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Duncan: U.S. failing ‘core responsibilities’ on education

Education Secretary urges stakeholders to put aside ‘rhetoric and disrespect’ and come together to improve schools

arne-duncan-education[Editor’s note: In a Sept. 30 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged education stakeholders to move “beyond the Beltway Bubble” and find common solutions for improving the nation’s schools. His remarks are published in their entirety here.]

In what seems to have become an annual ritual, I’m here again today to report on the state of education in America. What I can tell you after nearly five years in Washington is that the public narrative that you hear inside the Beltway and online doesn’t reflect the reality I see in classrooms and schools all across America.

This town, which so often thinks that it’s somehow the center of the universe, is, instead, an alternative universe.

Here you have some members of Congress who think the federal government has no role in public education—not as a backstop for accountability, not as a partner in enforcing laws and expanding educational opportunity, and not as a supporter of innovation and courage.

Inhabiting this bubble are some armchair pundits who insist that our efforts to improve public education are doomed to fail—either because they believe government is incapable of meaningfully improving education, or because they think education reform can’t possibly work since the real problem with schools is that so many children are poor.

In blogs, books, and tweets, some pundits even say our schools are performing just fine and that fundamental change isn’t needed. Or that we have to address poverty first before schools can improve student achievement.

At the opposite extreme, other commentators declare a permanent state of crisis. They discount the value of great teachers and school leaders, and they call for the most disruptive changes possible, with little heed to their impact on children.

Too many of the inhabitants of this alternative universe are so supremely confident in their perspective that they have stopped listening to people with a different viewpoint.

Instead of talking with each other—and more importantly, actually listening to each other with respect, with humility, and with a genuine interest in finding common ground—many of these people are just talking past each other. They are ignoring plain evidence and deliberately distorting each other’s positions. And they’re clearly not focusing on children and students; they’re focused instead on false debates.

(Next page: ‘Courageous reforms’)

Fortunately, many of the people in the real world outside the Beltway and the blogosphere have tuned out this debate. They are too busy actually getting the real work done. They’re focusing on students—whether they are three years old, 13 years old, or 33 years old.

All across America, states and districts are moving forward with courageous reforms:

• States have raised standards and expectations for students and are piloting new and better assessments to show what students know and can do;

• Teachers are thinking deeply about their practice and their profession. They’re rewriting curricula and sharing lessons online;

• Technology is driving access to knowledge, innovation, instruction, and professional development in unprecedented ways;

• And many of our lowest-performing schools are implementing ambitious reforms for the first time to drive improvement and increase student success.

Every state in America is wrestling with complex, real-world questions about education. How to get better faster? How to best serve children at risk and better support teachers? How to transition to higher standards? How to control college costs? And how to expand access to high-quality early childhood education?

These states are partnering with the federal government to break free of some of the rules that inhibit innovation and hold themselves accountable to a higher standard.

And they are getting results. Today, high school graduation rates are higher than they have been in more than 30 years. College enrollment is up, particularly among minorities.

From ’07-’08 to 2010, the high school graduation rate among African-Americans increased five percentage points, to 66 percent. In that same period, the graduation rate among Hispanics had jumped eight percentage points, to 71 percent.  These are very encouraging trends.

Partly it’s because we have targeted dropout factories and provided unprecedented federal resources to turn them around, and give young people in historically underserved communities a real shot in life.

Ten years ago, half of African-American high school students and nearly four in 10 Hispanic students attended dropout factories. That’s a staggering statistic—we were actually perpetuating poverty and social failure.

Thanks to the hard work of teachers, parents, community members, and students themselves, we’ve cut those proportions in half. There are 700,000 fewer students in those failing schools now than just four years ago.

That is 700,000 students with a better chance of getting a job, owning their own home, supporting a family, and contributing to their communities. We still have a long way to go. But the data and the stories I know directly from students in these schools give me great reason for hope.

We are making real progress, too, for students with disabilities. From 2001 to 2010, the percentage of students with disabilities who graduated with a regular high school diploma increased from 48 percent to nearly 63 percent.

Higher graduation rates also boost enrollment in college. In fact, the Census estimates that Hispanic college enrollment went up 50 percent from 2008 to 2012.

While many other nations outperform us on international tests, a number of states and schools perform on par with the best in the world—offering models of success for others to learn from. There is so much good work underway—and, thankfully, the people doing this difficult, critically important work are not distracted by all the noise and manufactured drama inside the bubble.

(Next page: Poverty is no excuse)

In the real world outside the Washington bubble, the vast majority of people aren’t debating if college and career-ready standards are needed. They’re not advancing false narratives about a federal takeover of schools by mind-controlling robots. They’re just doing the hard work of putting high standards into practice.

They’re not questioning if a thoughtful system of evaluation and support is needed for principals and teachers. They know that evaluation has been generally meaningless, has failed to support the development of teachers and principals, and that the system is broken. They are working together to help educators strengthen their craft–and to build real career ladders that recognize and reward excellence.

Even in my hometown of Chicago—less than a year after a bitter strike—a recent study shows teachers like the new evaluation system and want to make it work, even if they have lingering concerns about how test scores are being used.

In the real world, most people are not against meaningful testing. They know we need some kind of test to know if kids are actually learning and to hold everyone accountable, including students themselves.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have concerns about teaching to the test or narrowing the curriculum—and I absolutely share those concerns. But the idea that we shouldn’t gather real-time data on what students know and are able to do is absurd. The goal in education is not just to teach, it is to have students learn.

Working together, the vast majority of states are creating better tests that measure essential skills, such as critical thinking. States are developing these assessments because they want parents to know the truth about how their children are doing, and they want teachers to have the critical information they need to improve instruction. You can take a look at the sample items online—this will be a leap forward for everyone.

Outside the bubble, people are not arguing in 140 characters or less about whether or not we need to fix poverty before we can fix education. That, like so many debates in education, is a false choice.

Of course we will keep fighting poverty—protecting the safety net, providing wraparound services, feeding hungry children and families, creating jobs, combating violence, and providing greater access to health services.

But we can’t use the brutal reality of poverty as a catch-all excuse to avoid responsibility for educating children at risk—and for helping more of them to beat the odds, as thousands and thousands do, year after year.

Our children have only one chance for an education. They can’t wait for poverty to disappear.  In fact, for them and their parents, education is the way out of poverty—and they don’t want to waste a minute. They are chasing the American Dream with everything they have, and we all have to help them get there. We all share in that responsibility—no one gets a pass.

As those of us who have worked in disadvantaged communities know, poor kids need extra long-term support. But educators, nonprofits, and faith-based partners are working together every day to prove that poverty is not destiny.

In the real world, parents just want great public schools for their children. Most don’t really care if it’s a traditional public school, a magnet school, or a charter school. They just want a school that is safe, and that challenges students to excel and makes them feel cared for.

Parents don’t debate if it’s possible to turn around a low-performing school. They can see for themselves if something is working or not working. And they are helping lead these turnaround efforts themselves, with a remarkable sense of vision and purpose.

Parents listen to the voices that matter the most–their children—just as I did the other day with a panel of students from turnaround high schools from across the nation.

One young woman, who attends Benjamin Franklin High School in Baltimore, recalled the lengths that neighborhood parents used to go to avoid sending their children down the street to the school. Now, with federal support to improve the school, there’s a waiting list to attend. “People see that we have a plan,” she said, “and we are going to accomplish our goal by any means.”

I heard identical sentiments recently from students in San Francisco, who attend a turnaround school there. The before-and-after stories are jarring, troubling, and wonderfully-inspiring—all at the same time.

(Next page: The role of unions in education reform—and how the ‘dysfunction’ of Congress is hurting students)

Here in the Washington bubble, the prevailing narrative is that reformers and unions are in a constant state of war. But in the real world, many unions are in fact partners in reform. While the media flocks to noise and controversy, the quiet, courageous work goes uncovered or unrecognized.

In McDowell County, West Virginia, the AFT is working hard to turn around an isolated rural school system. In Evansville, Indiana, where the NEA’s Priority Schools program is underway, the local teachers union and administration worked together to lengthen the school day and year. Here, locally in Prince George’s County, the union leader told me he is supportive of difficult school turnaround efforts because children deserve better.

And in both Hillsborough County, Florida, and Jefferson County, Colorado, unions and management are working together to find new and better ways to evaluate teacher effectiveness and reward success in the classroom.

Now, you might ask, what difference does the debate about education inside the bubble, inside Washington, ultimately make to students, teachers, and parents—who want to ignore the education wars and press ahead to solve practical problems?

Well, unfortunately it does make a difference. Across the ideological spectrum, the pundits and politicians can disagree on many issues. Yet from different starting points, education ideologues often end up making strange bedfellows that can only agree on one thing: to them, transformational change is dangerous and must be stopped.

Inside the alternative universe, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good—it becomes a paralyzing force that props us the status quo and is a recipe for continued mediocrity.

At my department, we’ve worked hard and steadily to be a good partner with states. But that’s not always easy given the dysfunctional politics in Congress these days.

In the last year, Washington lawmakers introduced a word into the vocabulary of America’s educators—“sequester”—that has only meant one thing: cuts. Cuts to programs like Head Start; cuts to schools serving military families and Native American students; cuts to programs serving low-income students and those with disabilities. Yet in classic Washington fashion, members in Congress did not impose the sequester on their salaries, their benefits, or their staffs—only people in the real world felt the pain.

Even now, as we speak, Congress hasn’t reached agreement on a spending bill. They’re putting petty politics ahead of governing—and they are hurting our children and our country. They are creating stress and uncertainty for schools and districts in red states and blue states and in every state—and at a time when our schools need stability and investment.

And think of all of the unfinished business in Congress that affects our school children—from comprehensive immigration reform to common-sense gun laws.

If the slaughter of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t move them, I don’t know what will. In the meantime, mass shootings continue across our nation—in malls and movie theaters; on basketball courts back home in Chicago; and most recently at the Navy Shipyard—all while other nations have chosen to work together to eliminate or sharply reduce the toll of gun violence.

Congress has also failed to carry out its basic, core responsibilities in education. The bedrock laws affecting K-12 education and career education are all long overdue for a rewrite.

The President and I pushed hard for a strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We’d still like to see one—and so would governors and state chiefs, as well as teachers and parents. If Congress can’t work together on behalf of children, what can they do?

Education leaders need some certainty to set goals and strategies to improve. That’s why our department has worked with 40 states to adopt ambitious performance targets that capture more kids at risk, raise standards, and move forward with accountability systems that go way beyond a narrow focus on a single test score.

I promise you—none of us will get everything 100 percent right the first time. But we are all learning what’s working—and, where necessary, adjusting. We are seeing extraordinary courage and leadership by states, as we challenge them to maintain a high bar, while offering them as much flexibility as possible to be creative and innovative.

Reform is hard, tough work. But where you have the right conditions and people willing to move outside their comfort zones and work together, you’re seeing great results.

(Next page: What is working so far)

With Race to the Top funds, Tennessee’s Achievement School District is getting growth rates in the lowest-performing schools that match the statewide average and is beginning to close achievement gaps. Tennessee has trained tens of thousands of teachers to implement new and more rigorous college and career-ready standards.

Kentucky is boosting AP participation among minorities and low-income students. They have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country—and they are one of the first states to assess students based on the new higher standards.

Florida is linking STEM students with working scientists. North Carolina has a new STEM recognition program that helps educators share best practices in areas like curriculum, teacher training, and linking students to jobs. And New York City is training music, art, and drama teachers to work with special education students.

Many communities are expanding critically important wraparound services to address social and emotional issues that get in the way of learning—issues that are compounded by poverty and violence.

I just finished an 1,100-mile back-to-school bus tour of the Southwest that included a stop at an early learning center in Santa Fe. The governor in New Mexico, a Republican, is boosting spending on early learning. More than a dozen governors around the country—Democrats and Republicans alike—have done the same, even in the midst of a tight budget crunch.

Lawmakers ought to get out of DC and go see for themselves what these states are doing with early learning—and then come back here and invest resources so that the federal government can partner with states to help them expand access to high-quality early learning for every four-year-old.

This simply isn’t a partisan issue in the real world. Educators, parents, business, law enforcement, faith-based leaders, and even military leaders all agree that high-quality early learning is the single-best investment we can make—returning seven dollars in savings for every dollar invested. An extraordinary, unusual, and broad-based coalition is developing to make this happen.

Here’s another place I’d love members of Congress to visit: Columbus, New Mexico—right on the border. There, children born in an American hospital to Mexican parents cross the border every day to go to school.

The Columbus community has welcomed them for more than 60 years, and despite the journey those children have to take every day, Columbus Elementary School has near-perfect attendance. That dedication—and that profound understanding of the importance of educational opportunity, which I saw from both children and staff, is something I will never forget.

Lawmakers in Washington ought to see this community and then come back here and work together to reform immigration, so families who just want to have a better life and contribute to America’s economy can do so, together. No parent-teacher conference should ever have to take place via Skype because mom and dad aren’t allowed to even visit their child’s school to attend a play or watch their child’s musical performance.

Elsewhere in New Mexico, I went to Midway Elementary School in rural Socorro, where they are using technology to broaden the curriculum and personalize learning. They’re not debating whether or not computers will replace teachers—that will never happen. That’s another spin-your-wheels argument that you hear in the alternative universe.

In the real world, outside the Washington bubble, schools are just doing what every organization, business, and household in America is doing. They’re getting online and using the infinite resources of the Internet to get smarter faster. Technology can be a hugely important tool as we strive both to increase equity and raise the bar for all students.

We need to expand and accelerate that access—which is why I am so excited that the Federal Communications Commission has answered the President’s call to vastly expand broadband access in schools.

In El Paso, Texas, I went to TransMountain High School, an Early College High School where most students are Hispanic and poor. TransMountain has a STEM concentration. All students can complete an associate’s degree by the end of their junior year and have the opportunity to attend U.T.-El Paso during their senior year.

Lawmakers ought to go visit to TransMountain and see how a school with high expectations and a commitment to rigor is transforming lives. They should visit the labs where 14-year-old ninth graders are doing college-level biology experiments and getting college credit, while just a freshman in high school! Then they should come back here and give us the resources to recruit, prepare, hire, and retain 100,000 new STEM educators to create many more programs like TransMountain’s.

When students are both challenged and supported, it’s amazing to see what they can do. Every student should have the chance to earn college credits while in high school.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, some of my colleagues saw first-hand an example of a system working to improve outcomes for all students, including students with disabilities. Through collaboration among general and special educators, as well as school psychologists, the district has significantly reduced the numbers of students identified as needing special education.

(Next page: College affordability)

I met a young woman at the Marine Base Air Station in Yuma, Arizona who wants to be a special education teacher. Only 17 years old, she has gone to 10 different schools.

Service members in Yuma talked about the critical importance of having consistent, high educational standards as their families get reassigned around the country. For families that sacrifice so much for all of us, the least we can for them is give their children a high-quality education, regardless of where they are stationed.

I went to Castle Park Middle School in Chula Vista, California, where they are turning around the school by addressing chronic absenteeism. Attendance is up, parents and kids are more engaged, and they’re seeing results in the classroom. Same children, same families, same socioeconomic challenges, same building—but different expectations and great leadership are leading to very different outcomes.

Every student I met in Chula Vista was wearing a t-shirt with the name of a college on it. One of those universities was Arizona State University, where I had been a couple days earlier for a forum on college costs. ASU is already doing what President Obama has challenged the country to do—raising grad rates, increasing access and quality, all while keeping down tuition.

They’re willing to be more transparent with costs, with outcomes and with other indicators to help parents and students make better decisions about college.

Across the country today, when student debt exceeds a trillion dollars, when young people are leaving school with six-figure debts, and—worst of all—when they are deciding to forego college because they cannot afford it,  this isn’t just an educational crisis, this is an economic crisis.

It’s a threat to the American Dream—the basic bargain that built this country: If you’re willing to work hard, you can expect a decent wage that supports a family, a home, basic health care, a quality education for your kids, and a secure retirement.

Back in 2009, all of those things were at risk—and several still are. Median income has fallen since 1999, and wages have been flat for decades. Home values in many communities are still down or stagnant. College is too expensive. And the prospects of a secure retirement are fading for too many people.

President Obama said he will devote the remainder of his term to restoring that basic bargain and provide ladders to the middle class for struggling families. The best ladder of all to the middle class is a quality education.

Our North Star-goal is for every student to graduate from high school and acquire some kind of postsecondary training or degree. Without that, their chances of a good job are slim to none.

We know we still have a ways to go. Nearly one in four young people fails to finish high school on time. The dropout rate for those who go to college is painfully high—and it’s highest in minority communities.

About two-thirds of students who start at community colleges take a remedial course at some point in their studies.  Only one in five African Americans age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher—and the numbers for Hispanics are even lower.

So for all of our progress, things are still not fine for these young people, and the last thing we should do is retreat.

As we look to the months and years ahead, here’s the lay of the land:

The most striking trend is that states and districts, principals, and teachers and students are moving forward without waiting for Washington.

Many states are wisely investing more in preschool, child care, and home visiting programs. States with federal early learning grants are leading the way on improving quality. Other states can learn from them.

At the K-12 level, under the flexibility we’ve offered states,  state leaders on both sides of the aisle are moving ahead with high standards, better systems of evaluation and support, and more effective accountability. They are preparing for new assessments that will better measure student learning—and tell us the truth about where we are as a country and what we need to do to get better.

(Next page: Keys to future success)

I’m especially inspired by the emerging research and leadership around issues like resilience, grit, and persistence—hard-to-measure qualities that educators know are as important to student success as reading and math skills.

Teachers are leading a much-needed transformation of their profession. If we have learned one thing from high-performing countries, it is that we must get better at recruiting and training our teachers.

We should also learn from successful teacher training models here in the United States that are driving big student gains. And we should pay teachers on par with other professions, rewarding those remarkable teachers who are producing outsized student gains and taking on the toughest of assignments.

In higher education, a number of universities—public and private, nonprofit and for-profit—are creatively keeping down costs while maintaining or improving quality. They’re focusing more on outcomes than on inputs. We want to know: Are colleges and universities delivering value to the students who attend? Are those students getting good jobs? Are they repaying their college loans?

There has been an explosion of innovation around online learning– and as we expand access, we must stay focused on quality and outcomes. Groundbreaking work is underway around competency-based learning. We are partnering with universities at three experimental sites where institutions will award certificates to students based on what they know, rather than how long they sat in lecture halls. We need to make this shift—not just in higher education, but in high schools and middle schools as well.

Lastly, we must continue to build partnerships between community colleges and employers to forge a clearer path from school to work for millions of unemployed, underemployed, and under-skilled adults. They are eager for more fulfilling and rewarding careers.

The fact that so many Americans are out of work, while hundreds of thousands of high-wage, high-skill jobs go unfilled, is a market failure that hurts families and hurts the country.

Public-private partnerships must close the skills gap, and community colleges are the centerpiece of that effort.

So, as this new school year gets underway, today I am inviting any member of Congress to join me as I continue to travel around the country and highlight reforms at work. I invite journalists, bloggers, and policy leaders as well.

Let’s go see for ourselves what is working—and then let’s bring those positive lessons back to Washington. Let’s talk to students and see what they want and what they need—for their future, not our present.

Right now our country faces stark choices: We can continue to play politics with the budget and the debt ceiling, or we can fund a federal government that Americans can count on.

Congress can continue to treat education as an expense on the budget ledger, or they can see it as a critical investment in winning the race for the future. Other countries get it—they’re greatly expanding preschool and strengthening teacher preparation.

We can look the other way while policies enrich the few at the expense of the many. Or we can shift resources to programs that can make a difference in the lives of children and families.

We can stand up to the ideologues and extremists in our own parties who promote division. We can all show real courage—and lead, not follow.

There are plenty of smart, compassionate Republican leaders. There are many GOP governors doing the right thing. They know that education is the right bet for America. But where are the reasonable Republicans in Washington who will stand up to the Tea Party? Who will be that profile in courage?

Who will make it safe for others to do the right thing for their country–and provide all our children with a strong start in preschool? There is nothing political about giving our three-year olds and four-year olds a strong start in life. The silence of our moderate friends almost troubles me more than the noise and nonsense from the extremists.

Similarly, the education community needs to put aside the rhetoric and disrespect and come together to push forward against the one common enemy we must all fight—and that’s academic failure.

The American public is ignoring much of the Washington debate over school reform. They just want schools and educational opportunity to keep improving. They are not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. And they are the reason I remain so hopeful.

I am optimistic and inspired because of what is happening outside the Beltway in schools, at colleges and universities, and in communities all across America.

I am optimistic because of teachers and principals I have met, because of parents and community leaders, because of college presidents, and because of governors and state chiefs on both sides of the aisle.

I am optimistic, above all, because of the millions of students who come to school every day. Many face extraordinary barriers and hardships, but they come because they feel safe, they feel engaged, and they feel loved and valued and inspired by their teachers. Our students hunger for the emotional, social, and mental nourishment that comes from a great school.

Public schools can be life-changing places for children. At their best, they embody core American values of ingenuity, creativity, and industry. They advance social mobility and economic opportunity to all.

Public schools offer the hope and promise of a meaningful and rewarding life to every child who walks through their doors. Our job—very simply—is to make schools the best they can be.

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