The Road Less Traveled

Archived Information

The Road Less Traveled

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles Education Summit

March 22, 2011

Thank you, Elise. And thanks to United Way LA for convening this Summit, and for its steadfast commitment to driving education reform here.

I believe that this Summit is timed just right, because the public school system of Los Angeles is at a crossroads today.

City leaders, community groups, unions, parents, educators, and students can continue on the road you have been on. Or you can take the road less traveled, the harder road. I encourage you to take the road less traveled because, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, it will make all the difference.

It is no secret that the Greater Los Angeles area has been at the center of a number of education battles during the last two years.

Management and UTLA have had a contentious relationship. The school board reached a groundbreaking settlement with the ACLU to prevent disproportionate layoffs of teachers in high-poverty schools. And the publication of teacher value-added scores in core subjects in the Los Angeles Times prompted a national debate last year about value-added assessments of student learning.

Like much of California, the LA region has faced a big budget deficit. It has had to implement some of the toughest budget cuts in the country--and in a district that already spends less per student than most big-city districts. We all know that isn't fair.

And in the face of the district's budget shortfalls, some educators and community leaders have gone into survival mode. They see this combination of challenges as an educational perfect storm that it is best to get through by holding on tight and making protective, modest adjustments.

I think that view is short-sighted--and more often than not, counterproductive. There is no question that school and community leaders in the Los Angeles region today face some tough, tough budgetary and staffing choices, as Mayor Villaraigosa has spelled out.

We wish that wasn't the case. But as the Mayor has also recognized, in crisis lies opportunity. Courageous leadership is honed not in times of comfort but in the face of challenges. I agree with your committed incoming superintendent, John Deasy, that Los Angeles today faces a perfect opportunity, not a perfect storm.

Why do I think that the education system here is nearing a tipping point? It starts with having courageous, committed, and clear-eyed leaders. In John Deasy, in the new school board and its phenomenal president, Monica Garcia, and in Mayor Villaraigosa, Los Angeles has a trio of tremendous leaders who want to take the hard road, not the beaten path. Every time I talk with the Mayor, he is more excited about the chances for real change. LA's leaders want to challenge the status quo when it fails to serve children, not preserve it.

As a region, Los Angeles has enormous and unique resources to tap. The City of Angels is a cultural mecca and entertainment and sports capital. It has one of the largest school systems in the United States--and a large number of innovative charter schools. It has some of the best public universities in the world.

So what happens in LA does not stay in LA. Around the country, educators, unions, school superintendents, and parent advocates are watching carefully to see what happens in public schools in the nation's second largest city.

The big picture about the Greater Los Angeles area is a good news-bad news story. Unfortunately, for children, the bad news outweighs the good news.

The good news is that the LA unified district is starting to move in the right direction, thanks to Ray Cortines' wonderful leadership. Student achievement scores are up for all groups. I know how hard that is to do. The district has expanded choice. It has created a top-notch school report card system. And the state passed a law repealing limits on using student growth to evaluate teachers.

The bad news, and the brutal truth, is that the greater LA area has so far to go. Too many schools are still mired in mediocrity. Only about half of the district's ninth graders graduate four years later--and that is one of the lowest graduation rates of any big-city in the nation.

Just 33 percent of high school students are proficient in English language arts--and the story is even worse in math, where only 13 percent of high school students are at grade level.

District-wide, many minority students are not getting access to a college-preparatory curriculum. Only about 40 percent of Latino and African-American high school graduates have completed the A thru G college-prep courses required for admission to a UC or CSU campus.

It's a travesty that a diploma from a LA Unified school does not certify a graduate is ready for college and careers. In fact, more than two-thirds of all Los Angeles public high graduates entering the CSU must take remedial courses in math or English. They simply are not prepared.

Today, Los Angeles is a world-class city, with a second-class school system.

If LA is going to have a world-class public school system that truly prepares students to succeed in today's knowledge economy, the time is now for transformation. The time is now to get off the well-trod road in favor of the road less traveled. The time is now to confront challenges--and leave the comfort zone behind.

Three educational challenges are particularly pressing in Los Angeles at the moment. First, management and the teachers union must find ways to collaborate. I am not talking about collaborating around the status quo, but rather to advance and accelerate student achievement, while protecting the district from counterproductive budget cuts.

Second, the district needs to accelerate its work in measuring student growth in learning. It should incorporate student growth as one element of a better teacher evaluation system that also includes observation of practice and other indicators.

It makes no sense that students and their parents today do not know how much students are advancing, or whether they are on track to being college and career-ready. And it makes no sense to have a quality-blind teacher evaluation system that completely ignores a teacher's impact on growth in student learning. That, to me, is so disrespectful of the extraordinary work that teachers do every day to improve students' lives, often in very challenging circumstances. Teachers, parents, and students deserve an evaluation system that uses multiple indicators of teacher quality.

Finally, all stakeholders in the Los Angeles area need to do more to build a high-quality, cradle-to-career continuum of support to help children succeed.

That continuum starts with quality early childhood education. Nothing is more important. But it includes strengthening middle schools--and creating that "second shift" of after-school providers, wraparound services, and parental involvement. Those second shift providers help children develop their skills and interests, and stay engaged in school as they make their way to college and careers.

I want to talk about shifting the paradigm on labor-management collaboration first, because it's the least understood of the three challenges I've just mentioned. If you examine the record of other big-city districts, you will find that educational progress more often follows tough-minded collaboration than tough-minded confrontation. The same is true with countries that are out-educating us today, like Finland, Singapore, and Ontario, Canada.

Collaboration is such a friendly-sounding word. But let me be clear: I am not speaking of labor-management collaboration which props up a status quo that fails to serve the interests of children or undermines a sense of urgency about change.

I'm not talking about sharing a Kumbaya moment. And I'm not talking about sustaining a system that too often today tragically perpetuates poverty and social failure due to a lack of real educational opportunity.

The fact is that nothing is more demanding at the district level than collaborating on issues that take you far beyond your comfort zone. And please don't believe the skeptics who claim that union-management is doomed to fail.

Our department just held the first-ever conference on labor-management collaboration in Denver. More than 250 districts applied for 150 slots--even though the school board president, the superintendent, and the local union head all had to agree to attend. To be eligible to attend, the district leaders also all had to sign a pledge to explore new compacts around a host of difficult, hot-button issues.

Collectively, those districts are serving more than four million students. And we heard from a dozen districts that are using the collective bargaining process itself in extraordinarily creative ways to raise the bar for students and close achievement gaps.

For example, ABC Unified has developed a new and innovative Peer Assistance program where struggling teachers can get help from more experienced, successful colleagues. And in many big-city districts, management, school boards, and unions are working together to tackle the tough issues. In Denver, the Pro-comp system rewards whole schools and individual teachers for learning gains and for working in hard-to-staff schools.

We have to systematically get the hardest working, most committed teachers and principals to the children and communities who need the most help. School systems must close the talent gap in underserved neighborhoods.

The need for labor-management collaboration has added urgency in Los Angeles because of the area's budget crunch. Today's New Normal is that educators are being pressed to do more with less.

In times of tight budgets, there are smart ways to increase educational productivity and not-so smart ways. The wrong way to handle this challenge is to cut back in a manner that damages school quality and hurts children.

I'm talking about steps like reducing the number of days in the school year, slashing instructional time spend on task, eliminating the arts and foreign languages, and laying off talented, young teachers. Unfortunately, that pattern of cutbacks has prevailed too often in the past.

The best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. But doing so requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.

That reexamination can only happen with labor-management collaboration. Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, and the over placement of students in special education are all controversial. But they are the tough issues that management, labor, educators, and parents need to face.

The alternative to doing more with less is doing less with less—and our children cannot afford that.

I'm often asked about my position on LIFO policies--the requirement that layoffs for teachers be conducted on a last in, first-out basis. But I think that's the wrong question to ask.

I don't support quality-blind requirements for laying off teachers based solely on seniority, anymore than I would support a system that maximizes cost savings by laying off great, veteran teachers because they have higher salaries.

The challenge here—and in the contract up for renegotiation in June--is to develop a brand-new system of staffing rules and policies that does a much better job of learning from and rewarding effective teachers, especially in low-achieving schools. The teacher evaluation system is broken--and management and the unions need to work together to fix it. The increasing number of breakthrough, reform-minded contracts around the country gives LA many models to learn from.

Layoffs, as painful as they are, should fall on the least-effective teachers when layoffs are absolutely unavoidable. At the same time, layoff policies should protect great teachers, especially those who work with the children who most need their help.

The school board showed great courage in its settlement of the ACLU lawsuit. The settlement ensures that high-poverty schools are not disproportionately impacted by teacher layoffs, as is typically the case. Too often, the children who need both the most stability and adult talent from us get the least—and then we wonder why they struggle academically. It makes no sense.

The settlement is a good first step toward leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students. But the next, more important step is to move beyond quality-blind layoff decisions to making sure that low-income students, minority students, English language learners, and students with disabilities are getting the great teachers and principals they need.

The upcoming contract negotiations represent an amazing chance for your entire city to chart a new course together. The opportunity is breathtaking--please, don't squander it.

The second challenge I mentioned in the Greater Los Angeles region was the need to accelerate your work in measuring student growth in learning.

Why is this so important? It's simple. The quality of the teacher at the front of the classroom is the single biggest in-school influence on student achievement.

It's not fair to hold a teacher accountable for the level of student skills and knowledge when a child walks into a classroom at the start of the school year.

But parents, students, and school leaders do need to know how much that child has advanced, has improved, during the course of the school year. And this information can be absolutely invaluable to teachers who are looking to fill in gaps in student learning and inform their own instruction.

The idea of measuring student growth and gain is common sense. But it's not the way that schools typically function in America.

Under the current No Child Left Behind Law—which we will fix--educators generally test students in a few core subjects, near the end of the year. After the fact—sometimes after the next school year has already begun--the test score results come back, showing what percent of students are proficient.

When we are assessing school performance, we should be far more concerned about student growth in learning than absolute levels of proficiency. And I've said many times that student learning and teacher evaluation should never be reduced to a single test score on a single day or to test scores alone. This work is far too complex for that.

We should look at multiple indicators of student performance and teacher effectiveness. Student growth, attendance rates, graduation rates, matriculation to college, college persistence, school safety, participation and success in AP and IB classes, narrowing achievement gaps—those are just some of the measures that should factor in a school's, district's, and ultimately a state's educational performance.

The third and final challenge I mentioned was that all stakeholders in the Greater Los Angeles area need to do more to build a high-quality, cradle-to-career continuum of support to help children succeed.

School systems cannot carry on this work alone. It takes a community to educate a child in the 21st century. I believe, and President Obama believes, that it is time to begin reimagining our basic concept of school. America finally needs to move beyond the 19th century agrarian-era calendar of a 9:00 to 3:00 school day, five days a week, nine months a year.

Countries that are out-educating us today think about time in very different ways. I'd like to see schools open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, year-round, offering not just mentoring and tutoring programs but art, chess, family literacy nights, robotics, debate teams, and GED and ESL programs for parents.

It doesn't have to be that expensive to keep schools open longer. In every school in the nation—95,000 of them--you have classrooms, computers labs, libraries, gyms, and some have pools. They don't belong to me or the principal. They belong to the community.

School districts should rent their schools out for free from 3:00 to 9:00 pm to great non-profits partners like the YMCAs, the Boys and Girls Club, college-readiness programs, and other providers, like those funded by the United Way.

When schools have these tremendous physical resources, the YMCAs and Boys and Girls Club should get out of the business of brick-and-mortar start-ups. Just run their programs in the schools—and put all their scarce resources into children, not buildings. When schools become the heart of community life and of family life, I promise you our children will do just fine.

The private sector can help so much here, too. Business can provide mentors, internships, and tutors. They can adopt a school. They can provide managerial expertise on budgets and ongoing feedback on whether students are career-ready. And they can make the case for reform at school board meetings, in the mayor's office, and in the state legislature.

The business community should be motivated by the perfect mix of altruism and self-interest to get engaged in school reform—their long-term commitment is desperately needed.

Parents, of course, will always be a child's first and most important teacher. As President Obama said recently, parents are responsible for instilling "not only a love of learning, but also the self-confidence... the self-discipline and [the] work ethic that are at the heart of success in school and success in life."

At school, I think parents can serve in at least one of three roles: Partners in learning; advocates and advisors who push for better schools; and decision-makers who choose the best educational options for their children.

When parents demand change and better options for their children, they become the real accountability backstop for the educational system. Parents have more choices today than ever before, from virtual schools to charters to career academies. And our schools need empowered parents. We need parents to speak out and drive change in chronically-underperforming schools where children receive an inferior education.

Now, parent engagement in schools must be a two-way street--and that road leads right back the dining room table. President Obama often urges parents to turn off the TV and shut off the Xbox. But too many parents think that warnings about the impact of heavy electronic media use really aren't for them but rather for other parents.

Children naturally rebel against the limits parents set, whether it's removing sweets from the dinner table or insisting that children finish their schoolwork before playing video games.

But it's a time-honored fact that the job of parents is to parent—to lovingly give a child direction and to set reasonable limits. Too many adults are abdicating that role and unintentionally hurting the children they love.

All of this leads back to the urgent need to transform the education system. Our public schools must do so much more to prepare students to succeed in the global economy of the 21st century--not just in Los Angeles but throughout the nation.

And that is one reason that I hope you will add your voice to the bipartisan chorus calling on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act now, or what's known as No Child Left Behind.

The No Child Left Behind law required schools to disaggregate student achievement data for low-income students, minority students, English Learners, and students with disabilities. That completely changed the national conversation--and for the better. Communities, schools, and parents could no longer look the other way when some groups of students languished while others thrived. It made the invisible visible--and for that we can all be thankful.

But NCLB also has many, many shortcomings, including some of the very problems that I've talked about today. We must fix the law--and fix it together, without regard to politics or ideology. The law has created dozens of ways for schools to fail--and very few ways to help them succeed. The only reward for success today is that you are not labeled a failure.

NCLB holds schools accountable, often based on a single test score on a single day. It measures absolute levels of proficiency in a few core subjects but not growth and gain in student learning.

It encourages a narrowing of the curriculum, rather than a rich, well-rounded education. It prescribes one-size-fits-all interventions in schools, rather than encouraging local solutions.

It fails to distinguish between schools in a bit of trouble with one group of students and persistently under-achieving schools in a whole lot of trouble.

If schools persistently underperform, we will target them for much more serious interventions than the tireless tinkering that NCLB provided. When schools chronically fail to educate children, we have a moral obligation to demand dramatic change. But we also must recognize, reward, and, most importantly, learn from the tremendous examples of success I've seen as I've traveled throughout the country.

Our ultimate goal is to create a law that is fair, flexible, and focused.

I don't know how many of you are aware of these statistics. But last year in Los Angeles, 72 percent of the district's 866 schools did not make Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind law. Three out of five Title I schools, or low-income schools, were identified as in need of improvement.

This is only a preview of what is to come. NCLB mandates that every student be proficient in English and math by 2014. It is likely that within a few short years, virtually every school in the greater Los Angeles area will be failing to make adequate yearly progress as defined by the current law.

We know that all of our schools are not failing. And we know that what we are doing to measure success and failure under the law is out of whack.

NCLB needs urgently to be rewritten to recognize and reward student growth. It needs urgently to be rewritten to ensure that students who most need help get the effective teachers they need. It needs urgently to be rewritten to ensure that students receive a well-rounded education that truly readies them for college and careers in the knowledge economy. NCLB is fundamentally broken--and we need to fix it this year, before we go back to school this fall.

President Obama put it best when he said that "in the 21st century, it's not enough leave no child behind. We need to help every child get ahead. We need to get every child on a path to academic excellence."

So Los Angeles, take the hard road, not the easy one. Seek tough-minded collaboration, not tough-minded confrontation.

Your children--our children--only get one shot at an education. They cannot wait for a better education system to slowly evolve. Help them now. Help them today. And if the entire community rallies around this work together, I am convinced you will help lead the country where we need to go.