A Vision for Better Education: Areas of Surprising Agreement

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A Vision for Better Education: Areas of Surprising Agreement

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association
Austin, Texas
June 20, 2014

June 23, 2014

I’m thrilled to be here and thank you so much for that kind introduction. Under Otha’s extraordinary leadership, together with your state leaders and members, the PTA has been a vital force in raising expectations for every single child in this country.

You are helping people get the information they need about new, higher learning standards that many states have adopted – and about community eligibility for free meals.

You have helped raise funds for cash-strapped schools, and spotlighted creative arts. And you have been a very thoughtful voice for discipline policies that treat every child fairly.

Parents are precious, precious assets in education, and you help our nation’s schools treat them that way. I join America's educators and families in a heartfelt thank-you.

So please give President Thornton and all of yourselves a round of applause.

As Otha said, I’m first and foremost a dad. We have a daughter going into the seventh grade, and a son going into fifth grade.

They’re finishing school, actually, today.

When I was home Wednesday night, before I left for San Antonio, at dinner my wife and I talked with them about what were their best learning opportunities this school year – what was the most fun, and what they got the most out of.

It was really interesting – and not surprising – that it wasn’t the traditional “sit in a row with 25 or 30 desks and hear the teacher lecture them.”

So my son said, what he really enjoyed this year, was the chance to work a little bit ahead of grade level in math by using technology. He talked about how fascinating it was to learn how to operate a flight simulator as part of one of his classes.

My daughter, who’s in sixth grade, going into seventh, she talked about the chance to be part of a Constitutional Convention – to have that debate, and to learn about the Civil War and again, rather than having to get a lecture, they had a Civil War Day where students, almost like at the college level, they got to pick which class they go to during the day. They had a bunch of different options.

One option was what it was like to be a child during the Civil War, what were children’s roles during that time. They had a chance to see their clothing, go in a tent, touch the weapons, and experience those things. They had a mock trial for Mary Surratt, who was maybe, maybe not, an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth – they debated that, and they decided she was guilty.

But it’s those kinds of opportunities that I think are so special. And why are those experiences so important? Because I think all of us – all of us as parents – want our children to be inspired, to be challenged, to be active participants in their own learning.

And here’s why this matters so much:

Every child – every student -- deserves an education that will prepare her for the future. And more and more, success in the real world won’t be just about what you know, but what you can do with what you know.

It will be about your ability to make connections among ideas, to communicate them, and to be able to work in diverse groups to create, to analyze, and to find solutions to complex problems. It will be about a child’s ability to understand technology not as an end in itself, but as a tool for a task.

Yes, knowledge matters, but not in a vacuum. It has to be connected with inquiry and problem solving.

Those skills will be precious currency for young people who might change jobs a dozen or more times across their careers. And the best jobs for our children, as columnist Tom Friedman has written about, will actually be the jobs they invent themselves.

Fluency with critical thinking, readiness for life-long learning – that's what will matter. That’s what my wife and I want for our children.

And after thousands and thousands of conversations all over the country, I am more convinced than ever that’s exactly what most parents and most teachers want for our nation’s children as well.

Making that happen at scale – for the many, and not for the few – that will take real action.

If you remember only one thing from what I say today, please make it this: to prepare our children for the real future that they’ll face, public education has to change. It has to evolve. And there is growing agreement in this country about what we need to do.

There’s growing agreement on the results-driven improvements we can make right now to ensure a truly effective education for every student. There is growing agreement about how best to prepare every student for success in college, careers, and life.

Those changes have begun in many, many communities throughout this country. But there’s also tough work ahead. It won’t happen fast enough without the support of people like you, who are so committed to our nation’s children.

So I’m going to lay out what that change looks like, and where I think we agree. And I’m also going to ask for your help.

This change isn't about pleasant platitudes or airy aspirations. These challenges that have been decades in the making. But it’s urgent for us to take action now. Because we all benefit if all students receive an education that truly challenges and motivates them. And we will all live with the consequences if they don’t.

Let me ask you two questions.

If you could, please raise your hand if you’re better off than your parents were.

Now, the second question – maybe the tougher question – please raise your hand if you think your kids will be better off than you are today.

Around this country, a lot of people wouldn’t raise their hands on that last one right now, because they are worried that our children won’t inherit a better America than the one we did.

We all want our kids to go further, to have more, than we have, to have a secure future. I know that’s what my wife and I want. But many people question whether they can deliver on that future for their kids.

And as parents, that uncertainty and that worry, sometimes gnaws at us. It keeps us awake some nights.

Parents see children in places like Germany and Korea and China racing past ours educationally, and they suspect kids from those countries will be better positioned than ours in a globally competitive economy.

These worries are my worries, too. And they’re backed up by facts:

Compared to 1970 and 1990, more young adults now live with their parents, and more are poor.

Fewer than one in three high school sophomores from middle-class families -- and just one in seven from low-income families -- go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

And in the last generation, the average tuition at a public four-year college more than tripled -- while the typical family income has barely moved.

The statistics shouldn’t surprise us. In many ways, the education system we have today was designed for a time when higher education was simply a privilege reserved for the elite. Those days have to end.

Other countries have retooled their education systems to meet that challenge; we are just beginning to.

Quality education can no longer be just for the wealthy few. Every student – no matter where they come from, what zip code they live in, or challenges they face – they desperately need and deserve the opportunity to truly learn and to be successful.

This fall, as we prepare for a new school year, we face a seminal moment in public education: for the first time in our nation’s history, our Department projects that America's public schools will enroll a majority-minority student body. Our collective future depends on meeting the needs of all students, and particularly those minority students, better.

Let me be clear: our challenges are not isolated to poor or minority students. The absolute fact is that all students – regardless of race, income and geography – must learn at higher levels if we expect to catch up with our international competitors and to pass them by. No one – no one -- is exempt from the call for educational improvement.

We owe it to each and every student to provide her the best possible skills and preparation for the new global economy. The schools she attends must look as different as her world will.

So let’s talk about what school needs to look like – and what we need to do to make that happen.

First, school must be a supportive, joyful and safe place. For most of our young people, our schools are absolutely all of those things. But for a tragic number, schools have become a place of deadly violence.

A year and a half ago, I thought this country had to have reached a turning point with gun violence and schools. I thought that after the horrific massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, things could never be the same.

Sadly, I was wrong.

Since then, in just the past 18 months, there have been 70 – 70 – school shootings on our school and college campuses, resulting in 36 deaths, including 22 students and two teachers. What ought to shock us, and jar us to act, has only become more routine.

This level of violence, of death, of heartbreak, and of devastation of families, simply doesn’t happen in countries like Japan and England and Australia and Canada. And I refuse to believe, that’s based on how they value their children more than we do.

I promise to work with anyone, anywhere, to keep our children safe and free from fear.

Collectively, that’s the least that we can do.

Ensuring that schools are safe places for children to learn – that’s our first job. But let’s talk about what learning must look like to get every child ready for an innovation-driven world.

To prepare our young people for success in careers and life, we must prepare all of them for some form of college. That’s never been the case before. Why is it today?

College does a lot more than prepare young people for work – but the economic facts alone are compelling. In the last generation, pay has climbed substantially for those with a bachelor’s degree, and more for those with additional degrees – while it has actually fallen for those with only a high school diploma.

What does that all mean? According to M.I.T. economist David Autor, a male college graduate who entered the labor force in 1965 could expect to earn $213,000 more over a lifetime compared with someone with just a high school diploma.

By 2010, that pay differential reached $590,000. For women, the college advantage also more than doubled, to $370,000 from $129,000.

David Leonhardt, the Pulitzer prize-winning economics writer, reports that the pay gap between college graduates and everyone else has reached a record high: college grads today earn 98 percent more per hour.

He writes, and I quote: “For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable.”

In the years ahead, some form of postsecondary degree or credential will serve as the basic entry ticket in this economy. Today, our schools do a pretty decent job of persuading our kids to go to college – but a poor job of preparing them to succeed once they are there.

We can’t accept that. Every student in America must be prepared to compete with – and actually to lead – the rest of the world.

As people invested in our kids and in our country, everyone here has a shared mission: to make sure that every student, everywhere, receives an effective education.

It’s a mission that we can all agree on, and it’s one that matters immensely.

That mission starts with access to high-quality early learning opportunities. We must help our babies enter kindergarten ready to be successful. It’s the best investment we can make.

That mission continues with a great school – a school ready for the future. Schools ready for the future share seven key factors:  

First, inspiring, effective, well-supported teachers; second, high standards; third, engaged parents and families; fourth, motivated students; fifth, courageous, committed, accountable leaders; sixth, a safe, secure classroom environment; and finally, access to modern technology.

For the many, many schools that already have the ingredients for success, let’s celebrate them and learn from them and empower them to achieve even more.

For schools that need help getting there, let’s provide real and meaningful help now. Because I think we can all agree on so much of what we need to do.

Let’s start with a huge area of agreement, and that’s around teachers.

Great teachers and great leaders matter more than anything else in school. I think everyone here would agree that we must do even more to respect, reward, and retain them.

We have to stand up for great teachers. We have to celebrate them and create pathways and opportunities for them to shape and nurture the next generation of teacher talent.  

While we know that, as a nation, we don't always act on those beliefs. If we did, we would provide teachers with better resources. We would pay them a lot more. And we would train and support them better.

Doctors, top managers and pro athletes all have access to excellent coaching, informed by solid data. They receive top-notch training and ongoing development to hone their skills.

Together, let’s work to make all those elements the norm in teaching – better training, better resources, better support, and smarter accountability, tied to better information about student progress.

Part of great teaching is personalizing instruction, meeting the needs of 30 or more individual students – that’s a huge, complex task.

Let’s make sure teachers have access to the technological tools that can help them meet that challenge– and make sure that student data remains secure and private.

In schools, and school systems, that are serious about preparing our children for the future, mastery of learning – rather than time spent sitting in a seat for a particular class –will become the deciding factor in when the student is ready to move ahead. That means schools will need better ways to assess students’ continual progress.

Parents need to know that, as well. Parents have the right to know whether their children’s schools are in fact teaching them what they need to know – and they deserve better information than what comes from today’s simplistic bubble tests.

Smarter assessment means providing teachers, students, and families more timely and useful information – while taking less time out of the school day. Where schools and school districts test excessively, they should cut back.

And where schools are spending too much time prepping for tests, they should cut back there as well. Great teaching, that’s what leads to real learning and strong results in assessments – not time spent on test prep.

Support and evaluation for teachers should take into account student growth and gain – as one part of a mix of measures including things like observations, surveys or portfolios of student work.

When asked, parents strongly support that idea. Better information means more thoughtful, targeted, and effective support—and nobody gains when school systems treat all teachers as indistinguishable. In fact, some systems actually devalue the critically important and complex work that teachers do, every single day, on behalf of our children.

Schools ready for the future also set high expectations for learning.

Thanks in large part to efforts the PTA led, 43 states will be moving forward this fall with new, higher, better academic standards that they chose. That’s a sea change in the right direction, and I thank you for your leadership.

As I travel the country, teachers constantly tell me that higher standards offer an opportunity for them to innovate and be creative—and to focus on critical thinking and problem solving, skills that our children desperately want and need.

Yet, on standards, misinformation is circulating. So let me just take one minute to go through the facts.

First, teachers and principals will always, always decide how to teach and what books to read – everything that happens in classrooms. No bureaucrat in Washington will change that. Ever.

Second, state leaders, parents, principals, policymakers, and education experts from across the country came together to develop these college- and career- ready standards.

Third, higher standards of learning give parents more information about how well their neighborhood schools are performing.

Change is always hard, and raising the bar is never easy. The transition to higher standards has been difficult in places, and communication and support for teachers have sometimes fallen short.

But it is clear to me that principals and teachers who have worked through this transition together are finding enormous rewards and better serving their students.

Let me just give you one quick example. A few months ago, I visited Orchard Gardens, a school in Boston that has made an amazing turnaround under an arts-focused turnaround effort. In just a few short years, Orchard Gardens has gone from being one of the worst schools in the city of Boston to a school today that has a waiting list, with families trying to get in to that school.

I talked there with an amazing eighth-grade English teacher named Andrew Vega. Andrew said the transition to the higher standards was tough and scary at first, but it ultimately opened up huge opportunities for him and his students.

In an article he wrote, he said he is now — and I quote — “a better — and happier — teacher than I've ever been.”

Of course, students will need more than just the traditional academic skills in English, Math, and Science. They’ll need to study history, languages, and have high-quality arts instruction.

They’ll need to be physically active and civically engaged. They’ll need to be challenged to work hard – and as parents, we have to support that work ethic.

As parents, we know that grit, resilience, patience, and many other skills can have just as great an effect on our students’ long-term prospects as their math and reading – their academic -- skills.

Schools ready for the future will help them develop those skills and habits as well. And that work must begin in the early years – one more reason we must give every child in America the opportunity to attend high-quality preschool.

But it's not enough for our children to be college-ready – they also have to be able to afford to go to college. College must be in reach for every hardworking family in America.

That’s why we are doing all we can to make college more affordable for every student and family. 

The President and I have embarked on a comprehensive college cost agenda to ensure students are not taking on unsustainable debt, and families have the information they need, and the transparency, to make good decisions.

And to keep debt from overwhelming our young people, we are proposing to expand the Pay As You Earn plan, which caps student loan repayments at 10 percent of monthly income, to all Direct Loan borrowers.

Let me be very clear: we simply can’t do this alone. This has to be about shared responsibility and mutual accountability. States must reinvest in higher education. States cut their investment. Universities jacked their tuition up. Colleges must do a better job of containing their costs and building cultures that focus not just on access – yes, access is important, but it has to be about completion and graduation at the back end.

And as we move forward, we will constantly strive to be a better partner, and to work with the recognition and the clear understanding that what matters most will never, never be ideas that come from Washington.

What actually matters most is great, exciting ideas from around the country, putting all these pieces together to build schools that are truly ready for the future.

You can see it in places like Leslie County High School in Hayden, Kentucky – a place so rural that some students travel 30 miles just to come to school. In 2010, that high school was ranked 224th out of the state’s 230 high schools.

Leaders, parents, and educators joined forces with extraordinary commitment and a laser-like focus on data. Just a few short years later, today, that school – that was ranked 224th -- is now ranked 16th in Kentucky, and graduates 99 percent of its students.

You can see it in Los Angeles at the Incubator School, where teachers blend on-line and in-person instruction and coding – which is so important for the jobs of the future -- is now a core skill, taught to all 11 year olds.

I saw it at New York’s Harbor School, where students prepare for college and career simultaneously -- learning subjects from marine biology to boat building.

And I saw it at El Paso, at Transmountain Early College High School. Students there, the vast majority low-income and Latino, can earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in four years without paying a nickel of college tuition.

I visited a biology class there, where 13- and 14-year-olds, high school freshmen, are taking college-level classes for college credit.

Leadership matters. Opportunity matters. High expectations matter.

Nationally, we’re seeing the impact of the hard work and commitment of teachers, families and students.

Our nation’s high school graduation rate today stands at 80 percent – the highest in our country’s history. I want to thank you so much for contributing to that success.

I’m pleased to report that dropout rates are down dramatically -- since 2000, the dropout rate has been cut by more than half for Hispanic students, and by more than a third for African-American and low-income students.

College enrollment has hit record levels as well. Reading and math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders are at their highest level since the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the NAEP exam, began.

The improvements that we are seeing should make us all hungry to do more.

These big changes are hard. But is an immensely important moment –not an easy one.

Teachers and principals are working to usher in the largest changes our schools have seen, literally, in decades. If it feels like things are moving fast, that feeling is right: it’s because they are. If we can begin making these improvements now– we owe it to our children to do it, to not wait.

Collectively, you’ve already shown your commitment. You demonstrate it every single day … from teaching students every day to volunteering to helping with homework to reading to your children at night. You know what’s at stake for them, for our communities, and for our country.

As a nation, we have so much more to do. Our nation needs your help. Our communities need your help. And our children need your help.

In conclusion, I ask you to hear my remarks as a call to action.

Like your organizational motto says, every child needs one voice.

I ask you to be a voice for higher expectations, for elevating the teaching profession. I ask you to be a voice for supporting educators as they strive to make their schools ready for the future – to transform them into the schools our students need to succeed.

I ask you to continue to work with urgency and with courage to make these important changes a reality for every single child.

I’m excited to do this work together.

Thank you so much, and I look forward to your questions.