The Unfinished Work of Education Reform

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The Unfinished Work of Education Reform

Remarks by U.S. Deputy Secretary Tony Miller at the Church of God in Christ's International AIM Convention in Houston, Texas

July 7, 2011

It is a real pleasure to be able to join you today. And it also pleased me to see that this year's convention was being held here in Houston. Now, I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but it's not because I'm in love with Houston's hot and humid summers. I've got plenty of that in DC. But it's because Houston has something in common with what's going on in Washington DC. You may not know this, but Houston has a long history of advancing education reforms and has been the birthplace of inspirational leaders that embody the value of education. This part of the city's legacy predated the opening of a charter school or the piloting of a new teaching practice. It started back in 1936 when the city's Fifth Ward gave birth to a girl who showed tremendous promise. Her father, a Baptist minister, and her mother refused to let poverty become her destiny. Their daughter worked hard, using the powerful combination of education and faith as rungs to a brighter future.

When she was forced to attend segregated, under-resourced schools—like Phyllis Wheatley High School, only a few miles away—she paid the discrimination no heed. She found refuge in Good Hope Baptist Church, where her father was a minister. With her parent's encouragement and God's hand, she moved onto college, escaping the poverty that claimed too many children from the Fifth Ward. She went on to law school, then the State Senate, and eventually became the first black woman ever elected to Congress from the South. Barbara Jordan saw education as the surest way out of poverty. Once she escaped its grasp, she knew that she had to give back to her city and to those left behind through service.

Barbara's work remains unfinished. Too many of our nation's children, especially students of color, go to schools that don't prepare them for success in college or in life.

So it is fitting that this conference is being held here in Houston, the hometown mother of someone who embodied education and the civil rights movement.

Like Barbara, the Church of God and Christ is doing incredible things for some of our nation's low-income students, from involvement with Head Start—because we know if youth are to be college ready at the end of high school, it's important that they start school Kindergarten ready—to supporting after school tutoring programs—because we know that frankly, more time on task matters, especially if we are going to help those students who have fallen behind. On behalf of President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, I'd like to extend our sincerest thanks for the unsung work you are doing on behalf of our nation's students. You're heroes in Congresswoman Jordan's legacy.

The faith-based community can accomplish things that we in Washington cannot.

As much as we visit schools and communities, we can never talk to as many students, engage as many families, or touch as many lives as a church like the Church of God and Christ does each day.

You are a part of and know these communities. You know these children. You've forged personal, meaningful connections with individual students who think about dropping out of high school. You've convinced them to stay. You've talked with parents about setting high expectations for their children. You've convinced them to commit to supporting the education of their children.

You are saving lives every day. The students you help will grow up to thank you for setting them on the path to college.

The positive influence that a church or a role model can play in a student's life is real and powerful. I've seen it firsthand. I've experienced it firsthand. So has Secretary Duncan, or Arne as he prefers to be called.

Let me share an Arne story to illustrate the point. In 1961, before the Secretary was even born, a neighborhood pastor on the South Side of Chicago asked his mother to teach summer Bible study to a group of nine-year-old girls.

The group had only one Bible, and his mother figured everyone could read a few sentences and then pass the Bible to the next girl. Arne's mother was horrified when she discovered that not one of her students could read.

She decided to do something about that—and opened a free, after-school tutoring program in June of 1961.

From the time Arne was born, he and his siblings all went to their mother's after-school program every day. From the corner of 46th and Greenwood, some remarkable success stories emerged. The teenager who tutored Arne's group when he was growing up, Kerrie Holley, today is an IBM engineer who was named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the nation.

Another student became a brain surgeon. Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood, where he starred in "The Green Mile." Ron Raglin eventually helped Arne manage the Chicago Public Schools.

In those church basements Arne learned that one individual, whether a tutor or a teacher, can transform lives. A great educator is a game changer.

That's why the U.S. Department of Education is doing everything we can to ensure every classroom has a highly effective teacher. Now some of you might be aware of the political crossfire that's been in the papers and on TV about our efforts to reauthorize No Child Left Behind; but let me make it simple: We want a world-class education for every student, not just for some.

NCLB was a critical first step in this direction. For the first time, a spotlight shined on achievement gaps and schools were held accountable for student achievement for all students.

The intent of NCLB was to hold our education system more accountable for what happens with our students. NCLB requires all educators to take responsibility for students' academic performance. If students are learning, then the system is doing its job and if not, then we need to identify what needs to change.

But NCLB has problems that need to be fixed. One of the biggest problems with NCLB is that it inadvertently encourages states to lower their standards. In states with low standards, students appear to be proficient. However, the net effect of lower standards is that we wind up lying to children by telling them that they are ready for college, when in reality, they may be far from it.

Another problem with NCLB is it doesn't take into account where many of our students are starting from. While it's important to understand if our students are learning at grade level, we need to recognize that unfortunately, many students are below grade level. Therefore, we also need to understand what progress students are making—so we can identify how best to accelerate the learning for those who are behind. In an environment where standards have been dummied down, where expectations for students are too low, and where progress is not consistently celebrated, it's no wonder that kids get bored in class and fail to pay attention. It's no wonder that many see little value in education or in the system that delivers it. Sadly, it's no wonder that 1.2 million students leave our schools for the streets each year.

That's why we are working with Congress to build bi-partisan consensus for a law that is fair, flexible, and focused.

It must be fair to teachers and students by rewarding excellence based on high standards and informed by sophisticated assessments. It must empower principals and teachers with flexibility over their classrooms—we should be tight on our goals, but loose on the means for meeting those goals. And it must focus like a laser on achievement gaps that keep minority and low-income students in a cycle of low expectations.

For more than a generation, American students haven't shown any growth in achievement. They have fallen behind their peers across the world. Our black students and other minority children lag behind their classmates and they're not catching up.

We must be crystal clear: this is a crisis. And we all need to work together to address it. Let me try to put it in perspective. The importance of having something more than a high school degree has never been greater. Employers report that millions of jobs are going unfilled today because they can't find folks with the right skills. And the demands are increasing—almost 50% of the jobs in the coming decade will require a postsecondary degree, and that's especially true for the fastest growing jobs. And it's not just that you are more likely to find and keep a job if you have more education. Over the last decade, if you had an associate's degree, you earned 30% more than if you only had a high school degree; if you had a bachelor's degree, 70-75% more. If you only had a high school degree, your average earnings actually fell by 2% in real terms. Moreover, the cycle is both virtuous and vicious. Students who don't have parents who have a college degree are more likely to be in a low-income household, and students from low income households are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to enroll in college and less likely to complete college.

We have a crisis. There are 2,000 schools in this country that produce more than half of our nation's high school dropouts, almost 75% from the African-American and Latino communities. One of the Department's most important efforts is providing support for states and districts to turnaround chronically low-performing schools that steal the futures of too many students. These are schools where as few as 10% of students are reading or doing math at grade level and where less than half graduate from high school—we call these schools "dropout factories."

It makes no sense to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

That's why the Obama administration has made an unprecedented investment in turning around our lowest performing schools. We're offering up to $6 million dollars per school over three years—which is a lot of money—over and above what they normally receive. Our resources will help, but what is most important is the courage to change and the clear vision of what's possible.

Now don't get me wrong—this work is difficult, and it won't happen overnight.

There's a reason why these schools are chronically underperforming. I know that this will be some of the hardest work that you will see this year and in the years ahead. But we are committed to this for the long-haul. The difficulty of the work is no excuse for inaction. It is time for everyone to challenge the notion that some schools and students are just destined to fail.

You don't need convincing. The Church of God and Christ and the faith-based community know that all children can learn regardless of socioeconomic background or race. You see students succeeding every day, overcoming enormous odds and putting a lie to the myth that poverty is destiny.

In low-income communities, often all students have is their faith. They may not have expensive cars or high-speed internet but they have their faith. They always have their faith.

In the urban inner-cities, where violence takes lives greedily and students take education gravely, they have their faith.

In the rural communities of the Midwest, where farmers dream of rainfall and children dream of college, they have their faith.

And in this nation's suburbs, where parents and children hold hands of hope for a better tomorrow, they have their faith.

But when 2,000 schools fail so many students every year, every day, every minute, every second, something needs to change. And as the true North Star in many communities, we need your help.

We need you to be our ambassadors in the communities where schools have failed generations of students. We're asking a lot from you and we need your partnership.

We must ask parents to be more responsible for their children. Parents must turn off the TV at night, read to their children, stop calling their children "bad" or "stupid" or "no good" and partner with their children's teachers so that we are all working together.

We ask students to be more responsible for themselves and commit to working hard to get a great education. The President has said that if you drop out of high school, you are not just giving up on yourself, you are giving up on your country.

We ask educators to be more responsible for what happens inside the classroom. Every day great teachers are transforming student's lives, helping students discover gifts and talents they didn't ever know they had inside them.

This fight for education reform will be won school by school, and community by community. But it will only be won if the faith community is demanding it and defending it.

This is about so much more than education. This is about economic prosperity. This is about social justice. No other issue offers the same promise of equality as education.

No other issue can end the cycle of poverty—of teenage pregnancy—the prison pipeline—and all of the social sicknesses plaguing our communities.

You are in these communities. When you see God's children being cheated of a quality education, demand excellence—demand more—and demand equality in education.

Barbara Jordan rose from the Fifth Ward to give back to the Fifth Ward. Her community nurtured her and told her to dream big: "Go to college, Barbara. Go to law school, Barbara. Go to Congress, Barbara." And she did. She is case-in-point that though poverty is cruel and stern, nothing is stronger than a community's wish to unleash a child's God-given potential.

She summed up the American creed quite well one day in 1977:

"What the people want is very simple—they want an America as good as its promise."

Let's give them a great school, a great teacher, and a great education. Let's give them hope, dignity and dreams. Let's turn around these schools and give them an America as good as its promise.

Thank you and God bless.