Economic Security and a 21st Century Education

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Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to discuss the state of American education—which in some ways is one and the same with the American economy.

I believe that the quality of our education system says as much about the long-term health of our economy as the stock market, the unemployment rate and the size of the gross domestic product.

That's because the quality of our work force and the intellectual breadth and depth of our future leaders is directly related to the quality of education we provide today.

So I begin my remarks by recognizing America's common agenda to promote economic security through education.

I know you are shortly releasing an evaluation of the reform climate in all 50 states and I don't want to get ahead of your announcement so I won't speak to any specifics. But I do want to speak broadly to the issues raised by your report because they are very much on point with the nation's urgent need for education reform.

First, let me salute you for focusing on states because a lot of the authority to improve schools is at the state level—as it should be:

  • States set standards and develop tests.
  • They hold schools accountable.
  • They set the length of the day and year.
  • They adopt laws governing labor agreements and regulate charter schools.
  • They also set funding levels and in most states pay about half the bill.

At the same time, the capacity to drive change is much more at the local level—where administrators, principals, and teachers are making everyday decisions affecting the classroom.

  • Hiring and firing.
  • Training and support for teachers.
  • Decisions around curriculum and budgets.
  • And they find ways to address challenges from violence to high dropout rates.

And, of course, it is in the classrooms where the most important teaching and learning occurs—and the critical relationship between teacher and student is developed. As we work together to reform the system of education, we can't forget that ideas have to work — not just on paper—but in practice every day in the classroom. If we are not directly impacting and improving the quality of instruction in our nation's classrooms, then we will continue to miss the mark. That's where we can change children's lives.

All of which raises a very important question: what exactly is the proper federal role?

Clearly, with respect to low-income children, English language learners and children with disabilities—there's a longstanding federal responsibility to help overcome structural barriers to learning, but beyond that — what should the federal government do to improve education?

No Child Left Behind expanded the powers of the federal government to impose accountability. That was the consensus at the time—but I'm on record saying that—when I was in Chicago I didn't look forward to a call from Washington. Now that I'm here I'm even more convinced that our role is to support—not dictate — education reform at the state and local level.

States and school districts don't need a prescription for success. They need a common definition of success—which is why I am very pleased that 48 states and the District of Columbia are working toward common college and career-ready standards. This isn't a national mandate — it's a national movement, driven locally, and it couldn't come sooner.

Study after study shows that state standards vary wildly and the states with the lowest standards are lying to children—by telling them they are ready for college or work—when they are in fact unable to compete—and the evidence is everywhere at every level.

NAEP—which is the organization that periodically administers a national test to a sampling of students from across the nation—just issued a report showing that 30 states set 4th grade standards too low.

And the news gets worse as students get older. International test results show that we are 10th in the world in 8th grade science and fifth in the world in 8th grade math.

Part of the problem is that many of our teachers in these subjects in the middle grades don't have the content knowledge. Another part of the problem is that many education schools are not preparing teachers well for the classroom.

When you look to high school, only 73% of our children graduate—and in many urban areas it's closer to 50 percent—condemning whole generations to social failure. We have to focus more on graduation rates—or outcomes—not just test scores.

I just met with military officials to talk about the fact three out of four young people today are ineligible to serve our country. Academically, they are not ready. They want a bigger investment in early childhood education because the education crisis now threatens America's ability to protect itself—let alone our ability to compete in the global economy.

Whether you see improving graduation rates and reducing dropout rates as a fight for social justice, as an economic imperative, or as integral to national security, it is a battle we must win. By most measures, our system of higher education remains the best in the world, but only 40% of the current generation of 25 to 34-year-olds have degrees. The President's goal is 60% by the end of the next decade, but we won't get there unless we add more rigor and help more people succeed

Your report cites the fact that too many incoming college freshmen are unprepared. Nearly 40% need remedial education and many eventually drop out.

And according to a 2008 report on workforce readiness by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, many college graduates are not ready to work.

And most high school graduates are simply deficient for even entry-level jobs.

Another problem is the enormous segment of the adult population that is fundamentally out of step and under prepared for the new economy—high school dropouts, the unemployed, immigrants with little English-language skills, and middle-aged workers in declining industries.

Something like 90 million Americans fit into one of these categories—and as a society we face a stark choice. We can either retrain our people or face the potential burden of a large and growing underclass.

So there's a very compelling case for reforming public education at every level—and doing so with a sense of urgency. What's especially hopeful is that people of every political stripe understand that education is one issue that can and must bring us together.

The fact that your report is co-authored by two think tanks on either side of the political divide adds a lot of weight to the findings and the recommendations.

I have met with Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle and they all share the view that education is the one issue that rises above politics and ideology.

I have had conversations with Minority leader John Boehner, and the ranking minority member of the House Education Committee John Kline. I have traveled to Wyoming with Senator Enzi, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee that oversees education—and most of the other Republican committee members as well.

And of course I've met with their counterparts on the Democratic side, including Tom Harkin and George Miller—both of whom have long and distinguished records on education and are deeply committed to reform. Through dozens of meeting with political leaders, I've been impressed by a common sense of mission. No one feels the status quo is good enough. But if anyone is still not convinced that education is the most bipartisan issue in America today—the surest proof is that I am now traveling the country visiting schools with two people whose political DNA couldn't be less alike—Rev. Al Sharpton and Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In fact we will be in Baltimore this Friday visiting schools—and I am deeply grateful to them both for their interest and enthusiasm.

The Speaker has been offering some very thoughtful suggestions on how to work with Congress and Reverend Sharpton has informed our thinking around community engagement and support — and they are both important as we move forward.

On a side note, let me just say that I am well aware that the Chamber of Commerce opposes the administration's health care, energy and financial reform proposals. These are honest disagreements and we need to work through them.

But differences on those issues should not prevent us from collaborating on education. I appreciate your statement of support of our work last week. You understand that we face a big challenge and I commend you for your ideas—which are reflected across the administration's education agenda.

In a few days we will release the final application for Race to the Top—a $4 billion dollar reform program unlike anything in the history of this department or in the history of education reform.

This program is built around four core areas of reform:

  • High standards
  • Better use of data
  • Improving the quality and effectiveness of teachers and principals
  • And turning around our lowest performing schools.

The remarkable thing about Race to the Top is what it's already accomplished — even before we have spent a dime.

California and Wisconsin recently enacted legislation allowing the use of student achievement data in evaluating teachers. The President and I were in Madison last week to celebrate the effort.

Eight states have increased charter caps, expanded enrollment or boosted funding. Similar efforts are under consideration in six other states.

There's an equally important phenomenon underway. There's a growing understanding among forward-thinking labor leaders that they must do more to drive education reform.

In partnership with local unions, Delaware recently developed a new system of teacher evaluation which incorporates student achievement and sets classroom goals for teachers. In Texas, Colorado, Florida, Chicago, and dozens of places across America school districts and unions are working together on performance pay. We have to shine a spotlight on excellence.

A new labor agreement in New Haven includes many reforms important to our agenda—from evaluation and compensation to interventions in struggling schools — and it was overwhelmingly approved by the local union. The membership is telling their own leadership that they want to be a part of that change. Places like right here in D.C., and then Detroit, now have the chance to leapfrog and take reform to another level.

I believe the threat to unions is not things like charter schools and performance pay. The only threat to unions and all of us in education is academic failure. No one talks about labor reform in high-performing schools. But in the worst schools, work rules are always the focus.

We need to change the frame around reform and recognize that the crisis in education goes far beyond labor issues. Where we see academic failure, we need to get to the core of what is really preventing student achievement.

It includes everything from low standards to weak curriculum, absent parents to unmotivated students, underfunded schools and limited educational options. Meaningless evaluation systems breed apathy and distrust. Erratic and inconsistent management create dysfunctional schools and systems that ignore the needs of children—and in many ways that drives the labor problems.

When companies struggle, we don't start by firing the workers. We change leadership—and in many schools and districts—we have to look at leadership.

Now let me be absolutely clear about this: labor issues are an impediment in many places, and we must continue to challenge them. District by district, state by state, we have a unique opportunity now to challenge past practices that don't work for children or adults.

But the plain fact of the matter is that we have thousands of terrific schools with union teachers and thousands of underperforming schools without them.

That includes many charters and low-performing schools in right-to-work states where labor laws are weak or non-existent—and these schools should all be held accountable.

So if we are going to move forward and meet America's educational challenges we must do so with an absolute commitment to honesty and truth—not ideology and politics. Good schools must be replicated, and bad schools must be transformed.

We have to look at student outcomes first and foremost and—and put our children's needs ahead of all of our own. Too often historically we have created educational systems that serve adults first, and that must change.

As we look to reauthorizing the federal education law sometime next year, there are a few core ideas that are central to our thinking.

First of all, instead of being loose on the goals and tight on the means, I want to flip it. Let's set clear goals but give people a lot more flexibility to meet them. Hold people accountable, but give them the room to innovate and put their best ideas into practice.

Second, we would like to create more competition for federal dollars and challenge states, districts, universities, and nonprofits to raise the bar and get better — faster. Race to the Top has demonstrated that a little competition goes a long way. Let's invest in what works and take it to scale.

Third, through the budgeting process and reauthorization, we want to work with Congress to focus federal investments more effectively. We have dozens of programs that have had minimal impact.

We are reviewing every line item with an eye toward effectiveness and innovation. We want to focus on core areas of reform that make the most difference for kids. And we'll get rid of programs that don't work. As we ask everyone else to challenge the status quo, we have to look in the mirror and lead by example.

Fourth, we want to build on Race to the Top and embed the four areas of reform into federal education law.

America must have high college and career-ready standards. Every business owner knows you set high expectations for employees. We must do the same for students.

Educators also must learn to use student achievement data—first to improve instruction by identifying the needs of our students — second to insure that teachers who need more help get it — and finally to identify teachers who can't measure up — even with help. Linking student data to teachers, and teachers to their schools of education, can be a powerful tool in driving improvement. Why are such basic systems so rare?

Great young teachers across the country tell me that no one taught them how to use data—to help target instruction towards the kids most in need. We must hold accountable our Colleges of Education and improve the teacher and principal pipeline.

We need to elevate the profession and restore the dignity and status of this critical field. In many other countries educators are valued as much as doctors and scientists. They are seen as community leaders and honored as such.

Sadly, in this country, some people mock teachers as people who can't do anything else. That's a terrible message for our young people. Instead we should invite the smartest, most committed young people to do this crucial work—and reward them appropriately.

The federal government spends $3 to $4 billion dollars each year on teacher training and development. States spend billions more to develop teachers and principals. That money is not being spent well and the results show it.

In the next five years or so, a million teachers will retire and a million new teachers will be hired.

If we hire the right people and do a better job of supporting them, we can shape public education for a generation and transform the profession. This will be a major area of reform. It is absolutely a historic opportunity.

We need to invest in the very best training, recruiting, and induction programs. We should look at teacher residencies and create incentives to work in hard-to-staff schools. And we need to reward excellence.

Conversely, we must be willing to acknowledge failure in our low-performing schools. Congress has provided billions of dollars for school turnarounds but it takes political courage and will to follow through and do the right thing for kids. That includes closing down chronically underperforming schools and reopening with new leadership and staff.

Of course, we should give the existing staff in a struggling school every opportunity to improve and we are working with states, districts, unions, and nonprofits to do that. But if the existing adults simply cannot change student outcomes despite everyone's best efforts, then we must find adults who can.

If that means closing the school and replacing the entire staff then we have a moral obligation to do that. Children have only one chance for an education. They can't wait 10 years for reforms to pay dividends.

Beyond that we have to get a lot smarter about how we evaluate our students—and how we measure success. Instead of setting arbitrary proficiency levels we need to look at growth—and the science of measuring growth has to continue to evolve.

We need to invest in the science of testing and measurement and find ways to do it better — without simply doing more of what we are currently doing. None of us like the overemphasis on testing, so we have to find a practical way to measure progress.

The testing industry must reform and develop college-ready assessments in an array of subjects. States must invest in new data systems. Local districts must retrain teachers and administrators. This won't happen overnight, but it must happen over time.

States and districts also need to look hard at their school calendars and ask why we send low-income children in disadvantaged communities home, or into the streets, after six hours—when so many middle class families fill those afternoon hours with sports, music lessons, tutoring and extra-curricular activities.

Extending the school day, the week and the school year is an obvious solution to under-performing schools. Our best charter schools already do that. To close the achievement gap, we have to raise expectations and work harder—and that means more time.

I'm a big believer in community schools—keeping school buildings open for 12 hours a day and opening up the computer lab, the library and the gym on weekends for our children and their families.

Give the community the key to the school and you give our children the key to so much more—exploration and enrichment, safety opportunity and hope. It becomes the center of their lives.

I admit up front it will cost more money—but if we believe it is necessary—then we should have the courage and the commitment to find the resources—both in Washington and at the state and local level.

The extreme inequity in the quality of public education is profoundly un-American. Education is the civil rights issue of our generation and equality of opportunity is at the heart of America's social compact. This is our most solemn obligation to our children and we all share the burden of meeting it.

Lastly, we must improve our system of accountability. One of the biggest complaints around No Child Left Behind is that the accountability system doesn't work.

It labels a dismally failing school in the same way as one that performs well in every subgroup but one. Both of those schools need to ensure all kids get what they need and deserve. But one-size-fits-all sanctions dictated by NCLB don't reflect the differences in those needs, and aren't practical for many districts. And the results are mixed at best.

I always give NCLB credit for exposing achievement gaps. That kind of extreme transparency has forced difficult but necessary conversations at every level. In the hands of committed educators, this information can change teaching practice.

But NCLB also has the perverse effect of narrowing the curriculum around subjects we test. All children need a well-rounded curriculum that both enables them to develop their unique talents and skills and prepares them for tomorrow's workplace.

So I end up where I began—talking about the link between education and the economy.

For much of the past year, I have spent a lot of time highlighting our challenges. I have been to 32 states and hundreds of schools in cities, suburbs and rural communities.

I have met with thousands of educators, parents and students. I have listened to them.

They know what the problems are. They know what's wrong. And they know what has to change. Now we need to come together around the solutions.

So today, I extend my hand in partnership to the Chamber and more broadly to the business community. I ask for your help, your input, your ideas and your support. I need your members across America to take a more active role in education reform.

According to a survey from the National School Boards Association, about 38 percent of school board members have a business background. That's a great start, but there's much more you can do.

You can send some of your employees and retired executives into the classroom where they can share real-life experiences.

And you can invest in education—because it's the best return on investment you will ever make—producing not only the employees you need but the customers as well.You can help train administrators to run schools efficiently. You can give young people work experience—both paid and unpaid.

Depending on your business, you can offer a summer job to a science teacher and a field trip for the science class.

STEM Education—which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—is one particular area where greater business involvement is really needed for America to lead an innovation renaissance.

The President has called on us to encourage and engage students to become "inventors and builders of things, not just consumers."

With your help, we can build the partnerships among businesses, museums, non-profits and educators to develop better science curricula—devise inspiring engineering and design challenges, and create new technology around computational thinking and math.

I'm sure that there are many other ways you can help—and many other ways you are helping. Today's report is just one of those ways and on behalf of the administration and the school children of America, I thank you for your hard work, and your insights.

I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead to build an education system that prepares our children for employment, for leadership and for life. Our children and our country deserve no less.