What School Can Be

Archived Information

What School Can Be

Remarks as delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts
April 14, 2016

Thanks so much for that warm introduction, Amanda. Thank you, Principal Walker, for the opportunity to spend the day here with all of you. Thank you, Christopher for showing us all what it means to be an out loud poetry champion. As you probably know, I am here today to talk about importance of genuinely well-rounded education—the kind of education that engages and intrigues kids, and allows them to discover their interests in the arts, in science, in the world languages and so much else. But the truth is, I feel like folks could get a good understanding of the importance of a well-rounded education just by spending time here at LVAA and getting to see the experiences that students are having. And I am so grateful for the opportunity to visit with classes and so appreciative of the leadership of the superintendent and the board to support and invest in LVAA.

You are proving what's possible. From arts awards to Grammys to recognition for the college-level achievement of your scholars—you're demonstrating how engaging students in what they are passionate about can unlock their academic potential, their passion for learning, and their curiosity.

These aren't just avenues to pad a transcript, they are life changing experiences that give students a sense of hope about what's possible for them in their lives. And I've seen that first hand as a teacher.

My own experience

As Amanda mentioned, I started off as a high school social studies teacher. I can recall when I was teaching in Boston, a particular student named Ricardo. I guarantee you every teacher in the room has had a student like Ricardo—brilliant, fascinating, barely skating by in the class—struggling just to meet the minimum threshold of performance. But Ricardo changed when we studied a particular period in social studies. We were studying the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance and Ricardo found inspiration in the study of that period. And he started working on a paper about Marcus Garvey and he got so passionate about what he wanted to say about Marcus Garvey. He was so clear about exactly what he wanted to communicate. He did six or seven drafts of that paper—just trying to refine the paper. To make sure he got the argument right. And as he was working on that paper he explained to me how that experience and that unit had changed his perspective about being a student. That he now wished when he was in 9th grade that he understood what he now realized as an 11th grader about what it takes to be successful as a student. Unlocking his passion about that period, giving him a real sense of ownership about what he was learning inspired him to change his approach to school.

For others of my students, when I was teaching seniors who were doing research projects, what inspired them was that their research projects required them to engage with the local community. To tackle challenges that the city of Boston was facing. I can recall a group of students, who took on a project with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community based organization that was working to end the dumping of garbage in the neighborhood and to support urban agriculture projects and to work on building affordable housing. And that experience of engaging in real life community change as a part of their academic experience in social studies, again inspired and unlocked students' passion for their academics.

These are examples of the power of a wide variety of offerings and I experienced that personally in my own life.

I grew up in New York City, went to New York City public schools. My mom passed away when I was eight in October of my fourth grade year. My dad when I was twelve. And during the period when I was living with my dad, he was quite sick with Alzheimer's disease so he wasn't yet diagnosed and so no one knew what was happening. But in my house things were often crazy and unpredictable and unstable and scary.

But school was this amazing place that was compelling and interesting and safe. And I was blessed to have a teacher, Mr. Osterweil, who was our teacher in fourth, fifth and sixth grade, who created this space that countered the chaos in life outside of school with amazing experiences in the classroom.

We read the New York Times every day in Mr. Osterweil's class, we did productions of Mid-Summer Night's Dream and Alice in Wonderland, we went to the zoo, we went to the Museum of Natural history and to the ballet. And he opened to all of us this world far beyond our experiences in Canarsie Brookyn.

And I'm alive today. I'm doing the work that I do today because I had Mr. Osterweil during that critical period in my life. And I remember those experiences like they were yesterday. In fact, one of my first experiences on a stage speaking to folks was as the rose in the garden in Alice in Wonderland. So you can just imagine me with big felt petals sticking out of my head. But I remember those experiences being so transformative—the opportunity to learn language, and to engage in text in that way and to participate with my peers with the development all of those productions. Those were powerful life changing experiences.

Educators and families feel severe limits on well-rounded education

And so I worry. And unfortunately despite the great work that's happening here, too many of our students don't have those kinds of life changing experiences. For too many of our students they are not getting the access to powerful creative teaching that comes in disciplines beyond English and math.

I hear frequently and passionately from educators and families who believe that the elements of a great well-rounded education are being neglected because of a too tight focus on reading and math.

Sometimes, that's because of constraints on resources, and time, and money. Often, teachers and administrators describe how No Child Left Behind and its intense focus on English and math performance has left other subjects under-attended to or even ignored. The consequence for teachers in some schools around the country has been a daily struggle to choose between the quality well-rounded educational experiences we want for every child and a too narrow definition of accountability.

I've been clear, as has the President and my predecessor, Arne Duncan, that in many places in the country, testing has become excessive, redundant, and overemphasized, and we at the Department and the President are committed to changing that reality. We want to support states and districts as they take a serious look at how time is spent in schools, and how resources are directed. That's why I am going after here to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with educators and community leaders who are working to evaluate all the assessments that are given in their district and eliminate the ones that are redundant or are unnecessary so that they can focus on quality instruction.

To be clear, done well and thoughtfully, assessments provide vital information to educators and families, and can help to identify gaps in performance that we must address. But in some places, an exclusive emphasis on the tested subjects has driven a narrowing of the curriculum, has limited what is taught and learned—and worse, has caused test prep—and low-level test prep on that—narrow definitions of "time on task" that get in the way of the diverse quality course offerings that are essential to a well-rounded education.

I want to be really clear that I do not believe that the architects of No Child Left Behind intended that. They were acting on broad bipartisan agreement that we need to do more for our students who are at risk and that too many of our students struggle at school and in life and don't have the strong literacy and math skills that are essential for college and career success. It is a matter of social justice and civil rights to ensure that all students have those strong foundational skills and that we hold ourselves accountable to ensure that they get those opportunities.

The evidence doesn't show that there was a vast, nationwide abandonment of subjects outside of math and English Language Arts, as a result of No Child Left Behind. But there is plenty of reason to believe that too many students are not getting the opportunities in Science, Social Studies, the Arts, and world languages that they need and deserve. For example, one recent survey found that in the elementary schools, students spend just 21 minutes a day on social studies, and just a little bit more on science. I count myself among those who worry that the balance has shifted too much away from subjects outside of math and English—the subjects that can spark student's passion and excitement about learning. Subjects that are actually critical to their success as readers and critical to their long-term success in careers and life.

Strong literacy and math skills are surely necessary for success in college, careers and life—but they just as surely are not sufficient. Being a well-educated person and passionate about learning isn't just about reading and computing well. It's about being skilled and knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, expert and passionate about a few, and confident in the quest for more.

The good news here is that, with the passage of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act—the welcome replacement for the No Child Left Behind—there is now an opportunity for states and districts to broaden the definition of an excellent education. It's a chance to get the balance right in places where the focus has become too narrow—and to do so in ways that expand civil rights, not dilute them.

A well-rounded education: painting a picture of what it means

The simple fact is, every child in this country needs and deserves access to the subjects that go into being a well-rounded, well-educated person. Music and art; world languages; physics, chemistry, and biology; social studies, civics, geography and government; physical education and health; coding and computer science—these aren't luxuries that are just nice to have. They're what it means to be ready for today's world.

And it's so exciting to see what happens to kids when that is true. It is the passion we saw when walking through classrooms today—the passion of the orchestra, the engagement of the choreography and dance students, the precision and attention to detail of the students in the guitar classroom. The students I met yesterday at the White House Science Fair and even students who are building robots and using 3-D printers. Students are discovering their own potential through those experiences beyond just English and math.

Well-rounded education can help erase the either-or choice between academic and career focused education—in ways that enhance readiness for college rather than steering away from it. Just ask the kids at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet in Los Angeles, where 83 percent of the students are enrolled in AP courses—and they are getting to do hands-on work at USC's Keck School of Medicine. These are false choices we have constructed—career-readiness vs. college-readiness, well-rounded vs. strong-foundation in English and math. We all know that our kids need both.

A well-rounded education starts in the early years. It starts with high-quality Pre-K and early learning opportunities that makes time for play and exploration. It continues with K-12 education and provides well-rounded academic opportunities and also develops students' socioemotional skills like grit and persistence and patience and the ability to collaborate with peers.

But most important, a well-rounded education helps kids make that incredibly important connection between their studies, their curiosities, and their passions, and the skills they need to become sophisticated thinkers. Companies like Google invite their employees to use a percentage of their time on projects of their own devising. We see teachers around the country beginning to do the same thing creating "genius hours" for students to innovate, to work through the failures and successes as they solve real-world problems. We see that in maker spaces as they are emerging around the country. Teachers are giving students those opportunities to create. Others have called for more opportunities for "passion projects" in schools, and point to real research that students, even despite significant struggles outside of school, they can find those passions and "passion projects" in their life. They can overcome those circumstances with a much clearer sense of what is possible for them.

Evidence that it matters

And the research evidence supports this work in compelling ways.

We know that students are better able to read a text when they have had knowledge and they have had exposure to the knowledge and experiences that are referenced in that text.

We know, for example, that our low-income students and our more affluent students have a "30-million word gap"—the words that they have heard by the time they have arrived at school. Tackling that gap is about creating positive experiences to learn about science and social studies from the earliest years. We know from decades of research from folks like Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia that knowledge matters for reading success. It is not about reading vs science and social studies. We know that students who had exposure to language and vocabulary of a natural world and the sciences and students who had exposure to social studies content do better as readers—it's not just about decoding the words but understanding them and understanding the context in which the author wrote them.

We see the same principle play out in STEM education. We know that there is a significant gap in STEM readiness as early as kindergarten just because of how many words a student has heard and how much exposure they've had to ideas about the natural world. We know that students do better in math who had strong arts opportunities. That success in the arts supports student success in mathematics and indeed success in the arts also supports students' development of language skills and their ability to think creatively.

We also know that students who are developing the skills to be bilingual have tremendous advantages as they enter college and the work force. We also know that the cognitive benefits of learning multiple languages can be seen as early as students who are less than a year old. There's an advantage of having the gift of multiple languages. We shouldn't see our English learners as walking into the classroom with a deficit. They are walking into the classroom with an asset to be leveraged on behalf of their success.

The implications for educational justice of this topic of well-rounded education are profound. Too often, it's kids from low-income families, and students of color, who don't have these experiences, don't have the chance to go to a museum, don't have the chance to go to travels beyond their immediate neighborhood, don't have access to the arts or to science or to social studies or to advanced coursework or to AP classes or to IB classes. And we've got to see this as an urgent social justice challenge for the country. We've got to make sure that a rich range of course offerings are available to every student in every school regardless of race, regardless of zip code.

What we'll do/What needs to happen now

Can't be on schools to do it all

That means there's work for us to do at the Department as well as work for states and districts and school leaders to do as well

States must commit to providing the resources to every district that are necessary to provide students with a well-rounded education. Arts instruction, science labs, and school counselors—just to cite a few examples—are not luxuries or extras that should be dependent on parent fundraising or gifts from foundations; they are essential—essential to a quality education.

Districts need to support school leaders in providing teachers with the resources, professional development, and most importantly, the time to develop well-rounded curricula. Take for example Kaya Henderson in the District of Columbia, the forward-thinking Chancellor there, who is committed that every child in the District of Columbia will have the opportunity to learn to ride a bicycle by 2nd grade.

Especially under ESSA, a new commitment

The good news here is that passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act helps. It creates an opportunity for folks to rethink the definition of a well-rounded education. It creates the opportunity for folks to rethink their accountability systems and their intervention strategies in schools that are struggling. And it requires states and districts to pay attention to equitable access to resources and opportunities, like AP classes and international baccalaureate classes. That's a welcome change.

And, when schools are failing, when schools are struggling, states and districts have the opportunity to rethink the strategies necessary to improve performance. They can pursue efforts like the Turnaround Arts Initiative that the Department supports. It uses an infusion of arts to rapidly improve performance in struggling schools.

We've seen how the arts, how quality career and technical education, how dual language initiatives, that those kinds of initiatives can turn around school performance. Too often No Child Left Behind had prescriptive one-size-fits all solutions that didn't necessarily match the challenges in a given school. There's new flexibility and new opportunity under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The president has also proposed important investments. We have a number of grant programs that are directed towards expanding access to a well-rounded education. From a focus on socioemotional skills, to the study of American history, to Investing in Innovation grant program that is supporting unique partnerships between schools and community based organizations around how you expand opportunities for students.

The president has proposed significant increases in funding for STEM education, for education technology, for initiatives to create safe and supportive school climates that help students to develop strong socioemotional skills. The president made an ambitious proposal to Congress, around a 4 billion dollar investment over 3 years in computer science because we know increasingly computer science is an essential skill for success—not just in the high-tech fields but across fields, from medicine to advance manufacturing. The president has also proposed the creation of a STEM master teacher course so that we're investing in our teacher leaders who are demonstrating excellence in the STEM classroom and they can support and develop their colleagues.

Conclusion: making space for magic to happen in school

I became a teacher and a principal because I wanted to try to do for other kids what the teachers and leaders at P.S. 276 in Canarsie Brooklyn and Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island did for me. As I said, they saved my life, they are the reason I'm standing here today. They created experiences that were compelling and engaging and interesting and well-rounded for me that made all the difference.

I now see schools not only from the perspective of a student and an educator but also from the perspective of a parent. I have two girls, nine and twelve, who attend public schools in Maryland. We are blessed, deeply blessed that they attend the kind of schools that should be available to all students—well-resourced public schools that are diverse, that bring together families from diverse races and income levels and who benefit from that diversity. It's not that they succeed in spite of, they succeed because of their education is strengthened by the diversity of their schools.

Their education is also strengthened by the diversity of the course offerings and the academic experiences they have.

I think about talking with my fourth-grader, her class working on ecosystems and creating an aquarium and terrarium in her classroom, and then tracking data on the growth of the plants and the pH level of the water. It's her excitement and enthusiasm about the natural world and her curiosity about nature that's driven by those kinds of hands on learning experiences.

Now, in fairness she has me for a dad and so maybe she wouldn't tell me if it was boring. But I do believe that, in fact, that experience in science class has sparked a curiosity that will be sustained.

For my older daughter she is deeply excited about her 7th grade social studies class, which as a social studies teacher, makes me particularly happy. And in her class they're studying the Middle Ages and as part of their study of the Middle Ages they are doing simulations and not just reading about the Middle Ages or hearing a lecture, they are doing simulations of life and different situations that have come up for folks living in the Middle Ages. And she's enjoying that and enjoying the opportunity to see the world through a different perspective. And my wife, who was an elementary school teacher and a developmental psychologist, tells me that that kind of perspective taking isn't just good for learning social studies and learning about history, it's good for developing empathy and an appreciation for diversity—seeing the world from different perspectives.

Their education will shape the people that they will become, not just the achievements that they will have academically. Both of my girls have studied music, dance, and theater. I don't know if either of them will become a concert pianist or a Grammy winning guitarist or a professional ballerina. But I do know that they are developing a kind of aesthetic appreciation that will bring them joy and widen their world for the rest of their lives.

And really, that's what this subject of a well-rounded education is all about: that inextricable intersection between what our kids learn and who they become. I am who I am because a teacher and a school believed in me and believed it was worth the time and effort to widen my horizons.

That's the kind of experience every student in this country deserves. Let's work together to make that possible.

Thank you.