Opening Remarks of Arne Duncan at Indiana Town Hall with Governor Mitch Daniels

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Opening Remarks of Arne Duncan at Indiana Town Hall with Governor Mitch Daniels

April 15, 2011

Thank you for having me here today.

I'm here at a time when Americans everywhere are asking some very tough questions of themselves -- and it all comes down to this: What will it take to dramatically improve public education in America?

With a quarter of our students dropping out of high school, with less than half earning any kind of college degree, and with America slipping further behind other countries, we cannot stand still any longer.

So -- how do we reverse decades of stagnation? How do we drive innovation and reform? How do we strengthen the teaching profession to get the very best people in the classroom? How do we pay them, support them and honor them?

How do we stretch our dollars so that every child gets a well-rounded education complete with the arts, physical education, foreign languages, history, STEM -- along with reading and math? And how do we fund our schools more equitably?

If America is about one thing its equality and if education has one core responsibility -- it is to level the playing field so that all of our children have a fair shot at a good life.

So these are some very tough questions and some of the answers are even tougher to swallow -- especially in tight fiscal times like these ones. Today, states are being forced to choose between P-12 and higher education. Teacher layoffs are happening all over the country. Kids are being furloughed -- and vital programs are being cut.

Now, few states have done a better job of coping with the recession than Indiana and I want to salute you -- Governor Daniels -- for your leadership and management skills.

I also salute you for your leadership on education issues. You are among the 42 states that have voluntarily adopted college and career ready standards. You knew the bar here was too low and needed to be raised, even if that was hard to do. You are among the 46 states that developed bold reform plans to compete for Race to the Top.

And now you are one of several states pushing ahead with reform -- even though you don't have a Race to the Top grant -- and that not only takes a lot of hard work -- it also takes courage.

As I look at your reform proposals -- some I can agree with -- and some I can't agree with. As you know we support expansion of good charter schools and we absolutely encourage more scholarships for young people to go to college.

We also support a robust teacher evaluation system based on multiple measures -- including student achievement -- as well as things like peer review and principal observation, student work, student and parent feedback and objective measures like teacher attendance.

I should emphasize that the primary purpose of a teacher evaluation system is to give teachers the feedback they need in order to get better and to help them differentiate instruction based on individual student needs.

But it is also important for holding ourselves and each other accountable and recognizing and rewarding teacher excellence, which we must do if we are going to get better. Whatever you decide, I urge you to sit down with teachers and work it out together.

Where I part ways with you is over two issues: vouchers and limiting collective bargaining rights. Our position on both issues has been clear and should not come as a surprise to anyone.

We must make every public school a great school – not a school good enough for someone else's children, but for our own children. Our country will never be as strong or as great it should be until we reach that point.

I view teachers and their unions as partners in reform -- not adversaries. Teachers are the foot soldiers in this battle to strengthen American education. They are nation builders. Real and sustained change simply will not happen without them.

I worry that Indiana may overlook the opportunity to drive change through tough-minded collaboration rather than confrontation. I worry that in winning a battle over collective bargaining rights you might also lose the hearts and minds of the teachers you need to sustain this movement.

I would also point out that three of your school districts -- Clarksville, Evansville and South Bend -- attended a conference we held in Denver in February to talk about ways that labor and management can collaborate to support reform.

It was attended by superintendents, board presidents and union leaders from across the country -- and we challenged them all to move beyond the divisive issues of the past and work together to put student achievement at the center of their relationship. One hundred fifty school districts attended, and we had a waiting list of an additional 100 districts. There is a hunger out there to find a new way. A dozen districts presented how they have literally used collective bargaining to close achievement gaps and raise the bar for all students. Our goal is for many districts to follow in their footsteps.

We often find ourselves on the opposite side of some issues -- but I always come back to our common agenda: we all want great schools for our children. We all want a stronger, more secure America. And we know that education is the key to our future. We share the urgency to get better, faster than we ever have before.

So I appreciate the challenges facing Indiana and I would like everyone to take a risk, demonstrate real leadership and courage, and to step outside their comfort zones including management, unions, and elected officials.

The most important thing is not to let areas of disagreement stand in the way of our collective progress. You hold the fate of your children, your state, and ultimately the country in your collective hands. Nothing is more important than helping our nation educate our way to a better tomorrow.