Opportunity Across America

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Good morning, everybody. Let's have a round of applause for the great band. (Applause.)

Let's also thank all of the students who have been here with us today sharing their talents. (Applause)

And Maggie, thank you for that very warm introduction. Having started my career as a high school social studies teacher, I always am a teacher first and so it's an honor to have a teacher introduce me. So thank you, Maggie, for doing that.

I'm excited about this bus tour because it's an opportunity for us to hear directly from teachers and parents, school leaders and higher education leaders, and higher education professors about the work that they are doing to expand opportunity for students and to create better quality experiences all the way through, from preschool through higher education.

All across the country from Maine to New Mexico and Washington State to Georgia to right here in D.C. and every place in between, our educators are doing all that they can to unlock the potential of all students regardless of their race or ethnicity, or whatever disadvantages they may have, whether those are disadvantages as a result of poverty or because they may speak a different language. We can make school great for every child if we are committed to it.

And we'll have the opportunity on this tour to celebrate the tremendous potential of our young people: their potential to make great discoveries in science and medicine and technology; their opportunity to create great literature; their opportunity to participate fully and productively in the 21st century economy, as well as to perform their duties as citizens in their neighborhoods and communities; to heal differences among neighbors; and to open up conversations with strangers. We will celebrate the potential all of our students have to change the world.

And I want to celebrate along with that, the work that happens at this Department every day to support our teachers and principals and higher education institutions as they cultivate the future success of our students.

I want to celebrate all of the work that's done by all the people at the Education Department. Give yourselves a hand. (Applause)

As Mark pointed out, this is the last of the Education Department bus tours in this administration, but it is not the end of the work that we will do together.

We say it all the time, but it's worth repeating here. We're not yet ready to stop working on behalf of students and educators. As my colleagues at the Department know, our motto here at the Department and across the administration is that we are going to "run through the tape" on January 20th.

Think of Usain Bolt in the 100 meter, running through the tape with a smile on his face. That's what we're going to do here at the Department. Some of us will leave federal service in January, but fortunately, we have many folks here, career employees who have given their careers to the Department because they know the difference the Department's work makes for students. And I'm inspired every day by the hard work and commitment of our career employees who are serving the country here at the Department.

I also want to acknowledge the great leadership of my predecessor, Arne Duncan. His leadership has made possible so much of the progress that we will celebrate on this bus tour. Arne couldn't be here today, but I know he is here with us in spirit and shares our commitment, both to celebrate the progress and to call out honestly the work that is ahead of us, the work still to be done. So how about a hand for Arne? (Applause)

I want to spend a few minutes today reminding you of all the work that you, the Department, you, our educators across the country, have accomplished over the past seven-and-a-half years. It's worth situating ourselves back when the President first came into office in the midst of a national economic crisis. The President immediately pushed for $900 billion to be invested in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a way to get people back to work, but also to make critical, long-term investments.

And the President understood from the outset that one of those critical long-term investments would be the investment in education – $100 billion of our funds were dedicated to education, ensuring that we could better serve the needs of our low-income students, our students with disabilities, that we could make college more affordable, that we could invest in Head Start and early learning. Sixty billion of those dollars were focused on saving 400,000 education jobs, most of them teachers' jobs.

As Maggie said, at the time, many districts were laying off teachers and they were shortening the school day. They were increasing class size and the investment that the President led made a difference. It put teachers back in the classroom, but it also gave us the opportunity to think long term, not just how we get out of that economic crisis, but how do we ensure that we are looking toward the long-term future of the country.

The President understood that America's greatest, greatest resource is the minds of our children and that we want to nurture their hunger for knowledge. We want to cultivate their optimism and their willingness to work hard to achieve great things.

In America, opportunity can never be rationed. Opportunity can't be a perk set aside for some. We've got to make sure that opportunity is available to all.

Opportunity and education are not only the foundation of our economy, they are ultimately the foundation of our democracy and the American way of life.

The school-age population of the United States, like the population of the nation as a whole, is as diverse as it has ever been and is becoming more diverse every year. One of our great strengths as a country has always been our willingness to embrace newcomers, to develop their talents, and to celebrate their contributions to the American culture and to the economy.

One of the most important jobs of school has always been to prepare our young people to engage in a diverse community, to participate in the rich civic life of their communities and states and of the country. To achieve that goal today, our schools must prepare all of our students, regardless of their heritage, their religion, their race, or their family income to participate in a diverse society and to embrace people who are different from themselves – to live out the message that Maya Angelou developed so powerfully: "We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike."

There is much more work to be done for sure as we try to build an educational system that serves all of our diverse learners well. But everyone should be proud of the progress of the last eight years, proud of the fact that we have the highest high school graduation rate we've ever had. (Applause)

Proud of the fact that we are closing gaps between our African-American students, our Latino students, our Native American students, and their white and Asian peers. (Applause)

Proud of the fact that there are many, many more students with disabilities earning high school diplomas today than when we began. (Applause)

Proud of the fact that we've nearly cut in half the number of drop-out factories; high schools with chronically low graduation rates.

Proud of the fact that we have one million more African-American and Latino students in college today than when the President began. (Applause)

This is real and meaningful progress and the credit goes to all of you and to educators and families across the country. So again, let's give ourselves credit here at the Department for the work that has been produced in support of our students. (Applause)

What did we do to make that difference? Well, we began with early learning with a clear understanding that the arc of education begins, that's right, begins with our earliest learners. And we've got to make sure that we invest early in our young people's development so that they can be successful long term in elementary school and on to high school and on to college and careers.

Because of the President's leadership and the work of our team here, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, states are making important investments that have led tens of thousands more children to be enrolled in high-quality, early learning experiences that will ensure that they enter kindergarten ready to learn and thrive.

Just one example, the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge invested over $1 billion in strengthening states' capacity to deliver high-quality early learning. I've had a chance to visit some of those preschool programs and build houses with blocks with kids. I've seen the ways preschool classrooms engage students fully as whole learners and the ways they make play a way to support learning; those preschools can be transformative places for young people.

I've also gotten to see great preschool teachers in action, who we should, by the way, pay more. (Applause)

And it's encouraging to know that the young people in those classrooms will have better opportunities because of those engaging and nurturing teachers.

We can also be proud that we have changed the conversation in the country about the goals of education. When the President took office, there were many states that were setting very low expectations for what it would take for students to graduate, states that were sending a message to young people that was not about college and career success, but about just the bare minimum. And we know that we had states with vastly different standards and expectations. Thanks to the President's leadership, thanks to investments the Department has made, we have virtually every state working hard to reach college- and career-ready standards.

And as we work to support those educators who are working toward those higher standards, we have new tools because of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind. Our whole Department was involved in working closely with the White House and Congress on getting ESSA passed and ensuring that it would reflect the civil rights legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and ensuring that the new law would focus on a well-rounded education for all students.

It is not enough just for students to do well in English and Math. Of course, those are necessary, but they are not sufficient for success when students graduate. ESSA gives schools an opportunity to focus on science and social studies, on the arts, on world languages, on ensuring that students have access to opportunities in computer science and coding, quality career and technical education. ESSA gives states an opportunity to broaden the picture of educational excellence and invest in the highest-needs schools to make sure that students in every school have access to those rich opportunities.

Yes, we've made a lot of progress in K-12, but there is still clearly work to be done. We know that there are significant achievement gaps for African-American students, for our Latino, for our low-income students, for our English learners, and our students with disabilities. We know that still, today, affluent students are six times more likely to complete college than their low-income peers. We know that despite our goal to get back to first in the world in college completion, the United States is today 13th in college completion.

We have urgent work to do. And ESSA is a powerful tool that can be used in states and districts to advance toward the goal of an excellent education and readiness for college, and career, and life for all students. But we need to support that work and fortunately, folks here at the Department are working hard to ensure that we help states and districts implement ESSA in the right way. But no law, no policy, no amount of money, not even the weight of good intentions can make a difference without the hard and skillful work of teachers.

As I noted earlier, the administration has made investments in keeping teachers in the classroom, but even more important are the investments in ensuring strong systems of preparation, professional development, and support for teachers throughout their careers, and opportunities for teachers to lead from the classroom. Investments like Race to the Top; the investments we've made in Title II; those are commitments to the leadership potential of every teacher and every classroom.

And as many of you know, the investment in teachers lifting up the teaching profession is deeply personal for me. Teachers in New York public schools saved my life. They are the reason I am standing here today. And so for me, I became a teacher and a principal because I wanted to try to do for other kids what teachers had done for me. This work of lifting up the teaching profession is essential to education and accomplishing our nation's goals.

And certainly our work on Teach to Lead reflects that same idea, that we can promote teacher leadership and that teachers can be the difference in every child's life. We are also fortunate to have the Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship Programs ensuring that teachers and principals from the classroom are actively engaged in every decision-making and policy-making conversation at the Department.

Let's have a round of applause for our teacher and principal ambassadors who are here. (Applause)

Together, we've worked not just at the classroom, school, district, and campus levels, we've worked together to promote lasting, systemic changes to strengthen and change how education is delivered – from the Investing in Innovation programs that focus on evidence-based change to the Race to the Top investments that help states undertake bigger, bolder efforts to improve the quality of education for every student. And this administration has made meaningful investments in systemic, sustainable change. We've done that, too, in our work with students with disabilities, ensuring that states move from a compliance-focused approach to accountability to one focused on outcomes through our Results Driven Accountability model.

We have also worked to focus the country's attention on the importance of school diversity, saying that 60 years after Brown versus Board of Education, we have more work to do as a country to ensure that our schools reflect the diversity we value. But it's wrong that we see places around the country that are more segregated by race and class today than they were even 10 or 20 years ago. And we'll continue to work with Congress to try to invest resources in accelerating locally led efforts to build strong, healthy, diverse school communities.

We've also focused on supports for students knowing that school can make a huge difference in kids' lives, but we have to acknowledge that there are challenges outside of school that can get in the way for kids. And kids are best served when schools are working together with communities to ensure great academic experiences in school and the support that students need outside of school. And that spirit is reflected in our Promise Neighborhoods Initiative where we're investing in wraparound services and supports for our students most at risk.

That spirit is reflected in our My Brother's Keeper initiative that we've worked on across federal agencies to focus attention on the success of all students, but particularly our boys and young men of color. Through My Brother's Keeper, we're working on initiatives to combat chronic absenteeism, working on initiatives to make sure that young people are matched with mentors who can support their long-term success.

We're working to strengthen the supports available to our homeless youth and our foster youth. Youth who are too often forgotten, as well as our young people who are in juvenile justice facilities. When we say "all means all" at the Department, we mean it across every initiative, every program, and every office. We are about the success of all kids regardless of the challenges they may face. With our help, we know that they can overcome those challenges.

We've also taken on bullying in schools and tried to make sure that schools are safe and supportive environments. Our work on Title IX – the work that our Office of Civil Rights is doing to combat sexual violence on college campuses – is about ensuring that students are in a place where they can learn that is safe and supportive. So, too, is our important work to combat bullying and discrimination against our LGBT young people. We've got to make sure that school is a safe, welcoming environment for every child, every day. (Applause)

In that spirit, we've also taken on hard conversations about school discipline and school climate, saying that we've got to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline which too often responds to students' needs by pushing them out rather than pulling them in with great investments that will help them succeed in school. We're doing that work and fostering those conversations because we know school needs to be a pipeline to opportunity, not to prison.

Now, all that I've spoken about today leads up to students' readiness for what comes after high school, their success in college and careers. We know that a college education can mean higher lifetime earnings, lower jobless rates, a competitive edge in the global marketplace and even better long-term health. A college education helps us fulfill our Founders' vision of opportunity for all.

As we've tried to invest in college access and opportunity, we've put dollars toward students rather than banks by redirecting $60 billion to students through the direct loan program. We've also worked to create tools to help students navigate the college process, like the College Scorecard.

We've made it easier to apply for federal aid through the FAFSA and this year, the FAFSA will launch on October 1st giving students an advantage and a better understanding of their financial aid package as they apply to college. (Applause)

We've also done work to ensure that folks who are incarcerated will have an opportunity to get the education that will allow them to succeed when they leave. Our country made a terrible mistake in the mid-'90s to take away access to Pell Grants for folks who are incarcerated. Through our authority under the Higher Education Act, we are making it possible for incarcerated folks across 28 states at 69 universities and colleges to get access to higher education. We know that those who get access to education while incarcerated are less likely to return to prison, and are more likely to be successful when they get back to the community. (Applause)

We've also taken aggressive action to make sure that a college education, a college degree really means something. And we know that there are institutions that are not serving their students well. And we've taken meaningful steps to ensure stronger oversight and enforcement. And those have resulted in times of hard decisions.

Most recently, for example, we increased the oversight at ITT because we knew that students and taxpayers were not being well served. We knew that ITT had not been able to meet the standards of its accreditor and was unlikely to be able to do so. So we took action to improve oversight on behalf of taxpayers and students. And it's been hard and ITT's leadership decided to close, which left students with a difficult decision about how to proceed in their education. We're trying to support students through that decision, but we have got to stand for the principle that when you go to a higher education institution with the support of federal dollars, you have to be able to have confidence that you're going to get a high-quality educational experience. (Applause)

And we've called on states to increase their investment in public higher education. We have called out the fact that states over the last few decades have increased their spending on prison more quickly than they are spending on K-12 education or they're spending on higher education. We need states to step up to ensure access to opportunity, and we need Congress to work with us to adopt the President's America's College Promise proposal and ensure that two years of higher education is as automatic as K-12 education for hard-working students.(Applause)

We've got to continue to work to make sure that higher education institutions provide good support. We have a long tradition through the TRIO programs at the Department of investing in — that's right — investing in our students who need additional support, our first-generation students, our students from historically disadvantaged communities, who we want to make sure have access not only to enter college, but to walk across that stage at graduation.

So as we strengthen the TRIO programs to build on evidence of what works, we've also invested in the First in the World initiative to try to get higher education institutions to focus on ensuring improved completion rates, particularly for the students most at risk.

There is certainly much more to be done, but whether it's in early learning or K-12 or higher education, America is better off today because of the work that this administration has done over the last eight years. (Applause)

Now all of that is a lot that you can be proud of, so let's again give everyone in this audience a hand for their role in these important accomplishments.(Applause)

Now as we get ready to get on the bus, I wish I could take all of you with me so that you get a chance to see in the faces of students and teachers and parents the difference that your work has made; to look into the faces of students who are thriving, who are filled with both hope and ambition and who are making the very most of the opportunities they have to learn and to lead; to be able to look into the faces of educators, to see their commitment to their work with their students, their professionalism, and their insights into what we need to do as a society to support them in supporting great outcomes for the kids that they serve. I wish you had the opportunity to meet and hear from parents and grandparents who will tell you the difference that it's made for their child to go to a school that now has access to technology that it didn't before, to be in an early learning program that didn't exist before, to have the opportunity to go on to college with resources that weren't there before, and to see the difference that the work makes.

We here at the Department are truly blessed to be able to do the work that we do, to be able to keep the doors of opportunity open to all, regardless of their circumstance. And I want to thank you all for what you do every day to ensure that we make the American dream real through educational opportunity.

Thank you for your service. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your commitment to "all means all", so that we can make a difference for every child in every school in every community to ensure that they have the full range of possibility in life.

And now we're off to the bus. Thank you. (Applause)