Lawmakers Who Lead

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Thank you for that kind introduction. I welcome this opportunity to address state lawmakers. For too long, you have been the leading yet underappreciated stewards of education reform. It is sometimes said that governors get the headlines and legislators get the headaches. There is a lot of truth to that. Governors come and go—and believe me, as someone from Illinois, I know that better than anyone. But legislators are the glue, the institutional memory that helps keep our public schools and public universities running. Every state constitution requires state legislatures to establish and maintain the public school system. But you don't just fund programs, you don't just rubber stamp what the governor sends over to the statehouse. You have to turn great reform ideas into law—and afterwards provide the oversight to make sure that early childhood, K-12, and state universities and colleges are providing a quality education.

I know that the life of a lawmaker is not always glamorous. To the annoyance of your spouses, many of you work a full-time job for part-time pay, and you stay late at the Capitol for weeks on end when the legislature is in session. You are serving at a time when states are facing their most difficult fiscal problems since the Depression—and most states have made laudable bipartisan efforts to hold the line on cuts in education budgets. Whether you are a thirty-something, a Baby Boomer, a Democrat or Republican—you are looking to serve the public good. I thank you for your commitment, and for your service.

My boss, President Obama, is, of course, a former state legislator. And I am fortunate to have two outstanding former state legislators as top advisors and key members of my management team, both of whom are here today. Glenn Cummings, the former Speaker of the House in Maine, is the new Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Vocational and Adult Education. And Peter Groff, the former President of the Colorado State Senate, directs our Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Glenn and Peter, please stand so you can be recognized. I know how lucky I am to have both of you on my team.

Glenn and Peter have given me a crash course on state legislatures. They've told me that state lawmakers are used to handling complaints from constituents. As an experienced member of the executive branch, I would just like to say that my door is always open. And if you have any complaints about my remarks today, please go right ahead and tell them to Glenn and Peter.

All joking aside, I've come here to talk with you today about the unique and absolutely vital role that state legislatures play in education reform—and to challenge you to seize this moment of opportunity and go further. We must continue to get better, faster.

Many successful reforms in our nation's schools were first pioneered by state legislatures. As far back as the 1980s, statehouses were in the vanguard of the academic standards movement. When state supreme courts struck down school finance systems as unconstitutional, state legislatures like Kentucky's responded by enacting new systems. In the 1990s, legislators across the country pressed for the creation of state-funded preschool programs, now operating in 38 states.

Today, Louisiana has created the first system in the nation for tracking the effectiveness of new teachers back to their teacher preparation programs—and Florida, Texas, and Colorado are beginning to follow suit. Florida's lawmakers created a model data system for tracking student performance from pre-K through college that is the envy of other states. Maryland is helping lead the way on school funding and finance. And Delaware has recently developed a new system of teacher evaluation that incorporates student achievement and sets classroom goals for teachers.

This state legislative honor roll is long—and I could easily go on. I applaud each and every one of these home-grown initiatives. And yet I think that if state lawmakers want to be architects of reform today, they must think even more ambitiously—and especially when it comes to our neediest students in our lowest-performing schools. The unfortunate truth is that state laws currently erect numerous barriers to real reform.

I'm honored to serve in a federal role now, but I am a local guy by training and that is where my heart is. As the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for seven years, I got to see firsthand what strategies worked to help kids and which came up short. I learned from that experience that most state legislatures had not yet gone far enough to give local school districts the tools that educators need to succeed.

Few districts today have the latitude to forcefully remake persistently low-performing schools. They typically lack the flexibility to lengthen the school year for students who need more instructional time. They don't have adequate legal authority to encourage effective teachers to go serve in high-poverty schools, or teach in hard-to-serve subjects, like science, math, special education, and English language acquisition. And few districts have enough flexibility to set aside the time for collaboration that teachers yearn for.

At the school level, few principals genuinely evaluate teacher performance, provide help for struggling teachers, or dismiss ineffective teachers who fail to improve even after receiving help. Too few teachers get data in a form that is useful. And they don't get the professional development to help them use data more effectively to improve classroom instruction, drive a cycle of continuous improvement, and create real accountability for student progress. You can't ask principals and teachers to lead in struggling schools but not give them the tools and autonomy to do so.

Frankly, many of these limitations on flexibility stem, in part, from state laws. And today I am calling on state lawmakers to rethink and rewrite the hundreds of pages of state code that limit the ability of districts to succeed in promoting student learning, especially in our lowest-performing schools. I urge you to do the tough work of finally addressing the grossly inequitable distribution of resources that now prevails in a number of states and school districts. And I would urge you to build the capacity of districts to challenge the status quo and implement far-reaching reforms to dramatically improve education.

I use the phrase "dramatically improve education" deliberately. It is no secret that education in the United States has not kept pace in recent decades, while the rest of the world has become more competitive. We no longer have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, even though many of the new jobs in a global economy require higher education. Only 40 percent of American adults earn a two-year or four-year degree. Nearly 30 percent of our students drop out of high school without even earning a diploma. That equates to a staggering 1.2 million students leaving our schools for the streets each year. That is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable.

When I was a kid, you actually could drop out of high school, and, if you were lucky, land a job in Chicago's steel mills. That is a distant memory from a bygone era. In today's information age, dropping out of high school is an apprenticeship for prison, not for a job. A recent study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that among young adults, high school dropouts were 63 times as likely to be in prison or juvenile detention centers as four-year college graduates. On average, each high school dropout now costs taxpayers more than $292,000 in lower tax revenues, higher cash and in-kind transfer costs, and incarceration costs, relative to the average high school graduate.

Earlier this year, McKinsey & Company released an alarming analysis that estimated how much better off the nation's economy would be today if, following the famous 1983 Nation at Risk report, the country had succeeded in closing some of our achievement gaps in the ensuing 15 years. Their results bear directly on your efforts to raise incomes and boost employment in your home states. McKinsey found that if students in states that scored below-average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress had improved over 15 years so that they performed at the national average, America's gross domestic product would be 3 to 5 percent higher today, or $425 billion to $700 billion richer. The McKinsey report concluded that the nation's achievement gaps have imposed "the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession."

The message here is unmistakable: We have no choice but to educate our way to a better economy. And if you care about job growth and boosting incomes, schools are the game changer. In 2008, 21 percent of state expenditures went to K-12 education. Education is the number one state expenditure, bigger even than Medicaid. When the Wall Street Journal recently asked 100 of the nation's leading CEOs to assess the problems facing the nation, their first priority was job creation. Their second priority was transformation of K-12 education—which outranked even health care, energy and climate issues, and the economy and finance concerns.

This failure to complete college or high school is a dire national problem—not just because education holds the key to economic prosperity but because of the terrible toll of educational failure. Your children, my children, our nation's children only have one chance for an education. They can't wait years or decades for reforms to take hold.

In the face of this urgent challenge, I do not accept the idea that reform fatigue in the states is an adequate excuse for standing pat. I've visited dozens of schools across the country that have had tremendous success with low-income, disadvantaged students. I was joined on some visits by my new good friends, the odd couple of education reform, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton… Yes, I admit to doing a double-take several times. But if you can get Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton to hit the road together to promote education reform, that is a clear sign of a powerful and growing consensus that transcends party lines—namely, that we must get better, and do so with a real sense of urgency.

I should add that Speaker Gingrich and Reverend Sharpton also joined together because they recognize a simple fact: We now have a unique opportunity, a special moment in time, to reform education. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided unprecedented resources to the Department of Education—all told $100 billion to save and create jobs, and stimulate education reform. Roughly $10 billion was discretionary resources to incentivize state and local reforms. That is more discretionary funding than all of my predecessors had at the department—combined.

In the midst of the recession, the Recovery Act has allowed states to avert an educational and economic catastrophe. Reports from the states indicate that recovery act funding created or saved between 300,000 and 350,000 jobs of teachers, principals, and support staff in K-12 schools and higher education. And the stimulus funding restored nearly 100 percent of the fiscal 2008-09 state budget gaps—and a significant portion of the 2009-10 shortfalls.

Looking beyond the stimulus, what are our plans for school reform? As has been the case for decades, education is a national priority but a state and local responsibility.

The federal role is limited to two areas: First, the department aids and supports students who historically have been underserved—disadvantaged children, students with disabilities, homeless children and students from migrant families, English-language learners, and preschool-aged children. Second, the federal government evaluates and identifies what works, and encourages and promotes innovation and progress in states and districts. When I was superintendent in Chicago, I knew that the federal government's role was to support our work—not to direct or micro-manage it. And, frankly, I had to battle the Department of Education occasionally when I thought they crossed that line.

However, because the federal government has a special role in serving disadvantaged students, I am not going to stand by silently and perpetuate the status quo in chronically failing schools where low-income students fall further behind every year. The days when any of us—the federal government, states, and districts—can wink and nod at educational malfeasance are over. The time for tinkering in failing schools is past.

We have 2,000 high schools in America today that are little more than dropout factories. They produce half of the nation's dropouts and three-quarters of our minority dropouts. The federal government has a moral and historical responsibility to stop ignoring dropout factories—and to start supporting states and districts in putting an end to this social injustice.

To legislators in suburban and rural areas, I would emphasize that this is not just a big city problem. The department is providing an unprecedented $3.5 billion to districts to help turn around the nation's bottom five percent of schools, about 5,000 schools, over the next five years. Only half of those 5,000 schools are in big cities. Maybe a third are in rural areas, with the rest in suburbs and medium-sized towns. So this, too, is a national problem.

Now keep in mind that our education reform agenda is driven by an ambitious, overarching goal set by President Obama: By 2020, America once again should have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. To do that, we have to build a cradle-to-career educational pipeline that starts with high-quality early learning programs and dramatically elevates student learning from kindergarten through high school, so that students are truly college and career-ready. Some form of higher education—four-year universities, two-year community colleges, trade, technical, or vocational training—must be our goal for every child in this country.

At the same time, post-secondary institutions need to become more accountable and productive by substantially increasing college access and graduation rates, even as they do a better job of controlling tuition increases. Although some college associations contend that our department should not be encouraging states to take a role in higher education, I believe state lawmakers can and should do a better job of planning for the needs of the economy in higher education and job training. State lawmakers also need to play a role in protecting consumers to make sure federal and state financial aid is spent well. Our American Graduation Initiative and the Access and Completion Innovation Fund, which have passed the House of Representatives, would provide state grants to strengthen strategic planning, accountability, and oversight, to boost college graduation rates.

No new program at the federal level has gotten more attention in the states that our $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund. I have been very pleased by the response of state legislatures to the Race to the Top competition, which will award grants in two rounds next year. A competition, of course, has winners and losers—and Race to the Top, even though states voluntarily apply, will be intensely competitive. But states which fail to win a Race to the Top grant can and will still come out ahead—so long as they are not going through the motions of applying, just to secure short-term funding to plug budget shortfalls.

The Race to the Top program is built around the four reform assurances specified in the Recovery Act. Those four core reforms are:

  • First, states should adopt standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and compete in the global economy;

  • Second, states and districts should be building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction. We know that good information about performance helps you develop better policy and hold the executive branch accountable for reaching state goals;

  • Third, states and districts should improve the distribution of effective teachers by recruiting, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals in the high-need schools and subject areas where they are most needed;

  • And fourth, states and districts should be turning around their lowest-achieving schools.

States that don't win in the Race to the Top competition can still benefit from the reform planning required by the application process and win significant grants in other programs. The $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants, the $650 million Invest in Innovation Fund, hundreds of millions in the Teacher Incentive Fund—never had states and districts had so many opportunities to gain support for their reform efforts. But I don't want state lawmakers to miss the handwriting on the wall: These four reform areas of the Recovery Act will remain priorities for the Obama administration beyond this set of grants.

To date, states are taking one of two paths in response to the Recovery Act programs. In the face of budget deficits, some states have treated the stimulus money as a one-shot deal to prop up the status quo, rather than to leverage and seed far-reaching improvements in student learning. These states are treating the new Recovery Act programs as though they exist in separate silos, rather than as part of an ambitious plan to dramatically boost student achievement and attainment statewide.

It is important to note that the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund in the Recovery Act stipulates that states must, at minimum, maintain State funding for K-12 and higher education at fiscal 2006 levels. Legislatures that violate this Maintenance of Effort requirement risk not qualifying for the remaining portions of stabilization funds, as well as possible sanctions, such as having to return stabilization fund dollars and having conditions placed on future federal education grants.

I am pleased to say, though, that the majority of states are viewing the Recovery Act programs as an opportunity to coordinate and build state capacity for reform, even in the face of looming budget deficits next year. These states recognize that 95 percent of program monies in the Recovery Act require coordination between State and Local Educational Agencies. Instead of sticking to business-as-usual, these states are positioning themselves to make efficient use of federal programs and save taxpayer dollars down the road. A smart use of education dollars can help states avoid a funding cliff—and still fulfill their critical obligation to support public education.

As I said earlier, education is very much a state and local responsibility. And the truth is that state lawmakers must play a vital role in improving our schools, quite apart from any federal initiatives and incentives. Some of this is not rocket science. If you want to improve college access and completion in your state, you need good longitudinal data systems to know how schools and universities are performing. If you want to close achievement gaps, you have to get the best principals and teachers into low-performing schools, and provide them with support and resources.

But I am not going to pretend that any of this is easy either. I know how tough true reform is, and I know how much political courage and leadership it takes. It is crazy that we have 50 different goalposts for success today in 50 different states, with 50 different standards, many of which have been dummied down due to political pressure. Yet it is one thing to talk about setting high expectations for students—and another to stick to high academic standards when test results indicate that many students are not college-ready.

We are committed to doing everything we can to support those states willing to raise the bar for all students and tell the truth. Forty-eight states have already signed on this year to a state-led effort to develop common, college and career-ready standards in English and math. This common core standards movement originated in the states, and it is very much a state effort. Just a year ago, no one would have anticipated that 48 states would agree to work toward common standards. This is the right thing for children, for our nation's long-term economic health, and it is courage in action.

To support this effort, we have agreed to fund the development of better assessments that states could use with college-ready standards. We have set aside $350 million to do this. But states will still need to adopt rigorous college and career-ready standards. And in a number of states, legislators must sign off on the standards for them to go into effect—so all of this is moving your way.

State lawmakers who want to create alternative routes to certification for aspiring teachers such as military veterans and career changers, create and strengthen charter schools, or create opportunities for innovative, autonomous schools, are also likely to face battles in state capitols. I have said before and will repeat it here for the record: I am not a fan of charter schools. But I am a fan of good charter schools, of schools that succeed in closing achievement gaps—and we have hundreds of those schools succeeding in some of our country's most disadvantaged communities.

In states which allow charter schools, state lawmakers should not just be focused on lifting constraints on charter school growth. They should also be bolstering accountability, so bad charter schools get shut down. The goal here is not to let 1,000 flowers bloom—it's to support, learn from, and replicate schools that are transforming the life chances of children. I am pleased that legislatures in Minnesota, Florida, and Missouri all moved this year to strengthen charter school oversight and accountability.

Ultimately, when it comes to rethinking and rewriting state laws, our guiding principles should be straightforward: Does a law advance student learning and do what's right for children? In addition, as Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has rightly pointed out, state laws not only need to do what is right for kids but also be fair to adults. I would take that a step further, and ask does a state statute actually empower adults to do what's right for children? Does it give districts, principals, and teachers the autonomy and tools they need to succeed, especially in our lowest-performing schools?

Today, we have roughly 95,000 public schools in the United States. Earlier this week, the National Center on Time & Learning reported that only about 160 traditional public schools in the country significantly expand learning time. How can that be?

The answer is that in virtually every state, the minimum length of the school day and school year is specified in state law, and that typically becomes the de facto school calendar. And those laws were written many decades ago when America was a largely agrarian economy, and kids had chores on the farm in the summer and after school. If our students are to successfully compete with their peers in other countries—who get far more instructional time—they can't do it with one hand tied behind their backs. We have to level the playing field, and give our children a chance to compete in a global economy.

Think, for a moment, about the teaching profession. Few jobs, if any, take up more space in state code than teaching. There are literally hundreds of pages of laws in most states that prescribe how the profession works—from how teachers are prepared and licensed, to how they are paid and evaluated, and ultimately to how they are promoted and dismissed. We have a law for every aspect of the teacher's career—except one to recognize success. Why are we so reluctant to talk about success—and recognize and reward it in education? Why won't we shine a spotlight on excellence—on the teachers, principals, and schools that are performing miracles every day?

Most of these state statutes were developed in another era, when women and minorities had few career options and where teachers lacked basic protections from arbitrary dismissals. A century ago, schools were thought of as industrial factories, with teachers being indistinguishable widgets in the educational assembly line. Today, we know that model is flat-out wrong. It is both bad for children and unfair to adults. Talent matters tremendously in education. A great teacher can advance her students two years over the course of a single school year, while a weak teacher can cause her students to fall further behind.

Now I would ask you to imagine for a moment what state laws would look like if they rewarded talent and success and treated teaching as the revered, distinguished profession it must be. First, they would empower state officials to monitor the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs by tracking back the impact of teachers on student learning to their teacher training programs, much as Louisiana has done. Teachers would have to demonstrate their ability to be successful in the classroom, not merely show minimal competence and subject knowledge to get a license, just as other professionals are now required to do.

Beginning teachers would be mentored by teachers with proven track records of success, much like residents at hospitals now are. Those master teachers would be paid well for sharing their knowledge and expertise. Today, we lose far too many of our good young teachers—again, because they feel unsupported. This, too, is bad for children and unfair to adults.

In our exemplary system, teachers would have access to high-quality professional development, get meaningful evaluations from principals, and have time to collaborate with other teachers. Tenure decisions would consider in significant measure whether teachers improved student performance—or set students back behind their peers. Weak teachers would have supports and opportunities to improve their skills. But if they failed to improve after receiving help, they would be counseled to another profession.

Unfortunately, laws that empower this vision of teaching excellence and support exist in few states. So when you return to your statehouses after this conference, I encourage you to review the state code book on the teaching profession with an eye to answering two simple questions: First, does a provision ensure that students—especially disadvantaged and underserved students—will be taught by an effective teacher? Second, is it fair to adults?

Let's be honest when we see a law that protects an adult interest, but does not advance those of our students. Let's be honest when a law stifles teacher and principal innovation and creativity, or inhibits the flow of talent into the profession. Do licensing requirements in your state promote good teaching, or do they just serve as a set of minimum qualifications? Does the teacher pay system fail to reward excellence and create barriers to innovation, such as requirements for a single-salary schedule? At the moment, single-salary pay schedules pay teachers based solely on seniority and educational credentials, rather than including some measure of a teacher's impact on student learning and growth, or taking on assignments in high-need schools and hard-to-staff subjects. We have had a national shortage of math and science teachers for decades. Let's stop simply acknowledging this devastating problem—let's fix it.

Teacher evaluation and tenure statutes bear reviewing, too. Are state-mandated evaluations of teachers by principals a hollow exercise—generally, the norm today—or are they genuine and useful assessments? Does your state law on tenure include any consideration of whether teachers are advancing student learning? At present, only two states require any evidence of teacher effectiveness to be considered as part of tenure. Two—out of 50? How is that good for adults or children? And how is it good for the teaching profession to have such a woefully inadequate evaluation process? Many of these same kinds of outdated state policies also apply to principals.

Every teacher deserves the right to be protected against arbitrary dismissal. And they deserve a real chance to get better at their job if they need help. No one walks into a classroom the first day a master teacher—it takes years to develop your craft. So do your state laws require that teachers in need of help get it? And do state laws turn the process of removing a chronically ineffective teacher into something resembling a lengthy legal trial? Finally, and perhaps most important, does your state law ensure that children in high-need schools and subjects—the children who need effective teachers the most—get great teachers? If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we must close what I call the opportunity gap.

Thanks to some farsighted lawmakers in Illinois, the 1995 Chicago Reform Act instituted a policy of mutual consent for teachers, so that both the principal and the teacher had to agree to a new assignment. No more forced marriages—both teachers and principals have to want to work together. That autonomy is absolutely vital to school leaders who want to transform low-performing schools.

Now I realize that this theme of strengthening local autonomy through state action is not necessarily the message you expected to hear from the Secretary of Education. If anything, my department has a reputation for being too prescriptive at the federal level. I know that—I lived on the other side of the fence for many years. And I am not going to kid you—when I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I did not always welcome a phone call from the nice man or woman in Washington, DC.

The reason why I didn't welcome a call was because the department has traditionally been a compliance machine. I promise you that we are striving every day to transform our work. I want the department instead to become an engine of innovation that recognizes success and scales up best practices at the local level.

That goal underlies much of our evolving plans to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year. My own view of reauthorization is that the federal government should be tight on goals—with a high bar and clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers. But at the same time, we should be loose on the means for meeting those goals. Right now, the No Child Left Behind law prescribes what schools need to do year after year. It doesn't reward schools that are doing well. There are dozens of ways to fail, but no clear rewards for schools, districts, and states that do a remarkable job of accelerating student achievement. And the law doesn't differentiate enough among schools that are struggling.

I'm much more interested in student growth and gain than absolute test scores. I want every child being challenged, not just the tiny percent around that middle bubble. How much are students improving each year, and which teachers, schools, school districts, and states are doing the most to both close the achievement gap and raise the bar for all students? Clearly, we need to move beyond fill-in-the-bubble tests to richer assessments. A good accountability system should measure what schools contribute to students, as well as whether students are on track to being truly college and career-ready.

In the end, I want state lawmakers to lead reform, not lag it. I ask you to take a moment and think about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we now have to change education. We are at a fascinating juncture, where crisis and urgency meet opportunity. For the first time, we have unprecedented resources at the federal level to support great work at the state and local level. We have discretionary programs to incentivize reform that dwarf previous efforts. We have a bipartisan consensus on most of the key elements of reform—and leaders who are committed to doing the right thing for children and the fair thing for adults. We have a president who believes passionately in the power of education because education transformed his life chances, as well as those of the First Lady.

With your cooperation, your commitment, and, most importantly, your courage, we can dramatically improve education in America—not just tomorrow but for decades to come. We have an extraordinary opportunity today. Now, for the sake of our children, and for our nation's economic future, let us seize that opportunity together. Thank you.