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Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the National Urban League Centennial Conference



Good afternoon.

As you know, the President is going to be here tomorrow to talk about education, so I just want to take this opportunity to set the table.

I want to talk openly and honestly about how our reform agenda will close the achievement gap and serve students of color and those growing up in poverty.

And I want to directly address some of the concerns raised in the framework issued by the civil rights community this week.

We're moving a very aggressive agenda and we need to incorporate everyone's voice, so I thank you for your feedback. Your thoughts and ideas will continue to shape our collective agenda.

But I also want to challenge you—as I challenge myself every day, and so many others—to be bold and ambitious in our thinking.

Our children are at risk. Their future—and ours—is at risk.

We must prepare them to compete in a global economy, and that requires all of us to move outside of our comfort zones.

We have to challenge the status quo—because the status quo in public education is not nearly good enough—not with a quarter of all students and, almost half, 50% of African-American and Latino young men and women dropping out of high school.

How many good jobs are out of there today for high school dropouts? What chance do they have to build positive futures? Our nation's young people deserve dramatically better than we are giving them today—they deserve a real chance in life.

This issue is even bigger than education—it is an issue of social justice and economic security. We have a moral obligation to change these outcomes and it won't happen unless we start doing things differently. Not just talking about it, but actually doing it.

Yesterday at the National Press Club, I talked about a Quiet Revolution underway in states and districts across America.

Bold and thoughtful educators, administrators, union leaders, community leaders and elected officials are working together to transform public education.

They are trying new approaches to attract great teachers into schools serving low-income and minority students. They are getting great talent to serve the children and communities who need it the most and they are closing achievement gaps.

They are raising expectations of what our children can achieve, and rejecting the old excuses for why kids can't learn.

And they are getting amazing results.

And, the question I raise for all of us to think about is, whether we have the collective will to embrace this change, and support this quiet revolution. Do we have the courage to change, to expect, even demand more, so that every child has the opportunity to fulfill their tremendous academic and social potential?

The civil rights community has a long and distinguished history of taking courageous action to drive social change. I draw so much strength and inspiration from your legacy of courage and selfless service.

Every day I think about Martin Luther King in a jail cell in Birmingham, telling his fellow ministers why we can't wait.

I feel the same sense of urgency. Our students can't wait because every day that we wait, they fall further behind. Just as justice delayed is justice denied, I believe educational opportunity delayed is education denied.

Parents can't wait. They see pockets of educational excellence and ask why it can't be everywhere—when their children have only one chance for an education.

The economy can't wait. Even in this historic recession, there are millions of high-paying American jobs that go unfilled, because employers can't find qualified people.

Have we allowed that to happen?

Where is our outrage?

They have to recruit from overseas—from India and China—in high-paying fields like medicine and engineering.

Some public schools even go to Korea to recruit math and science teachers, because our country has not produced enough math and science teachers to teach our children.

How is it possible that America—300 million strong—cannot produce enough qualified people to staff our hospitals, build our bridges, and lead our classrooms?

That's a failure—not just on the part of our schools—but on the part of communities and of our larger society. We have two million people behind bars. We have way too many African-American men locked up and way too few teaching in our schools. Less than 2%, 1 in 50, of our nation's teachers are Black men. That's not good enough for any of our young children, but particularly for our young boys who desperately need positive role models in their lives.

And every year another 1.2 million kids drop out of high school, and then far too many of them head into that prison pipeline. As a society, we have been content to incarcerate folks at $60,000 per year, but unwilling to spend just $10,000 or $15, 000 a year to educate them properly on the front end.

Where are our collective priorities?

I promise you, the fastest way to empty out those prisons is to eliminate our country's drop-out rate.

But for far too long, we have squandered all of that talent, leadership, creativity and energy because we have not provided every child with the education he or she needs and deserves.

And I ask you why? Why? Why have we waited?

Why do we allow schools serving low-income students, and students of color, to chronically underperform year after year, without making much progress?

We have 2,000 high schools, not that big a number, that account for 50 percent of the nation's dropouts, and three quarters—75%—of African-American and Latino drop outs. Why do we allow this?

Why can't we have more schools like Banneker High School here in D.C.?

I went there and spoke to a group of students—most of who are headed to colleges and universities.

One girl said something that really stuck with me. She said, "At Banneker, it's okay to be smart."

When I heard that, my heart went out to millions of young people who are afraid to show their smarts and their desire to learn—because of some negative social pressure.

Together, we must make it—not just ok—we must make it cool, we must make it hip, to be smart.

The fact is, more and more people are pushing back hard against academic failure.

They are the warriors of the Quiet Revolution and they are coming together to meet this challenge.

We know what's possible—we are seeing it all over the country.

Locke High School in Los Angeles has over 3000 students and they had a terrible dropout problem for decades, until an organization called Green Dot took over a few years ago.

They lowered the dropout rate dramatically—not with any magic solutions—but with dedication and a focus on what kids need—more time, better curricula, and meaningful adult relationships.

In the first year of that school's turnaround, student-attendance increased by an average a month—students were voting with their feet and deciding it was worth coming to school, because they were cared about.

In Chicago, we replaced a high school where only four percent of incoming freshmen were at grade level and 60% never graduated—with Urban Prep, an all-male, all Black charter high school.

Their success made national news. They just graduated their first class—107 students—107 graduates—and 107 headed off to four-year colleges and universities. That's what happens when we raise expectations.

When we were transforming that school I talked with Don Stewart who is the former President of the Community Trust and the former president of Spellman 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.

How many Don Stewarts did we lose over those 50 years, because we failed to provide a real opportunity?

At George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama and at Roxbury Prep in Boston, thoughtful and committed educators are helping students succeed at the highest levels.

These schools are virtually 100% low-income minority schools and they are proving what's possible.

Now this work is continuing in every state thanks to $3.5 billion in federal school improvement grants. We have to both strive for excellence and help those at the bottom who have furthest to go. That's our commitment.

We're providing up to $6 million dollars per school, over and above in regular funding, in exchange for a commitment to dramatically change the culture and the learning environment to make a difference for students.

So we have the resources. If you need more time with students—do it. If teachers need more time to plan and collaborate—do it. If you need to pay math and science teachers more money—do it. If students should wear a jacket and tie to school and parents should sign a contract—do it.

No more excuses!

The only thing standing in our way is fear of change. What we need most is the courage to do what's right for children. Unfortunately, I can't manufacture courage. But you can.

This is where we need your help. The Urban League wouldn't exist without courage. That's your history—that's your legacy.

The Urban League's forceful and passionate voice on issues affecting low-income families and children is always important, always needed—and always respected.

President Marc Morial's courageous and moral leadership—along with his colleagues like Ben Jealous, Reverend Sharpton and Reverend Jackson—is helping to shape our agenda.

You've made us better. You've held us accountable.

So I thank you for your tireless efforts to help fulfill America's promise in our public schools. Marc, on a personal level, I want to tell you how much respect I have for your vision, thoughtfulness and commitment.

You also have the platform to build the courage, commitment and capacity needed to replicate Banneker and Urban Prep and so many other success stories in cities across America.

You can lead our struggling communities to embrace this kind of difficult transformational work.

It begins right here with you and I and the President and the entire nation, working together for children.

In recent months, our administration has been deeply engaged with the civil rights community.

We have met in my office, at the White House and in conferences across the country.

I can't tell you how much I appreciate the ongoing dialogue—it is making us smarter.

For example, at the NAACP convention in Kansas City two weeks ago, I announced that we will work with Congress to mandate community and family engagement before schools can be turned around. We also doubled funding for parental engagement, because parental leadership is critical to improving outcomes for our children.

Teachers can't do this hard alone—parents must be full and equal partners. Parents must turn those televisions off at night and help their children learn.

We've worked hard on this issue with your experts from the Urban League.

Including parents more generally and specifically in decisions about school turnaround is not only fair—it's essential.

When parents and the community are informed and engaged, a school can be transformed and outcomes dramatically improved.

In fact, when people see what can happen, they want to know why it doesn't happen sooner. They get the urgency.

There's much more that we are doing together to advance equity in education. We are helping millions of young people—and especially low-income minorities—pay for college with an additional $40 billion dollars in Pell grants. We stopped subsidizing banks, invested all that money in education and did this without going back to tax payers for a dime.

We can now look every child in the eye and tell them that however tough this might be at home financially, their dream of going to college can be a reality.

With your support, we have put $2.5 billion dollars into colleges serving minority populations—including a billion dollars for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Our HBCUs can't simply survive; they must thrive as we move ahead.

We have put $2 billion dollars into community colleges that serve many low-income and minority students and we are investing $750 million dollars to help students stay in college and graduate.

This can't just be about access to college—it must also be about attainment and graduation.

We dramatically simplified the dreaded financial aid form for college, so the form itself is no longer a barrier to entry.

Finally, through Income Based Repayment, we are dramatically reducing loan repayments for college graduates at the back end and after 10 years of public service, including teaching, all remaining debt will be erased. We are committed to bringing the next generation of great talent into our nation's classrooms and IBR removes the major financial impediments to that.

And based on an idea that came directly from the Urban League and members of Congress like Chakah Fattah and Mike Honda, we are today proposing the creation of an equity and excellence commission to look at the all-important issue of school funding.

America's system of funding public education is inherently unequal, in part because it relies so heavily on state and local taxes.

Over 40 states have faced legal challenges to their school funding system because they are so unfair.

I've lived this fight. In my home state of Illinois, for example, wealthy districts can spend up to $25,000 per child while poor districts spend as little as $6000.

This bipartisan commission will have representation from the civil rights and equity community.

It will expose the inequities in funding, gather public input and issue policy recommendations on finance reform.

The Commission will help address another complicated but very important issue that you have often raised, which is comparability around the use of Federal title I funds.

As you know, Title I funds are supposed to reduce inequity by providing additional dollars to schools serving low-income children.

Under current law, however, districts can essentially hide inequities in state and local spending between poorer schools and wealthier schools because they only have to show average salaries of teachers—not actual salaries.

That means that schools with highly paid teachers will continue to receive much more money than school with lower-paid teachers—and we all know that schools serving low-income children usually have lower-paid teachers.

Today, many superintendents and school boards don't track this inequity, and the law doesn't require them to fix it.

But if we change the law, when we reauthorize ESEA, and require schools to distribute resources more equitably, schools serving low-income students will have more money and better teachers.

That money can buy more support for students and teachers, higher pay for great teachers willing to work in low-income schools, and breakthrough technology to advance learning.

In short, revising the comparability rule could be one of the most important policy changes in a generation to drive equity for low-income and minority students and we look forward to working with Congress on this issue.

The Equity and Excellence Commission will be housed in our Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

Our Office for Civil Rights has itself undergone a transformation. We have renewed its focus on enforcing civil rights laws and advancing equity under the powerful leadership of Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali.

Last March, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Russlynn and I stood together with 300 students on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama and talked about our plan to revitalize the Office for Civil Rights.

We talked about how the story of the civil rights movement was written in the classroom and how educational equity is the civil rights issue of our generation.

We talked about what we would do as a Department of Education to challenge inequity and neglect wherever it exists.

In just four months, Russlynn's office has launched dozens of compliance reviews and investigations around the country to expose inequities.

Why are African American boys disciplined significantly more than whites?

Why don't schools that serve students of color offer the same rigorous curriculum and access to the kinds of courses that students need in today's global marketplace?

Why do some schools continue to track young African-Americans away from college and high-wage professions?

The Office for Civil Rights will also investigate issues like safety and sexual violence, equal opportunity for English learners, and subtle forms of re-segregation that deny minority children better opportunities.

It will ensure that all schools—public and charter—serve the kids most in need. That is also something you told us was important. We heard you loud and clear, we are responding and these schools will be held accountable.

Russlynn's office will also work to ensure that schools, districts and states distribute resources, including effective teachers, more equitably.

Through vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws, we will make sure our reforms are implemented in a fundamentally fair manner.

And we will work hard to eradicate the vestiges of segregation that still harm African-American students.

In so many ways, our reform agenda is all about equity, from increasing access to high-quality early learning programs, to boosting college access and completion. And yet, if you have been following the news lately, you know that some voices from the civil rights community have suggested otherwise.

As always, we listen carefully and we are always open to change.

As we speak, our Administration is working with Congress to rewrite the federal education law that is currently known as No Child Left Behind.

In the coming months we will continue to work closely with you and your colleagues in the civil rights community to strengthen the focus on equity in our blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But, let me now address some of the concerns we've heard. Tomorrow, the president will talk about this as well.

Some people say that grant programs like Race to the Top are bad for low-income and minority students. They say we should instead invest only in formula programs that address the basic needs of high-poverty schools and students.

Just to be clear, we will absolutely continue to invest heavily in formula programs like Title I and IDEA. 80 percent of federal education dollars in our proposed budget are formula driven. Anyone who says otherwise is intentionally misleading or profoundly misinformed.

But the fact is Race to the Top has done so much to dismantle the barriers to education reform with less than 1% of what we spend on K-12 education.

For example, 13 states changed laws to allow more people like Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, Tim King of Urban Prep in Chicago and the people at the KIPP charter network to create great schools that are serving low-income, minority children. The Urban League has partnered with this work around the country. Are charter schools the magic answer? NO! Are they all good? NO! It's the same for traditional public schools.

But should we stifle the growth of high-quality public charter schools like Geoffrey Canada's? Absolutely not!

Tens of thousands of minority parents are on waiting lists for these schools. They have to run lotteries because there is so much demand.

Of course, we should set a very high bar for charters to open their doors—we should set high expectations—and if they don't meet those expectations we should close them down.

But to suggest that somehow charters are bad for low-income and minority students is absolutely wrong.

Let's strengthen traditional public schools, which the vast majority of our children will always attend, and let's support good charters. These ideas are not in conflict—they reinforce each other.

Since Race to the Top, 17 states have also changed their laws around teacher evaluation to include student achievement.

Believe it or not, some states had laws prohibiting the use of student achievement in teacher evaluation.

Thanks to Race to the Top, those laws are all gone.

Now—should a teacher evaluation be based on a single test? NO! Should their salary be linked to a single test? NO!

But can you really evaluate teachers without factoring in student achievement at all? Of course not!

It should be one of multiple measures. That's just common sense—and many forward-thinking union leaders such as Randi Weingarten of the AFT agree with us.

And then I hear people say that competitive programs won't serve minority kids. Let me give you just one statistic:

65% of minority students in America live in the 21 states that either won the first phase of Race to the Top or are among the 19 finalists in the second phase.

States with heavy minority populations like New York, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania—are all in the hunt for Race to the Top funding. And let's work this through a little more because competition isn't about winners and losers. It's about getting better.

We all agree we need to challenge the status quo, figure out what works and scale it up. Formula programs can't do that alone. Grant programs unleash creativity and innovation and like all of our competitive programs, Race to the Top targets high-need schools.

Our Turnaround program, $3.5 billion, only serves high need schools. The Teacher Incentive Fund, $400 million only targets high-need schools.

Promise Neighborhoods, $210 million—which seeks to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone—will only serve communities of tremendous need

So let's not get into a false debate over competition versus formula funding because we need both.

Finally, I just want to talk about why we need high standards.

Today, states have dummied down standards in part because No Child Left Behind punishes them when they fall short. We're going to change that for several reasons.

First of all, low standards mean that we are lying to children and parents—telling them they are ready for college when in fact they are not.

That's why so many of them drop out after a year. That's why so many need remedial education.

America needs a high-bar college and career-ready standards for everyone so that we're all on a level playing field.

In basketball a three-pointer is always worth three points. In football a touchdown is always worth six points.

Only in education does the real value of a high school degree vary by state or zip code. Why have we allowed these gross inequities in expectations to exist, unchallenged for decades?

The brutal fact is, low income students are always hurt the most by low standards. Far too many leave high school woefully unprepared to succeed in college or the workforce.

Well, thanks in part to Race to the Top, 48 states are working together on high standards, and 30 states have already adopted them. This is courage in action at the local level—the days of dummying things down and lying to children is finally coming to an end.

One of the things that No Child Left Behind really got right was transparency.

It requires every district and state to show the test scores of all subgroups so we can see the insidious achievement gaps of poor, minority and special education students.

But because states can't hide those gaps any longer, many states lowered standards so poor children looked like they were doing better.

That was an absolute tragedy for American education.

This President and this administration will never acquiesce in a lie. Our first job is to tell parents and students the truth.

And when we can all look at the same hard truths—the same shameful statistics on dropout rates—and underfunding—and lack of academic rigor—and ineffective strategies—and low performance—and poor school leadership—then we can have an open, honest debate about how to address it.

And we must keep this issue, and this debate, at the forefront of our collective agenda—nothing is more important than improving our nation's schools.

So I stand here today—deeply appreciative of all of you and your leadership and your remarkable organization.

You are partners and allies in the cause of public education. This is a movement—a movement for social justice. This is the civil rights issue of our time.

This is the only way to end poverty and the ignorance that perpetuates discrimination.

This is the only way to achieve the dream Dr. King so vividly described on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I came to Washington for two reasons: to change our children's destiny through education, and, to put an end to the indefensible inequities in education that left far too many of my friends on the South Side of Chicago without freedom, opportunity or hope.

But, for all our nation's challenges, I am full of hope, because I have seen what is possible when people put aside their differences and focus on children. I know it can be done.

I believe in this President, I believe in this cause, and most of all, I believe in you.

Thank you and God bless.


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