Reform, Accountability, and Leading from the Local Level: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to the National League of Cities' Congressional City Conference

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Secretary LaHood is a tough act to follow. But I am delighted to be here today to talk about a cause that is urgent and personal—not just for me but for all of us gathered here today. As President Obama has said, there are "any number of actions we can take as a nation to enhance our competitiveness and secure a better future for our people. But few of them will make as much of a difference as improving the way we educate our sons and daughters."

We are meeting here at a time of great excitement and opportunity—and yet at a moment fraught with consequence. Yesterday the department announced our blueprint for re-authorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It is a far-ranging plan to help America's children, and one I'm pleased to say that is already drawing bipartisan support.

An opportunity like this—the chance to make fundamental changes to boost student achievement and truly get students college- and career-ready—may not come along again in our lifetime.

What you do in your communities over the next several years could have an impact on education for decades to come.

We are also fortunate to have unprecedented resources at the federal level to support and provide incentives to bolster successful reforms at the community level.

Last year, the Recovery Act enabled us to avoid an education catastrophe in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. States have reported that the Recovery Act saved over 300,000 education jobs last year. And at a time when overall domestic discretionary spending is frozen, the president has proposed a three billion dollar increase for ESEA programs this year, the biggest proposed increase in history. He has requested an extra billion dollars if ESEA reauthorization passes this year.

So, yes, help is on the way to states and districts. But I know it is not going to make the grave fiscal challenges you face disappear. The municipal budget crunch is brutally tough out there, and I appreciate that many cities are facing painful choices about layoffs and cutting services.

It is at times like this, when I remember a point that Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, famously made: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

In obstacles also lie opportunities. Now is the moment to rethink policies that are not serving the best interests of students, parents, and teachers.

That is exactly what we are trying to do in our blueprint to rethink and fix ESEA, which many of you know as the No Child Left Behind Act.

We have three guiding principles for America's schools in a reauthorized law—we want all children to be working toward a high standard of college- and career readiness, we want to reward excellence, and we want to create a smarter but less prescriptive federal role.

Let me start with the importance of establishing high academic standards. The President and I believe we should be tight on standards—we should set a high bar—but be loose about how to get there. All children need to aim to reach high standards and be career or college-ready, without the need for remediation.

We simply have to stop dummying-down standards due to political pressures. We have to stop lying to children and families by giving them a low bar and telling them that they will be okay, when we know they are not adequately prepared to go on to college or a job.

Few experts would have predicted it a year ago, but, as we speak, 48 governors and 48 state school chiefs are working together to set high standards—not because of a federal mandate but because of a shared belief that high expectations lead to better prepared students. Both of the major unions, the business community, and national non-profits are rallying behind this groundbreaking, state-led effort.

Our second guiding principle is that we want to reward excellence. Under NCLB, it seemed like there were 50 ways to fail, but no rewards for success. That has to change.

We want to encourage state and local educators to replicate success, and we want to challenge them to improve and hold themselves accountable. For our children to successfully compete in the global economy, and for communities to thrive economically, we are going to have to fund what works, rethink the status quo, and move outside our comfort zones. In the long run, there is no choice but to educate our way to a better economy.

Finally, we want to redefine the federal role so local educators have maximum flexibility where it makes the most sense, and parents and taxpayers have maximum accountability where it is most needed.

The federal government needs to strike the right balance between flexibility and accountability—offering support, not prescriptions.

To take one example, chronically under-performing schools, in the bottom five percent of all schools, have been ignored and allowed to stagnate for too long. Enough is enough. If you have 20 high schools in your community, think about the one school at the very bottom, and what has to happen to give those children a better chance at life.

We are going to ask for rigorous change in persistently under-performing schools, and the federal government is going to provide generous incentives to implement those changes. Through the Recovery Act, we have provided just over four billion dollars to support school turnarounds, and we have asked for another $900 million in this year's budget.

In the vast majority of our nation's schools—the majority of schools in the middle of the performance spectrum—we want local districts to have much more flexibility than under NCLB to improve educational outcomes.

The top performing schools, including schools where students demonstrate the most rapid levels of growth, have also been largely ignored. We must start to focus on growth and gain—improvement is what matters most. These high-performing schools would receive incentives, additional flexibility, and help lead the way to showing how to accelerate learning and replicate excellence.

One of the keys to reform and reauthorization has to be getting accountability right. As Al Shanker, the legendary leader of the American Federation of Teachers said many years ago, "unless you start with a very heavy emphasis on accountability—not end with it—you'll never get a system with all the other pieces falling into place."

I will always give credit to NCLB for exposing achievement gaps and advancing standards-based reform. But there were many perverse incentives, and we must get rid of those.

NCLB allows, and inadvertently even encourages states to lower their academic standards. In too many classrooms, it encourages teachers to narrow the curriculum. It relies too much on bubble tests in a couple of subjects.

It mislabels schools—even when they are showing meaningful progress on important measures. NCLB required educators to intervene in schools in a prescribed way, and the accountability system did not measure student growth. It didn't differentiate between a largely successful school struggling to help a handful of students and a school that was in educational meltdown. None of this is good for students, good for teachers, or good for our country.

Building on the lessons of NCLB, our reauthorization proposal would improve accountability in our schools and drive a new generation of reforms on behalf of American schoolchildren and teachers.

Our proposal to reorient accountability would establish an ambitious but achievable goal of having all students aspire to graduate ready to succeed in college and careers.

As all of you know, President Obama has set a national goal that, by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest college completion rate in the world. That goal is widely shared by both Democrats and Republicans.

In coming weeks, we hope to see the final passage of the higher ed student loan bill, which will dramatically increase college access by freeing up tens of billions of dollars to expand financial aid and Pell Grants that now go toward subsidizing banks.

Under our new ESEA proposal, parents, teachers, and school leaders would be able to gauge whether states are setting their standards too low by examining the success that students have in college and the workplace. And parents and teachers will also be able to figure out whether students are on track to college—or if that sixth grader or ninth grader needs to work harder and do better to have a chance to enroll in college after graduating, without having to take remedial classes.

Our reauthorization of ESEA also, for the first time, emphasizes measuring student growth, not just absolute test scores. An effective accountability system tracks both performance and progress—it measures what schools contribute to students, even more than the skills that students bring to schools. We will reward schools that show the most growth in student achievement. Every child can improve—and poverty is not destiny. We have hundreds of high-performing schools in tough communities around the country.

We have learned, too, that a good accountability system measures more than test scores, which are more like leading indicators than the ultimate yardstick of success. To meet the President's goal of having the highest college graduation rate in the world in 2020, we are going to have to dramatically increase graduation and college enrollment rates, not just increase test scores. Nearly eight out of ten future job openings in the next decade will require some post-secondary education—either college or job training.

We have learned as well that students will not be ready to compete in today's information age if they fail to get a well-rounded education. Students need content knowledge in history, the arts, science, and foreign languages, as well as reading, writing, and math.

Our proposal allows states to include subjects other than math and English language arts in their accountability systems because we want to discourage the practice of teaching to the test. And that is why we are also supporting a new generation of more comprehensive assessments in math and English that measure a breadth of knowledge and move beyond simple bubble tests.

It is no secret that to make this ambitious vision a reality, we have got to prepare, recruit, and retain great principals and teachers. Great teachers and a strong teaching profession are at the heart of educational improvement.

I've often said that in education, talent matters tremendously. Every day, millions of teachers go into classrooms with the knowledge, creativity, and dedication to help their students discover a passion for learning, boost achievement, and raise the aspirations of their students. Great teachers are my heroes—and President Obama feels the same way.

All of you have likely witnessed firsthand how a great principal or teacher can transform a school and its students. But to support great schools and great teachers, we also need to give them the tools they need to succeed and to focus on results.

Our ESEA proposal provides absolutely unprecedented support—3.9 billion dollars in all—for teachers and school leaders. Teachers deserve the kind of workplace environment, professional development, and opportunity to collaborate that is available to other professionals, and our blueprint supports all of those activities to elevate the teaching profession. We are also proposing to monitor school climate, using teachers' opinions of working conditions to help drive improvements in schools.

As we support and train teachers like professionals, we must also evaluate, advance, and compensate them like professionals, not as interchangeable widgets. To undo the widget model of the teaching profession, we need better data to inform classroom instruction and multiple measures to judge the effectiveness of different teachers. It is time to stop treating teachers as if they were an undifferentiated mass of workers on an assembly line—and time to start treating them as highly-skilled professionals.

In the knowledge economy, we have to be able to answer questions like, how much are students improving each year? Which teachers, schools, and school districts, and states are doing the most to both close the achievement gap and raise the bar for all students? Which teacher and principal preparation programs are turning out graduates with the biggest impact on student achievement?

You might ask: What would the role of cities be under a new Elementary and Secondary Education law? I have often said that the best educational ideas and solutions come from the local and state level, not the federal level—and our proposal reinforces that vision.

Our $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, or i3 as we call it, recognizes that districts must take the lead in developing breakthrough approaches to education reform. Individual school districts or groups of districts can apply for i3 grants, and nonprofits can join with school districts or a consortium of schools to submit applications. The fact is that we have to move beyond just identifying islands of excellence and pockets of promise, and give those programs the resources to grow and expand to scale.

While innovation comes from the local level, the federal role in education has been largely limited to supporting historically underserved students, such as low-income minority students, students with disabilities, homeless students, and English language learners.

That is one reason why we will provide more flexibility to most schools but insist that districts implement meaningful change in persistently low-performing schools where disadvantaged students stagnate or fall further behind their peers every year.

We are providing more than four billion dollars to turn around the lowest five percent of schools over the next several years. But these schools will need more than just resources.

The fact is that it takes more than a school to educate a student. It takes a city. It takes a community that can provide support from the parks department, health services, law enforcement, social services, after-school programs, nonprofits, businesses, and churches. We can only turn around the worst performing schools with an all-hands-on-deck approach in the local community.

I'd like to see public schools open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, year-round, offering not just mentoring and tutoring programs but art, chess, family literacy nights, debate teams, and GED and ESL programs for parents.

It doesn't have to be that expensive to keep schools open longer. In every school you have classrooms, computer labs, libraries, and gyms. Rent the school out for free from 3:00 to 9:00 PM to great non-profit partners like the YMCA's, the Boys and Girls Club, college-readiness programs, and other enrichment activities. It is a tremendous waste of resources that schools aren't doing more to serve as one-stop community centers.

I'm not just talking here about a flurry of activity at the local level and a parade of good intentions. If communities are not data-driven and results oriented, if programs are not scalable and sustainable, local efforts at reform are ultimately going to fall short.

Geoffrey Canada uses data in the renowned Harlem Children's Zone to manage outcomes for his community-based prevention programs and to improve instruction in the classroom. But other, less well-known programs are also making smart use of data to drive reform, like the Every 1 Reads partnership in Louisville, Kentucky.

Every 1 Reads maximizes the afterschool hours, with the goal of having every public school student read at or above grade level. It set up a data system that allows students to use bar-coded cards to record their afterschool participation, at the same time that the cards serve as library cards and bus passes.

The cards also allow providers to assess the impact of their programs on student achievement, truancy rates, and suspensions, and helps identify students who are struggling in school. Since 2003, the Every 1 Reads partnership has cut the overall proportion of novice readers in half in Louisville—a difference of nearly 10,000 students. And the proportion of students writing below grade level fell by nearly two-thirds.

Now, if it is true that it takes a city to educate a student, it is also the case that when schools don't work, cities don't work. Schools play a central role in the social, cultural, and economic vitality of urban communities.

The reputation of a city's schools is either a deterrent or a drawing card for business, workers, and families. Ernest Boyer, the former head of the Carnegie Foundation, had it right when he said that it is "impossible to have an island of educational excellence in a sea of community indifference."

Our $200 million Promise Neighborhoods program is premised on the notion that cities must be strong partners to ensure there is a high-performing school in every community.

As many of you know, the Promise Neighborhoods program is broadly modeled after the approach of the Harlem Children's Zone, which creates a cradle-to-career educational pipeline and high-quality wraparound services to support disadvantaged students.

But do not forget that excellent schools are central to the success of the Harlem Children's Zone—and our program anticipates that a great school will be at the heart of every Promise Neighborhood.

Different communities will take different approaches to Promise Neighborhoods. I spoke earlier about the importance of a well-rounded education, and opportunities to access the arts should be a part of a complete education for all students, especially in Promise Neighborhoods.

Research shows that intensive involvement in the arts during middle school and high school is associated with higher level of achievement and college attainment. But in addition, neighborhood-based arts and cultural activities have the potential to build stronger communities and stronger cities. I repeat: It takes a community to educate a student. There are no great cities without great school systems.

Let me close with a story from Chicago. In 1966, Martin Luther King went to the West side of the city.

His visit, and the protests he launched, helped to push the government to channel billions of dollars into communities for everything from job training, to housing, to drug rehab and health care.

But when I became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools 35 years later, 95 percent of children in North Lawndale schools lived below the poverty line.

Why was that? Because the one thing that didn't change is the most important anti-poverty measure of all—and that is the quality of education that our children receive.

Martin Luther King is my hero—and no one did more to advance the cause of social justice. But as we continue King's battle to realize equal opportunity, let us add to that legacy by living up to our national creed. Let us finally make education the great equalizer in America. Together, let us seize this opportunity for the good of all of our children.