Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the 50th Anniversary of Congress Passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Archived Information

Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the 50th Anniversary of Congress Passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

April 9, 2015

As delivered

Intro: Star Brown

Thank you so much Latoya, please, give her another round of applause. She did fantastic, she said she was a little nervous, well, I'm nervous before every single speech so get used to it! It's also her birthday today so please tell her happy birthday. Thanks to all of you for coming here to our educators, civil rights leaders, thanks for what you do on behalf of the students. Can I just ask all the students here to please stand, let's give them all a round of applause real quick. It's important for you to know, I know we'll have questions after and please feel free to ask any questions you have... but all of us as adults here, we work for you. If we're helping you be successful, we're doing our job. If we're not helping you be successful, we're not doing our job, so whatever we can do to help you take that next step beyond high school as Latoya and all of you are thinking about. That is so important.

For all of us who have been entrusted with leadership in education and in civil rights, I'm standing below this mural... it tells us of how much we have to live up to. It is both a challenge and an amazing opportunity.

So too is this picture of this young girl here.

This is Star Brown. I left messages with her parents last night. She lives on the north side of Minneapolis in Minnesota. It's a pretty tough neighborhood.

In the four years since Star was born, her family has faced some big challenges: her dad suffered an injury at work, and her mom became sick with a brain tumor.

Despite those challenges, they never, never quit working to make sure Star has every opportunity to have a great future. They signed Star up to be part of the Northside Achievement Zone. Northside is a Promise Neighborhood—a partnership between schools, nonprofits and community groups modeled after Geoffrey Canada's extraordinary work in the Harlem Children's Zone in New York.

The Northside team helped Star get a scholarship to attend a high quality early learning center. But on her first day of preschool, Star hardly said a word.

In some places, her silence might have been overlooked. But Star's teachers discovered that what may have just seemed like first-day jitters was actually severe speech delay. Star even struggled to pronounce her own name. So her teacher, Ms. Freda, helped Star get started with speech therapy, and become engaged in her classroom. With practice and hard work, Star learned to sound out words, and name colors and shapes just like her peers.

Today, Star loves learning more than ever. She shows it teaching others how to spell her name, identifying new words, and staying at school until 5 pm when she can. Star's teachers say, "She's one of the brightest kids in the room."

This fall, Star will start strong in kindergarten. And she proudly wears a T-shirt announcing her plans: College Graduate 2033.

Opportunity: a promise, not a possibility

Star's story at its heart is not just about overcoming adversity, what it's really about, I think, is about opportunity made real. It's about a child's gifts and curiosity and excitement for learning being given a real chance to flourish. It's easy to say that every child deserves opportunity — regardless of race—disability—zip code—or family income. It's easy to say that we expect excellence from every child.

But it takes work—hard work—to make that opportunity real.

If you truly believe that all children deserve that kind of opportunity, then our collective work becomes extraordinarily clear.

We know that when families, educators and community leaders work together, they can unlock the "great vaults of opportunity of this nation"—to echo the words of Dr. King from his March on Washington.

Our work is to make sure that opportunity is not just a possibility, but a promise.

Nowhere is that promise clearer than in the visionary law that Congress passed 50 years ago today: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

ESEA marked an extraordinary step for education, and for civil rights. The fight for educational opportunity and the fight for civil rights always have been and always will be inextricably linked.

ESEA has built a foundation under our nation's schools, helping to raise the bar for every child, and to ensure that the resources are there for those most in need. It's helped create an expectation that no matter where you live in this country, when students aren't making progress, local leaders will come together to make change—especially if they are students with disabilities, students who are still learning English, students from a particular racial group, students who live in poverty, or students coming from particular school.

Progress and the work ahead

And the progress has been made in those 50 years is remarkable.

Today, African-American and Latino 9-year olds succeed in math at about the same level that their 13-year old peers did in the 1970s.

Today, dropout rates are down significantly for black and Latino students. High school graduation rates have soared in recent years for all students—and gaps are closing even fast for African-American, Latino and Native American students.

With grad rates up and dropout rates down, just since 2008, college enrollment by black and Latino students has grown by more than a million. That's a big, big deal with most of those students being first generation college-goers.

In the places that have been most committed to change, progress has been dramatic. In Tennessee and I'm proud to say, right here in DC, students have made unmatched gains. In Star's neighborhood, the Northside Achievement Zone has all but eliminated gaps for African-American boys.

As a nation, we must double down on that progress and do everything we can to accelerate that pace of change.

Everyone here knows we cannot rest because we still have so far to go. Why? Why do we have so much work ahead of us?

Because today, a quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of African-American and Latino students do not offer Algebra II, and a third do not offer chemistry.

Because today, about 40% of school districts do not offer preschool programs like the one that Star attends.

Because today, we have far too many students of color, primarily boys, being suspended and expelled from school.

And finally, because today, you can search five entire states and find only four girls in those states who took an AP computer science exam.

Our work will not be done until we ensure that opportunity is not just a possibility, but a promise.

As any teacher or principal will tell you, ESEA—now known as No Child Left Behind—is long overdue for repairs. It is broken and it is wildly out of date. We need a new law that does a lot more to support innovation and creativity by educators and communities—and a lot less to stifle that creativity.

A new law must stay true to the vision that opportunity isn't somehow optional; it's a right—for every child in this country. We cannot afford to leave any of our talent on the sidelines.

Opportunity is a right that inspires teachers and principals to literally dedicate their lives to empowering our children.

It's a right that encourages parents to expect their child will graduate from college and succeed in life, even if, even maybe especially if, those parents never had that chance themselves.

Our work is not done until we have lived up to that promise. To do that, we need a strong new ESEA that fulfills the right of all children to have a real opportunity to succeed.

A New Bill

We need a new law, and it must be bipartisan, both in the House and in the Senate.

Quality education is in our nation's best interest, not in any single party's interest.

A new law must ensure that our precious resources go to the students for whom they are intended. Not shift funds from the neediest schools to wealthier neighborhoods. That makes absolutely no sense.

We need to continue making sure that parents, educators and local leaders have the information they need to understand how all students and all schools are doing every year. Educators need that information, and families have a right to it as well.

As part of that, we need to make sure that the assessments students are taking measure meaningful learning, and offer a dashboard of students' progress. Anything else simply wastes valuable learning time.

And a new bill needs to do more to support teachers and principals, and ensure that highly skilled educators are teaching where they are needed most. Great teachers and school leaders are critically, critically important to providing true opportunity.

Our goal—as leaders in education and civil rights—must be a bill that lives up to the idea that opportunity is the right of every child. So let's take a moment talk about how we can work together to make that ideal a reality.

Any new law must support the expansion of early learning opportunities like the ones Star has been so fortunate to have in Minneapolis. We cannot continue to allow thousands and thousands of 5 year olds every single year to start kindergarten already a year to 16 months behind. It's not fair to them, to their families, or to their teachers.

Republican and Democratic governors, mayors and communities across the country have shown their support for early learning because they know what's possible when children begin school with a strong start. A new ESEA should build on these efforts to bring high quality early learning to all children.

And a new education law must ensure action in any school where groups of students are consistently struggling—and continue support and bold action in our lowest-performing schools.

According to a new report, more than a million students attend high schools that graduate just two thirds of their students or less. Most of those students are students of color, and come from low-income families. That's simply unacceptable in the most prosperous nation on earth. When education must be, must be the great equalizer. We know we can—and must do better.

We must build on the efforts that helped create opportunities for students like Moises Arzu at Booker T. Washington High School in Miami.

When Moises started 9th grade, his school was a tough a place. Only about half the students graduated, and unfortunately Moises was sometimes in trouble.

But hard-working teachers, fantastic City Year corps members, and school counselors came together to transform the school through an effort called Diplomas Now. And with federal support for their intensive, innovative, hands on approach, they created real opportunities for Moises and his peers to succeed. Teachers used real-time data to support students' progress, and encouraged Moises and his friends at every single step of the way.

Their collective efforts in a short amount of time are paying off: today, about 80% of students graduate from Booker T. Washington, and more than half of them are headed to college. Same building, same neighborhood, same families, same challenges. But a very different set of expectations and support, and very different results.

As for Moises? He's slated to attend Fisk University this fall.

If you want to congratulate him on his success, he flew in for this speech today. Moises, will you please stand up? Give him a round of applause. I gotta say, I can't believe you were ever in trouble—there must be a misprint in my speech here! But quickly I just want to say, your goal is not just to go to Fisk, but the goal is to graduate. And for all of you—whether it takes you 3 years, or 4 years, or 5 years... it took me 5 years to graduate from college. Get that degree, get that diploma, it will open up a whole new world of opportunity for you.

To help more students walk that path through college and to college, a new law must invest in innovative strategies like the ones at his high school that expand opportunity and to improve outcomes for all students. And when local educators discover innovations that work, we must scale up their success.

In other fields, medicine, energy and defense, the need for innovation is well understood. When the vaccine to a disease is discovered, the goal is never to hoard it to just a few. The goal is to get it out to the public, get it to everyone, as fast as possible. But sadly, in education, we spend less than 1 percent of our resources each year on research and development—despite an outpouring of creativity from local educators. Over the last few years, we have received more than 4,000 proposals for innovative local projects, and unfortunately we have only had the resources to be able to fund fewer than 150 out of 4,000. There is no upside to that. We must put great resources behind local projects that are changing students' lives.

Where we have invested in innovation, it has often been a game-changer. In rural Tennessee, one of our innovation grants has brought college-level courses to more than 25,000 students in 30 high schools—many of which are gaining access to AP classes and dual enrollment courses for the first time.

In North Carolina, I met a young student named Eric Trejo—who will soon be a first generation high school graduate. Eric's parents unfortunately didn't have the same opportunity to go to high school, but right now, he is getting a jump-start on college, thanks to an innovative, federally-supported partnership in his school that has helped Eric and more than 1,700 of his peers complete college-level classes.

And Eric told us, "I want to be able to say that I earned everything I have." And we should all work together to make sure that all students just like Eric and all of you here today, have the opportunity to earn their way and work their way to a better future.

As we strive towards to expand opportunity for all children, I feel really fortunate and pleased that Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray—the chair and ranking members of the Senate education committee—released a bill earlier this week. We are lucky to have their combined leadership and passion. Next week, they will begin discussions with lawmakers in their effort to build a new bipartisan education law.

Senator Alexander and Senator Murray share a lifelong commitment to improving education. Senator Murray spent years as a preschool teacher and early learning advocate for the people of her home state of Washington. This work is in her blood, it is why she entered politics. Long before Senator Alexander was Secretary of Education, Governor and a university President—he fought to end a policy of racial discrimination at Vanderbilt when he was the editor of his college newspaper. My father is also from Tennessee and also attended Vanderbilt and he always had tremendous respect for Senator Alexander.

Both senators' commitment to this nation's children is real.

And I hope that leaders in the House of Representatives, where a much more partisan process has unfolded, see the value in their leadership and pursue a bipartisan path there as well.

As a nation, we simply cannot afford to turn the clock back on students like Eric, and Star, and Moises.

We cannot cut our way to greater opportunities for our children.

Congress has the chance to create a new law that would help make educational opportunity a promise, not a possibility, for every child in this country.

A new law must build a foundation for 21st century schools by investing in innovation, supporting our fantastic teachers and principals, and encouraging every student's progress so that our nation's greatest asset, our vast academic and social potential, can be fully realized.


That's what Star Brown and millions of children like her deserves. A law that says that all children in this country deserves a real chance. A law that says we don't have a single child, a single kid to spare. A law that says we owe our children, our teachers and our schools more support, and more opportunity, not less. A law that says opportunity is a promise, not somehow just a possibility. And we're going to continue to work every single day to see that promise through.

Until then, our work is not done.

I know Star can graduate from college in 2033. And millions more students like her, deserve all the support and all the opportunities this country has to offer.

I look forward to working together with Chairman Alexander and Senator Murray, Chairman Kline and Representative Scott, their colleagues, and with all of you, to make this extraordinary promise a reality.

Thank you so much, and I look forward to our conversation.