Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Release of America’s Promise Alliance Report, “Building A Grad Nation”

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Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Release of America’s Promise Alliance Report, “Building A Grad Nation”

November 30, 2010

Speaker deviated at points from prepared remarks:

The new “Building a Grad Nation” report ought to be required reading for those who believe that the high school dropout problem is too intractable to successfully take on.

It debunks the idea that poverty is destiny in our schools. And it debunks the myth that high school dropout rates cannot diminish dramatically statewide or in big-city districts. The conclusion of this study is that schools, districts, and states have demonstrated high school graduation rates can increase significantly “in the very communities where the dropout problem has been most severe.”

You are going to hear shortly from some of the nation’s great educational leaders, like Chancellor Joel Klein and [Tennessee] Gov. Bredesen, who have achieved dramatic progress in reducing dropout rates.

From the moment I became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 2001, I was told that not much could be done to transform a failing school--and that nothing could be done to transform failing schools at scale. The barriers of poverty and race, and the attachment of parents to their neighborhood schools, were supposed to be just too tough to overcome.

I reject that skepticism—and this report shows why. It documents that, in fact, many failing schools do turn around. It shows that chronic underperformance doesn’t need to stay that way.

In 2002, the nation had 2,000 high schools that were dropout factories, about 15 percent of all high schools. These “dropout factories,” where 60 percent or less of ninth graders graduated four years later, produced half of all the nation’s dropouts, and almost three-fourths of our African-American and Latino boys and girls who dropped out.

It is very encouraging that six years later, the picture is not one of an unyielding status quo of failure but one of sweeping change. More than 900 of the 2,000 high schools that were classified as dropout factories in 2002 no longer met that criteria in 2008.

Nationwide, 400,000 fewer students were enrolled in dropout factories in 2008 than in 2002, a decline of 15 percent. And the number of high school dropout factories fell from about 2,000 high schools in 2002 to 1,750 high schools in 2008.

In Chicago, in 2002, 60 percent of the city’s high school students attended a dropout factory. By 2008, Chicago had cut that percentage by a third, with the number going from 60 percent to 41 percent. During the same time period, the on-time graduation rose in Chicago rose citywide by nine percentage points, from 51 to 60 percent. That’s still nowhere near where we need to be. But it is a real improvement for the city’s schoolchildren.

As you’ll hear shortly, my friend and fellow superintendent, Joel Klein, absolutely has bragging rights on me. New York had an even more dramatic increase in graduation rates, and a bigger decrease in the number of high school students attending dropout factories.

The United States cannot substantially boost graduation rates and promise a quality education to every child without ending the cycle of failure in the lowest-performing five percent of our schools.

For far too long, we as adults, we as educators, we as leaders, passively observed this educational failure with a complacency that is deeply disturbing.

States and district officials have largely tinkered in these schools, instead of treating them as educational emergencies. But children only get one chance at an education. We cannot be content with the status quo; and we cannot be content to continue tinkering.

Districts now have a choice of four rigorous models of intervention to foster dramatic change in these schools. Let me give some preliminary statistics from 44 states, where a total of 730 schools have begun implementation of our School Improvement Grants or SIG program interventions this school year.

In the past, low-performing high schools have been almost totally ignored in most districts’ school turnaround efforts. They were supposed to be the toughest schools to turn around.

Yet nearly half of the 730 schools implementing a SIG intervention model—48 percent--are high schools. And an average of $1.5 million a year has been awarded to turn around each of the persistently lowest-achieving high schools in the new SIG program.

Charter schools figure disproportionately among SIG high schools, relative to their numbers. Nearly nine percent of SIG high schools are charter schools--showing that SIG can also be used to hold low-performing charter schools accountable.

I know that this will be some of the hardest, most controversial, and most important work you will see this year and in the years ahead. We are committed to this for the long-haul. We’ll have some failures in our school turnaround efforts, along with many incredible successes.

But the difficulty of the work is no excuse for inaction. It is time for everyone to challenge the notion that some schools are just destined to fail.

Martin Luther King famously said that he couldn’t wait for justice to prevail. As a nation, we can no longer wait to improve schools that cheat children out of the opportunity to get a world-class education. Thank you.