The Obama Record in Education

Archived Information

The Obama Record in Education

Secretary Duncan's Remarks to the Mom Congress

April 30, 2012

Thank you, Mark.

Good morning and welcome to Washington, delegates.

This is the third Mom Congress, and I've been honored to be at all three of them. I'm even more honored to have partners like you working across America to support education.

With the support of parents and community leaders like you, educators all across our country are tackling tough issues in ways that just a few years ago seemed unimaginable.

This educational sea-change is a powerful shift that is beginning to fundamentally improve the lives of students. I can't tell you how much hope that gives me for the future.

We still have a long way to go in America to provide every child with the world-class education they need and deserve. But so many people across our nation have really stepped up their game. Educators, community leaders, elected officials and parents have begun to not just reform but transform their education systems.

Under President Obama's leadership, our role here in Washington is to support you. At the Department of Education, our first three years were really about building a foundation for this transformation. We have challenged the status quo wherever it is needed and championed bold reform wherever it is happening along the educational pipeline from cradle to career.

To elevate the quality of early learning, our Administration created the first-ever federal competition to support states in coordinating and strengthening their preschool programs. The best investment we can make as a nation is in high-quality early childhood education to make sure our children enter kindergarten ready to succeed. We are in this work for the long haul.

To reverse the decade-long dumbing down of academic standards that took place in far too many states under No Child Left Behind, we supported state and local efforts to raise standards for all students, so they're truly prepared for college and careers.

To strengthen K-12 education, we launched novel programs like Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation fund, and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which encourage educators to use data to enhance their classroom instruction and accelerate student learning. We are investing in courageous leadership at the local level and taking to scale best practices that are closing achievement gaps and raising the bar for all students.

Rather than passively admiring the problem and shrugging our shoulders in the face of chronically low-performing schools, the Administration invested more than $4 billion to bring about real and urgent change for the students at those schools.

With the Recovery Act and emergency jobs funding, we kept more than 325,000 teachers in the classroom at the height of the recession, because it would have been devastating to have mass layoffs of teachers. Unfortunately, Congress didn't give us the resources to begin to save every teacher's job, but we did stave off an education catastrophe.

We have invested heavily in principal and teacher quality, and provided incentives for great teachers to teach the students most in need. We encouraged the creative use of technology to increase equity and access. We've built strong partnerships with schools boards, superintendents and unions all across America to drive reform. Together, we're making productive collaboration between labor and management an expectation instead of an exception. When adults fight, children lose.

The Obama administration's investments in higher education have done more to increase access to college than any administration since Franklin Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill. We increased funding for Pell Grant scholarships by $40 billion over the next decade simply by cutting overly generous federal subsidies to banks that made student loans. Since the President took office, three million more students are going to college with Pell Grants. While that move was highly controversial here in Washington, we thought it was common sense. Young people, not banks, needed our investment, and we were able to do this without going back to taxpayers for a nickel.

The Administration has also invested $2.5 billion to support adults attending community colleges.

This isn't tinkering. This is transformational change—and President Obama has been deeply engaged in leading this effort. He understands intuitively that in a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, education is key to our future prosperity and national security. He gets the importance of providing equal opportunity on a very personal level.

President Obama and the First Lady, the Vice President and Dr. Biden – all four of them – embody the power of education. Growing up, their wealth wasn't the monetary kind. Instead they had supportive parents like you and grandparents who valued knowledge and nurtured them. They had teachers who recognized their gifts. Student grants and loans helped them afford college.

When the President and I were growing up, you could still get a good job with just a high school diploma. As all of you know, the world has changed. That's virtually impossible today. And we are never going back to the past. You may not need a PhD or even a four-year degree, but without some form of education or training beyond 12th grade, employers with high-skill, high-wage jobs to fill are going to hire someone else.

And, for those who drop out of high school, there are no good jobs in the legal economy. Unfortunately, that path -- from schools to our streets – is one a student falls into literally every 26 seconds.

Consider the lost opportunity for those kids – our kids —1.3 million of them every year. Consider the staggering economic cost to our nation when one in four of our students don't get a high school diploma. It's a drain on our labor market, our housing market, our criminal justice system, and our tax base. When we fail to properly educate on the front end, we all pay, and pay dearly, on the back end.

The good news is our dropout rate is going down and graduation rates are inching up. But we must do better. The battle for quality education is both an economic imperative and a daily fight for social justice.

Just one generation ago, America had the highest percentage of adults with a college degree in the world. Now, in 2012, our young adults rank 16th in college attainment. South Korea, Canada, Norway, Australia, France, and other nations are all ahead of us.

We do even worse on international comparisons of elementary and secondary performance. Students in Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, and Singapore are all out-performing the United States.

Our sons and daughters may not play these countries' kids in soccer on Saturdays. But they will be competing against them when it's time to get a job. Our children are as smart, creative, and entrepreneurial and talented as children anywhere in the world. We must simply level the playing field for them.

At the same time we're trying to raise standards to compete globally, we've taken other common-sense steps that don't necessarily cost a lot of money but have a real impact on students and their families. For instance, we dramatically simplified the dreaded FAFSA form that every parent fills out when a student applies to college in order to get financial aid. The form itself had become a barrier to college, which was absolutely crazy to me.

We also changed the way we do business at the Department of Education. Instead of issuing top-down edicts, we provided incentives and support for states, districts, schools and local communities to undertake reform themselves, including offering more flexibility to states in the form of waivers from No Child Left Behind.

We think that carrots work better than sticks—and we know that NCLB's one-size-fits-all prescriptions encouraged too much teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum in many schools. No Child Left Behind is broken. Luckily, we have been able to partner directly with states and start to provide relief as we go into the next school year.

America's education system is facing new challenges in 2012. States and districts must make tough choices to pursue bold reforms and protect critical programs.

Last year, all but nine states cut funding for higher education. Twenty-six states spent a smaller share of their budgets on K-12. Twenty-four states cut spending on preschool. This is clearly not a Republican or Democratic issue. This is a national challenge. We must demand better. We have to educate our way to a better economy and invest from cradle to career. Always remember, budgets aren't just numbers on a piece of paper. They reflect our values.

What we have seen recently moves us in the wrong direction. We can't lay off teachers by the thousands. We can't cut back on extra support for low-income students or students with disabilities or children new to our country learning English.

We can't cut out the activities that provide a well-rounded education like science, social studies, art, music, and P.E. We can't cut access to Pell Grants, as some in Congress want us to.

We have to do more, not less.

Children don't vote. They don't fund PACs and can't afford lobbyists. Too many of them can't even afford lunch.

We – you and me – all of us – have to stand up for children.

That's why we elevated the issue of bullying to a national level – confronting head-on the cruelty that keeps kids home from school and can even tragically lead to suicide. Some of my toughest meetings have been with parents whose children took their own lives to escape the pain of bullying.

That why we enforce civil rights laws: to hold ourselves and each other accountable to core values of equity and fairness at the heart of the American dream.

That's why we insist on transparency of outcomes for sub-groups like low-income and minority students and students with disabilities. We are committed to educating every child, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, ability or disability.

All of these efforts are just beginning to pay off. For example, our signature reform program, Race to the Top, is helping Delaware offer free access to the SAT for high school juniors. Last year, 95 percent of 11th graders participated, up from just 36 percent in 2010.

In Tennessee, our investment is expanding two alternative pathway programs that recruit more qualified teachers for hard-to-fill subjects like science, math and special education.

Ohio and Rhode Island are expanding scholarships for early learning teachers and providing bonuses for them. Business and philanthropic partners are chipping in. That's something I love to see. Everyone must have skin in this game – no one gets a pass. Better education is our national mission.

Through this administration's School Improvement Grant program, we're infusing real money into turning around chronically low-performing schools and dropout factories that must change now. In early data, roughly one in four participating schools had double-digit increases in math proficiency. One in five schools had double-digit increases in reading. Children and adults are feeling a sense of hope, opportunity, and momentum that too often wasn't there in the past. One senior told me that if these chances had come earlier, more of his friends and classmates would still be in school with him.

Zoom in, and you can see dramatic change at the community level.

In an economically disadvantaged area of northeast Tennessee, our Investing in Innovation program, called i3, is funding technology to connect rural high school students to AP classes and other college prep courses. It's also funding counselors to guide students into postsecondary programs. That support is so critical, especially for first-generation college goers.

At one of the participating high schools, historically just one in five graduates went on to some form of college or certificate program. Now, every single senior is continuing on. One father whose son is in the program enrolled himself in GED classes, so that he could join his son at a technical college in the fall. Think about the new trajectory this family is now on, together.

In Athens, Georgia, we heard a story about a young mother who attended a meeting to plan for the community's application to our Promise Neighborhood program, which uses wraparound services to improve schools and revitalize impoverished communities. At the meeting, they discussed how important it was for parents to read to their children, and this mother of a two-year-old courageously confessed that she didn't know how to read. Now she's learning.

i3 is also helping to scale up successful programs that have been making a difference for years. You may have heard of the KIPP network of charter schools, which has had real success preparing low-income students for college. Part of the KIPP success formula is great school principals. In schools, in business, in government: leadership matters. One way KIPP is using its i3 scale-up grant is to teach its leadership lessons to administrators in traditional district-run schools. KIPP is helping to fulfill an original mission of charter schools: to be laboratories of innovation for all schools.

There is so much change underway today. On their own, forty-five states, plus D.C., have developed and now adopted the Common Core standards in math and English. These standards are internationally benchmarked. No more dummying down standards and lying to children and their parents just to make politicians look good.

What do these new, higher, more consistent standards mean for parents?

For starters, they mean that your children will truly graduate from high school with the skills they need to succeed in college. Today, there's a huge gap between what most high schools expect and what both colleges and employers are looking for. We must close that gap – and its starts with increasing rigor. The typical 12th grade classroom asks students to read texts that are about four years too easy – even in neighborhoods some families move to for the schools.

Today, college is a quantum leap for too many students, not a smooth transition. About 60 percent of community college students end up in remedial courses, which don't confer college credit but still cost money and force them to burn Pell Grants.

High standards are not a silver bullet, but they will change the expectations for what teachers will teach and what every child should know. They'll put the U.S. back on a trajectory that's competitive with the rest of the world, and that's a big deal.

And if your family moves to another state, your children won't suddenly face lowered expectations in the classroom. For the first time maybe ever, the bar for what children should know will be the same in Massachusetts as in Mississippi.

Ask any military family how important that is; they move around all the time. The least we can do is better serve the children of families who sacrifice so much for all of us. It's much better for teachers, too—less guessing about what an incoming student knows and more opportunities for teachers to collaborate with colleagues, not just across the hall, but across the country.

In a couple of years, with money from Washington, states will put in place improved ways of determining what students have learned and what they still need to work on.

With a 4th grade daughter and a 2nd grade son at home, I'm as concerned as any parent or teacher about over-testing and teaching to the test. But I'm equally concerned about kids slipping through the cracks if we aren't keeping track of their progress and holding adults accountable for helping them learn. There is a common sense middle ground here that we're striving for.

The next generation of assessments being created by two consortia of states will replace the basic fill-in-the-bubble tests that teachers are using today. They'll be designed to measure critical thinking, not just memorization.

For kids who are struggling, these assessments will help diagnose their challenges. For kids who are excelling, these assessments will adapt to their higher achievement levels and finally be able to accurately measure their progress. No parent wants a limit put on how much their child can learn.

I talk to parents, teachers and students all the time. And in those conversations I hear a deep and growing concern not just about finishing high school but about the ever-increasing price of college.

Two weeks ago I was in Iowa and I met a high school senior with a twin brother who's also graduating this spring. She told me her family is worried that they'll have to choose which child gets to go to college next year. Imagine being in that situation. No family should have to make that kind of choice.

That's why we're working so hard to keep college affordable. For example, the President wants to stop interest rates on student loans from doubling this summer. Even his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, agrees. We look forward to working with Congress to get the President's proposals passed.

The bottom line today is: We can't stop. The costs of educational stagnation and mediocrity are too high. President Obama has put us on a path to reach our goal of being the best-educated country in the world by 2020, and we have to keep going.

Along the way we're having a robust conversation with America's teachers. For far too long, teachers have been considered interchangeable widgets, who haven't been recognized and rewarded for the impact they have on student learning.

To change that 19th Century assembly-line model, the President has proposed $5 billion to begin to transform the teaching profession from start to finish. We must fundamentally elevate and strengthen the teaching profession and stop beating down our educators. Right now teachers all over the country are helping my staff and me think through how to recruit the best people into the job, prepare them much more effectively for the classroom, pay them more to stay, and support them throughout their careers.

We can't begin to reach our goals without excellent teachers. But all of us parents need to hold up our end of the bargain.

We often talk about parents being partners in education. When we say that, we're usually talking about the healthy and productive relationships that can develop between the adults in a child's life at home and the adults who work with that child at school. I can't overstate how important this partnership is. I know you're going to talk a lot at this conference about how to form those relationships. But our work as parents in education can't stop there.

We also need to be partners in bigger, systemic issues. That's where you come in. I've read about the amazing work that all of you have done in your communities and collectively, you inspire me.

So here's your homework assignment: Keep doing what you're doing back home—and you will always have a strong partner in President Obama, in me, and in our Department of Education.

Many of you have served as PTA leaders in your schools. Your Connecticut mom serves as the parent rep on the local school board. Your Georgia delegate is advising the state superintendent. Keep contributing that crucial parent voice. Your voice, individually and collectively, is much more powerful than you may realize.

In Texas, keep developing more mobile apps to connect parents and schools. For my part, I'll keep pushing to double the Title I dollars that districts can spend to design family engagement strategies that work for them. We want to do more in parent engagement.

In Alabama and Pennsylvania, continue advocating for the inclusion of autistic students and other kids with special needs, and I'll continue to hold all states accountable for their growth.

In the California desert, keep that mobile robotics lab rolling. I'll give priority to science, technology, engineering and math. I'll also work with other federal agencies toward a common strategy that secures America's leadership in STEM subjects and prepares our children for the jobs of the future.

Keep advocating for Head Start in Maine, and I'll ensure that rural areas like yours have equal access to education funding from Washington.

To complement the free medical care you're providing kids in South Carolina, I'll work with Health and Human Services to help fund school-based health care clinics. I'm thrilled that we have already invested $200 million in that effort.

In New Jersey, I want you organizing more family Zumba nights – and I'll do my part by promising not to show up!

And, finally, please plant more school gardens to supply the cafeterias in Vermont. The First Lady and I will continue to support exercise and more nutritious meals in schools, so our kids are physically ready to learn and developing healthy lifestyles that will last them a lifetime.

They say that when a student walks across the stage to receive a diploma, a whole family walks with them.

In 2020, today's eighth graders will be finishing college. At that point, we must again be first in the world in graduation rates, not 16th. And with the foundation that President Obama has laid, I can imagine all of us at their graduation ceremony, like a proud family.

We'll be there as parent advocates, secretaries of education, state governors and legislators.

We'll be there as mayors, school board members, college presidents and professors... as superintendents, principals, teachers, and union leaders.

Democrats... Republicans... Independents – it doesn't matter. We'll all cheer for our students and ourselves as America's graduates are declared the world's valedictorians.

At graduation, no one cheers louder than mom.

I'll save you all a seat.

Thank you.