The Quiet Revolution: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the National Press Club

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The Quiet Revolution: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the National Press Club

July 27, 2010

The American story is all about extraordinary people who meet the challenges of their times with determination, courage and vision. From the heroes of the American Revolution to the heroes of our transformative social movements -- our nation was shaped by bold men and women who overcome resistance, fear and dissent to build alliances that advance our collective welfare.

They include great presidents, brilliant thinkers, and insightful social leaders as well as millions of ordinary Americans whose unheralded acts of generosity and courage strengthen and lift us through the everyday challenges in our communities and the national crises that test us. Throughout our history, the American spirit has yet to meet its match.

And in this ongoing American story, circumstances periodically conspire to redirect our course and lead us to a new and better place where yesterday's problems fade and tomorrow's solutions emerge with great clarity and force.

Today, in the field of public education, this moment is upon us and I am not the first to say it. From journalists and educators to politicians and parents -- there is a growing sense that a quiet revolution is underway in our homes and schools, classrooms and communities.

This quiet revolution is driven by motivated parents who want better educational options for their children. They know how important education is to succeed and compete in the global economy, they insist on the very best, and they are willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

It is driven by great educators and administrators who are challenging the defeatism and inertia that has trapped generations of children in second-rate schools. They know that every child can learn in a school culture where parents are engaged, teachers are respected and principals are empowered.

It is driven by elected officials and stakeholders outside the school system who value education enough to fund it adequately and give generously of their time, energy and resources. They know that quality education -- more than ever before -- is the cornerstone of a strong economy in the 21st century.

It is driven by foundations and entrepreneurs that seed the kind of fresh, new thinking that every sector of society needs in order to change and grow and improve. They are fronting real money and enlisting, smart, creative people willing to try new approaches to educating America's underserved.

I am especially honored to be part of an administration that is playing a modest role in sparking this quiet revolution.

We arrived in Washington at a time when America was deeply divided over the proper federal role in education policy. No Child Left Behind forced some hard conversations around issues like accountability and the achievement gap but it also triggered some negative consequences.

It caused states to lower standards, mandated impractical remedies, and incentivized the wrong behavior among some educators who put standardized testing ahead of a well-rounded curriculum. Rather than driving reform at the local level, NCLB fed long-standing frustration with federal over-reaching.

In February of 2009, with an economic crisis at hand, the President signed a historic law to stimulate the economy and -- among other things -- rescue states facing unprecedented budget cuts. The $786 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $48 billion dollars that helped save or create 400,000 jobs -- most of them in education -- staving off an impending catastrophe in our classrooms.

It included $17 billion for Pell grants to send more young people to college and meet a national goal of producing the highest-percentage of college-educated workers by the end of the next decade. The President clearly recognizes that America must educate her way to a better economy. As he has said, "the nations that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow."

Included in the Recovery Act was -- by the standards of Washington -- a relatively small provision authorizing the Department of Education to design and administer competitive programs aimed at improving education in four core areas of reform: standards, teachers, data and school turnarounds.

With a budget of just $5 billion dollars -- less than one percent of total education spending in America -- this minor provision in the Recovery Act has unleashed an avalanche of pent-up education reform activity at the state and local level.

Forty-eight states voluntarily collaborated to raise the bar and create common college and career-ready standards -- solving the single biggest drawback of NCLB -- without a federal mandate or a federal dollar. So far, 27 states have adopted those standards. Even Massachusetts -- universally viewed with the highest standards in the country -- voted unanimously to adopt last week.

I want to single out Gene Wilhoit of the Chief State School Officers, Raymond Sheppach of the National Governors Association -- who is not here but is represented by his policy chief Joan Wodiska -- and Brenda Welburn of the State School Boards Association for their leadership on these issues.

And I also want to salute our governors and legislators for their work on Race to the Top: 46 states and the District of Columbia brought together labor unions, school superintendents, and elected officials to compete for Race to the Top funds.

In support of those applications, 13 states altered laws to foster the growth of charter schools and 17 states reformed teacher evaluation systems by including -- among other things -- student achievement.

I was surprised to learn that some states had laws prohibiting the use of student achievement in teacher evaluation. Because of Race to the Top, those laws are gone.

Best of all, these bold blueprints for reform bear the signatures of many key players at the state and local level who drive change in our schools. The winners of Race to the Top will be held accountable for those commitments.

But every state that applied will benefit from this consensus-building process. Much of the federal dollars we distribute though other channels can support their plan to raise standards, improve teaching, use data more effectively to support student learning, and turn around under-performing schools.

Two states -- Delaware and Tennessee -- won grants in the first phase of Race to the Top. Here today representing Governor Jack Markell from Delaware and Governor Phil Bredesen from Tennessee are their chief state school officers -- Dr. Lillian Lowery of Delaware and Dr. Tim Webb of Tennessee.

I want to salute them and their states for setting a new standard of commitment and courage in public education. They're the pioneers and they are showing us how to move forward.

In a few moments, I will announce the finalists for the second phase -- and they will be invited to address reviewer panels in early August. The second phase winners will be announced in September.

In the coming weeks we will also announce the winners of the Investing in Innovation Fund -- also known as i3. We received 1700 applications from districts and non-profit partners all across America -- one of the largest responses we have ever received in the history of the U.S. Department of Education.

We will also be distributing Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grants for districts willing to try new compensation programs that reward excellence in the classroom or provide incentives to teach in hard-to-staff schools and subjects. The biggest single thing we can do is get great teachers into these struggling schools -- whatever it takes -- whether it is higher pay or other incentives.

Meanwhile, states all across America are also distributing $3.5 billion in school improvement grants (SIG) to districts that are willing to dramatically intervene in their lowest-performing schools -- and to those who say this work can't be done, I invite them to visit schools like George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama and Roxbury Prep in Boston -- schools that went from the bottom to the top thanks to committed leadership and dedicated staff.

Go to Urban Prep in Chicago, an all-male, all-Black high school that replaced a school where only four percent of incoming freshmen were at grade. Today, every single member of their first graduating class is heading to a four-year college; 107 students -- 107 graduating -- and 107 going to college.

I recently talked with Don Stewart who is the former President of the Community Trust and the former president of Spelman College -- and he told me that his mother wouldn't let him attend that public high school 50 years ago because it was so bad then. It took us half a century to have the courage to change and create Urban Prep. There is no excuse for that.

So there is also money for new charter schools and other innovative learning models, as well as funds for states to develop better data systems. Lastly, $350 million in Race to the Top funds are set aside for groups of states to develop new assessments.

All told, nearly $10 billion dollars is going out to support education reform -- over and above the billions of dollars we distribute in formula grants to support low-income students and other special populations. It's been a remarkable year and a half and, among other things, I have learned much about the proper federal role in supporting education reform. It comes down to a few basic things:

The first is the bully pulpit. The President and I have both used the megaphone our position affords to challenge everyone in the system to get better -- starting with ourselves -- and continuing with parents, students, educators, elected officials and colleges of education.

I have been to 37 states and hundreds of schools. I have held large and small meetings with thousands of parents, teachers, students, and administrators. I have yet to meet one person who is satisfied with the status quo. Everyone knows we need to get better. I have tried to give voice to their concerns by telling the truth as I have heard it from people across the country.

The truth is -- a quarter of our students do not graduate from high school. 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year and there are no good options for them. That is morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.

The truth is -- too many teachers are unprepared when they enter the classroom and the system fails to identify and reward good teachers, support those with potential or -- when necessary -- counsel out of the field those teachers who are just not suited for this challenging profession.

The truth is -- too many schools -- including many charter schools -- are simply not providing students with an education that prepares them for college and careers -- and they need to change the way they do business -- or go out of business.

The truth is -- there are indefensible inequities in our school system -- in terms of funding, teacher quality, access to rigorous curriculum and student outcomes. Half a century after Brown versus Board of Education, this is an epic injustice for our society.

We will target these schools for enforcement under civil rights laws, but it falls to elected officials, school administrators and other stakeholders across the spectrum to confront educational inequity. The achievement gap is unacceptable. Education is the civil rights issue of our generation. It is the only way to make good on the American promise of equality.

And the truth is that states with low standards are lying to children and parents -- telling them they are ready for college or work when they are not. Many of those who attend college need remedial education and half of them drop out.

Overall, just 40 percent of young people earn a two-year or four-year college degree. The US now ranks 10th in the world in the rate of college completion for 25- to 34-year-olds. We were first a generation ago -- and we want to be first again.

That's why we ended federal subsidies for student lending programs and shifted billions of dollars into Pell grants. That's why we fixed the student loan application. It was so complicated that a lot of people just gave up. That's one more excuse we have eliminated.

We're competing with kids from around the world and the truth is we are slipping further behind. Among developed nations, our 8th grade students trail 10 other countries in science and our 15-year-olds are in the bottom quarter on math.

So whatever else we do at the federal level -- our first responsibility is to tell the truth -- and that also gets to the second big lever of change -- which is transparency. I credit NCLB for exposing America's dirty laundry -- but we need to go further and show what is and is not working.

The big game-changer is to start measuring individual student growth rather than proficiency -- which is in our blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Act. We have to use that information to drive student instruction and accountability at every level -- classroom, school, district and state.

If we know how much students are gaining, we will know which teachers and principals are succeeding -- which ones need more support and help -- and which ones are simply not getting the job done.

We will also know if the best teachers are distributed equitably among schools or whether the poorest kids who are furthest behind are consistently taught by the least experienced and least effective teachers.

Go to any low-performing school and I guarantee you will find less experienced teachers and high teacher turnover. Go to any high-performing school and you find the opposite: stability, experience, and a professional teaching culture.

Most states are not built to measure growth, which is why we need better assessments and data systems. We also need to look at other indicators from graduation, college enrollment and completion rates to more innovative metrics like the freshman on-track rate -- which is a combination of attendance and grades -- and helped me attack the dropout rate back in Chicago.

Another big lever of change is the one I mentioned before -- and that is incentives like Race to the Top. Nothing moves people as quickly as the opportunity for more funding -- especially in tough budget times.

When I was in Chicago, our teachers designed a program for performance pay and secured a $27 million federal grant. It would have taken us years to bargain this program with our unions, but with that grant in hand, they signed on within weeks. It was created by teachers -- for teachers.

In Chicago's model -- every adult in the building -- teachers, clerks, janitors and cafeteria workers -- all were rewarded when the school improved. It builds a sense of teamwork and gives the whole school a common mission. It can transform a school culture.

Today, there are dozens of districts with performance pay programs. There are 100 more districts competing right now for our TIF dollars. Educators all across this country want to get better, they want results and they want the opportunity to try new approaches to learning.

So as we look at the last 18 months, it is absolutely stunning to see how much change has happened at the state and local level because of these incentive programs. That's why we're asking Congress to continue Race to the Top i3, SIG and TIF.

And let's not get sidetracked in a false choice between competitive and formula funding -- because we need both. Our Blueprint and our 2011 budget request both call for fully funding formula programs like Title I and IDEA, homeless, migrant, rural and English Language Learner programs. Even with increases in competitive funds under our proposed 2011 budget, 80% of our K-12 programs are formula programs.

Our blueprint also envisions a more humble and realistic federal role in driving reform. We are a very long way from the classroom in Washington and if we have learned one thing from NCLB it's that one-size-fits-all remedies generally don't work.

NCLB prescribed tutoring for an entire school even if only one subgroup was behind. It prescribed choice for millions of children in thousands of schools -- even though there were few available options.

We want to change the accountability system in two important ways. First of all, we also want to hold states and districts -- superintendents and schools boards accountable. We can't put it all on schools.

We also want to stop labeling so many schools as failures. It's demoralizing and counter-productive. Instead, we want to recognize and reward high-achieving and high-growth schools -- offering them the carrots and incentives that we know drive reform and progress.

For schools in the middle which face a variety of challenges, from stagnant dropout rates to achievement gaps with a particular subgroup -- we will give them much more flexibility to improve. We can point them to success, but we can't mandate solutions. They have to figure that out at the local level.

The only place where we are explicitly prescriptive is with the bottom five percent of schools -- those that chronically underperform year after year. We have 2000 high schools that account for half of America's dropouts. Many of them are graduating fewer than half of their students. They're in crisis -- they are denying our children an education -- and we have a moral obligation to take dramatic action.

And we know what it takes: great principals and teachers and a professional learning culture where everyone takes responsibility -- from parents and students to educators. We all must be held accountable for these outcomes. We have learned from NCLB that if we don't mandate real consequences in these struggling schools, nothing will change -- and none of us can accept that.

We have reached this stage of education reform after decades of trying, failing, succeeding and learning. We're building on what we know works -- and doesn't work -- and while there are still some honest policy disagreements among key stakeholders, there is far more consensus than people think.

Consider our system of teacher evaluation -- which both frustrates teachers who feel that their good work goes unrecognized and ignore other teachers who would benefit from additional support.

Everyone agrees that teacher evaluation is broken. Ninety-nine percent of teachers are rated satisfactory and most evaluations ignore the most important measure of a teacher's success – which is how much their students have learned.

Teachers also worry that under new systems, their job security and salaries will be tied to the results of a bubble test that is largely disconnected from the material they are teaching. So let me clear: no one thinks test scores should be the only factor in teacher evaluations, and no one wants to evaluate teachers based on a single test on a single day.

But looking at student progress over the course of year, in combination with other factors like peer review and principal observation can lead to a culture shift in our schools where we finally take good teaching as seriously as the profession deserves.

We also agree that the current generation of assessments don't really measure critical thinking skills and that testing only for reading and math ignores many other important subjects. Over-emphasis on tested subjects narrows the curriculum if teachers and principals believe that the only way to show student progress is to teach to the test.

But if we have better assessments that measure student growth and critical thinking skills across many subjects, we can stop assessing whether students are mastering the basics, and get a much fuller picture of student learning. The bottom line is that -- if we want different results we have to do things differently.

Higher standards and better assessments are only the first step. States and Districts will also need to redesign curriculum to meet those standards. And -- even as districts face tight budgets -- we will still need to train our teachers to help our students reach those standards.

And here again, the warriors of the quiet revolution are way ahead of the curve and some of them are here today and I want to call them out. People like Sarah Brown Wessling from Iowa -- who is the national teacher of the year. She's only been in the field for 10 years and already she is at the head of the pack.

Sherry Horsley is the principal at West Carter Middle School in Olive Hill, Kentucky, which is another amazing turnaround story. In five years she boosted math scores by 50% and reading scores by 25%. Today it is one of the top middle schools in the state.

We have some great superintendents here as well -- Dr. William Covington from Kansas City -- who is facing some very tough budget decisions that are forcing school closures -- but he is determined to turn crisis into opportunity and "right-size" the district so that it can improve.

Terry Grier is here from Houston and he is pushing hard on school turnarounds and has a bold plan for evaluating teachers using multiple years of data on student growth. And we have Andres Alonso from Baltimore -- who is also turning around struggling schools and making significant gains in test scores.

Beyond them, there are innovative educators all across America using technology in new ways to teach learning -- from a distance learning program in Alaska -- to an on-line PD program in Iowa called the Heartland Area Education Agency to an on-line charter high school in Utah called Open High.

I want to salute some of America's labor leaders who are also defying the conventional wisdom and showing how labor can be a partner in reform. Diane Donohue is the president of the Delaware Education Association. She was part of the team that won the first Race to the Top grant.

In her own words, she signed onto the plan because, "The Delaware plan offers us an opportunity to change the culture in our schools and classrooms. Linking student growth to evaluation is the lynchpin to this reform plan."

In New Haven, the union overwhelmingly approved a new teacher contract that allows new principals in turnaround schools to select their own staff and an evaluation system that factors in student growth. Interestingly, one new provision empowers teachers to evaluate principals.

In Prince George's County, Maryland, the local union partnered on a performance pay program that is so popular the local teachers did a video for our website touting it. PG County is now working with its union on school turnarounds to pull great teachers into the neediest schools.

And in dozens of other districts -- from Tampa to Pittsburgh to Denver-- union leaders and administrators are moving beyond the battles of the past and finding new ways to work together.

I urge union leaders, administrators and schools boards all across America to follow the example of their reform-minded colleagues and have a more open mind toward common-sense reforms. They have nothing to fear from charters or incentive pay or a better system of teacher evaluation. The only real threat to them -- and to all of us -- is academic failure.

I also challenge reformers to stop blaming unions for all the problems in American education. If unions were the only problem -- all of our right-to-work states and charter schools would be outperforming the nation -- which is not the case. That's the old frame. In the new frame, people are working together.

Real change is driven by people willing to give their lives to a cause. People like Dr. King -- who I think about every day. He never let up in his fight for justice and equality. While he sat in a Birmingham jail, his colleagues in the movement told him to slow down.

His answer was simple: "We can't wait."

Today, people can't wait. They are fed up with schools that don't work. They see pockets of success and ask why it doesn't exist everywhere. And there is no reason that it can't.

Recently, the President said that we can't rebuild our economy on the same pile of sand. Similarly, we can't rebuild public education on the same old system of rules and regulations. We have to change the rules, eliminate the excuses and hold ourselves accountable.

Teachers and principals all across America are producing miracles in the classroom every day. They're doing society's most important work. They are the heroes of the Quiet Revolution. And our job is to fight for them, empower them and support them. That's why we're here.

Thank you.


And now I want to announce the finalists of our Race to the Top competition.

We told you during Phase 1 that we were setting a high bar. Of the 41 applicants in Phase 1, there were 16 finalists -- all of them with scores of more than 400.

In phase 2, we have 19 states over 400 and the average score rose by 25 points. All 19 will be invited back as finalists. They include all of the finalists from Phase 1 that did not win. Their preliminary scores will be kept confidential until the process is complete, but here's the list of finalists in alphabetical order:

Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

As you know, we have $3.4 billion to distribute under Race to the Top-- which should be enough to fund up to about 12 states.

But as I have said many times before, this isn't just about the money. This is about working together and putting the needs of children ahead of everyone else.

This entire process has moved the nation and advanced education reform.

Children are the big winners here because we have all learned so much more about how to find common ground around the things that we know will make a difference in the classroom.

I congratulate our governors, our chief state school officers, elected officials, superintendents, principals, teachers and parents.

They are all doing remarkable and revolutionary work -- they understand that we all need to get better -- and they are showing the kind of courage needed to get the job done.

Thank you.

And now I am happy to take any questions.