Partnering for Education Reform

Archived Information

Partnering for Education Reform

Remarks by U.S. Deputy Secretary Tony Miller at the Church of God in Christ's International AIM Convention in Houston, Texas

July 7, 2011

Good evening! It's an absolute pleasure to be here.

Thank you for inviting me. I really enjoy getting out of Washington and speaking to those who are doing God's work in communities all across America. While we are working hard every day to change how things typically work inside the Beltway—we recognize that if we are to successfully address the crisis confronting our education system, then the change that's happening every day in pockets of promise nationwide needs to not only continue but to grow. It's in small towns, large cities and suburban areas where real and transformative change needs to happen.

You know, I've got to admit—it can be a little intimidating to speak before such a large crowd of people. As part of my responsibility, I regularly meet with groups, and have spoken to relatively large groups; frankly, I've never had the opportunity to address 10,000 people before. This is exciting!

As I was preparing for today's visit and trying to get my head around the size of this group, something struck that will help put my remarks today in context.

This group here tonight is only a little larger than the more than 7,000 students who drop out of school every day.

One out of every four students that walks through the schoolhouse doors on the first day of their freshmen year in high school will not graduate with their classmates, if at all. In minority communities, the numbers are even bleaker—it is closer to one out of every two. Every year, that's 1.2 million students giving up. That's a student dropping out every 26 seconds. We need serious changes in our public schools.

So as I said to some of you earlier today, I refuse to equivocate: this is a crisis. This is not something we can ignore and hope for the best. This is not a choice. This is a challenge. And we cannot rest until we meet it.

We cannot rest when students are held to a lower standard inside the classroom because of their life outside of the classroom.

We cannot rest when low-performing schools steal the future of children who just happened to be born into the wrong ZIP code.

We cannot rest when parents leave the TV on and don't check-in on their child's homework.

We cannot rest when the words of the great reformer Horace Mann, that education should be the great equalizer, fail to ring true for so many.

Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot rest until we live in a land where education fulfills the promise of the great civil rights struggles of the past.

Education is the civil rights issue of our time. Education is the one true path out of poverty. But for too many poor and minority students in our country, their schools aren't putting them on the path to economic prosperity. When a child can't escape poverty through determination and grit in the classroom, then what does that say about this nation?

We've been told by the founders in our nation's founding documents that in the United States of America, in the light of liberty to the world, there is no limit to what someone can do, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. But children all across the country aren't finding that to be true.

This struggle isn't about politics or money or power or fame. This is about something far more fundamental: the belief that poverty should not be destiny.

There are some out there who question the work President Obama, Secretary Duncan and I are doing to reform our nation's system of education. They say we're moving too quickly. They say we're asking for too much. Perhaps they think our system of education is good enough.

But we cannot sit still. Now, I've been blessed. My father, who was homeless at the age of 16 was fortunate to have someone in his community (a policeman) who helped him stay out of the pool hall and stay in school.

He excelled in football and was awarded a scholarship to Virginia State where he met my mother—who went on to become a high school teacher.

Not surprisingly, they both believed in education, and stressed that for me and my sisters. As a result, I had the fortune of attending some great schools. So my blessings have been plentiful—by God's grace I had loving and caring parents who had support from their communities at key times in their lives. But far too many others are not as fortunate.

So we all must be our brothers' keepers. All of us—rich or poor, black or white, Native American or immigrant, teacher or student—has a responsibility to each other. When a child cannot escape the fierce claws of poverty through education, we all should shed tears. Dr. King envisioned a beloved community where people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and creeds work together to help each other. Today, we need to be a beloved community for our children.

You see, for a long time in American education, we've cared about cultivating academic excellence—and with good reason. We need to nurture and challenge our nation's brightest minds if we're going to win the future.

But I believe that we need to care as much about equity as we do about excellence. If the United States of America is going to have any moral currency in the 21st century, then we cannot ignore our nation's achievement gaps. We cannot accept the status quo.

So to those who say that American education is "good enough," I ask—for whom? As a country, our 15 year olds rank 15th in reading, 17th in Math, and 25th in Science. We've fallen from 1st to 9th in the world in % with college degrees. Even during these tough economic times, millions of jobs are going unfilled because employers can't find workers with the necessary skills. And if on average we have a crisis, in many of the urban, suburban and rural communities where you and I come from, it is even worse. Clearly our system is not "good enough." Today, 25 percent of high school freshman fail to graduate with their classes. For our black and Hispanic students, that percentage is 40 percent. That's not "good enough". Of those that do go on the college, as many as 40% or more need remediation once they get there because they aren't fully prepared. That's not "good enough". 75% of students who enter Community College don't graduate within 6 years. That's not "good enough". It will only be "good enough" when all of our nation's students graduate from high school ready for college or careers and go on to realize their full education potential.

That's when it will be "good enough" and that's when we'll be able to slow down. That's when we can consider demanding less.

As you know all too well, the reach of academic success extends far beyond the classroom walls. An inadequate education is at the root of so many of the social and economic ills that threaten our nation's health.

When our country is failing children in their schools, we should not be surprised that our children are failing their country in our streets.

You see, when we talk about economic development—about job creation, about technology—we're really talking about education. When we talk about stopping youth violence—about drug policies, about incarceration rates—we're really talking about education.

If our schools are not preparing students with the knowledge and skills they need to get a job, to raise a family, or to buy a home, then it should be no wonder that they fill our jail cells or unemployment lines. We can either do right by our kids now or pay the price for it down the line.

A great school—or even just a single great teacher—can make the difference between college and prison, between opportunity and oppression. If we're serious about revitalizing the American economy and the American dream, then we must zero in on providing a world-class education for all students.

You are in these communities and see the choices students make daily. You see them at their best—studying hard for tests, doing community service—and at their worst—choosing Xbox over homework, doing drugs and alcohol. I know you can help them.

In communities large or small, urban or rural, faith is the true constant. The church is the North Star on the path to college.

So I have one request for you tonight: Be our partners in urgency. This isn't something we can wait on.

When all is said and done, most of the change that will matter most will not emanate from the hallways of Washington DC. Now, we must and we will do our part... and our part is necessary but it's not sufficient.

It will happen when a parent sees weekend tutoring as a necessity rather than as punishment. It will happen because a teacher is being highly effectively in the classroom in fighting the war against the achievement gap. It will happen when we recognize that while the teacher is critically important, he or she must be effectively supported by the principal and overall school system.

And it happens every time the Church of God in Christ and your peers in the faith-based community invest in the community and holds all students to high expectations, working to ensure that every child receives a high-quality education.

We know there are students in this country who wake up to go to schools that are literally falling apart. We know that once inside the classroom, too many are held to low standards that don't push them to succeed. And when they get home, no one asks them about their day or encourages them to do their homework.

Confronting these challenges every day, I must tell you some days I'm tired. Some days I want to rest. But I can't rest peacefully until we rectify this gross miscarriage of justice. What we do today and everyday matters. Our children cannot wait. Equality cannot wait. This is urgent.

As Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied."

Let's not delay anymore. Let's not wait. Thank you and God bless.

Let's change the future and the futures of our youth beginning today. Are you with me?