Thinking Beyond Silver Bullets: Remarks of Secretary Arne Duncan at the Building Blocks for Education: Whole System Reform Conference in Toronto

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Thinking Beyond Silver Bullets: Remarks of Secretary Arne Duncan at the Building Blocks for Education: Whole System Reform Conference in Toronto

September 13, 2010

I am delighted to be here today and to participate in this conference. There is so much that the United States has to learn from nations with high-performing education systems. And there is much that America can share from its experience to the mutual benefit of nations confronting similar educational challenges.

I want to provide two take-away messages today about America's efforts to boost educational attainment and achievement. First, the Obama administration has an ambitious and unified theory of action that propels our agenda. And second, while the administration has an ambitious vision, we do not begin to have all the answers.

Just as the administration seeks to promote a culture of continuous improvement in our schools, we intend to refine and hone federal policies to assist states, districts, teachers, and students. I welcome this opportunity to learn from other nations and education ministers--and to make mid-course corrections to our policies as needed.

Educational outcomes do not dramatically improve overnight, even though public debate about improving education sometimes implies that rapid gains are the norm. Transformational reform especially takes time in the United States, which has more than 100,000 public schools, 49 million K-12 students, more than three million teachers, and 13,800 school districts--all of it largely administered and funded by local governments. Systemic change, in short, takes time.

Yet I am absolutely convinced that today the U.S education system has an unprecedented opportunity to get dramatically better-- and that nothing is more important in the long-run to American prosperity than boosting the skills and attainment of the nation's students. We feel an economic and social imperative to challenge the status quo—this is the civil rights fight of our generation.

Several misconceptions consistently crop up in the coverage of the Obama administration's agenda. It is not altogether surprising, but media coverage of our reform agenda overseas tends to concentrate on the unexpected, such as the fact that President Obama, a progressive president, has supported the expansion of competition from high-performing charter schools with traditional public schools. Or that he favors incorporating student achievement as one of a number of factors in evaluations of teacher and school performance. In fact, the president wants to elevate the status of the teaching profession—nothing is more important than getting a great teacher into every classroom.

President Obama and I both recognize that improving educational outcomes for students is hard work with no easy answers. That challenge will never be met by chasing silver bullets or isolated reforms. Instead, we share a clear, coherent, and coordinated vision of reform.

The North Star guiding the alignment of our cradle-to-career agenda is President Obama's goal that, by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Just one generation ago, America had proportionately more adults with an associate or bachelor's degree than any nation. But data released last week by the OECD shows that among young adults, America is now tied for ninth in the world in college attainment rates. Forty two percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 have an associate or bachelors degree. By comparison, 58 percent of young adults in South Korea and 56 percent of young adults here in Canada have a degree. In the era of the global economy, America has no choice but to educate its way to a better economy.

The President's 2020 goal is ambitious--it can only be attained by a systemic transformation of the U.S. education system. To meet the president's goal, roughly 60 percent of young adults will need to have earned an associate's degree or bachelor's degree by the end of the decade, up from that 42 percent figure today. Institutions of higher education would need to add roughly eight million more graduates.

In the face of those kinds of numbers, you might well ask us, “Arne, how do you get there from here?” So let me lay out our theory of change—and let me start by saying how pleased I was to see the four themes or building blocks of education for systematic reform identified by this conference.

Those four themes closely mirror the four assurances guiding the administration's reform efforts and that are enshrined in last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The four assurances got their name from the requirement that each governor in the 50 states had to provide an “assurance” they would pursue reforms in these four areas, in exchange for their share of $49 billion in a Recovery Act program designed to largely stem job loss among teachers and principals.

The four assurances were, first, that states would work toward developing academic standards that truly show if a student is ready for college and a career when they graduate from high school. Under the existing system, many states had dummied down academic standards to make students look proficient. While that helps politicians look good, it was bad for children, bad for education, and bad for states' long-term economic prosperity.

Many states were lying to students and parents, telling them that students were ready for careers and college when they were nowhere near ready. States were similarly encouraged to develop assessments that moved beyond existing fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills to measure the higher-order thinking skills necessary for success in the knowledge economy. This new generation of assessments would show if students were prepared to start careers and college without the need for remedial instruction.

The second assurance governors provided was in the area of data systems. The department has supported states and provided several hundred million dollars to build longitudinal data systems that measure student progress over time. More robust state data systems and a new generation of assessments can assist teachers and principals to improve their practices and tailor their instruction to students in ways that were largely unthinkable in the past.

The third assurance asked states to commit to improving the preparation, professional development, and evaluation of teachers and school leaders--especially in high-need schools and subject areas like STEM and special education. Great teachers are the unsung heroes of our education system and our society. They have the single biggest in-school impact on academic achievement. And when it comes to teaching, talent matters tremendously.

Yet, by almost any indicator, low-income minority students do not have equitable access to effective teachers in the United States. Today, too often the children who need the most help get the least—that is unacceptable. Too often, we perpetuate poverty and social failure—and that has to stop. To disrupt and challenge that pattern, the department placed a priority on supporting high-quality preparation and professional development programs to enhance the effectiveness of teachers and principals. We have to do more to support the hard-working educators who have devoted their lives to helping our children.

That shift starts with transitioning from paper credentials to more meaningful measures of teacher and student achievement--like student growth and other indicators of great teaching and high-performing schools. Feedback from better career development and data systems should drive continuous improvement in schools--providing teachers with new opportunities to collaborate, learn from each other, and take on leadership roles.

Expanded programs are also increasing incentives for effective teachers and leaders, especially in high-needs schools. We have to more creatively encourage the hardest working, most committed educators to work in the communities that need their talent the most. Our current budget more than doubles funding for the Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund or what is called the TIF program, from $400 million to $950 million.

The fourth and final assurance propelled states, for the first time ever, to commit to dramatic change in persistently lowest-achieving schools. 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. Year after year, and tragically, in some cases for decades, these schools cheated children out the opportunity for an excellent education.

As adults, as educators, as leaders, we passively observed this educational failure with a complacency that is deeply disturbing. Fewer than 2,000 high schools in the United States—a manageable number-- produces half of all its dropouts. These “dropout factories” produce almost 75 percent--three-fourths—of our dropouts from the minority community, our African-American and Latino boys and girls.

State 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 are not content with the status quo; and we are not content to continue tinkering. Districts now have a choice of four rigorous models of intervention to foster dramatic change in these schools. This will be some of the hardest, most controversial, and most important work you will see coming from the United States this school year, and in the years ahead.

Now, I was pleased to see that this conference is devoted to the building blocks of system-wide reform. Building blocks are part of a foundation. And that is very much in keeping with our view of the four assurances and the four themes of whole system reform explored at this conference. The four assurances form the foundation of our policy agenda. They undergird what we are doing. But to see the full architecture of the administration's agenda, one needs a clearer sense of how one reform builds on another.

Traditionally, the federal government in the United States has had a limited role in education policy. Before the 1960s, almost all policymaking and funding was a state and local responsibility. In the mid-1960s, the federal role expanded. Federal officials assumed a leading role in enforcing new civil rights laws. When Congress passed the first major K-12 program in 1965, it was designed to ensure that poor, minority, and disabled students had access to a high-quality education.

As the federal role grew, so did the bureaucracy. I am not going to kid you. During the seven years I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I did not always welcome a phone call from the nice man or woman in Washington DC. That was because the department operated more like a compliance machine, instead of as an engine of innovation. The department typically focused on ensuring that formula funds reached their intended recipients in the proper fashion. It focused on inputs, not educational outcomes or equity.

We have sought to fundamentally shift the federal role so that the Department is playing a greater role in supporting reform and innovation in states, districts, and local communities across the nation. While the vast majority of department funding is still formula funding, the Recovery Act created additional competitive funding like the high-visibility $4.35 billion Race to the Top program and the $650 million Invest in Innovation Fund, which we call i3. We are similarly overhauling the way the department provides technical assistance, so that it focuses on helping states build the capacity to implement programs successfully—instead of focusing on compliance monitoring, as we have done in the past. I said earlier that the United States now has an unprecedented opportunity to transform education in ways that will resonate for decades to come. I say that in part because the Recovery Act was the largest investment in education that America has ever made.

The $98 billion in the Recovery Act that went to education programs more than doubled the Department's discretionary budget from the year before. ARRA included more competitive funding, over which the Secretary has more discretion, than all my predecessors as Secretary of Education had, combined. And the $22 billion in funding in the Recovery Act to meet the needs of low-income students and students with disabilities was nearly equivalent to an additional year's funding for those programs--on top of the normal appropriations. At the same time, the $3.0 billion provided to fund turnarounds of the lowest-performing schools was six times the sum of the previous year.

As impressive and as essential as these additional resources have proved, we all know reform is not just about more money. The United States also has an unprecedented window for reform because courageous state and local leaders have taken the lead in collaborating on problems that the experts said were too divisive to resolve. At the end of the day, I believe it is that courage, and not our resources, that will transform educational opportunity in our country.

In March of 2009, President Obama called on the nation's governors and state education chiefs "to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity." Virtually everyone thought the president was dreaming.

But in six short months, 35 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to adopt the state-crafted Common Core standards in math and English. Additional states are signing on over the next several months. As of today, just over three-fourths of all U.S. public school students now reside in states that have voluntarily adopted higher common, college-ready standards. That is an absolute game-changer in a system which until now set 50 different goalposts for success.

The second game-changer is that states have banded together in large consortia to develop a new generation of assessments aligned with the Common Core standards. Earlier this month I announced the results of the department's $330 million Race to the Top assessment competition to design this next generation of assessments. Two state consortiums, which together cover 44 states and the District of Columbia, won awards. These new assessments will have much in common with the first-rate assessments in use in many high-performing countries. In fact, your example and your expert advice during our learning tour on assessments were absolutely invaluable. I thank you for all the guidance and support you provided us.

When these new assessments are in use in the 2014-15 school year, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know, for the first time, if students truly are on-track for colleges and careers—and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction.

For the first time, many teachers will have the assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex learning skills that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.

For the first time, teachers will consistently have timely, high-quality formative assessments that are instructionally useful and document student growth—rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.

I've said that America is in the midst of a "quiet revolution" in school reform. And this is very much a revolution driven by leaders in statehouses, state superintendents, local lawmakers, districts leaders, union heads, school boards, parents, principals, and teachers.

The department's $4 billion Race to the Top Program challenged states to craft concrete, comprehensive plans for reforming their education systems. The preparation of state plans required extensive consultation between governors, state education chiefs, state and local lawmakers, unions, and other stakeholders. In fact, a quarter of the points awarded to states in the competition were based solely on the state's capacity to implement their ambitious reforms.

The response to Race to the Top has been absolutely extraordinary. Forty-six states submitted applications--and the competition drove a national conversation about education reform. Thirty-two states changed specific laws that posed barriers to innovation. And even states that did not win awards now have a state roadmap for reform hammered out.

Our new Investing in Innovation Fund, or i3 program, also had a phenomenal response. The $650 million i3 fund offered support to districts, nonprofits, and institutions of higher education to scale-up promising practices. The department awarded 49 grants in the competition. But nearly 1,700 applicants applied—by far the largest number of applicants in a single competition in the Department's history. Our aim is not just to fund grantees each year but to build a new culture of evidence-based decision-making for expanding successful reforms.

In the end, transforming education is not just about raising expectations. It has to be about creating greater capacity at all levels of the system to implement reform. It has to be about results. And that is one reason why Sir Michael Barber's book, Instruction to Deliver, is so valuable. He reminds us that the unglamorous work of reform matters enormously, whether it is the quality of technical assistance, or providing incentives to expand the capacity of the system to successfully implement reform.

Sir Michael's five questions that make up his "Deliverology" are almost the opposite of the compliance-driven process of technical assistance that has prevailed at the U.S. Department of Education. His five, disarmingly simple questions are:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How are you trying to do it?
  • How do you know you are succeeding?
  • If you're not succeeding, how will you change things?
  • And last yet not least, how can we help you?

How can we help you? What a revolutionary question!

Unfortunately, historically our department has often asked a very different set of questions of state and local governments in its technical assistance programs: Are program rules being followed? Are monies being spent as promised? Are you doing enough to avoid audit findings?

Instead of a holistic, cross-agency approach focused on improving outcomes, technical assistance at the department has often been preoccupied with inputs. It was carried out in separate silos, farmed out to outside organizations and centers with different missions and operational practices. Staff in our vocational education office consulted with their counterparts in the states--but not so much with staff in our own teacher quality program.

The department is in the midst of revamping our technical assistance and implementation of programs. We can never abandon our fiscal and compliance responsibilities. But we are committed to establishing a different relationship with states--one more focused on providing tailored support to improve program outcomes. We are looking at what other nations like Canada are doing to strengthen government capacity to improve the quality and the coherence of implementation. And we're starting this revamping of technical assistance and implementation with the Race to the Top program.

We are trying to talk less—and listen more. We've begun by creating two-way conversations about what the federal government and states can do to improve the prospects for successful implementation of Race to the Top so technical assistance becomes more demand-driven.

In the past, grantee kick-off meetings rarely involved senior leadership--and usually focused on grant conditions and compliance elements. But my management team and I have already personally met with the governors and state chiefs from Tennessee and Delaware, the two winners in round one of the Race to the Top competition, to solicit their input and to hear about their support needs. I plan to meet individually with all eleven grantee states and the District of Columbia as they begin implementation, and throughout the course of the next four years.

I want to close by talking about what the United States can learn from other nations—and how cross-country collaboration can also be of mutual benefit to the U.S. and other nations.

I couldn't help notice in the papers last week that the Ontario premier, my friend Dalton McGuinty, sent a friendly jibe our way. He pointed out that President Obama is fond of saying that the country that "out-teaches us today will out-compete us tomorrow." Then he added: "We are out-teaching them today."

Welcome to Canada, Mr. Secretary… When I played professional basketball in Australia, that's the type of quote the coach would post on the bulletin board in the locker room… But in all seriousness, Premier McGuinty spoke the truth. He is entitled to bragging rights, and Canada has a track record to be proud of.

Fifty-six percent of young adults here in Canada have a college degree, compared to only 42 percent in the United States. Andreas Schleicher, who you heard from this morning, reports that Canadian 15-year olds are more than a year ahead of their American counterparts in math and science on the PISA assessment.

American educators and policymakers have much to learn from other countries. One of the most encouraging lessons of the PISA assessment is that high-achieving nations can significantly narrow achievement gaps and advance achievement nationwide.

Other nations, like Singapore and Finland, are showing the way to building a topnotch teaching force, creating better assessments of student learning, and ensuring that outstanding teachers instruct the most challenging students.

At the same time, the U.S. has much to teach other nations. Our system of higher education is in many respects still without parallel. So I welcome this international collaboration--and this conference's concentration on whole system reform. We plan to continue that collaboration after this conference. I will be in Paris at the OECD ministerial conference in November, and our department is sponsoring additional initiatives to share best international practices.

In the United States, we know we do not have all the answers to our educational challenges. Yet not having all the answers cannot become an excuse for inaction. The urgent need to provide an excellent education for every child is a right that cannot be denied. We can't wait, because our children can't wait. With the active leadership of state and local officials, America today is in the midst of a quiet revolution.

That transformation of the nation's education system can only come in the form of comprehensive, whole-system reform. It won't arrive, neatly packaged in separate silos. Thankfully, your work and your commitment to bettering education are helping the world to understand, once and for all, that silver-bullets are not the solutions to our educational challenges.