one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Kansas. Almost half of the students were learning English for the first time.

With its grant, Emerson brought in new school leadership, made other staffing changes, and also made a big investment in parental involvement. School officials knocked on doors, visited parents at home, and organized data meetings to show parents how their students were performing.

In their first year, Emerson made double-digit gains in reading and math. After two years, their progress not only got them off the list of struggling schools, but earned them status as a “Reward” school under ESEA flex.

All told, two-thirds of our SIG schools made gains in reading and two-thirds of our SIG schools made gains in math in the first year of the program. They did this with the same students and in many cases, the same teachers under new school leadership.

Hundreds of schools are proving that we can improve student achievement and overcome poverty, family breakdown and other factors – if we focus on the children, engage their parents and empower our teachers.

Above all, what I picked up on the bus tour is an abiding faith in the power of education to change lives for the better. People know that education is not only the best way to end poverty and build a strong future –it’s really the only way.

And the choice facing the country is pretty stark – we are at a fork in the road. Some people see education as an expense government can cut in tough economic times. President Obama sees education as an investment in our future – the best investment we can make, especially in tough economic times.

America is too far behind other countries in terms of math and science. Top students from around the world are more likely to be bilingual or even tri-lingual than our children. We’ve fallen to 14th in the world in terms of college completion.

One of the big factors impeding the economic recovery is the lack of education. That’s why millions of jobs remain unfilled. Some 90 million adults in America have basic or below-basic literacy skills. A quarter of our kids never complete high school. What chance do they have to contribute in today’s economy? In fact, some say our dropout crisis has had the impact of a permanent national recession – the loss of human potential and productivity is staggering.

Clearly, this is no time to retreat.

Going forward, our education goals build on what we have already accomplished:

  • High quality early education for more low-income children.
  • State-driven accountability that demands progress for all kids.
  • More local decision-making and fewer mandates from Washington.
  • More support and training for principals and teachers to translate high standards into practice.
  • More personalization in the classroom and greater student engagement.
  • A stronger partnership between teachers and technology.
  • A new generation of math and science teachers recruited from our top universities and from industry.
  • Passage of the DREAM Act, so the talent and potential of our Dreamers can benefit the entire country.
  • Reforming career education programs in high schools and community colleges and strengthening their ties to the private sector.
  • Closing the skills gap and helping millions of unemployed or underemployed adults join the 21st century economy.
  • And finally, we need to take a hard look at the entire student aid system – the Pell shortfall, our many grant and loan programs, more than a dozen tax credits -- and ask how we can not only simplify, but also help drive college affordability and completion. The goal can’t just be around access; it must be about attainment.

We have had an ambitious agenda over the last four years. Now it’s time to double down on what we know is working – steadily moving forward while staying focused. We all hope Congress will work together in a bipartisan way and join us in this effort.

Above all, we must continue to pursue the national goal set out by President Obama – of again being the most educated nation in the world with the highest percentage of college graduates.

There are signs of progress. College enrollment among Hispanics is up 25% in recent years. College completion is also rising. 

We are not alone in this effort. Just today, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities announced a broad new commitment to boost the number of bachelor degrees awarded by 3.8 million by 2025.

Meanwhile, nearly 10 million students used federal Pell grants to attend college this year – up from 6 million four years ago. Americans are desperately hungry for a quality education and willing to do just about anything to get one. They know what’s at stake for them, and for their families.

Let me tell you about Regina Flores. She dropped out of high school, but with Pell Grants she went back and eventually earned physics and math degrees from Columbia. Today, she works for a Fortune 500 company in New York.

Sandra Lwee is a war veteran, who used Pell grants to earn a four-year degree from the University of California-San Diego. She is now a chemical engineer.

Emanuel Maverakis (Mavver-ockis) grew up in in poverty in Los Angeles. He started in community college, graduated from UCLA with degrees in microbiology and molecular genetics and went on to Harvard Medical School where he graduated summa cum laude.

We came to Washington to fight for Regina and Sandra and Emanuel– and the millions of students like them who just need a chance to prove themselves. They are out there in big cities and small towns. I meet people like them everywhere I go. They give me hope and inspire me and my team to work harder.

They’re ready to invent something new and remarkable – find a cure for cancer – start a new business – become a school teacher and build a stronger America.

They’re not asking for a handout – they want a hand up. They will work hard. They will give it everything they have. We owe them the same. And we owe our children much more.

Education shouldn’t be so hard.  School children shouldn’t fear for their safety. They shouldn’t have to worry about being hungry. Schools should not have to choose between arts and sports, or after-school activities and summer schools to balance their budgets.

Teachers should not be isolated in their classrooms and forced to teach to a test. Young people should not complete their education saddled with debt.

But too often, this is the reality in America today. To change these realities we must rise above the partisan politics – we have to set aside the tired debates pitting reformers against unions – and we have to discard the ugly and divisive rhetoric of blame, and become much more self-reflective.

We have to unite behind the cause of public education and recognize that the solutions don’t come from one party or one ideology.

They come from people of good will – teachers, principals, parents, business and community leaders – joining together, supporting each other and creating the right conditions for learning.

They come from elected officials and school boards with the courage to tell the truth -- especially when it carries political risks.

They come from students – like the group of young leaders I met with yesterday – finding their own voices and demanding the education they want and need and deserve.

Finally, they come from all of us – you and me – challenging ourselves and holding ourselves accountable.

We don’t have a minute to waste.

Thank you.