Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock, Arkansas

Archived Information

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock, Arkansas

August 25, 2010

Good evening.

It's an honor to be here tonight under the auspices of the Clinton library.

This institution not only embodies the spirit of public service at the heart of the 42nd President's legacy but also reminds us of the importance of education in society today.

President Clinton was an early and active voice in the education reform movement -- both as governor and as president -- where he began the direct lending program, passed a school to work law, and launched the movement toward higher standards and better assessments.

Today, our administration is building upon his legacy and accomplishments. His education secretary Dick Riley remains an important voice in the national conversation around education reform. Formally and informally, he has been an amazing advisor to me on a whole host of issues, and I am so thankful for his guidance and support.

And so I begin by saluting President Clinton for his life of service to his state and his nation, and his continuing work on behalf of disadvantaged people both here and across the globe.

Today, as he strives to help Haiti rebuild its schools, I would love to support that effort in any way possible.

He is an inspiration to people of every generation. He has made a difference in so many ways for so many people and yet -- by all appearances -- he shows no signs of slowing down.

He is -- in the fullest sense -- a public servant whose extraordinary insights into the challenges facing our world are exceeded only by his tireless efforts to address them. So I thank him for providing this opportunity and I thank all of you as well for coming here tonight.

* * *

I have come to Little Rock to begin our Back To School bus tour at historic Central High School where -- 53 years ago -- the nation's attention was riveted by the courageous efforts of nine African-American students and their families, who were striving for a better education.

I am thrilled that two of the Little Rock Nine, and two of the heroes of the civil rights movement, Elizabeth Eckford and Minnie Jean Brown-Trickey, are here tonight. Despite the taunts, despite the hatred, they and the other members of the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High. Can we give a round of applause for Elizabeth and Minnie Jean?

Every day I think about the people in our history who had that quality of courage -- people like Dr. Martin Luther King and all of the heroes of the civil rights movement who forced a complacent and reluctant nation to face the shameful realities of discrimination and do something about it.

The Little Rock Nine possessed almost unimaginable courage, and forever changed the course of public education in our country.

Today, I continue to see real courage exhibited in schools and classrooms all across America -- teachers, and principals who get up every day and face the extraordinary challenge of preparing our children for life in a democratic society and a global economy.

They -- as much as anyone -- are fulfilling the promise of equality embedded in our founding documents and codified in our laws over the past 234 years -- and that is why I often say that education is the civil rights issue of our generation.

They have chosen to be educators because -- like Bill Clinton and Dr. King -- they want to make a difference. They want to see our children succeed. They want to see America grow stronger.

These educators are willing to work in our toughest schools, with our most-challenged students -- devoting themselves completely and selflessly. They are heroes in every sense of the word and we launched this bus tour to honor America's teachers and to celebrate courage in our classrooms. Over the next week, in large and small communities across America we will be meeting with teachers, hearing their voices, highlighting their success, acknowledging the hard work ahead and -- most of all -- thanking them for their commitment.

Joining me on the tour will be several public school teachers who are spending a year at the Department of Education, advising me, helping to shape our policy and serving as resources to their colleagues in the classroom.

As my staff travels the country, they will also carry this same message of gratitude and appreciation for the hard work and commitment of our nation's teachers -- and an open ear to hear them as they share their aspirations and their frustrations.

Our hope is that -- in the coming weeks -- every community in America and every parent in America takes time to thank their teachers and offer a helping hand -- because the responsibility for educating our children should never fall to teachers alone. It is everyone's responsibility. It begins at birth—years before a child sets foot in a school. It continues every afternoon and evening and weekend in the home. It happens in the community every day wherever people gather and bond.

And it doesn't end when the college diploma is granted. Employers spend tens of billions of dollars each year training employees to meet the changing demands of the workplace. More than any other issue -- education is our shared responsibility, and we all have a role to play.

We begin this new school year at a time when so much about public education is changing for the better. All across America, stakeholders inside and outside the education system are breaking down barriers to reform, forging new partnerships, and pursuing bold new strategies for improvement.

The need for change has never been greater or more urgent. A quarter- 2,590 - of our students never graduate high school. Our nation's drop-out rate is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable. Today, high school drop-outs are virtually condemned to poverty and social failure, with little hope of finding a good job. Many of those who do graduate from high school either don't enroll in college or fail to earn a degree.

In just one generation, we have fallen from first in the world to 12th in the percentage of young adults with college degrees. President Obama set a goal of becoming first again by 2020 and that goal drives everything we are doing from cradle to career.

It starts with Early Learning, where we are realigning our work with the Department of Health and Human Services -- which runs Head Start -- in order to boost both access and quality. Every study shows that one of the best investments we can make is to expand quality early learning programs.

If we are serious about closing Achievement Gaps, we must do more to level the playing field before children ever enter Kindergarten.

Among the more noteworthy events of the past year was a press conference held by top military officials saying that declining educational quality was a threat to our national security and calling for greater investment in Pre-K programs. (One thing I have learned in Washington is that it is always good to have the military guys on your side.)

On the back end, we are dramatically boosting access and quality in higher education -- both through increased Pell grants, greater investments in community colleges and minority-serving institutions, and a variety of reforms to our student lending programs. There is much more we are doing in the higher education arena but I will save that for another speech.

Tonight I want to talk about what we are doing at the K-12 level to drive reform through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- which is currently known as No Child Left Behind.

Today, more than half a century after Brown versus Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine, the promise of equal education remains unfulfilled for millions of low-income and minority Americans.

This unfulfilled promise led Congress in 1965 to create a federal law specifically aimed at overcoming inherent inequities in education.

Virtually every administration has put its stamp on that law -- including Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's. Now it's President Obama's turn.

Our work on Reauthorization of ESEA, has been underway for more than a year and while it may not make it to the finish line in the current session of Congress we expect it to be among the top priorities in the next one, and we will absolutely continue to work in a bipartisan manner.

In any case, our approach to reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is fairly straightforward and is defined by three words: fair, flexible and focused.

We want more fairness in how states, districts and schools are held accountable. We want to create more space and greater flexibility in how schools and districts can innovate to improve. And we want more focus on the schools and students most at risk. Essentially, we want a smarter, humbler and more effective law.

Instead of holding only schools accountable we want to hold districts and states more accountable. No school is an island, operating in isolation. Instead of prescribing specific and often impractical interventions for the vast majority of schools from Washington -- we want to offer a clear definition of success and let most schools figure out how to get there. We must better support creativity and innovation at the local level, which where the best ideas will always come from.

And for the very lowest-performing schools -- we want to provide many more resources in exchange for dramatic and comprehensive reforms that have demonstrated success in districts across the country.

We will maintain key formula programs for low-income students, English learners, special education students and other special populations like homeless, migrant and rural students. The vast majority of our resources will always remain in formula programs.

But we also want to embed into the law competitive grant programs like Race to the Top that are proving so effective in driving reform at the state and local level.

This $4.3 billion program -- representing less than one percent of education spending nationally -- has prompted states and districts across America to change laws, remove obstacles to reform, and encourage stakeholders to work together in ways that they haven't for decades.

More than 30 states have changed laws around the issue of public charter schools, and teacher evaluation. As of today, 37 states have agreed to adopt higher common, college and career ready standards and others are still considering them.

I congratulate your state, Arkansas, on taking this bold step for your students last month. These higher standards are an absolute game-changer—as a country we will finally stop dummying down standards, and stop lying to our children and their families.

All told, 46 states and the District of Columbia applied for Race to the Top funds and just yesterday we announced the final winners of this year's competition.

We now have 11 states along with DC positioned to bring real and lasting change to American education and 35 others with comprehensive plans in hand that will shape their reform agenda.

Whether or not they received funds under this program, we will find ways to help every state push forward with their reforms -- because every state in America needs to get better - and I just want to salute Arkansas for its work in a number of areas.

Your state is absolutely raising the bar and providing educational leadership that is resonating nationally. Arkansas has adopted Common Core Standards developed by governors and chief state school officers and will use student growth in its accountability system.

Arkansas is a leader in expanding student access to rigorous high school courses. The state requires every high school to offer at least four AP classes. The state has also tripled the percentage of graduating seniors who took at least one AP exam. That's a big deal, opening a new world of opportunity for your students.

My understanding is that Central High School, in fact, is now drawing students from the suburbs attracted to the school's high-quality programs.

Arkansas is also a leader in the use of data. It is one of the few states with all 10 of the essential elements identified by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC).

Based on the state's record and a strong application, Arkansas recently won a federal grant of nearly $10 million to develop a statewide data system that will support data-driven decision making at the state and local level.

Finally, Arkansas will ultimately benefit after a separate group of states wins a share of $350 million in Race to the Top funds to create a new generation of assessments that will better measure students' critical thinking skills and be more useful in helping improve instruction.

All of this makes me confident that Arkansas is absolutely headed in the right direction. But as we move ahead, the big game-changer for us, in terms of both formula and competitive programs, revolves around the complex issue of teacher quality.

Nothing is more important and nothing has a greater impact on the quality of education than the quality and skill of the person standing in the front of the class -- and there is so much that needs to change in the way that America recruits, trains, supports and nurtures our teachers.

Today, there are many different approaches to strengthening the teaching profession -- both here in America and in countries that are currently outperforming us like Finland and Singapore.

The Asia Society recently held an international symposium on teacher quality and they found that high-performing countries put much more energy into recruiting, preparing, and supporting good teachers -- rather than on the back end by reducing attrition or firing weak teachers.

Our competitors in other parts of the world recognize that the roles of teachers are changing. Today, they are expected to prepare knowledge workers, not factory workers, and to help every child succeed -- not just the "easy to teach." They have to harness new technologies and teach higher order thinking.

According to the report from the symposium, Singapore selects prospective teachers from the top third of the class and in Finland only one in ten applicants is accepted into teacher preparation programs. They only pick the very best.

England undertook a series of steps to raise the status of the teaching profession. This includes a sophisticated advertising campaign, a televised awards program to raise the profile of teaching, and encouragement for alternate routes into teaching.

They also provide bonuses to attract teachers to commit to teaching in high-need communities. In just five years, teaching went from being one of the least-desired professions in England to being one of the most-desired.

The other big findings are that the best teacher preparation programs place more emphasis on guided practice in classroom settings, more focus on problem solving and creativity, and more attention on the use of data and assessment to guide instruction.

When it comes to compensation and evaluation, there is greater variation. We know that entry- level salaries for teachers need to be competitive with other jobs in order to attract high-quality graduates, but beyond that, working conditions are more important than salary.

Finland and Canada do not pay teachers based on their performance, but China and Singapore do. And many countries use financial incentives to teach in hard-to-staff schools.

Most important, teachers in Singapore are appraised annually by several people and across multiple measures, including classroom delivery, collaboration with parents and community groups, and contribution to their colleagues and the school as a whole.

The issue of Teacher Evaluation is especially important today for a number of reasons. First of all, everyone agrees that our current evaluation system is fundamentally broken.

In many districts, 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory and most evaluations ignore the most important measure of a teacher's success—which is how much their students have learned.

Many teachers get little or no meaningful feedback and are literally denied access to the data that can show them if they are making a difference -- and that's a tragedy. Teachers want -- and need -- this information. Today, are we setting up our teachers for success or for failure?

Teachers also worry that their job security and salaries will be tied to the results of a bubble test that is largely disconnected from the material they are teaching.

As I said a few weeks ago in a speech in Washington, no one thinks test scores should be the only factor in teacher evaluations, and no one wants to evaluate teachers based on a single test on a single day.

But looking at student progress over time, in combination with multiple measures like peer review and principal observation can lead to a culture shift in our schools where we finally take good teaching as seriously as the profession deserves.

This is a complicated and emotional issue for teachers, and it just got more emotional in the past 10 days with a series of articles on teacher quality published by the Los Angeles Times.

Essentially, the Times took seven years of student test data and developed what is called a "value-added" analysis to show which third- through fifth-grade teachers are making the biggest gains.

The results may be soon posted on the newspaper's website in a searchable data base by teacher name -- taking transparency to a whole new level. Needless to say, concerns are running very high in Los Angeles-- not only among teachers themselves but also among a wide spectrum of administrators, academics and reformers who question the validity of the scores and the value of the entire exercise.

Still others worry about parents with a limited understanding of what this information really means jockeying to place their children with the highest-ranking teachers.

I am a strong advocate for transparency. This is one thing that NCLB got right.

By requiring districts to publish test scores for subgroups like minorities and special needs students -- it changed the national conversation and forced us to focus more closely on our insidious achievement gaps.

If it was up to me and the law allowed it, I would put out student attendance data and hold parents accountable.

And while we're at it, let's put out funding and facilities data and hold school boards and politicians accountable.

Let's put out data on dropouts, college enrollment, college completion, loan default rates, and every other kind of data that can help us highlight our many remarkable success stories, and on the flip side, help us better understand why too many of our nation's children are unprepared and undereducated.

Let's do what the State of Louisiana is doing -- tracking student scores to teachers and teachers back to their colleges of education so we know who is doing a good job of preparing educators -- because too many of the teacher colleges in this country are doing a mediocre job at best.

The truth is always hard to swallow but it can only make us better, stronger and smarter. That's what accountability is all about -- facing the truth and taking responsibility and then taking action.

The fact is today we publish a school's scores next to the name of a principal and a district's scores next to the name of a superintendent. As CEO of the Chicago Public Schools I absolutely felt personally accountable for the achievement of my students. All of us in education have this responsibility—though it can be difficult at times. There are real issues even competing priorities and values that we must work through together—balancing transparency, privacy, fairness and respect for teachers. This work is not easy—but it is critically important.

I appreciate how painful this may be for these L.A. teachers, and I also appreciate the fact that even the best data systems won't tell the whole story. That's why it's so important to get teacher evaluation systems right—to ensure they look at both student learning and other factors—to paint a fuller picture.

Under the best of circumstances, this information would be thoughtfully discussed among teachers and principals with the goal of identifying the strongest teachers so we can learn from them and better support those who are struggling.

What is especially interesting about the L.A. Times series is the reaction of some of the teachers quoted in it -- and one particular quote haunts me.

According to the newspaper, one of L.A.'s most effective teachers is Nancy Polacheck, a fourth-grade teacher with 38 years of experience. She said something that was utterly heartbreaking.

"In the past, if I were recognized, I would become an outcast," she told the Times. "They'd say, 'She's trying to show off.' "

This has nothing to do with showing off and everything to do with identifying excellence.

That shame of success has pervaded America's educational culture for far too long.

I've heard it in my travels all too often, not just from teachers, but also from low-income and minority students who are picked-on and ridiculed because they want to do their best in school.

As a country, we must stop just highlighting the exploits of ball players and rock stars and start shining a huge spotlight on those hard working, successful students and teachers who are leading us to where we need to go. They are our true heroes and role models.

We should celebrate Nancy Polacheck and the literally hundred of thousands effective teachers like her. Unfortunately, we rarely know who they are.

The fact is, instead of shining a spotlight on excellent teachers, our education system hides them or makes them feel like outcasts.

Why? Who benefits from that?

There are countless teachers who can help even the most challenging students grow, while others have only marginal success.

In that sense, teaching is no different than any other profession. However, too often our system keeps all our teachers in the dark about the quality of their own work.

In other fields, we talk about success constantly, with statistics and other measures to prove it. Why, in education, are we scared to talk about what success looks like? What is there to hide?

Los Angeles illustrates the problem. Like school systems throughout our nation, the L.A. Unified School District has years of data on its students, yet most administrators never shared that information with teachers in a useful way.

Similarly, parents don't get solid, helpful information on their children's schools and teachers. Instead they rely on legend, intuition and chance.

The State of Tennessee has been collecting value-added data since 1992, but it wasn't until this year that Tennessee changed its law to allow its use in teacher evaluation and to identify the state's lowest-performing schools.

That change in the law helped Tennessee win its Race To The Top grant.

Every state and district should be collecting and sharing information about teacher effectiveness with teachers. In addition, how are we engaging parents and more importantly, students themselves, so they take more ownership of their own learning?

Teachers want the information. They want the feedback. And they want to get better.

Consider the words of two other teachers who ranked among L.A.'s lowest performers -- according to the analysis. Instead of being defensive, one of them was quoted saying:

"Obviously what I need to do is to look at what I'm doing and take some steps to make sure something changes." He also advocated sharing the data with parents to keep him and his colleagues "on their toes a little bit more."

When another teacher saw her low score, she asked, "What do I need to do to bring my average up?"

Such responses, I believe, are real courage in action and I see that from teachers everywhere.

More than a 2,000 L.A. teachers have asked the Times for their scores. It makes no sense that they had to wait for a newspaper to share this information with them and for this to be unfolding in such a public way without their input. We didn't put this information in Chicago, but the fact that teachers did not have this information is ridiculous.

Local school districts in real partnerships and collaborations with their teachers, must decide for themselves how to share this information -- how to put it in context -- and how to use it in order to get better. But we cannot shrink from the truth.

Ideally, a good evaluation system will protect teachers because it gives principals or peer reviewers the evidence they need to intervene when they see a problem. A principal should not have to wait for the scores to come out to realize that a teacher is struggling. Educators deserve more than statistics to do their jobs well. They need constructive feedback from their principal and their peers against clear standards and other relevant measures.

This information should be rolled up into a meaningful, ongoing assessment of their work that both helps improve instruction and is tied to opportunities for advancement, bonuses, collaboration and professional development.

Fortunately, the field of education is moving in this more sophisticated direction.

States, school districts and teachers' unions are developing new ways of assessing student growth and—along with other measures—identifying, rewarding and most importantly learning from effective teachers.

In fact, administrators and union leaders in Los Angeles are working together to develop a better evaluation system, even as the LA Times situation plays out. I am hopeful that they will come up with a model that is fair and useful to both teachers and parents.

Frankly, it has been too long in coming—not just in LA—but around the country.

The L.A. Times has ignited an important debate but it falls to all of us to meet the challenge and talk openly and honestly about this issue.

This is going to start happening all over the country and the administrators and unions need to lead the conversation. They also need to be thoughtful about how they engage the broader community.

I know that our national union leaders are eager for this conversation. The current systems don't work for their members. Many state and local leaders are ready as well.

For example, right here in Arkansas, the state is developing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system with more than 20 different indicators -- including student achievement. Your work, leadership, and courage will have national implications as this effort unfolds.

We begin with the understanding that the purpose of evaluation is never to blame teachers but to support and empower them, recognize and reward them -- and give them -- as AFT President Randi Weingarten once said -- the tools, the time and the trust to succeed.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has urged me to look toward other countries for better ways to elevate and honor the teaching profession -- places like South Korea, where teachers are viewed as nation builders that are critical to the country's economic future.

The public is also yearning for this discussion. A new poll released today by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup shows that the number-one education priority is improving the quality of teaching.

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with one of the best teachers in America. Her name is Sarah Brown Wessling. Her commitment to everyone of her students is both inspiring and remarkable.

She teaches in Iowa and she is the National Teacher of the Year. She said it much better than I ever could. She said:

"We must commit to innovative teaching practices that will create openings to treat students as individuals, rather than defer to movements that homogenize them. We trust that high-quality teachers — rich in content knowledge, confident in their skills, and poised to teach habits of mind — are the people who will turn our students into autonomous learners."

Tomorrow, I'm getting on a bus to meet with teachers in Arkansas and seven other states. My message to these dedicated public servants is simple and clear:

You are our unsung heroes. Not only do we trust you but we hold you in the very highest esteem. We understand that you are doing society's most important work.

We will support you in your work and we will work together with you to elevate and strengthen the teaching profession because nothing less than America's future rests on your collective shoulders.

Thank you and God bless.