“Working in the Nation’s Lowest-Performing Schools: A Progress Report”

Archived Information

“Working in the Nation’s Lowest-Performing Schools: A Progress Report”

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the 2nd annual Building a Grad Nation Summit

March 19, 2012

Thank you, Reba, for that generous introduction--and thanks to Target for the commitment and leadership they’ve shown in working to strengthen our nation’s schools.

I also want to give a shout-out to Bob Balfanz and John Bridgeland for their groundbreaking work over the years to identify and promote solutions to the high school dropout crisis.

I’m going to provide a preliminary progress report today on our School Improvement Grants, or what’s known as our SIG program.

As you know, SIG seeks to accelerate achievement in our nation’s lowest-performing five percent of schools through far-reaching interventions. Federal grants support school leaders, teachers, unions, and local partners in the community to undertake this challenging work.

We are seeing some very encouraging signs of progress in the first year of data from SIG schools, which few experts anticipated. But before I talk about the preliminary data, I want to put some of what we’re seeing in context.

The starting premise for the SIG program is, unfortunately, painfully self-evident. The United States simply cannot meaningfully boost graduation rates and promise a quality education to every child without ending the cycle of failure in our chronically low-performing schools.

Tragically, sometimes not just for a few years, but for decades, children have been cheated of a world-class education in these schools. And for far too long, we—as adults, as educators, as leaders—have passively observed this educational failure with a complacency that it is deeply disturbing. States and district officials have traditionally tinkered in these schools--instead of treating them as educational emergencies.

From the moment I became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 2001, I was told that not much could be done to transform a failing school. And I was told that nothing could be done to transform failing schools at scale.

Skeptics on the left of the political spectrum said that the barriers of poverty and race, and the attachment of parents to their neighborhood schools, were just too tough to overcome.

Those on the right of the political spectrum said the teachers, the unions, and the district administrators would never buy-in to dramatic change.

At the national level, the No Child Left Behind law required persistently low-performing schools to take action to improve student learning. But in reality, chronically under-performing schools were required to do little--and for years the federal government provided little or no money to help support change in these schools.

Almost no high schools, for example, were included in federal school improvement efforts--even though just 15 percent of our nation’s high schools produce half of the nation’s 1.2 million dropouts. Adults admired the problem, they pointed fingers, they bickered—and the end of the day, nothing meaningful changed for children.

Early in his administration, President Obama said that America could no longer maintain this status quo in chronically low-performing schools. We could not continue to tinker. He believes, and I believe, that dramatic change is desperately needed in low-performing schools. We absolutely reject the idea that some schools, or children, or neighborhoods are just destined to fail.

So, in 2009, the Administration, with support from Congress, created a new and much more ambitious program for turning around low-performing schools.

It gives state and districts four options for dramatically improving schools. But all four options require schools to institute far-reaching changes to improve student learning. As my friend Dennis Van Roekel, the head of the NEA says, “a tweak here or a toggle there will not lead to fundamental change.”

For the first time, the Administration put serious resources into supporting school turnaround efforts, to the tune of more than four billion dollars. That money has gone to over 1,200 schools, each of which got a three-year grant of up to two million dollars a school. And in our first cohort of schools, 45 percent were high schools. We wanted to attack the toughest challenges head-on.

Almost immediately, armchair analysts, bloggers, and pundits virtually uniformly predicted that the SIG program would flop. They said it would be a terrible waste of time, talent, goodwill, and money.

They said it would have little effect on student learning and student outcomes. They said that even if the program worked to turn around a few schools, it would never succeed at scale or produce lasting change.

Fortunately, great teachers, great school leaders, great community partners and parents—and, most importantly, committed students--didn’t listen to the skeptics.

These courageous teachers, school leaders, and community partners understood that turning around a low-performing school is some of the toughest, most controversial work they would ever undertake. But they knew it was also among the most important, and potentially most rewarding work they would ever do in their lives.

They knew that the difficulty of the work could not be an excuse for inaction. And they didn’t claim to have all the answers. They approach this work, as we all do, with a real humility, coupled with a tremendous sense of urgency.

We are still getting in the results of the first year of the SIG program. But our preliminary data show that after just one year, that commitment to change is producing dramatic gains in learning in a significant number of schools. None of these schools are where they need to be, or will be, yet. But the progress and sense of momentum are real.

We had about 850 schools in the first SIG cohort. We now have preliminary achievement data from 43 states, covering about 700 of those schools in their first year of the program.

In year one, roughly one in four schools saw double-digit increases in math proficiency. About one in five schools had double-digit increases in reading proficiency. All told, in roughly 60 percent of SIG schools, the percent of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in the first year of the program.

Now, as encouraging as these increases in academic achievement are, I want to be clear that they are still preliminary. We’re only talking about the first year of data, and everyone recognizes that we will need several years of data to confirm a lasting improvement in academic achievement.

We are also continuing to gather data on other critical outcomes that matter to assessing student progress, like changes in graduation rates, dropout rates, discipline, attendance, and other indices.

So, this is very much a first look at the initial results of SIG. But it is encouraging to see that rigorous research in cities like Philadelphia and New York City is also finding that turnaround schools and reconstituted schools can dramatically improve student performance and substantially boost graduation rates. Even more encouraging, they are doing so district-wide, not in isolated pockets of success. Scale is so important to this effort.

And it is equally heartening to hear, as we learned earlier this morning in the Grad Nation update, that there has been a big drop in the number of high school dropout factories nationwide, especially since 2008.

From 2008 to 2010, the number of high schools in America where graduation is not the norm fell from about 1,750 schools to 1,550 schools. All told, nearly 400,000 fewer students attended high school dropout factories in 2010 than just two years earlier.

What are the ingredients of success? In the SIG program, we’re seeing that schools that boost student achievement tend to share at least two common elements.

First, they have a new, dynamic leader who is deeply committed to the students and the surrounding community.

I’m talking about extraordinary principals like Roy Sandoval, who works at a turnaround high school on an Indian reservation 200 miles northeast of Arizona. Every Monday, he wakes up early and drives two-and-a-half hours to his school. All week long he lives on the reservation--before driving back home two-and-a-half hours to his family on the weekend.

The second thing that turnaround schools have in common is they have teachers and adults who share a relentless focus on improving instruction, both through collaboration and through the use of data.

All four of the SIG models give professionals in the schools the resources they need to be ambitious teachers. They all provide for embedded professional development, greater use of data to inform instruction, and increased learning time, including collaboration among teachers. And they all provide for improved teacher evaluation systems that, for the first time, provide meaningful feedback to support instruction and a rigorous instructional program aligned with state standards.

But the road to success is not the program itself. It’s the focus, passion, and commitment of practitioners that drive success. Contrary to a lot of the predictions that were made about SIG, the program has helped spur innovation in the field, instead of somehow stifling it.

Maxfield Magnet Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota has adopted a peer-to-peer observation system. It now requires all teachers to be observed in their classrooms and to serve as observers of other teachers three times a year.

In Ontario High School in Ontario, Oregon, teachers are making better and smarter use of technology to improve instruction in real-time.

In Las Vegas, the principal of Kit Carson Elementary, Cynthia Marlowe, used SIG funds to institute a tutoring program, which added an hour of learning time to the end of the school day. The result?--reading and math proficiency both improved by more than 20 percentage points.

Down the road in Reno, Smithridge Elementary hired a new STEM coach and data specialist to give teachers meaningful feedback and daily coaching. Students themselves have a big role in tracking and analyzing their own progress. Empowering students to take ownership of their own learning is so important. Weekly assessments monitor how students are learning state standards--and all data is tracked for each student in a data journal.

At the heart of all these successes are teachers and school leaders who are excited about the prospect for change. It’s what motivates them, gets them up every morning, and keeps them working late into the night.

These leaders recognize how demanding this work is but they also see the potential for fundamentally transforming the life chances of their students.

They know that school culture is hard to change. But they also believe that all children—all children--must be given the opportunity to fulfill their potential. As one study of turnaround schools in Philadelphia put it, teachers at successful turnaround schools feel like they are part of “something big.”

Let me give you an example of being part of something big.

One of our panelists, Carole Smith, the fantastic superintendent in Portland, Oregon, will talk in a moment about how the SIG program has worked in her district at Roosevelt High School.

Two years ago, Roosevelt was named one of the worst high schools in the state. But in its first year in the SIG program, Roosevelt has had a 14 percent jump in its four-year graduation rate. Attendance is up. Test scores are up. Discipline problems are down.

But just as telling, Roosevelt’s educators have fostered a new belief among students about what is possible. The arts, for example, are thriving--and so is the school’s drama program.

Last summer, the students performed a play at the International Thespian Festival in Nebraska. That was a first for a public school in Portland. And to make sure that all the students could make the trip, the drama director, Jo Lane, took out a second mortgage on her home.

That is a remarkable commitment. And we have to figure out how to give her some help and support.

In cities like St. Louis and Portland, Maine, local unions are looking to improve and strengthen school turnaround efforts. They are collaborating with management to design turnaround-customized supports for teachers and new professional development for staff in turnaround schools.

A final barrier to turning around schools is that parents are supposed to fight change in neighborhood schools. Sometimes, parents do cling to the familiar. But we are finding that parents and community organizations are in many cases helping to drive change and enhance learning.

Community engagement is crucial to successful turnarounds. As Dennis Van Roekel likes to point out, you can’t spell “partners” without “parents.” And that’s one reason that the administration has announced a new initiative, Together for Tomorrow, to foster and expand community engagement in low-performing schools.

Together for Tomorrow is already underway at six demonstration sites around the country. Working with the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service, we’ll be expanding this effort to foster more community partnerships to advance school improvement.

In the end, no one can do this work alone. Promoting a community culture, where educational improvement is everyone’s responsibility, is our great national mission. It does take a village.

Children only get one chance to get a quality education. As Martin Luther King said, we cannot wait upon reform to happen, we cannot wait for equal educational opportunity to be realized. This is the civil rights challenge of our generation.

And I thank everyone in this field for their courage, their commitment, and their leadership in bringing new hope to communities, schools, and children where the light of hope had dimmed.

This is, at heart, a movement. This is about so much more than education. It is a daily fight for social justice. And together, we will win!