Siding with Students

Archived Information

Siding with Students

Remarks of Secretary Arne Duncan to the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council

November 2, 2011

Good evening and thank you for inviting me here to Rhode Island to talk about the challenges and the opportunities to improve education and strengthen our economy.

President Obama and I believe deeply that education and the economy are inextricably linked. American cannot thrive in the new century without a skilled and educated workforce.

The key areas of growth in the new economy—fields like health care, technology, and green energy—require us to get much better in subjects like math and science—and do a better job of producing college graduates in these fields. Traditional industries like manufacturing and transportation are also increasingly reliant on a more highly-skilled and educated workforce.

Everyone here recognizes that there are fewer and fewer good jobs for people without a post-secondary degree—whether it is vocational training, a two-year degree or a four-year degree.

And everyone here understands the social cost to society when whole segments of the population lack marketable skills.

Where that happens we perpetuate poverty and devastating inequity.

From increased crime and chronic dependency to the loss of intellectual capital, educational failure carries a horrendous price tag.

It undermines our economic future, denying us the talent and output of millions of Americans—and at times like this—that's a loss we cannot afford.

America is still recovering from the biggest economic crisis since the Depression.

There is now a robust debate underway about the best path forward. Some people say we need to cut taxes and reduce regulations—and the economy will magically come back to life.

None of us like taxes or a heavy hand from Washington, but as an economic strategy—this approach has been tried and it has failed.

It has led to staggering wealth gaps and excessive borrowing—and created a culture of irresponsibility where a handful of people got very rich betting against America, betting against homeowners, and betting against our future.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans lost their jobs, their homes, their retirement and their dreams of a secure future for their children and grandchildren.

Today, the median income in America has dropped below $50,000 a year. That is back to 1996 levels.

That isn't nearly enough to support the Middle-Class American Dream of a decent job, a good home, affordable health care, quality education and a secure retirement.

It's definitely not enough to drive a consumer-based economy.

Someone has to buy the cars, the clothes for school and work, and pay the tuition and mortgage bills.

But today too many people are struggling just to make ends meet and cutting back on making purchases.

Not surprisingly—with demand so low—corporations are reluctant to invest—even as they earn record profits.

President Obama believes there is a better way to get America moving again. In the long-term, he wants to invest in education and innovation to build the industries of the future.

In the short term, he wants to cut taxes for working families so they can spend that money to feed and clothe and educate their children.

At the same time he wants to keep teachers, police officers and fire-fighters on the job, modernize our schools, and upgrade our crumbling infrastructure. He proposed the American Jobs Act to provide $25 billion for school modernization.

That includes $98 million to upgrade Rhode Island schools and the state's community college, supporting 1300 construction jobs and improving the learning environment for tens of thousands of students—including adult learners who are returning to school to upgrade their skills for the new economy.

To keep teachers in the classroom and first responders on the job, the administration seeks another $35 billion dollars—which would include over 1,100 jobs here in Rhode Island.

The President also believes we need to reduce our debt and pay our way—which is why he is asking everyone to share in the sacrifice—both through less spending in targeted areas and higher taxes for those who can best afford it.

At our best, America has always been about shared sacrifice and shared responsibility as the pathway to shared prosperity—especially at our moments of crisis.

Unlike today's wars and economic crises, where the poor and the middle class have shouldered much of the cost, everybody pitched in during the Depression and World War II.

We need the same spirit of unity today to meet this challenge. When Americans set aside their individual interests and pursue a common vision built around a thriving economy and a strong middle class there is nothing this country can't do.

And nowhere does the spirit of shared responsibility offer greater promise than in the field of education.

For America to move forward, our educational and political leadership must come together on behalf of children—speak openly and honestly about our educational challenges—and work together to solve them.

And we must solve them with a much greater sense of urgency. We have to get better faster than ever before.

Now—let me say a few words about open, honest conversation because I believe it is so important and because I have had a fair share of it today. Rhode Island may be the smallest state, but no one can accuse you of being shy.

A few hours ago, RIPEC sponsored a town hall meeting where I caught an earful about education reform. And then I had a meeting with union leaders from across the state—and they had plenty to say as well.

They talked about Race to the Top, labor-management relations and school improvement grants. They talked about turning around schools.

They talked about the hard work involved in improving education and some of the success stories.

They said what was on their minds and they didn't mince words. And I tried to do the same. I want to tell you what I told them.

I told them I didn't come to Washington three years ago and I didn't come to Rhode Island today to take sides among adults when they are working through tough issues.

The only side in education that matters to me and to our country is the side of students.

I absolutely recognize that we also want to insure that our educators are treated fairly and in lean times, we want to be smart about how we invest resources.

But at the end of the day, the final lens through which we view reforms must be whether it helps children learn. If the answer is yes, then we must press ahead, no matter how difficult or how far outside our comfort zone it takes us.

Now, I don't pretend to be the only one who voices that sentiment. Many stakeholders feel they're representing the interests of children.

And of course, these issues are rarely black and white. We must embrace complexity, not run from it.

But when things are clearly not in the interests of children, we must challenge it—so I will continue to speak out against states and school districts that cut instructional time for students, and shorten the school week and school year.

I will speak out against states and districts that cut high-quality early learning programs, and eliminate effective arts and music instruction—and extra-curricular activities that our children desperately need.

I will speak out against states or school districts that bar consideration of student achievement and progress when evaluating principals, teachers or schools.

And I will speak out when schools chronically fail to offer children a quality education.

For far too long, we turned a blind eye to persistently underperforming schools—depriving entire communities of the educated talent pool they need to thrive and prosper.

These are all tough issues—and trying to figure out what is best for students is not always a simple matter.

But I have great confidence that educators, parents, school and community leaders, and policymakers collectively can do a better job of advancing the interests of students.

Over the years, I've met literally thousands of great teachers, principals, union leaders, superintendents and state chiefs all across America who are finding new and better ways to hold all of us accountable, raise the bar for ourselves and boost student achievement.

I've seen elected officials do things that were unpopular with their voters like raise taxes for schools or raise standards even when it makes their schools initially look worse. They are willing to take the political hit because they are more interested in telling the truth.

Forty-four states voluntarily raised standards in the last two years, even before we spent a penny of Race to the Top funds. No one—no one thought that was possible. This was supposed to be the third rail in education reform.

I've seen so much political courage in this country around education issues that I am more convinced than ever that America is entering a new era of high standards, real accountability and educational success.

But we have to work together. We have to get beyond the tired old battles of the past and find common ground. The urgency has never been greater.

Now—there is plenty to be proud of here in Rhode Island—including the most recent NAEP results that show improvements among several subjects and grades and some improvements among low-income students and other subgroups. Clearly things are moving in the right direction.

But like many other states, too many of your students are not ready to compete in the global economy.

RIPEC issued a sobering report this week showing that Rhode Island still trails New England and many other states around the country.

Even with the new results, Rhode Island ranks 23rd in 4th grade math, 21st in 4th grade reading, and 30th in 8th grade math and reading.

The RIPEC report also points out that Rhode Island ranks sixth in the country in per-pupil spending so this isn't just a matter of money.

Moreover, this isn't just a problem among a few subgroups.

This is a problem for your white middle class students—who are not just competing against other students in New England, but are competing with children from high-achieving nations like India, China, South Korea, Finland and Singapore.

Education researcher Eric Hanushek analyzed the results of the 2011 PISA tests—which assesses students from across the world.

According to his study, all students—all students—in 24 nations are more likely to be proficient in math than just the white students in Rhode Island, and all students in 9 nations are more likely to be proficient in reading than the white students in Rhode Island.

In Math, Rhode Island's white students trail Iceland, Estonia, and Slovenia. In reading, Rhode Island's white students trail Australia, Canada, and Belgium.

Furthermore, within the U.S., according to Hanushek, Rhode Island's white students trail their counterparts in 37 states in math. And in reading—white students in Rhode Island trail their counterparts in 33 states.

Now let's talk about completion. Today, one in four Rhode Island students does not graduate high school on time. That's right around the national average and behind the rest of the region.

Low high school graduation rates generally correlate with higher college enrollment rates because many of the weaker students drop out—so that's one of Rhode Island's strong points—though it is a success borne partly out of failure.

When it comes to college completion, the news is pretty good for four—year programs in Rhode Island but not as good for two-year programs—so your state has a lot of work to do.

These two-year programs are critical to a large segment of the student and adult population. There will always be a segment that wants to spend four years studying the liberal arts—but for most people—including adults—they want the skills to get a job and the community colleges are meeting that need—but only if people complete their training.

Brenda Dann-Messier is from Rhode Island and joined our administration as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

She is leading a national effort to strengthen career and technical education in high schools and colleges and we're very proud of her work—and Rhode Island should be proud as well.

The Community College of Rhode Island recently received a three-year federal grant from the Departments of Education and Labor to develop a training program for the healthcare and information technology industries and to boost completion rates.

Strengthening community colleges is a top priority for this administration and we are eager to see how Rhode Island invests this new money to prepare students for jobs.

Today I also visited Providence Career and Technical Academy—a state-of-the-art high school where students are graduating ready for college—and equipped with an industry-recognized certification in fields like construction, hospitality and automotive repair.

It's a great option for young people who want to start working right away.

The fact is workforce quality has an impact on your state's ability to compete for business.

Studies of the business climate available on RIPEC's website indicate that low educational attainment is pulling down Rhode Island's rankings as a good place to do business—so this is about so much more than education.

This is about your economic future.

Fortunately, there is a lot of great work underway here in Rhode Island and we are especially pleased to partner with you in that effort.

As all of you know, Rhode Island is one of 11 states along with DC to win a Race to the Top grant.

That was not a gift. That was an investment you earned because we believe Rhode Island can help lead the country where we need to go.

Today, Rhode Island's $75 million RTT grant is on-track and people are working together to do some very difficult things—like figuring out how to implement college and career-ready standards so that we truly prepare our children for success.

Under the RTT grant, Rhode Island is developing an evaluation system that builds in student achievement and other measures—and your teachers are actively involved in that effort.

Meanwhile, thanks to a separate federal competition called Investing in Innovation—or i3—the state-level AFT affiliate in Rhode Island is developing a similar evaluation system that is based on student growth and other factors.

I fully expect that these parallel efforts will combine to make Rhode Island a national leader in the area of meaningful support and evaluation.

Now I know this work is generating some tension around here. That is to be expected and you are hardly alone.

If this work and these changes were easy they would have happened long ago. From Delaware and North Carolina and Indiana to Illinois, states and districts are absolutely wrestling with issues like evaluation.

But these debates are healthy—they are necessary—and ultimately they will be fruitful.

A good evaluation system should drive instructional strategies and help teachers get better. We must support teachers and support accountability.

Unfortunately, today in most places evaluations does neither. It doesn't help teachers and principals get better—it doesn't tell us which ones are excellent—and which ones need more support.

Our policy always has and always will call for multiple measures—where student progress is just one factor—along with other things like principal observation, peer review, or parent and student feedback.

There is no single formula. Districts and states—along with teachers and their unions—need to figure this out—and many have. I was recently in Toledo, Ohio, which has a long-standing evaluation system in place that was jointly developed by teachers and administrators.

It is based on multiple measures and includes a review panel with both administrators and teachers.

Today, at least 23 states and many districts are developing new, more sophisticated systems of support and evaluation and many more are starting down that path.

They understand this work must be done if we are to get better, hold ourselves accountable and give our children the education they need.

So I salute everyone here in Rhode Island for your persistence on this issue.

As the country evolves and takes on this difficult but critical effort to strengthen and elevate the profession, Rhode Island has a chance to make its mark.

Reforming education is hard, hard work—and some of the hardest work involves turning around our under-performing schools. Here again, Rhode Island is gaining ground.

The events in Central Falls forced some tough conversations but I believe that Central Falls High School is stronger for it today.

I am told there is progress in AP access and enrollment and student discipline.

The school is aggressively targeting students at risk of dropping out and the RIPEC report indicates that some test scores are moving in the right direction—though it is too early to draw any conclusions.

Nevertheless, the teachers and leaders at Central Falls deserve a lot of credit.

Here in Providence, the first six schools to receive federal grants to raise student performance have brought in new leadership teams and some new staff, lengthened the school day and brought in community partners to provide needed social services, after school programs and even family literacy programs for immigrant parents.

One of the schools, Sanchez High School holds classes on Saturday and partners with local employers to prepare students for careers. When students need more time, we must give it to them.

Meanwhile, administrators at every level are working collaboratively with their teachers to build instructional leadership teams that can help raise student achievement.

I love the sense of urgency here and the willingness to challenge the status quo.

Looking ahead, I'm especially hopeful because of Rhode Island's leadership—starting at the top.

Among other things, I am so grateful to Governor Chafee for helping children of undocumented immigrants go to college.

He understands—both intellectually and in his heart—that they will either be an asset or a liability to Rhode Island depending on their level of education.

At the other end of the educational continuum, Rhode Island is competing in our $500 million early learning competition.

Like the K-12 Race to the Top program, this competition will reward states that work together to raise quality, strengthen the workforce and measure outcomes in a useful and consistent way.

Whether Rhode Island wins or not is almost beside the point. You're doing the hard work and it will pay off for children.

Rhode Island is also planning to seek a waiver from No Child Left Behind. I won't prejudge the waiver request though I would point out that the requirements are closely aligned with Race to the Top.

President Obama's decision to issue waivers was simple: America can't wait for Congress to act.

Children have only one chance at an education. Schools and districts are buckling under the mandates of NCLB. We all know the law is fundamentally broken.

Congress has had four years to rewrite NCLB and we continue to hope they will do it soon.

In fact, a bill recently got out of committee—which is progress—although we are concerned that it takes us backward on accountability and evaluation.

In any case, as that bill proceeds, we will move forward and offer relief and flexibility from NCLB's most onerous provisions—but only to states that are willing to change.

To receive waivers, states must embrace high standards, meaningful accountability, and an evaluation system that gives teachers and administrators constructive feedback and useful, real-time data about student achievement and other factors.

So far—40 states have sent letters of intent and the first deadline is coming up on November 14th. States can also apply in the winter.

There is no competition between states here; in fact we encourage them to work together.

And while we're on the subject of relief, I want to talk about student debt—because it's a growing national problem—and an economic threat. It's stunning that today student debt actually exceeds credit card debt as college costs continue to rise far faster than inflation.

Excessive loan debt is a major factor contributing to high college dropout rates in America—and every state—including Rhode Island—needs to do a better job of controlling tuition costs, lowering default rates and boosting college completion.

So last week, the President made another executive decision to help students with debt by giving them a way to lower monthly payments and consolidate multiple loans.

President Obama has set a national goal of raising the percentage of young people with post-secondary degrees from about 42 percent to about 60 percent.

We must, once again, lead the world in college completion. Today, the U.S. ranks 16th [among young adults]. We must do better.

This isn't just an educational aspiration—it's an economic imperative.

According to one study, lost productivity from high school dropouts is the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.

Today—by various estimates—there are more than two million high-wage jobs in America that are unfilled because companies cannot find qualified workers.

We must do more to produce those workers and that means we must all be willing to change and collaborate.

It starts by building trust. We have to give each other the time and space to make education reform work.

I'm convinced that America has an extraordinary opportunity to transform public education for the new century. We have new technologies at hand that can exponentially boost productivity in our classrooms.

We have a chance to transform the teaching profession. Fully half of America's teachers will retire this decade. How we recruit, train and support the upcoming generation of teachers will shape public education for decades to come.

I have said that teachers and principals should be paid much more—on par with professions like medicine—but the field should be organized differently with a higher bar for admission, more opportunities for professional advancement, and more autonomy—as well as accountability.

We also have more progressive leadership in America's unions than ever before. For example, both national unions support evaluation based in part on student achievement. And countless state and local affiliates have become active partners in reform—including several here in Rhode Island.

Unions are changing and they deserve credit for moving on issues.

At the state and local level, we have courageous leaders who are deeply committed to reform.

Governors are more engaged than ever before because they realize that education is their greatest opportunity to change outcomes for people and attract business to their states.

Mayors, whether they control school systems or not, realize that their economic viability is tied to public education.

Businesses and foundations are stepping up and offering billions of dollars in support to help school systems meet the needs of a rapidly-changing economy.

And thankfully we have organizations like this one, devoting time and energy to complex and challenging issues like education—forcing tough conversations among local leadership and holding us accountable with public reports and public forums.

Finally, despite the dysfunctional political environment in Washington, we have many forward-thinking and hard-working members of Congress—including Rhode Island's senators and representatives.

They want to do the right thing but politics in Washington too often gets in their way.

We can't let that happen. Americans who care about our children's future must tell their elected officials that education is one issue that should be above politics.

It's a matter of economic security and national security.

Today, other countries around the world are investing more—adding class time—embracing higher standards and raising expectations.

They understand that education is the surest path to social mobility and economic security. They are united, ambitious, focused and rapidly moving ahead.

America must do the same—and I have every confidence that Rhode Island can be a national leader in education reform at every level—from early learning to college completion.

Please know that as Rhode Island proceeds—you will always have a friend and a partner in the Obama administration.

This is a special moment—a time of real challenge and a historic opportunity.

Let's make the most of it. Thank you.