Unleashing America's Energy for Better Education: The Legacy of Race to the Top

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Unleashing America's Energy for Better Education: The Legacy of Race to the Top

November 12, 2015

Remarks as delivered.

First off, give a huge round of applause to Principal McIntyre for her leadership and her staff here.

I keep looking and I've yet to find a great school that didn't have a great principal and leadership matters tremendously. Please also give a round of applause to Tommy Chang, our new superintendent. We're doing everything we can to support him.

And I don't say this lightly, Commissioner Chester is one of the best commissioners in the nation, and his leadership and his courage, and what he's done over time is remarkable, and he's building on a great, great legacy here. But he's just been an amazing thought partner. He's challenged us, we've challenged him, but it's always been one goal and that's to have more young people be successful. So please give a big, big round of applause to Commissioner Chester.

And now a word about Federico. And as he said things haven't always been easy for him. And there was a time he did not see much of a future for himself. He didn't always have a whole lot of support in his corner — didn't always have the friends and the family that so many of us have been lucky to depend upon. At one time he was in real trouble with his studies, and like too many young people, was becoming disconnected from school and from society. He actually came here to Burke High School against his will, because at that time, the reputation wasn't that great. The reputation of a troubled school where kids came to fail.

But today, as you've heard, from him and from others, he is a rising star — academically first, and athletically second. He is well on his way not only to graduation, but also to college. And I want to thank the family here at Burke for bringing out the untapped potential for a man like Federico. Please give him a big round of applause.

And it's important to tell his story and highlight it because we are going to talk about statistics, and graduation rates, and dropout rates, but at the end of the day this is about real kids. This is about real young men and women who are not all born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but have this amazing, amazing potential. And it's coming upon all of us to figure out ways to be successful.

Federico's remarkable path of improvement is absolutely intertwined with the changes that happened here at Burke, which only five years ago was labeled as one of the worst schools not just in Boston, but in the state. Back then, fewer than a third of students here could read and write at an acceptable level, only a quarter could do math at grade level, and only a third — one in three! — would make it to graduation day.

But today, just five short years later, thanks to the extraordinary hard work of educators, families, and the students themselves, Burke has experienced a rebirth. In 2014, you became the first high school in the state to exit turnaround status. You've doubled your rate of proficiency in English, and two-thirds of your students are hitting benchmarks in math. Graduation rates are climbing.

Under your fantastic Principal's leadership, you remade the culture and climate, cutting suspension rates by more than 90 percent. It's taken enormous courage and hard work — including home visits, extended school days, more collaboration more community engagement.

I know none of this is easy, none of this happens quickly, but it does fundamentally change the life chances of the students that you serve. The transformation you're driving here is extraordinary and is part of a larger story. A generation-long revolution that here in Massachusetts has made the best place in America to receive a public education. I want to spend a few minutes on that remarkable story, because I believe that much of this nation is now poised to achieve the similar kind of change that you have seen in this fantastic state.

Fundamentally, Massachusetts has proven that, when leaders and educators work together to raise expectations for students, when they create the systems to deliver on that promise, and when they stay committed to change, the status quo will shatter.

Much of this nation has now put the building blocks in place for that kind of transformation — based not on a recipe from Washington, but on ideas and plans developed in states and local communities. I'm convinced that if folks stay on this path, over time they'll achieve improvements just like the ones you've seen here.

I want to stop and take a minute and look at what happened here and probably more importantly, why.

Two decades ago, your schools were reeling from an economic downturn. Recognizing their future challenges, a courageous and unusual coalition came together: educators, business leaders, the Democratic speaker of the House and Senate president, and Governor Weld, a Republican.

Their plan was informed by a candid conversation with teachers, principals, school boards and parents. My friend Paul Reville here calls that doing "reform with the field, rather than to the field."

Significantly, the goal of their collective effort was not to tinker around the edges or to play small ball. They were much, much more ambitious than that. Massachusetts' leaders struck a "grand bargain": a major, unprecedented investment in public schools; a new, much more equitable school financing structure; and higher learning standards, coupled with greater accountability. The 1993 bipartisan Education Reform Act included a single statewide assessment that was aligned to those standards; rigorous graduation requirements; and new public school choice measures. Together, those changes represented America's strongest education state law.

And honestly, the conversation concepts actually weren't new. What was new, however, was action.

A few years before that, in 1989, the first President Bush had convened a bipartisan group of education focused governors to set a course to improve education across America — a group that ended up including two future U.S. education secretaries and future president, Bill Clinton. Their meeting helped propel some ideas that today sound familiar — among them, higher standards for learning, and assessments that would show whether students were reaching those standards or not.

It was an important conversation, but for many folks, it remained just that — a conversation.

In contrast to most of the nation, Massachusetts actually took action.

Your state did the hard work of improving the classroom experience for children, preparing them for success in tomorrow's world, and supporting your talented educators in helping to get them there.

And by any measure, it worked.

  • On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, Massachusetts' students went from pretty good to number one across the board in 4th and 8th grade math and reading. Over the past decade, since 2005, no other state has surpassed Massachusetts. And a recent analysis of 2013 data showed that even controlling for income, Massachusetts is still number one.

  • And yet, as you discovered, it wasn't enough to just put a good plan into place. You had to continue to build on it, which you did by becoming a leader in early learning as well. And there is nothing more important than early childhood education.

As with every important improvement, yours required sustained commitment, through challenging times and changes in leadership.

By 2010, it was clear that the recession had undermined continued progress and persistent achievement gaps were not closing as fast as they needed to. So under Governor Patrick's visionary leadership, Massachusetts adapted, promoting innovation by educators and using more targeted intervention to help schools just like Burke and students like Federico.

You made a commitment to equity and excellence.

And today, the rest of the country is playing catch-up to you.

Now, we all know there's still so much more to do, so much further to go. This is not some mission accomplish moment, not even close. Troubling achievement gaps remain, and a third of students in Massachusetts need remediation when they get to college. That's not just a state problem here — there are estimates that remediation costs the nation $3.6 billion annually for higher education to basically take high school classes again not for college credit. No one, no one wins in that scenario.

There's enormous work ahead for the state, the city and for the nation.

For the first time in our nation's history, our public schools are now majority-minority. And they're never going back the other way. That's actually fantastic news. Our growing diversity is a tremendous strength, a boon for America — it makes us stronger economically, culturally and socially. But it also challenges us to redouble our efforts and our sense of urgency to close long-standing opportunity gaps.

Education must be the great equalizer. Not an elite opportunity for some that actually exacerbates the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

And simply put right now, we're not meeting that challenge. Here are a few jarring facts:

  • First, about one in seven students from lower-income families earn a college degree — as compared to 60 percent of students from the wealthier families.

  • Second, one out of every three black men in America has been predicted to go to prison at some point in their lives — one in three — while just one in five receives a bachelor's degree.

  • And finally, among the roughly 3.5 million students suspended each year in this country are thousands of preschoolers – preschoolers! – who are disproportionately black and male.

The school-to-prison pipeline is still alive and well and it starts for young boys of color as early as age 3.

So for all the improvements we've seen, these are the realities, these are the facts that keep me, and so many others, up at night.

The good news here is that, over the past handful of years, America's educators have put in place the building blocks not for incremental or one-time change, but rather for improvements that will last a generation — just as you've done here in Massachusetts.

This didn't happen by magic. It was about creating the conditions for change, in part through opportunities like Race to the Top, which unleashed the pent-up energy and ideas of educators and political leaders across the nation. The result has been an extraordinary wave of change, not just in states that received Race to the Top funds, but also in many that didn't receive a nickel from us.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called states "laboratories for democracy" — launching great experiments that move America forward. These past few years in education have absolutely proven that concept.

William Howell, a professor at the University of Chicago, has tracked trends in education policy enactment across all 50 states and D.C. From state legislatures to local school boards, what he found was astounding: After Race to the Top, every state experienced a surge in the adoption of education improvement policies.

Between 2001 and 2008, about 10 percent of all education policies proposed in states were actually enacted. But between 2009 and 2014, they enacted 68 percent.

These funds have helped to make it easier for more states to move from great ideas to concrete courageous action. We didn't invent the ideas for change — that came from states and local communities — but we have tried to provide the support and incentives that can serve as a catalyst for action.

As everyone here knows, this hard work has never mattered more. In a flat world where jobs can go anywhere, where creativity and critical thinking skills are absolutely crucial — either we will out-innovate and out-educate our international competition — or we will explain to our children, here in the United States, why their lives are less secure and less prosperous than ours were.

Despite the very real challenges in global competition, I'm very optimistic. Everything I've seen suggests that our collective effort will pay off for our children and ultimately for our nation.

State education agencies are building capacity to do what's best for kids. Districts, like right here in Boston, are working together in ways they didn't before.

And in many places, teachers are being empowered in unprecedented ways and students are engaging in personalized learning that builds on their strengths and supports their weaknesses. They understand the importance of what they are learning.

Our role in this change, at the federal level, was actually pretty small. Amid a terrible economic downturn, we focused the vast majority of recovery funds —about $100 billion dollars — on saving the jobs of more than 200,000 teachers. These were vital jobs — not just because every job matters, but because education was an engine for America's economic recovery.

A small fraction of those funds — about $4 billion dollars — went to raise a simple but profound question: what would happen if we invited states to step up with their best ideas for change in their schools? And what if, rather than formulating a recipe in Washington we asked the states, what great innovations can you bring to fruition with some additional support? How can you do more to prepare every student for success in both college, careers and ultimately life? How can you get great teachers into more classrooms to inspire in our students joy of learning— especially for children and communities that have bene underserved sometimes for decades?

Our strategy was absolutely a break with tradition. The idea was to support change , touch whole systems in comprehensive ways — not just isolated silver bullets — and that involved all the players in a state, from teachers and principals to district leaders, community partners and ultimately, the governor. We didn't care at all about politics, we did care about courage and collaboration. And it aimed not just to help all students prepare for their real-life futures in college and career, but to focus greater energy on groups of students who have traditionally struggled.

The fight to increase equity was a constant theme. Ultimately, all but four states applied to us and a dozen states, including D.C., won the first two rounds of Race to the Top grants. They used our resources in countless ways to do things better. And each plan looked different. In fact, the diversity of their ideas is fascinating to study.

For example, New York sought to elevate teacher preparation. Through clinically rich master's programs, aspiring teachers work for a year alongside teacher mentors in high-need schools and high-need subjects.

In Hawaii, two new Zones of Education Innovation helped the statewide district provide more intensive support to areas that had historically performed poorly. The Zone schools benefit from things like more instructional time, more collaborative time for teachers, better technology, as well as medical care, and mental health and nutrition counseling.

In Ohio, 21 rural school districts formed the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, focused on quality teaching, college- and career readiness and school leadership. By pooling their resources and strengths, these small districts have dramatically increased graduation rates, AP participation, and college enrollment. In fact, graduation rates for these districts now is higher than the state average.

While Race to the Top aimed at systemic change, through our School Improvement Grants, or SIG, we placed similar urgency on one of the most difficult challenges in education: turning around the lowest-performing schools.

In some ways, those words — lowest-performing — somehow sounds too clinical to describe the magnitude of the challenge and frankly the heartbreak. That's why education scholar Bob Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University called them "dropout factories," counting 2,000 of them back in 2002. These are schools that, in too many cases, produce more dropouts than graduates. Dropout factories are locations of human tragedy, and a stain on our national conscience. Historically, most folks admired the problem but did very little about it. Our goal was to move the country from apathy and acceptance of institutionalized failure to action.

And let me be totally honest: We have not gotten as far as I, or as anyone, had hoped. But there has been vitally important progress.

Here in Massachusetts, the public schools in Lawrence are demonstrating what is possible when the state and community pull together. Eighty percent of students in Lawrence are considered high needs. Many struggle in poverty and are first-generation, learning English.

In 2011, Lawrence was awarded a SIG grants and the district, which had earned Massachusetts' worst performance designation — was taken over by the state. Bold action like that is always hard and it's always controversial.

The state receiver for Lawrence, remarkable educator named Jeff Riley, is Jeff here? I saw him earlier. Where's Jeff? Stand up, give Jeff a big round of applause. They appointed Jeff, who's just an amazing young man, and he had experienced right from Boston, where he had helped to turn one of the lowest-performing middle schools into one of the best. He encouraged each school to create its own strategy for turnaround.

And today, Lawrence has lifted students' proficiency in English and math to record levels.

More than three times as many Lawrence students now go to a high-performing school. Graduation rates continue to climb and are at historic highs, up to 67 percent last year — nearly 15 points higher than just three years before.

To be very, very clear, in Lawrence, the same issues of poverty, same children, same families, same school buildings, but a very different set of expectations, different supports, and dramatically different results.

As they do virtually everywhere, the children of Lawrence rose to the challenge when we as adults gave them a real chance.

And just this week, Robert Balfanz, of Johns Hopkins, announced his finding that the number of dropout factories nationally has been cut in half —from 2,000 in 2002 to about 1,000 today. The vast majority of that change took place since 2008.

That's real progress. Rapid progress in the right direction. And I want to thank the educators, community members, partners, parents, and most importantly, students themselves for proving what is possible even in the toughest of situations. But we all must continue to accelerate the pace of change even with high school graduation rates at all-time highs.

Currently, some 12 million children are still projected of dropping out of high school over the next decade, with an estimated cost of $1.5 trillion dollars in lost earnings over the course of their lifetimes. I believe that, as a nation, with the will and the effort, we can fundamentally change those odds. Our goal should be to eradicate to eliminate dropout factories. To go from the last one thousand to zero over the next five years just as we eradicated polio a couple of generations ago.

Indeed, from Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Lawrence, Kansas, it's remarkable to step back and look at what happens when you invite, support and help to spread change — but don't prescribe it.


  • More than 40 states have adopted higher, college- and career-ready standards. Many of these states are also replacing bubble tests focused on basic skills with better assessments that measure critical thinking, problem solving and writing skills.

  • Dropout rates are down, America's high school graduation rates are at record-high levels, and preliminary data suggest they'll rise again this year, with Hispanic and black students making the greatest gains, all subgroups improving, and SIG schools improving faster than all public schools nationally. With dropout rates down and graduation rates up, we've seen an additional 1.1 million students of color not just graduate high school, but go on to college since 2008.

  • And finally, we're seeing states doing important work to reflect the need to know that teaching is resulting in student learning, implementing new policies that redefine what it means to be an excellent teacher by incorporating student learning growth. And let me be clear, there is still much work to do to get the balance right and to better support our hard-working teachers. But before Race to the Top, it was stunning to learn the laws in some states literally made it illegal to tie student performance to teacher evaluation. What did those barriers say to the hard-working teachers about the status of their profession? And whether their efforts were even noticed, let alone valued.

Now, progress will never be easy or steady. Through conversations with thousands of teachers and principals, I know that implementing these changes was and still is, really tough, really hard and that not enough of them receive the support they wanted. Parents and students themselves too often were not clearly communicated with about why it was important to raise standards, about why 30 percent or higher rates of college remediation rates are not OK and do the most harm to students themselves. Our team, feeling in a very visceral way the desperate need to give more students a better chance in life, pushed a lot of change with a real sense of urgency. We haven't gotten everything right and we've seen some unintended consequences that have posed challenges for both educators and students.

Likewise, a couple of weeks ago, new scores came out on the NAEP. They weren't great — we saw scores tick down in some areas, and that's never what you want to see. But I think there's a lot to learn from your collective experience here.

When you look at your history here in Massachusetts, it actually took several years to see real progress in some areas. Scores were flat or even down in some subjects and grades for a while. Implementation is always difficult and we often see the short-term dips in performance. Many people questioned whether the state should hit the brakes on change. But you had the courage to stick with it, and your impact, your results, over two decades, are the envy of every other state in the nation. The lessons here are profound and I take great heart form your leadership and courage.

And I take heart from seeing the seeds of long-term change now growing all across the country. Can the nation follow the blueprint you've laid out here and bring it to scale? I've seen it happening.

Two weeks ago I traveled to Memphis to see what schools are doing there to help contribute to the state's rapid growth. Tennessee is one of the fastest-improving states on the NAEP — reaching a remarkably ambitious goal the state set for itself in the Race to the Top application in 2010.

Schools and education in general can never be divorced from their community context. And nowhere is that more obvious than in Memphis. We were in a county that leads the nation in perhaps the most tragic of statistics, the infant mortality rate. That is a very tough reality. Yet the classrooms we saw there were centers for hope. Educators I met with there were simply extraordinary. I visited Frederick Douglass Elementary, a K-8 Innovation Zone school, where the student body is 97 percent African-American and about 97 percent poor. Several years ago, Douglass was one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Tennessee, but today at Douglass, daily chess classes are a standard part of their curriculum and they offer powerful lessons in problem solving and persistence and long-term thinking. Math scores have shot up since chess was introduced as part of the curriculum, and Douglass girls recently won second place at a national chess competition.

Please, don't tell me what children of color and disadvantage children can't do when we provide them with real opportunity. Don't tell me what black and brown children and our poorest children can't do when we surround them with passionate educators who understand perfectly well the challenges they face and their immense potential, and embrace them both. So often, whether it's here in Burke or in Lawrence, Massachusetts, or in Memphis, Tennessee, what I'm lucky enough to witness is not just incredibly inspiring, it leaves me filled with hope. Your collective work is leading the nation where we need to go. Before I close, I'm going to quickly leave you with two final thoughts in how we sustain this progress. First, whether it's here in Massachusetts or around the nation, change is just beginning. Stay with it. That's the right lesson to draw from Massachusetts and from its own success. Massachusetts has proven time and time again its capacity for real courage and leader to benefit all children.

You've proved the power of strong funding, collaborative work with educators, investment in early childhood education, high standards, a single statewide assessment aligned to those standards and strong accountability. You not only tell the truth about results, but take action when and where you know you must do more to give your children a real chance in life. Keep moving forward with those vital elements.

And I'm thrilled that Massachusetts today maintains the tradition that helped it start down this road: courageous leadership that stretches across the political spectrum.

Politics here seems to always take a back seat in the interest of children. That's the right way to do this work.

The lesson you've proven here in Massachusetts, through two decades of hard work, is the right one for a nation now embarked on ambitious change: stay with it. This work is never done.

And finally, we're seeing real change happening in state after state after state. But without the kind of commitment you've shown here in Massachusetts, those changes will be in doubt.

So please, regardless of which party or what candidate you lean toward, ask those who ask you for your vote at every level, local, state and federal: What's your plan to drive continued improvements and student achievement? What are all candidates' concrete goals to increase high school graduation rates, to eliminate dropout factories? To close gaps of achievement and opportunity? To expand access to high-quality preschool so every child can start school ready for success? To continue the change our schools have worked so hard on to this point? And ultimately, what are those political leaders plans to lead the world once again in college completion rates.

What lies ahead of all of us is not some kind of intellectual exercise, it's a question of courage and commitment. It's a daily fight not just to educate, but to increase social mobility, to strengthen families and communities and to create hope and opportunity for those that need it the most. I believe, deeply, that with the support of this nation's people, we will see change that benefits generations to come.

Thank you so much for your hard work. Thank you for the example you set for the nation.