Partners in Truth-Telling

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Good evening. Yesterday marked 100 days for the Obama administration—100 very long days.

It seems like a year ago that I got the call that brought me here, and since that day I have been to 12 states and 14 cities, met with more than 300 organizations, and had over 70 media interviews.

I have spent many hours with my staff figuring out exactly how to invest 100 billion dollars in Recovery funding to save jobs and advance reforms.

We are also just a few days away from announcing a budget that will further support our entire pre-K through college education agenda.

It's fitting to be here tonight with the people who play such a large role in helping America understand our educational agenda, because you filter our words to the public.

As you know, I favor certain words over others and I am blessed to have so many of you sifting through all of my rhetorical quirks with a combination of derision, dismay …. and occasionally—insight.

I am deeply grateful for that—and to show my gratitude, I am going to get through this speech tonight without using three of my favorite words—and they are:

  • Extraordinary
  • Dramatic
  • and Incent.

Despite the absence of these words, I remain fully convinced that this is a remarkable time to be in education, that we have a historic opportunity to drive significant change, and that one key to success is encouraging and rewarding excellence in the classroom.

I want to sincerely thank all of you who have been covering education in recent months for reporting accurately and truthfully on our goals and our agenda.

The Latin word for truth is "veritas"—a goddess who the Romans believed was the mother of virtue. According to myth, she lived at the bottom of a well because she was so elusive.

In my view, truthfulness is not merely a virtue—but a responsibility shared by all of us engaged in civic discourse.

Truth is supposed to be objective, unequivocal and beyond debate, but do we always meet that standard of objective truth? Do we sometimes choose facts and ideas selectively—and ignore certain truths in favor of others?

I raise these questions because I worry that our public conversation about educating children, lifting struggling schools, and evaluating teachers and principals, too often fall apart because we can't agree on facts, let alone solutions.

There is little agreement on what kids should know and be able to do—how to measure it—and how to report the measures.

We can't agree on whether standardized tests can accurately reflect achievement levels. We can't even agree on whether to test.

There is little agreement about which student outcomes matter most.

What are our priorities?

  • Higher graduation rates?
  • Higher test scores?
  • Better attendance?
  • Higher grades?
  • Better freshman year on track rates?

We don't agree on how to measure these simple outcomes—not to mention the more complex ideas like value-added.

And there is even less agreement around the means to reaching these goals.

  • A positive school culture?
  • An administrator's leadership skills?
  • Or a teacher's degree of helpfulness?

We can't agree on whether teachers should be measured by their peers, level of qualifications, classroom observation, student performance—or all of the above.

Most people agree that learning begins at birth—yet I recently saw a very irresponsible piece on television calling pre-school a waste of money.

We need to develop a new generation of great teachers—yet there is little agreement on how to hire a great teacher. Is it college grades, advanced degrees, or some intangible quality of empathy and passion?

Somehow amidst all of this chaos and confusion—differing opinions—competing agendas—and absence of broadly-accepted truths—you and I must conduct an open, honest, and productive national conversation on public education.

Somehow, you and I must dismantle the barriers to straightforward, fact-based discussion and find the truth.

You and I must get to the bottom of the well.

This is no small challenge—but to shrink from it—is to shrink from the larger task at hand.

We can't move forward without an honest assessment of the facts.

That's why we structured the Recovery Act funds around questions like:

  • Has your state put great teachers into high-poverty schools?
  • Have you analyzed state test scores compared to NAEP scores to consider whether your standards are too low?
  • Do you know how many of your high school graduates need remedial education in college?
  • Have you turned around any of your struggling schools?
  • Have you invited charter schools in and have you closed down any of them for low performance?
  • And do you have a data system that can track student growth and link it directly to teachers?

This is what we mean by transparency—an absolute, unequivocal commitment to exposing the good, the bad and the ugly around issues like teacher effectiveness and distribution, standards, assessments and curricula, and supports for struggling schools.

This is not always fun. No one wants to admit their flaws—let alone do something about them.

We want to put on our best face—and appear in the most favorable light. And to be honest, people who disagree with us want to show us in the worst light.

But you guys have the last word. You are the referees. You are uniquely able to say that—despite policy differences—the facts are the facts and they are beyond dispute.

So—your reporting can be informative, balanced and useful or one-sided, confusing and misleading.

Mark Twain once said that if you don't read newspapers you are uninformed—but if you do read newspapers, you are misinformed.

That's a little harsh but there is still more truth there than we want to admit.

When we read trend stories based on one or two thin examples, or we see policy ideas attacked and dismissed before they have had time to work—they fall short of the truth and honesty standard.

Unproven programs are still worth trying.

For example, performance pay is fairly new to education so there may not be a lot of studies showing that it boosts student achievement.

But there's plenty of proof that it boosts worker productivity in other industries, so why not try it in schools?

If we never try new things, we'll never know if they can work.

The bottom line is that when you do your job well, I can do my job well.

You can help me understand what is and what is not working and cut through the false generalizations that mislead, misinform and otherwise obscure the truth.

Thanks to some tough reporters back home who showed us that many of our high school graduates couldn't read—Chicago ended social promotions.

When we closed schools for low performance, we were challenged on the process and eventually we adjusted, but they could not argue with the results.

The same kids with the same socioeconomic conditions gained two to three times as much in a year.

The saddest, most tragic part of closing schools in Chicago was when we showed the parents the data.

They had no idea that their school was one of the worst in the city. They thought they were like everyone else. No one had ever been transparent with them.

Now, Chicago closes several schools each year and while it's still a painful, emotional process for everyone involved—at least the facts are out there and parents are not being ginned up through fear or falsehoods.

Too often, we let ideology get in the way of honest conversation. Take charters for example.

Depending on what you read, they are either the salvation of public education or the death-knell for unions.

The fact is they are neither. There are good charters and bad ones—there are union charters and non-union charters. Albert Shanker was one of the pioneers of the charter school movement.

Charters don't take money from public schools. They are public schools—serving our kids with our money and accountable to the same standards.

We have about 4500 charter schools in America today and about 600 have been closed for mismanagement or low performance, so that's a pretty tough ratio.

Our experience in Chicago is that some charters performed better than neighborhood schools and most of them had waiting lists.

Some had low test scores but terrific graduation rates. We closed down three others because they couldn't get the job done.

So let's get beyond the superficial discussion that posits charters against unions and focus only on whether they help kids.

If they do, we should keep them open, help them expand and serve more kids. If they don't we should close them down. It's that simple.

You also help highlight barriers to progress. A few years ago, the St. Louis Board of Education passed a policy which explicitly restricted the use of public school facilities for liquor stores, strip clubs, landfills and charter schools.

Our only power to change this kind of policy is to expose it—and to hold them accountable for decisions like this. I understand that St. Louis changed the policy but other cities and states are still resisting charters.

Twenty-six states cap the number of charters and 10 other states have no charters. The President has called on every state to lift charter caps.

And where unions are behind these efforts to impede charters we should certainly call them out but we shouldn't demonize unions or blame them for all of the problems in education.

We don't demonize all corporations because of Enron. We don't demonize every stock broker because of Bernie Madoff.

There are many, many great teachers in union schools doing a great job. I met several this week at the White House.

Many of them put in more hours than is required because they care about kids and they care about the work.

That doesn't mean some teachers shouldn't find new careers or that some union contracts shouldn't be rewritten. It doesn't mean some locals aren't opposed to reform.

But we owe it to the millions of dedicated men and women who teach our children—to sit down with them and be respectful even as we challenge them to change.

Union leaders say they are open to reform if it is done "with" them—not "to" them. The President and I have taken them at their word.

We have pushed them on performance pay, higher pay for hard-to-staff schools and subjects, and teacher evaluation systems linked to student performance.

We're asking them to think differently about low performing schools—different rules, different schedules, different compensation systems, and different approaches.

And they are starting to do this.

We're also challenging districts and school boards to hold principals accountable for school culture.

Chaos outside the classroom breeds chaos in the classroom. Lack of cooperation among faculty is a failure of leadership.

There are no good schools without good principals and when schools have not made needed improvements after meaningful support, the adults need to leave.

Kids only have one chance for an education—and we need to have the courage to stand up for them when the system doesn't work. Sometimes you just need to start over.

We're challenging parents to take more responsibility for the education of their children.

We understand that we can't easily fill a home with books or change the behavior of parents overwhelmed by burdens or demons.

Nevertheless, the President has spoken forcefully on the issue—calling for parents to turn off the television, help with homework, and get involved with school.

We're also challenging states and lawmakers by exposing the standards gap among states and pushing them to add rigor to their curriculum.

When states lower standards and graduate kids who are not ready for college or career, they are lying to students and parents. We have a responsibility to expose it.

We need to be more candid about teacher evaluation. The State of Wisconsin explicitly prohibits linking teacher evaluation and student performance. New York State passed a similar law related to teacher tenure and the State of California also decouples student data and teacher evaluation.

I have an open mind about teacher evaluation, but we need to find a way to measure classroom success and teacher effectiveness. Pretending that student outcomes are not part of the equation is like pretending that professional basketball has nothing to do with the score.

Despite these widely divergent views, I am very hopeful—but we don't have a minute to waste.

If there is one word that captures my state of mind these days—it is "urgency." There is so much at stake—so much at risk—and so much to be done.

America's future is sitting in classrooms today—some of which are clean, modern, well-equipped and well-led while others are outmoded, overcrowded and poorly staffed.

That's a fundamental inequality in direct conflict with our founding beliefs. If we have even a shred of justice in our hearts—we should change those conditions right away.

We can do it with carrots—like the Race to the Top and Innovation Funds—offering five billion dollars to states that push reform. We can do it with programs that reward educators who take on tough challenges and succeed.

And we can do it with sticks—denying funding to those unwilling to change and improve—and moving out principals and teachers who lack the right qualities of a great educator.

Above all, however, we must do it with the truth—the biggest stick of all. You hold the stick. Please use it wisely. Put it at the service of children. Use it to push change and to bring difficult issues into the public discourse.

Use the stick to shed light on our fears. For too long we were afraid to talk about racial achievement gaps and teacher quality.

We were afraid to talk about under-funding and inequity. We were afraid to talk about low standards or parental responsibility.

Thanks in part to all of you—we're no longer afraid to talk about these things. You pushed the conversation and we're in a better place today because of it.

Today, we're also more willing to challenge each other—teachers, principals, reformers, unions, lawmakers, administrators, parents and even students—as the President did when he said that dropping out is not just quitting on yourself but quitting on your country.

And I welcome your challenge as well. I will work hard to meet the same standards of honesty and integrity I ask of you. I am confident that if I fall short you will hold me accountable.

(And sometimes you might even be right.)

Those of you who have spent your professional life writing about this issue know that this is an absolutely historic moment. This opportunity won't come again.

So as we look ahead, let's build on what we know to be true as we pursue a common strategy to improve American education.

We know some students start school behind others and that some of them need special help to catch up. We know that many of these students would benefit from a longer school day.

We know that safe environments with caring teachers and good facilities support learning. We know that children learn more when the curriculum is challenging.

We know that students are challenged by honest feedback that takes them seriously.

We know that test scores don't tell you everything about students or teachers—but they do tell you something—and until we come up with better measures ways to measure achievement—we must use what we have.

We also know that we have the world's strongest economy—but as the long-term NAEP trends show—we have stagnated educationally as the world has progressed—and we know that the achievement gap remains stubbornly wide.

We know that if we want to be economically stronger we must be educationally smarter.

You hold the megaphone. What we say is filtered through your lens. We don't ask you to go easy on us—we seek your advice and criticism.

We're serious about transparency and we welcome you on this journey of change and progress.

I know that change is hard. There will be setbacks. There will be resistance.

But, if I can stop using my three favorite words—if only for one speech—then anything is possible.

Thank you.