Remarks by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the Learning Forward Conference

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Remarks by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the Learning Forward Conference

December 14, 2015

Thank you so much. I think all that applause might be for the last speech part of what she said so. I’m honored to be here. It might not quite be my last speech and I’ll keep it pretty brief. I look forward to having a great conversation with you and I want to have a policy conversation but start it and end it rounded with a couple stories about kids and one of the biggest joys of my job is being able to travel the nation, visit hundreds and hundreds of schools and many adults, many of you in the room have inspired me every single day. Nothing moves me and nothing motivates me more than what I hear from children, whether elementary, middle school, high school and the stories are often powerful. Sometimes they break your heart. Many times they give you a great sense of hope. And I just wanted to start there before I get to the policy part of the conversation. On the tougher side I met with a young man named Brandon in a visit to Denver around My Brother’s Keeper initiative and when Brandon was eleven, he made the mistake of writing on the bathroom wall and getting caught and he was very ashamed of that but the school’s reaction to him writing on the bathroom wall in my mind was wildly disproportionate to the crime he had committed. We talk about the school to prison pipeline rather than the principal of the school dealing with it. They summoned the police; he was arrested, and found himself shortly thereafter working on the highway picking up trash with a bunch of adults. And that was his community service for his crime. And he said ‘I was definitely the only eleven year old on the side of the highway picking up trash.” Brandon did well after that; learned more than a hard lesson. His life dream was to become a police officer and shortly after I met with him (he was a teenager at that point) he had found out that because he had a criminal record, he could not become a police officer. His dreams had been crushed. And so I think for all of us who sometimes people don’t like when I talk about the school to prison pipeline, the sad truth is while we are combating it, it is still real. And there are many young people like Brandon who might make a mistake or two along the line but have immense potential, immense chance to do something very positive, and we as adults have to find a place to keep them in schools – not in the criminal justice system, and give them a chance.

There are also many more positive and hopeful stories. It was in Minneapolis not too long ago that I met a beautiful young girl named Star Brown. Star lived in a Promise Zone, a promise neighborhood there, a very tough community on the north side of Minneapolis. She had had a tough time. Dad had had an accident at work, her mother had a brain tumor, and she had a speech delay. But she had amazing educators in her life. One teacher in particular, Ms. Freda. Ms. Freda saw the challenge, brought the family in, and gauged them. Star is this wonderfully bright young woman and because she got help, because she got support, she was not just on track, but way ahead of grade level and the situation where folks could have given up, could have looked the other way, but not realized all the huge issues she was dealing with at home. Adults, teachers, educators in her life stepped into that gap and helped her.

Not too long ago at the start of the school year, on the back to school bus tour, the president and I were in Des Moines, Iowa.  We were at North High School and the President was going to be introduced by the student body president, which he often does, a young man named Russhaun Johnson. But when Russhaun gets up there, we knew he was the study body president, goes on to say how his mother’s been incarcerated, how he’s been homeless, his struggles, but he now wants to become a teacher because teachers in his life kept him going when his family was apart. And what went from a normal presidential introduction, it was like the president didn’t need to say anything - it had all been said. And Russaun just has this extraordinary potential despite a very tough background because of great teachers, because great educators didn’t give up with him and gave him a chance.

Same thing, I was recently in Boston. Burke High School, which is one of the worst schools not in Boston, but in the state of Massachusetts, was being turned around. I was introduced by a young man named Federico Melo. And Federico, same thing, huge struggles, lack of family support. But educators and coaches at his school had kept him going. And he’s on the way not just to graduating, but then going on to college. And then finally, literally, just last night, met with a set of young folks and I’ll close with telling you a little bit more about them. I met with a young man named Trevan Simmons and he goes to an alternative high school right here in DC. Luke C. Moore High School. And Trevan had been kicked out of several schools. He’s been locked up twice – once for firearms violations. He’s been stabbed, said many of his friends have been killed, by any measure was a child more than at risk that somehow folks there at Luke C. Moore gave him probably not a second chance, but a third or fifth chance. He now has a 3.0 GPA, he’s the captain of his basketball team, is committed to going on to college. This is a young man coming from the toughest of situations, but because of great educators at that alternative high school, has a chance to be successful.

And again it’s just rewarding to me, it’s so inspiring to hear these stories everywhere I travel. And what those anecdotes add up to I think is a national narrative of ‘yes, we have very real challenges, all of us, and yes, we need to get better faster’ but things are improving. Things are getting better. And what I see in the lives of young people, whether at elementary or middle school or high school, alternative school, I’ve seen the national story thanks to all of your hard work and support. Cause everyone here knows our high school graduation rates are at all-time highs: 81%. Most importantly to me, every subgroup  - black, white, asian, african american, latino, is improving – poor students, English language learners, students with disabilities – everybody is getting better. Dropout rates are at all-time lows. With high school graduation rates up, dropout rates down, since 2008, we have 1.1 million additional students of color not just graduating – but going on to college. None of this is easy. Right now we’re a majority minority school system as a nation. That’s not gonna go back the other way. With many of our kids living below the poverty line on the free and reduced lunch program, none of your jobs are going to be getting easier. But despite all those very real challenges, because of the commitment, because of the hard work, we’re making real progress and I can’t tell you how much that mean to me personally. The question we always get back to is ‘How do we get better faster?’ How do we accelerate the pace of change? How do we go from 81% graduation rates to 90% by 2020. We had 2,000 dropout factories that were just unacceptable. We’ve cut that in half from 2,000 to 1,000. We’ve set a goal for the country to go from 1,000 to zero dropout factories over the next five years. How do we keep getting better faster? The policy part of the conversation is this is just an interesting time that we now have a chance to have Congress fix the broken No Child Left Behind law.  

I know all of you have waited a long time for this moment. I never thought we would get here. I’m a little stunted, I can’t believe it. It’s amazing. I lived on the other side of the law where I managed Chicago Public Schools, as many of you have, for years. And while I think the intent of the law was good and while it did do some good things, there was so much that was and has been broken with the law. It was very punitive, there were lots of ways to fail, very few – if any – rewards for success, way too much focus on a single test score, was I think at the theory of action wrong, very prescriptive type on how to be successful, but very loose in terms of goals - so fifty different states, fifty different goal posts, fifty different standards. I know this was an unintended consequence of it but to make politicians look good, about twenty states, including the state I’m from, Illinois, reduced their standards which I think is the most insidious things that happened to kids, particularly poor kids and black and brown kids. See politicians reduce standards to make themselves look good. And so this law has been overdue to be fixed for a long time. While the law was broken, unfortunately Congress was broken. But now Congress has finally come together in a bipartisan way and obviously education has to be the ultimate bipartisan issue and they’re working hard together to fix this. It passed with an overwhelming majority. All democrats and most republicans in the House last week, scheduled to be voted on by the Senate tomorrow. I don’t want to jinx it but I just stay strong bipartisan support and the President could literally sign this into law later this week. It’s unbelievable after 6 or 7 years of dysfunction that folks are finally coming together to do the right thing. Better late than never.

I just want to take a minute to just walk through what I think this bill means for all of us as educators, what it means for families, for our children, for their parents. First, one of the things we fought for, extraordinarily hard, was the idea that education doesn’t start at kindergarten, it starts at birth. And we desperately wanted to get early childhood education into this bill. That was a heavy, heavy, heavy lift. Wouldn’t have bet on our odds early. Patty Murry, who is our champion in the Senate, a former preschool teacher, and she was just an absolute champion. And so for the first time in the history of our nation, early childhood education is going to be in the law that is the nation’s education law. It’s a huge step in the right direction.

Second, I talked about what I think happened, the reverse impact, of No Child Left Behind, of states reducing standards. For the first time in our nation’s history enshrined in law, if it passes the Senate tomorrow, will be high standards. College and career ready standards for every child. And again, that is so important. We can call them different things, states can come at this in different ways, but when you have billions of dollars being spent each year on college remediation, where college age kids are taking high school level classes again and again, and having to pay for that. Nobody wins in that situation. So having high standards, college and career ready standards for every child, I think is a huge step in the right direction.

Third, it reduces the focus on a single test and I hated that about No Child Left Behind. Yes, I think we should assess kids annually, yes we should look at growth and gain, but we gotta look at way more than test scores. I always say if you have a good third grade test score, but a 50 percent dropout rate, you’re not changing kid’s lives. And now there’s an opportunity to walk away from just a tunnel vision focus of just one test score and look at our graduation rates going up, our dropout rates going down, are more students not just graduating, but college and career ready. So I think it’s a chance to move to a much more comprehensive, a much more honest look at outcomes and whether we’re making progress or not.

This bill also says what we know to be true. You can’t have a great school without great teachers and great principals. Through this bill, districts can now access our federal dollars to invest in school leaders and to develop teacher leaders. Through mentorship, hybrid roles, and professional development. It assures that it will put great teachers, great educators, great principals into schools and communities where they are needed most. It also a critically important wrap around services, and place base initiatives, like our promise neighborhoods, so you’ll be more likely to teach in a school where students aren’t safe, healthy or ready to learn. And it builds on the successful innovation, like the i3 program. There will continue to be an emphasis on innovation, so educators like all of you can take to scale your best ideas and serve not just your school, or your community, or your district, but to grow those and serve many more students. That’s one of my biggest frustrations in education, we don’t scale what works. We have to put resources behind you guys. This law will ensure that we do that.

So I talked about one of the real challenges with No Child Left Behind, was prescribed as a top-down one size fits all approach. To struggling schools, this law offers flexibility to find the best, most impactful local solutions, while also ensuring that students make real progress and that means states are required to identify and intervene in schools where we don’t see the results that we need and where schools have an unacceptable number of students who aren’t graduating, or schools where huge gaps, huge disparities remain. Where ever these inequities persist, the federal law will demand that we see real action, not just data, not just transparency, not just observing and admiring the problem, but real action. It requires local leaders to act to transform the odds of the students in the communities who need the most help. I think that it’s so important to remember that the genesis of this law is not just and education law, it comes out of the civil rights movement in 1965. And all of us going forward have to stay true to this fight for equity and the civil rights genesis of where this came from.

When their key decisions are made, states will always rely on multiple measures. I can’t say that enough, multiple measures of success. Because we always say that no school and no educator should ever, ever be judged by a single test score alone. There are many, many ways to measure college and career readiness. And states have been leading important work in through ESEA flexibility to do this. And just a couple of quick examples of how states are going about this: Georgia has an index that includes SAT and ACT performance and the number of students in dual enrollment classes, so they know whether the students are going to be successful, ready to be successful, not when they graduate and go on to college. In Hawaii, the STRIVE Hawaii index measures chronic absenteeism in elementary school and success in algebra I in middle school. In Nevada, educators measure the percentage of ninth graders who are credit deficient, not on track in their framework for high schools. In Missouri they have a national partnership with a national dropout prevention center for students with disabilities to identify a wider array of areas from school climate, to family engagement, where schools must focus ultimately help more students graduate and be successful. And finally, in Kentucky, educators review programs in arts and humanities, career development and writing because the know it’s not enough to just be proficient in math and in reading. In these places and many others, states are building systems that account for the many, many parts, the comprehensive nature of what it takes for all of our students, in particular, our most vulnerable children, to be successful. And states I think, no more than ever, need your help, your advice, your input, as they continue building and trying to implement these systems. And that’s why your voice is such an important part of this process. The leadership of principals, teachers and other educators will be critical, absolutely vital, in defining new systems establishing what accountability means in determining how we help every single school to improve.

And we already know that there are places where educators are already in place engaged in this critically important work. Not just helping their children be successful in their classroom, but actually helping to shape policy. Just a couple of quick examples of the profound impact there: The Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, 21 districts in rural Appalachia, serving 34,000 students. In every district there nominates a teacher leader to coordinate efforts across the district to make sure that the changes are responsive to their community. And results of this input are not just feel good stuff. The Ohio Appalachian Collaborative rural, poor, they now lead the state in terms of graduate rates and have seen exponential increases in the number of their students taking and passing AP classes. In Shelby County, Tennessee, and amazing teacher I’ve had the privilege of spending some time with. Drew Davidson has been teaching jazz for years, but he’s also built a system that uses portfolios of student work that is scored by other teachers to measure student success in the arts. Drew did not like what the state was doing, he didn’t complain, he created his own system. And guess what? The state listened and the entire state now uses Drew Davidson’s model of accountability. Extraordinary power there. And finally, in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, Anthony Hernandez is a third grade teacher there and he is leading efforts to make the state workforce more diverse. He’s helped write recommendations on licensing requirements and testified on their behalf. They were not passed at his local community, but at the state level this year. And we need much, much more of this. Great anecdotes, great examples, we need so much more.

This new law, I’m convinced, is a huge, huge opportunity right now, not next year, but now for educators to be at the table from day one shaping policies and ideas and leading the implementation on the ground. This work I’m convinced is a moral imperative and a civil rights duty that will increasingly live with you in states and local communities. And teachers and educators have to have an essential role in this and John King, who is going to do an amazing job as much successor, believes as passionately in this concept of educator leadership and teacher leadership as I do.

When I came to Washington 7 years ago it was already abundantly clear to me that No Child Left Behind was fundamentally broken. I frequently tell the story that when I had my other job I had to come to DC from Chicago to plead with a former Secretary, Secretary Spellings, to allow me to tutor 25,000 of my children after school. And the federal government was telling me that I couldn’t do that. To her lasting credit, she listened and allowed us to do that, but that was my impression of what Washington did. It got in the way of the work you were trying to do to help. It didn’t help you reduce dropout rates, it didn’t help you get kids up to grade level. That fundamentally has to change.

We need to continue to be tight on goals, high bar for everyone, but give all of you as local educators tremendous flexibility to be creative, to be innovative, to hit that higher bar, but learn from you and share best practices and scale them so more children, be it inner city or rural or remote communities or Native American reservations, have access to the best of what is working and to give them a real chance in life. Because of the years of inaction and dysfunction of Congress, we did what we had to do. We provided many, many states with relief in the most burdensome parts of NCLB. But what we always wanted and pushed for, what was always our plan A was a high quality law that Congress had worked together on that would serve all students and educators much better. In this law, that I think we have a chance, that hopefully the President will sign this week, is a good thing for our nation, it’s a good thing for our nation’s children, and it’s a good thing for all of our nation’s hardworking educators.

And there are some people here in Washington who might want to make this bill about federal authority, even about my own power as Secretary. And I really wanna be clear on why that fundamentally misses the point of all of this work. For me and all of my colleagues at the Department, our role has never ever been about our authority and what we could do or about taking power away from local leaders. It’s always simply been about what we thought should be expected for all of our students and what quality of education we would offer them and whether there would be real change if we weren’t giving them the opportunities they needed.

It wasn’t about the power that I had, it was about what type of opportunity children like Brandon, Rashon, and Fredrico, and Star, and Trayvon have. Throughout our nation’s history, the federal government has played an important role in protecting children just like them, protecting their civil rights. And despite the rhetoric, the law that the House passed last week and the Senate is considering tomorrow morning, allows us to continue to play that critical role in the lives of children all across the country. And most importantly, this law locks in much of the vision that we’ve been developing with so many great educators like all of you for the last seven years.

The start of this calendar year, I think it was in January, almost a year ago, I gave another speech here in DC at Seton Elementary and laid out a vision. That point I had no idea that we actually we had a chance here, we tried to lay out a vision for the next ESEA. A vision that was shaped and supported by some of the foremost civil rights leaders, educators, and political leaders across the country.

In that speech earlier this year, I said America’s families deserve first, a law that would need to hold all students to high standards, that genuinely prepares students for colleges and careers, regardless of their zip code, their race, or their socioeconomic status.

Second, we need law that would demand action when groups of students fail behind. Whether they’re from low income areas, students of color, those with disabilities, those learning English, and others who have been marginalized, underserved, under educated, sometimes for decades.

Third, we need a law that would scale new ideas and innovations led by fantastic local educators and make a priority of preparing and supporting great educators.

Fourth, a lot that would ensure families, educators have valuable information about students growth each yea, but also cut back on excessive and redundant testing.

And finally, we called for expanding preschool opportunity, so more children would arrive at kindergarten ready academically, socially, and emotionally to be successful.

And amazingly, that’s what the House voted on last week. And that’s what the Senate will be voting on tomorrow. This bill builds on our administration’s vision of education and the fact is that this new agreement embodies and enshrines in law much of it.

Four quick ideas to hit on very, very quickly:

First, college and career ready standards.

Second, Focus support and attention on the lowest fiver percent of schools. Not the 19 and 20 schools, the 1 in 20 that we all know we have to do so much better for those children and communities.

Third, expanding preschool opportunity.

And fourth, support for local innovation and investing in what is making a difference in kid’s lives all across the country.

None of those four ideas, none, existed in previous versions of ESEA. Their ideas that this administration, with the support and help of so many of you put forward, and they are now in this bill and they are poised to become the law of the land. And credibly, this is a stronger bill than either the House or the Senate’s original versions. It actually got stronger. Through fantastic bipartisan cooperation when the two bills were blended in a conference committee. This is a little bit of insider baseball, but let me be very clear, this almost never happens. You take a bad bill and a mediocre bill and you put them together. They actually both got better. Doesn’t happen here often in Washington.

Talk to a friend in the House of Representatives late last week. He said it was a miracle. He could never recall it. So I don’t know if it’s a miracle, but it’s good hard work and we need it. And it’s clear that this is a bill that embodies much of the ideas that we’ve talked about. High, clear goals with much more flexibility in achieving them. I desperately wish that I had, when I was back home in Chicago when I ran the Chicago Public Schools. I also want to be clear, not saying this bill is perfect, not the bill I would have written by myself or any of you, but it’s always about compromise and always trying to do the right thing for kids. And fundamentally, the idea of America as a country that expects more of our children and holds ourselves as adults responsible for that progress. That vision is alive and well. It’s more than I thought possible, more than I even hoped for a couple of months ago. I just want to thank so many of you for having your voices be heard and helping Congress do the right thing for our children.

I just want to close with a couple of quick thoughts. I’m happy to take any questions that you might have.

First, as everyone knows, passing the bill, a good bill, is a really good thing, that’s the easy part. The hard part is execution and implementation. And states are going to have a tremendous amount of room to be thoughtful, to be creative, to do the right thing by children. Or to take a step backwards. And just to reiterate what I said earlier, having all of your voices at the table from day one, having states shape what districts and schools are thinking about, I can’t overstate the importance of that opportunity that we all need to take advantage of right now.

Second, while I think this bill is a major, major step in the right direction, from a policy standpoint, there is so much more that we need to do. I think we need to challenge politicians across the political spectrum, Republican or Democrat, I could care less. Education should be the ultimate bipartisan issue. We have to challenge politicians at the local and state, federal level, we’ve got about two dozen folks running for presidents, lots of folks want to be president. They need to get past soundbites, get past things and talk about outcomes. Again, left, right, Republican, or Democrat, what are their goals for early childhood investment? What are their goals for raising graduation rates? What are their goals for reducing dropout rates? Making sure that our graduates are college and career ready, and ultimately, leading the world in college completion rates. None of those goals are left and right, liberal, conservative, those are goals to make our nation stronger, our families stronger, our communities stronger. We don’t have politicians at any level talking about goals, holding themselves accountable, putting themselves out there. Collectively, we need to push that very, very hard. We love that early childhood education is in the bill, I talked a lot about that, to be clear, this is not a funding bill. We desperately need to invest massive amounts of money in high quality early childhood education. As a nation we need your voice on that issue. It’s the best investment we can make. The fact that so many children, millions of children in this nation are unserved and enter kindergarten a year to sixteen months behind, is just absolutely unacceptable, untenable to me. But that’s our reality, so we have to continue to push very, very hard there.

I’ve been frustrated by our inability, frankly our failure, to help our DREAMERS. Our undocumented students receive college tuition money. It makes no sense to me that children who have played by all the rules, who have worked hard, who have gotten good grades, and have been community leaders, don’t have the chance to pursue their dreams in college. In fact, we slammed that door of opportunity shut. We have to continue to push very, very hard there.

And then, the final policy point, and then I’ll close with another point.

I always try to speak candidly and personally. I just think we have to do something about the issue of gun violence in our country. This was by far the hardest issue I dealt with when I led the Chicago Public Schools. We literally, on average, buried one child every two weeks due to gun violence. I thought it couldn’t get worse, it has gotten worse. And it’s not, as we all know, an urban issue or an inner city issue, it’s rural. It’s a national issue. It’s not a school issue, it’s a national issue. Until we find ways to keep our babies safe and free of fear.

I talked about meeting with Trayvon last night, but what that meeting actually was with a number of young people whose lives have been horrifically been scared by gun violence. I met with a young women, Sarah Clemens, who is an amazing young activist, sophomore at Georgetown, whose mother survived the Sandy Hook massacre. And the President has talked very publicly that for all the difficulties that he has had in his job, by far, by far, the hardest day of his presidency was when so many young babies and fantastic teachers were killed in New Town, Connecticut. You may remember after the Virginia Tech massacre, there was a photo that was in all of the papers of a young women who was gravely wounded being carried out of there. She survived and her name is Kristina Anderson and met with her last night and heard her story and what she is trying to do with her life. Another young woman there’s name is Kristina Waters. Kristina is from my hometown of Chicago. She actually attended the small elementary school that I set up in the south side there called Arial Community Academy. I met Kristina in the summer after her senior year. She had gone on to be a high school basketball star. Was three days away from going to college and at a church picnic on a Saturday in the park, was shot in the head and I met Kristina when she was fighting for her life, was unconscious, she obviously didn’t remember me then in the hospital. Thanks to amazing surgeons and doctors and a family, Kristina has survived, she’s in college, she wants to become a physical therapist. But these are the kinds of stories we hear of all the time.

And then finally, we had Trayvon there. And it was interesting to me that in a very powerful, one of the most powerful conversations, very raw and emotional someone. Trayvon who has been both a perpetrator and victim of violence, he actually had the most powerful story. He actually brought many of the other young people to tears as they saw how hard he had worked to turn his life around. And while he had been part of the problem at one point, he was now a part of the solution. And to see them rally behind him and support him, I can’t tell you how much that meant.

The common denominator in all of these young people last night and the young people I talked about at the start of my speech, all of them had amazing educators in their lives who gave them a chance and stayed with them. Trayvon is able to be in a room like that and tell a story because educators did not give up on him. Kristina is able to stand up and tell her story, despite that trauma, because educators did not give up on her.

And so, again, the policy part is hugely important, this is a good start in the right direction, we need to increase access to early childhood education, we need to work on college scholarships for undocumented, we have to reduce gun violence, but I just want to come back to, yes, our job here in Washington is to focus on policy, and we will do that, I just can’t overstate the importance of the relationships and you can’t mandate relationships, you can’t legislate relationships. What so many of you are doing to transform kid’s lives means more to me, personally, than I can tell you.

Thanks for your hard work and thanks for having me, thanks for the difference you’re making every single day.