Winning the Future with Education: Responsibility, Reform and Results

Archived Information

Winning the Future with Education: Responsibility, Reform and Results

Oral Testimony of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

March 9, 2011

Chairman Kline, Ranking Member Miller, and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to come here today and talk about President Obama's education agenda.

Last week I spoke before the Senate Budget Committee and emphasized our administration's dual commitments to reduce spending and be more efficient while investing in education to secure our future.

Those investments span every grade from early learning to Pell Grants and they are reflected in my written statement. I expect they will be vigorously debated and discussed in the coming months as Congress works to pass a budget and I am happy to discuss those issues today.

Before I do, however, I want to speak to the policy changes we must make in order to strengthen American K-12 education. A year ago, we released a 41-page blueprint for rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Most of you may be familiar with the core elements of our proposal so I will be brief and then take questions.

Our goal is to create a law that is defined by three simple words: fair, flexible, and focused.

When we say fair, we mean a system of accountability based on individual student growth -- one that recognizes and rewards success and holds us all accountable for the quality of education we provide to every single student in America.

This is a sea change from the current law -- which simply allows every state to set an arbitrary bar for proficiency -- and measures only whether students are above or below the bar. We don't know how much students learn each year. We don't know what they need to get over the bar. And we can't recognize and reward the teachers and principals that are succeeding.

Current law also sets annual targets for proficiency and mandates that every student meet those goals by 2014. Today, almost 40 percent of America's schools are not meeting their goals and as we approach the 2014 deadline, that number will rise steeply.

In fact, we did an analysis which shows that -- next year -- the number of schools not meeting their goals under NCLB could double to over 80 percent -- even if we assume that all schools will gain as much as the top quartile in the state.

So let me repeat that: four out of five schools in America many not meet their goals under NCLB by next year. The consequences under the current law are very clear: states and districts all across American may have to intervene in more and more schools each year, implementing the exact same interventions regardless of the schools' individual needs.

And if that happens, the schools with the widest gaps and lowest achievement won't get the help and attention they need. And that worries me deeply because the whole point of the law is to make sure that the schools and students most at risk are served.

NCLB's requirement to disaggregate student achievement data for low-income students, minority students, English Learners, and students with disabilities completely changed the national conversation. We can no longer look the other way as some groups of students languish while others thrive. The law reflects our fundamental aspiration that every single student is expected to learn, to achieve and to succeed.

However, we give NCLB less credit for helping close achievement gaps. By mandating and prescribing one-size fits all solutions, NCLB took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to the unique needs of their students -- and that is fundamentally flawed.

This law is fundamentally broken and we need to fix it this year. It has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We want to get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair, flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk.

We need a common-sense law that strikes the right balance between accountability and flexibility -- and the basic problem is that NCLB got it backwards. Instead of being tight on the goals and loose on the means of achieving them, the law is loose on the goals but tight on the means. We need to flip that and states are already leading the way.

First of all, many states are developing robust data systems so that they can measure student growth. Second, and more important, most states have also voluntarily adopted college and career-ready standards -- so the bar has been raised.

States appreciate the flexibility and support we are providing in other ways as well. Last week we gave governors a document explaining how they can shift around federal funds to meet their local needs. We also gave them a second document showing how they can be more productive and efficient as they work to balance their budgets.

But they are begging us for more flexibility in getting their students over the bar set by NCLB which is why we need to fix the law. Under our proposal, when schools, districts and states make gains, we will reward them with resources and flexibility.

But if schools boost overall proficiency while leaving one subgroup behind that is not good enough. Every school must ensure that every child is being served. If achievement gaps are not closing each year, districts and states must intervene.

We will challenge them, not only around achievement gaps, but also on other use of Title I dollars. And we will further challenge them on the distribution of effective teachers and comparability in funding.

Finally, if schools persistently underperform we will target them for much more serious interventions -- and that gets to the third word I mentioned -- which is focused.

We don't have unlimited resources. We must focus on the schools and the students most at risk. Congress has been generous with us in recent years -- by providing $4 billion dollars for school improvement grants. That money will help fix thousands of our lowest-performing schools.

The President and I visited one of these schools last Friday in Miami accompanied by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The school has new leadership, some new staff, a new curriculum, more time for learning -- and best of all -- a new climate of energy, hope and determination that is already generating measurable progress in the classroom.

Today, nearly 1000 schools in America are undergoing a similar transformation and each year we will add more. It's tough medicine -- but when schools are not making progress -- we have a moral obligation to demand dramatic change. Children cannot wait for an education. They can't take a year or two off while administrators tinker around the edges.

Now -- nothing about our proposal for reauthorization alters our historic commitment to serve populations that need extra support or hold schools accountable for the academic success of these students. That includes low-income children, students with disabilities, English language learners, rural students and others.

As our proposed 2012 budget shows, 84 percent of our funding is for formula programs like Title I and IDEA. In fact we want to increase funding for both of these programs. But formula programs alone won't move the needle fast enough. We also need to provide some incentives to states and districts in order to embrace bold new reforms.

As you know, Congress gave us a unique opportunity to develop a state-level competitive grant program called Race to the Top. This program accounts for less than 1 percent of annual education spending in America, but it has spurred more change, more collaboration, and more positive and productive activity at the state and local level than any program in history.

And it's done so by avoiding one-size-fits-all mandates and providing flexible funding that gives state and local leaders the opportunity to develop comprehensive solutions of their own. I want to work with you and with local leaders to design the next round of this program -- a district-level competition that includes a carve-out for rural school districts.

Rural districts are willing to compete -- but they need a level playing field -- and it's unfair to ask small districts where school administrators are doing double-duty as coaches and bus drivers to compete directly with large districts that might have full-time grant-writers.

I fully understand that competitive programs serve only a share of the student population. But the real measure of competitive programs like Race to the Top is not the direct impact they have on students -- but rather the indirect impact they have on the entire system.

Our education system was designed more than a century ago and it has not changed with the times. It needs to change to prepare our children for the new century. We must try new approaches to teaching -- new ways of using technology -- and better systems of monitoring progress. The only way to get better results is by replacing what doesn't work with what does. Competition can help drive innovation.

And we must also have the will to change right here in Washington -- by working together in a bipartisan way to rewrite the law. This requires real courage to move beyond our differences and find common ground around basic principles of fairness and flexibility.

We're more than halfway through another school year. Let's challenge ourselves to give states and communities the support and flexibility they need before the start of the next school year.

And let's do it with everyone at the table. Reform is most effective and sustainable when developed collaboratively with our teachers and their leaders. Race to the Top proved it, our Denver conference last month was another step forward, and rewriting ESEA can further strengthen the relationship between policymakers and practitioners in our classrooms.

At the end of the day, the best way to make a difference in the classroom is with effective, well-supported teachers. The best way to achieve that is with stronger recruiting and training programs linked to a rigorous teacher and principal evaluation system. That work is underway all across America and if we do our part by fixing the law, we can accelerate the process.

The urgency for change has never been greater. The plain fact is that America is stagnating while the rest of the world moves ahead. The plain fact is that -- to lead in the new century -- we have no choice in the matter but to invest in education. No other issue is more critical to our economy, to our future and our way of life.

So I look forward to working with you in the coming months to meet this challenge and to renew our commitment to our children and their future by building the education system they desperately need and deserve.

Thank you -- and now I am happy to take your questions.