Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos to Students and Faculty at Woods Learning Center

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Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos to Students and Faculty at Woods Learning Center

September 12, 2017

Following are the prepared remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to students and faculty at Woods Learning Center in Casper, Wyoming. Today's event is the first of Secretary DeVos' six-state, "Rethink School" tour, showcasing creative ways in which education leaders are meeting the needs of students in K-12 and higher education.

Thank you, Ms. Deyonne Jackson, for the kind introduction, and Superintendent Steve Hopkins, for the opportunity to be here on your wonderful campus.

To the students and teachers with us today, good morning! Welcome back to school!

I want to take a minute to acknowledge and thank Senator Enzi, who champions students every day on the Senate education committee. I also want to commend Senator Barrasso, Congressman Cheney and Governor Mead for their leadership on behalf of Wyoming.

We should also pause and remember that, unfortunately, many aren't able to go to school today because of hurricanes. I want to take a moment to share my thoughts and prayers with students, families and teachers in the states and territories impacted by Harvey and Irma. We are doing everything we can to help those students and teachers get back to school and back to normal as quickly as possible.

So how many of you are excited to be back in school?

I'm really excited to be here today. Like Ms. Jackson said, I am the United States Secretary of Education. I'm also a mom and a grandma. In fact, my oldest granddaughter just started first grade back home in Michigan.

But my new job is in Washington, D.C.—have any of you been to Washington? It's a really special city, but—and don't tell anyone this—I'd rather be here with kids like you.

That's because my job is to work every day to help make all schools better for all students across the country.

And that's what I want to talk about: how can we make school more exciting, more challenging and more rewarding for every student, every day?

The start of a new school year represents a new opportunity, a clean slate. A fresh start can renew hope for your future.

And here in Casper, that's your heritage. Your city was founded by people looking for a fresh start and a new beginning.

The great West has always been a symbol of American courage, strength and potential. When settlers—perhaps some of your ancestors—dared to grow families and build communities here, abundant naysayers warned: The air is too dry. The land is too rocky. The resources are too scarce. It can't be done, they said.

How wrong were they, though?

Those early determined settlers of the west had something the cynics didn't: American grit.

They expanded America because they had the courage and audacity to rethink what America was and reimagine what it could be.

It's in that spirit that I'm issuing a bold challenge this week: it's time to rethink school.

For far too many kids, this year's first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year's first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!

That means your parent's parent's parents!

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the "average" student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.

It's a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.

And like those western settlers, anyone who dares to suggest schools ought to do better by their students is warned off: It's too hard. It'll take too long. There's not enough money. It can't be done.

Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education "system."

What's an education "system"?

There is no such thing! Are you a system? No, you're individual students, parents and teachers.

Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren't the same as the next, which is why no school—not even a great one like Woods—is a perfect fit for every student. Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around.

That's exactly what's happening here in Natrona County. Your school leaders recognize this and say:

"We also know that families have many reasons for choosing various schools. Some want to send kids to the school down the street, while others select schools based on proximity of daycare or work. Others choose schools based on teaching styles, family tradition, or word of mouth. Open enrollment gives families the opportunities to find the schools that are best for them and their children."

That's right! Students, your parents know you best, and they are in the best position to select the best learning environment for you.

And you deserve a say too! That's why I love that your school lets you vote on what activities to do outside the classroom.

Your teachers have been a critical part of rethinking school as well. For too long, too many teachers have been sidelined, not allowed to be part of the solution. Too many feel like their hands are tied when the "system" tells them when to teach, how to teach and what to teach. I believe teachers should be respected as professionals and that they should have the freedom to innovate and the flexibility to meet their students' needs.

Your teachers and parents certainly know better than so-called "education professionals," who are often staunch defenders of the status quo.

Have any of you heard of Ronald Reagan? He was our president, and he used to say that status quo is just Latin for "the mess we're in."

I know solutions to "the mess we're in" are found in communities like Casper. It might be obvious to you, but what sounds revolutionary to many in Washington is just called "common-sense problem solving" here.

Maybe that's why some of your teachers thought we were kidding when we called to ask about kicking off our tour here!

But when I thought more about that, it hit me that you live with an unfortunate and unfair reality. Communities like Casper are often overlooked and dismissed.

But you certainly shouldn't be. Your needs are no different than the needs of kids, parents and teachers anywhere else in America. You need access to the best education possible to open as many doors as possible.

That's exactly why we must re-think what school means for every student.

But why? We are not doing this just for the sake of rethinking, or because I or anyone else said so.

We are doing it for you. Because you deserve an education that meets your needs. You deserve an education that challenges you. You deserve an education that's engaging and exciting. You deserve an education that prepares you for the future you want.

That's why I'm going on a field trip this week. I will travel through the west and the heartland to visit the visionaries, teachers and students who are doing just that: rethinking what it means to really engage you in a life-long learning journey and to prepare you for successful careers and lives.

So I've got a question: Why exactly are you here? What is the point? What is school for?

Education should be a journey, a life-long one that encourages you to harness your curiosity into contributions to your family, our country and the world.

We must rethink school because too many students don't have what you have—a school focused solely on helping you gain the knowledge and skills necessary for today's—and tomorrow's—realities. Skills like critical thinking. Collaboration. Communication. Creativity.

Woods has it right. This is a school that's putting students first.

But we must challenge even the best to do better. We must challenge all schools to do better.

No one should ever just settle. We expect better everywhere else, don't we?

Have you learned about Henry Ford? He helped put the world on wheels. But he didn't stop creating after his revolutionary Model T car. And do you know who Steve Jobs was? He founded Apple Computer, and he invented the iPhone. But he didn't stop improving after the first iPhone. He kept going to make it better.

And how about John Deere? If he had stopped finding better ways, the only place you'd see his name stamped in steel is on a plow being pulled behind a mule.

Leaders. Inventors. Innovators. They never stop. Educators shouldn't either.

Yet, education has been stuck in the 1800s using a model courtesy of Prussia. Can anyone point out Prussia—yeah, Prussia, with a "P"—on a map? You can't, because it no longer exists! The Prussian model served its purpose for a time, but we all instinctively know—and the data show—it's no longer working.

For decades, the United States has been stuck in the middle of the pack when compared to the rest of the world. Think for a moment what it would be like if at the next Olympics, Americans didn't win one gold medal. Or if no American won any medal at all.

We wouldn't settle for that, would we?

But that's exactly what we do when it comes to education. We don't even get to the platform, or even in the top 10.

If we're going to go for the gold, so to speak, we must change our training regimen. We're going to need to do something radically different.

We must rethink school.

Here at Woods, you know that well. Your personalized learning program rethinks school because it is structured around you. Each of your learning plans is developed for each of you, recognizing that each of you is different, and that you learn at your own pace and in your own way.

Your success here at Woods is determined by what each of you are learning and mastering. Not by how long you sit at your desks. That is awesome, by the way.

While we have a long way to go, there are a lot of folks are trying new and better things across the country.

Like Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, which is doing its part to keep Austin "weird." That sounds pretty fun to me. Students decide what they learn, how they learn and what to do when things go awry—with only a few adult guides there to accompany the students on their way.

Place-based schools do away with the all-day lecture-style model and provide interactive learning opportunities.

That's what they're doing at the Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Michigan. It's a "public school in a public place" where they embrace Ford's motto of "learning by doing." Students spend some of their day in a classroom, but then use what they learned by tinkering in a laboratory or getting their green thumbs in a garden.

It's a really cool place to learn.

And in Miami, I recently visited students who are beginning to earn a college degree without ever having to leave their high school classrooms. It's a partnership between the local school district and community college, and it's a model that's rightfully gaining in popularity across the Nation.

Boston Day School in Massachusetts offers a "credit recovery" program for formerly incarcerated youth, dropouts, or young mothers that includes extended classroom time and courses offered on weekends. It offers opportunities to students who might otherwise, the statistic say, drop out or give up.

Other schools include students with a wide range of ages in the same classroom. The one-room schoolhouse is not a new idea—neither is reading the classics in "great book" learning models—but rethinking school doesn't necessarily require all new ideas. There are lots of 21st century approaches to older ideas that can better meet students' needs.

Co-ops gather home-schoolers in the community with local experts teaching what they know best. Sacred Heart Academy, a parochial school in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers classroom time to home-schooled students in what it calls "classical enrichment courses."

Boys Latin in Philadelphia is a terrific school I visited not long ago. There every young man is taught Latin and encouraged to use it throughout the day, not just in one class period.

Countless magnet and charter schools are trailblazers in offering alternatives for students. They help students pursue their own passions, offering programs that focus on the arts, aviation, computer science, rodeo, and even skiing and snowboarding, just to name a few.

These schools take the interests that excite and energize kids and weave them into everything they learn. It's a simple idea, but the results are astounding.

Rethinking school is ultimately about encouraging you—and all of us—to be lifelong learners, and it's about providing wide ranges of options to make that possible. The pursuit of truth doesn't end with a diploma. There is no finish line.

Rethinking school means everyone taking a hard look at everything we do, being honest about why we do it and studying the results. Rethinking school means embracing dramatic change. Even if it is hard and even if it is scary.

Albert Einstein got it. Have you learned about him?

He said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Kind of like asking mom and dad if you can have cake and ice cream for dinner every night, and expecting—magically—they're going to say yes.

We've been doing the same thing for generations in schools, but expecting different and better results.

The founding teachers of Woods broke that mold. They recognized that to improve they had to try something different.

We need to encourage more to follow their example. To courageously challenge "the mess we're in."

We must empower the teachers, the innovators, the visionaries and most of all the parents who want the best for their children.

We must rethink school.

You students represent 100 percent of our future. We owe it to you, and to students across the country, to think bigger. To rekindle the can-do spirit that drove Americans west to pursue something greater. To help each of you realize your full potential and achieve your dreams.

We can, we must and we will rethink school.

Thank you so much for your hospitality, for letting me begin my tour here today with you. I hope you have a great day!