Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at U.S. Space & Rocket Center

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Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at U.S. Space & Rocket Center

October 3, 2018

For more than 50 years, the George Marshall Space Flight Center has helped design and build the engines, vehicles, and space instruments that make possible what was thought impossible. And Alabama’s own U.S. Space & Rocket Center inspires young campers to embark on missions of science and discovery.

For students across America, the summer break is well over. Classes and homework have resumed. Learning has resumed.

But have you ever stopped to wonder why America's schools close for three months? Do hospitals close? Or grocery stores? Your favorite restaurant? Why does "the system" gear learning to "the school year"? Within artificial boundaries? Within parameters? Within limits?

This is an important question. We are here at a place that symbolizes unlimited horizons. It's a good time to talk about how to un-limit learning, and un-limit potential... how to rethink school. Let's question everything about the "established" approach to education to ensure what we do makes sense for the 21st century and that it actually works for students.

Because for too many students, what is happening in too many places just isn't working.

8 years ago, President Barack Obama spoke of a "Sputnik moment" for education. I'm sure many of the space campers here are familiar with the history of Sputnik.

President Obama warned that, like in 1957, America has been surpassed by much of the world—only this time in education. He called for the same kind of innovation in education that occurred in space exploration after the launch of Sputnik. He called for the same kind of determination to be number one... to win.

That was 8 years ago. But precious little has changed since that declaration. We have not responded to this challenge in education as we did in 1957 in space.

That's why today, "I feel a huge sense of urgency. We have to get better, faster. As a nation, we're not top 10 in anything."

Now, you may not know it, but that is actually a quote—a recent quote—from President Obama's Secretary of Education.

They weren't my words, but they are my views. And while I didn't agree with the Obama administration on many things, on this we have common ground.

Consider this: the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, has the United States ranked 24th in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And it's not for lack of funding. The United States spends more than 12 thousand dollars per pupil, per year. That's thousands more than most other nations whose students do better than ours on the same survey.

40th in math and 4th in spending. Those numbers just don't add up.

And let's be clear: these results are not because our kids aren't capable. They most certainly are! Our students have unlimited potential but limited opportunities. We know from The New Teacher Project's recent survey that only a fraction of students—16 percent, in fact!—are assigned grade-appropriate work.

Behind each data point is a real student with a real story. An individual student who is bullied for only wanting to read, to pay attention to the teacher and to learn. Or a student who is told she can't study a topic for her dream job because the school doesn't have the teacher or the technology. Or a student who learns differently and is forced into a box that snuffs out every bit of creativity or curiosity. The student from the "wrong part of town" who just doesn't get the same opportunities as her friend in the more "fortunate" part of town.

We can find these students in classrooms all across the country today. Right now. They cannot wait for another "Sputnik moment" and we can't either.

So I think it is high time to ask—and answer!—a few questions "the system" fears:

Why aren't all teachers allowed the autonomy to guide their students?

Why aren't all parents allowed to decide the education that's right for their own children?

Why aren't all students allowed to pursue learning in ways that work for them?

Why are we afraid?

Americans are no strangers to facing their fears. Many feared taking on the Crown and charting their own new destiny. But the Founding Fathers weren't afraid to put blood and treasure on the line when they signed their names on the Declaration of Independence.

Many feared going to the moon. But President Kennedy inspired and unified a nation when he announced that we'd go to the moon within the decade. And just a few years later, we did.

The demand for action is hardly new. 1983's landmark "A Nation at Risk" report sounded a clarion call to do better for America's students. 35 years later, next to nothing has changed.

We've defied the laws of gravity, and sent men to the moon and back. But many still fear doing what needs to be done to bring education into the 21st century. Why? Because many fear the perceived power of union bosses. They fear November's ballot boxes.

But our students aren't political pawns. And they're not afraid either. Our children deserve better. We must do better!

"Better" means we rethink school. "We" means everyone. Every state, every community, every family. Everyone question everything to ensure nothing limits a student from being prepared for what comes next.

So let's start with my first question: Why aren't all teachers allowed the autonomy to guide their students?

Teachers are on the front lines, and they know what their students need. Yet too often, they don't have a voice in their school. I've met with a number of excellent teachers who have left the classroom. There was Matt, who was berated for not being on page 72 of the lesson plan on a certain day on the calendar. And there was Jed, who was repeatedly told to "keep it down" because his class was "having too much fun" learning.

Too many teachers express frustration that they aren't trusted with more autonomy; that they aren't honored with more flexibility; and that they aren't respected as professionals who know their students and what each of them need to learn and achieve.

When it comes to their careers, too many teachers are given a binary choice: stay in the classroom or become an administrator. Great teachers should have opportunities to be leaders of their peers. And they should have opportunities to advance their careers.

And just as teachers know what's right for the students in their own classrooms. They know what they need to be successful. So, why can't teachers decide how to enhance their own learning and professional development? And why are they rewarded based solely on how long they've been in a classroom instead of for their individual excellence and expertise? Their union bosses make upwards of half a million dollars a year. So, why aren't our best teachers compensated at least half that much?

Why does "the system" pretend that every teacher and every student is the same? And why are parents only after-thoughts?

Which brings me to my second question: Why aren't all parents allowed to decide the education that's right for their own children?

The family is—and always will be—the "first school." Parents, by their very nature, should decide what, when, where and how their children learn. But, over time, "the system" has stolen decision-making power from families. Parents have the greatest stake in their child's education. Accordingly, they should have the greatest power to make sure their child gets the right education for him or her.

The recent tax reform effort now allows parents—for the first time—to save tax-free for their children's K-12 education, no matter what kind of school. States across the country are similarly responding to parents' demands for more freedom. There have been recent victories for families in Illinois, North Carolina, Florida and more.

Choice is on the march because families recognize its power to help students succeed. A recent national survey found a majority—54 percent—of Americans support school choice, up 15 points from last year's poll.

Education freedom is expanding not only because it's popular, but because it's the right thing for students. And, it works.

It works when students compare options and choose their path after high school. That's why we restored year-round Pell funding so students can pursue their education when and how it fits their schedules. We also propose opening Pell for even more programs.

No one thinks choice in higher education is wrong. It should not be wrong in elementary school, middle school, or high school.

And that begs my final question: why aren't all students allowed to pursue learning in ways that work for them?

Right now, there's a student bored in class. Right now, a student can't study a subject because her school doesn't offer it. Right now, a student feels like he needs more time than his classmates in a subject. Another can't wait for things to speed up.

And right now, each one of those students is told there's nothing he or she can do about it. So they're forced to continue to fit in boxes created for the "average" student.

I think of a high schooler in Massachusetts named Justin who recently reached out to me. He said that he is bored in school, and that he's not the only one. He recently participated in a service project where he discovered that learning doesn't have to take place inside a building.

"More than just mitosis in biology class, we should be learning about how to communicate and collaborate with others," he said. These are skills he learned while serving others outside the classroom, in what he said was an "eye-opening" experience.

"They tell us to shoot for the stars," Justin said, "but the hours spent in classrooms only increases the grip the school system has on our lives."

Justin is right! Students should be able to learn at their own pace and pursue the things they are interested in, not simply get batch-processed along.

Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina—where President Obama spoke of that "Sputnik moment" 8 years ago—is addressing that need. Its extensive local business and community partnerships offer students classroom time combined with "work-based learning." Students apply what they study on campus in real-world environments, and businesses help prepare future employees with the skills they need.

Forsyth Tech customizes programs for what students need and makes them widely available. The growing number of certificates and degrees that can be earned entirely online is a testament to that.

And through its dual-enrollment program, students earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree simultaneously.

I enjoyed reading about Sam and John, a couple happily married for 10 years but unhappy in their minimum-wage jobs. Sam looked for something else and she eventually discovered an interest in welding. Her enthusiasm for the work was infectious and it inspired John to leave his minimum wage job and learn how to weld at Forsyth, also.

More communities could emulate the direction Forsyth Tech has taken. Rethinking education must be celebrated, because everyone needs to rethink what we do for students!

I think of Georgia's Gwinnett County Public Schools. There, the "snow day" has been made obsolete with what schools call "digital learning days." When inclement weather forces a school building to close its physical doors (why not on days with nice weather, too?), teachers post assignments to an online portal that students can access and complete by the next school day.

Or consider the creative approach to AP physics for students in Holmes County, Mississippi. Students in rural areas like the Mississippi Delta don't always have access to all the subjects and all the expertise that students in more populated areas have.

So Holmes County partners with Mississippi State University and a Yale astrophysicist who teach students directly through asynchronous video. Students are also tutored and mentored through regular videoconferences with college physics majors at universities around the country.

These ideas may seem "revolutionary" in Washington, but they're just "common sense" in places like Holmes County, Gwinnett or at Forsyth Tech. And it begs a few questions: Why isn't technology more widely embraced? Why do we limit what a student can learn based upon the faculty and facilities available? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?

Students don't learn only within the barriers of a school building and only during school hours. Learning should be dynamic and spontaneous.

Everyone has a role to play in making that possible for every student. I think of the words I heard while crowded around my family's grainy black-and-white television set when Neil Armstrong climbed off Apollo 11 and on to the surface of the moon: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Our astronauts' individual actions were ordinary, but the implications were extraordinary.

Small steps taken by a teacher, a principal, a parent, a peer—could unlock a child's potential, enabling them to achieve dreams, make great leaps and discover new frontiers.

So let's stop asking "why?" Let's stop being afraid! Let's start telling teachers "yes." Let's start telling parents "yes." Let's start telling students "yes."

If given the freedom, teachers, parents and students don't wait around for an answer from government—or from someone else. When Americans encounter problems, we find solutions. It's what we do.

Students are our future. They need the freedom to be problem solvers. When we un-limit students, it will unleash their creativity and they will change the world.

Thank you. May God bless America and her students.