Remarks to Grad Nation Summit 2014

Archived Information

Remarks to Grad Nation Summit 2014

April 28, 2014

Thanks and acknowledgements

Thank you, Hector [Araujo]. You have come a long way to stand here today, and to be the first in your family to graduate from college. I'm so proud to share the stage with you. Please give Hector another round of applause!

And to America's Promise—John Gomperts and Gen. and Mrs. Powell, and the rest of the team behind the Grad Nation campaign—congratulations on another terrific event, and thank you for helping to keep our nation focused on academic achievement.

The good news: The highest graduation rate ever

You've built this event around an important milestone: the announcement—today—of our first-ever national cohort graduation rate—the most accurate measure yet of high school graduation rates. The 2012 high school graduation rate—80 percent—is the highest in America's history!

The real-world impact of that improvement for students, their families, and their communities is enormous. Because of graduation rate increases between just 2008 and 2012, an additional 100,000 Latino students and an additional 40,000 African-American students graduated from high school. That is 140,000 students of color alone with a better chance of getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family.

As a country, we owe a debt of gratitude to the teachers, administrators, students and their families whose hard work made that achievement possible.

And so many people in this room, with great leadership from America's Promise, have done so much to put this critically important issue on the front burner. I can't thank you enough.

Further to go; how to get there

Today, I want to celebrate that progress with all of you. But I also want to talk about how far we, as a nation, still have to go. And I want to sketch a vision for how we will get there.

It's going to take a sea change in our nation's classrooms to prepare our young people for a different world than the one so many of our schools were designed for. And today, I want to talk about what that change looks like, and feels like.

Because even as we celebrate, we all know we have to push beyond 80 percent. Simply put, for the 20 percent who don't earn a high school diploma, their life chances are bleak. A high school dropout doesn't have a lot of options for a job that will support an individual, let alone a family. And the disparities in income and long-term earning potential between the educated and the non-educated will only continue to grow. So I'm glad you're helping this country set a higher bar: a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020. We can, and we must get there. But let me be clear, that 90 percent goal is a starting point, not an ending point.

In today's knowledge-based economy, our young people need more than a high school diploma.

We now live in a world where good jobs will go wherever the best educated people are, and in an innovation economy where, as Tom Friedman says, young people will need to create and invent their own jobs—not once but several times. To thrive, they'll need much more than "basic skills"—they'll need the kind of reasoning, problem-solving and cooperative abilities that are so much a part of a college education.

It's unacceptable that only 43 percent of our nation's young adults have completed college—as compared to 57 percent in Canada and 64 percent in South Korea—that's 21 percentage points. In all, 11 countries are ahead of us in building for the skilled workforce and the economy of tomorrow. That is no badge of honor.

I want to challenge everyone in this room to help the country bring energy and commitment to dramatically boosting both the high school graduation rate and our college completion rate. Because enabling our kids to succeed, in college and careers, is the real goal. Two-year college, four-year college, trade, technical, or vocational training—some form of higher ed must be where our young people are heading.

To get there, we have to do a couple of things. We have to make sure all of our young people—all of them—have the kind of education that truly prepares them for that future. That's not about a little more of the same thing we've been doing. It's about big changes in our classrooms—changes that have been long in coming.

And—as you have said so often, and so eloquently—we have to redouble our efforts for those who aren't even making it to the starting line. Because high school graduation may once have been the finish line, but now it's the beginning.

Who's not in the 80 percent

To get better, we have to be honest with ourselves, and face the brutal reality of breaking down who's not in the 80 percent. So I want to be very clear about who is left out of our 80 percent high school graduation rate.

Because fundamentally, public schools in America were invented as a tool for equity of opportunity, regardless of the circumstances of one's birth. From the time of Horace Mann, the idea of public schools was that it didn't matter who your parents were or how much money your family had—that if you went to school and worked hard, you could advance and avail yourself of the extraordinary opportunities that America provides.

However, today opportunity is in no way equally distributed in this country. It is heartening that students of color are driving the improvement in high school graduation rates—and many more are attending college. But the flip side of our 80 percent high school graduation rate is, obviously, the 20 percent who are left out. Let's talk about who is behind those numbers.

That 20 percent who didn't complete high school on time in 2012 represented 718,000 young people—more teenagers and young adults than the total population in Wyoming or Vermont.

Among them are a sharply disproportionate share of African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students, along with students from low-income families, students with limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities. Not one of those groups reached a 75 percent graduation rate, let alone 80, and several have rates in the 60s or below.

To see how devastating these opportunity gaps are, please consider this thought experiment: Imagine that all of America's young high school dropouts—16 to 24 years old—constituted their own state. Call it the state of "lost opportunity."

In 2012, that imaginary state of young dropouts had 2.6 million young people living in it—making it larger than 15 actual states. That's 2.6 million people with little prospect of landing a good job, buying a house, supporting a family.

And, the demographics of the dropout state are sobering. As the new Grad Nation report notes, disproportionate numbers of these young people come from a set of major cities and states where success rates for special-needs students and African-American males are disturbingly low. Almost half of these dropouts come from families in the lowest income quartile, and most are male.

The major products of this state of failure are poverty and misery. Most of its residents are unemployed or not in the labor force. Almost 7 in 10 of its black residents don't have a job. Inhabitants of this state are an astonishing 63 times more likely their counterparts with bachelors' degrees to be institutionalized, largely in jails and prisons. And, among this state's male residents, nearly one in 10 is institutionalized on any given day, and 23 percent—basically one in four—of its black male residents are incarcerated in juvenile homes, jails or prison.

The changes we need: equity and a sea change in the classroom

So when we think about changing life outcomes in that imaginary state, we have to be honest that this is a matter of equity—that we have to change the opportunity equation. That's why your work, to focus attention on the lowest performing schools in the most challenged communities, is so important. And that's why our administration is doubling down. We are building on an agenda that is fundamentally about equity—to focus even more attention on the places where opportunity is most lacking, and make quality preschool a reality for every child in this country.

This couldn't be more important today. We project that this fall, for the first time in American history, the majority of public school students in America will be nonwhite. So, for anyone who has made the mistake of believing that the challenges of black and brown communities are somehow someone else's problem—a minority problem—that day is over.

All—all—of America's children are our children.

But let us not pretend that all the challenges belong to students who are black, or brown, or poor, or who live in inner-city and rural places. Because when we think about preparing our young people today for the possibilities of tomorrow—which increasingly means preparing them for some form of college—then that's about all our kids. This is about both equity and excellence. And I believe it's going to take a sea change in our classrooms to get there.

Whether you care most about the life possibilities of a young girl growing up in Detroit, or about the long-term health of our nation's economy, the conclusion is the same: we cannot be 12th in the world in college completion among young adults and still be the country we want to be. Not when 9 percent of students from low-income families can expect to earn a bachelors degree. Not when 35 percent of students in one of our best-educated states—Massachusetts—need remediation in public college.

If we expect to see real changes in outcomes, we need to make real changes in what happens in school.

The real world our young people will inhabit requires not just having knowledge—though, obviously, that's important—but being able to find knowledge, interpret it, share it and shape it. It requires new levels of problem solving, individually and in groups. It requires the ability to innovate, and fluency with technology.

To get there, our classrooms can't be primarily about lecturing and listening—they have to be about inquiry and invention. As one teacher remarked recently, our classrooms must, and I quote, "challenge students and foster a sense of joy"—or, as another teacher said, be a "learning lab fueled by curiosity and passion." Only by engaging young people as active participants in their learning can we prepare them for a knowledge-driven economy.

I won't pretend that school isn't sometimes—often—about plain hard work. It was for me, it was for you, and it is for your kids, and mine—including when they'd rather do something else. I think we've all hosted a few seminars on that topic in our homes. But I also know how powerful it is when my kids experience a learning activity that involves a flight simulator or great music lesson. More of school needs to be about innovation and creation by both students and teachers.

How do we get there? It starts with building supports and systems for great teaching and learning.

Let me try an analogy.

Take a minute, and think of the last great play or TV show you saw. What you saw was the show itself—which is like a great lesson in school.

What you didn't see was the careful planning that went into the show , the constant rehearsal, the skilled coaching of the director, the tireless work on the script, the technical wizardry behind the scenes—all the work, and collaboration, that made that great play possible.

In the same way, a set of systems and supports make great teaching and learning possible. To improve outcomes for students, fundamentally, we have to have better systems and better supports for great teaching. The good news is that the work of strengthening them is under way, in schools, districts, and states throughout the country.

New, higher standards; better systems to support and evaluate teachers; better information for teachers and parents; better technology; assessments that go beyond the bubble test—these positive developments are already revamping the experience of teachers and students.

These changes are giving teachers not just better support and better tools, but more blank canvas for their own creative ideas. These changes aren't easy. They never are, especially when you raise the bar. But many teachers, principals and others who are already well into this transformation have told me repeatedly that they are now the best educators they've ever been. These are powerful, inspiring statements. They have more opportunity than ever before to do what they love, what brought them into teaching—guiding students in critical thinking and problem solving.

And while we still have much to do, the progress is clear, and the results are starting to show. A lot of that, I'm convinced, is because of the way teachers are stepping up.

As a country, we have a lot further to go in improving teaching and learning—and to fundamentally strengthen the teaching profession. We need to make sure that teachers receive training that genuinely prepares them for the classroom—today, far too many teachers say that ed school failed to do that. That is unacceptable, and it's not fair, either to aspiring teachers, or to their future students. And we need to make multiple career paths available so teachers don't have to end their careers with the same job description they started with.

I'm pleased to report that on Friday, President Obama directed our Department to move forward with new regulations that will bring significant improvements to teacher prep programs. And, just a few weeks ago, we announced a new initiative, together with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, that will help provide teachers with new paths to develop and exercise their leadership. Please learn about it at

All of these changes, and others, have a singular, ultimate aim: to drive a focus on what works for kids.

To do that, we need to make schools engaging for teachers and for students. We have to support teacher-led innovation focused on 21st century goals. We have to capture and disseminate what works, not in a one size fits all manner, but ways that, respond to the unique circumstances of every single community. Our schools—and our school systems—have to be fertile ground for new ideas, as interested in breakthrough impact as in compliance with rules.

Because ultimately, what our children need isn't a little more of the same. It's a true sea change that alters the odds of opportunity. And to get there, we need everyone's best ideas.

Thanks. Andrea [Mitchell,] I look forward to our conversation.