Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to the National Council of La Raza

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I realize that I am speaking at the end of a conference where you've already heard from a roster of impressive speakers. I am going to try to keep my comments brief. Adlai Stevenson once said that the best after-dinner speech he ever heard was: "Waiter, I'll take the check."

Well, I'm not going to be that brief. But it is a great pleasure to be here to speak to the National Council of La Raza, which is one of our national leaders in promoting the importance of education in the Hispanic community.

La Raza was one of the first progressive organizations to nurture and support a large network of charter schools.

You have also actively promoted early childhood education and preschool education for Hispanic children, who historically have been underrepresented in these vital programs.

Your CEO, Janet Murguia, has been a leader in working with other civil rights organizations to close the achievement gap as well.

President Obama and I believe that reducing dropout rates and boosting student achievement among Hispanic students is absolutely essential to the future of our economy and the future of our nation.

And it's especially critical that many more Hispanic students enroll and graduate from college. I want to call on you today to help work with us to strengthen the college-going culture in Hispanic communities across the U.S.

The statistics, the big picture is well known. For the last decade, Hispanic students have been the biggest minority group in our public schools.

As the superintendent of Chicago's public schools for seven years, I saw firsthand that the success of many of our reforms depended on our Hispanic students. Last year, just over 40 percent of students in the city's public schools were Hispanic.

Yet we all know that nationwide, almost half of Latino students drop out of high school—and those students will have to compete for jobs in a global economy.

It is no secret that education is more important today than ever to getting a good job.

By 2016—in just eight short years—four out of every 10 new jobs will require some advanced education or training. Thirty of the fastest growing fields in the economy today require a minimum of a bachelor's degree.

Now, the Hispanic work ethic is legendary. But I want Latinos to not only be known as the backbone of the economy but its brains as well. And that is going to require many more Hispanics students to enroll in and complete college.

I don't know if there has ever been an administration in Washington that is as personally committed to boosting educational attainment in the Hispanic community as the current administration.

A little more than a year ago, Barack Obama spoke to the National Council of La Raza convention in San Diego. And he said that the election was "about the Latino students who are dropping out of school faster than nearly anyone else, and the children who attend overflowing classes in underfunded schools."

When the President gave his speech laying out his education reform agenda this year he didn't do it at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He spoke before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The President has already appointed Juan Sepulveda as the director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. Juan is well-known to many of you. He has already started a series of town hall discussions around the country about increasing educational attainment among Latino students.

My Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs, Gabby Gomez, is well-versed in the problems that confront Hispanic students and districts that are majority Latino. And I'm pleased to tell you that just last Friday, Thelma Melendez, was confirmed as the Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education.

Thelma will be the first Hispanic to serve in that position in the department's history.

It is hard for me to think of someone more familiar with the needs of Hispanic students than Thelma. She was an ELL student herself growing up in California, where she had her high school counselor tell her that she would never get in to UCLA. Well, she did get into UCLA—and got a Ph. D in language and literacy. She went on to teach ELL and became the superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District—a district that is predominantly Hispanic and low-income.

Thelma knows that bilingualism can be a great asset for students and workers in a globally competitive market. But I'll tell you something you might not know. In the Chicago public schools, we had the largest Chinese language program in the country—and many of the students taking Chinese were Latino.

So I want you to know that this administration doesn't just hear the voice of Latino leaders. In fact, we are convinced that improving educational attainment among Hispanic students is critical to our nation's future.

That is one reason why I am convinced that we have a unique opportunity to reform our schools that we cannot afford to miss. I've called this the perfect storm for reform.

For the first time, we have governors stepping up around the country to agree to common, rigorous standards in math and English. They have said no more to lying to students—they have rejected the dumbed-down standards that led students to believe they were college-ready when they weren't.

For the first time, we have union leaders who are stepping outside their comfort zones to challenge the status quo, and we have congressional leaders committed to reform.

And for the first time the U.S. Department of Education has the resources to incentivize far-reaching reforms in our nation's schools. Last week, the President announced the draft guidelines to the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. That's a bigger pot of discretionary money for reform than all of my predecessors at the department had combined.

The Race to the Top is a competition, and only the states with the most effective and comprehensive reform plans will be funded.

We have four core reforms or assurances that we are seeking from states. We want states to work toward setting common, internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that really tell us whether students are college-ready.

We want states to develop data systems that allow them to do a better job of tracking growth in student learning and tailoring instruction to the needs of students.

It is no secret that talent matters tremendously. And to boost the quality of teachers and principals—especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects—states and districts should be able to identify their most effective and least effective teachers, and put the best teachers where they are needed most.

And finally, to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, replace school staff, and change the school culture. We cannot continue to tinker in high schools that are little more than "dropout factories" where students fall further behind, year after year.

All of these four reforms are essential if we are going to start to close the achievement gap and make the dream of equal educational opportunity a reality.

But we have one other unique force in our favor. I call it the "Barack Effect." The president—and the First Lady—have made education cool and hip again.

I hear kids say all the time they not only want to be the president, they want to be smart like the president.

I hope that in Latino communities, parents and kids are going to start talking soon about the "Sotomayor effect." Judge Sotomayor's story is impressive in so many ways. But I love what she has said about the power of education.

Judge Sotomayor's father was a factory worker with a third grade education. He died when Sonia was just nine years old—and Sonia's mother had to work six days a week to raise Sonia and her brother in a Bronx housing project on her nurse's salary.

But Sonia Sotomayor's mother told her two children that education was the key to success in America. Her children were the only kids in their housing project that had a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

At night, Sonia's mother sat at the kitchen table with her kids, studying side-by-side so she could become a registered nurse. And I think you know the rest of the story. Sonia Sotomayor was the valedictorian of her high school, top of her class at Princeton, and an editor at the Yale Law Journal. And I expect that she will soon become the first Hispanic member of the United States Supreme Court!

I think Judge Sotomayor put it best when she said that "my brother and I grew up in the projects. But through my mother's emphasis on education, we are living wonderful, full lives, liberated from the shackles of poverty."

I want every child to have the opportunity to fulfill their potential like Sonia Sotomayor and not be held back by the color of their skin or the burden of poverty.

The administration wants to turn those dreams into reality for many more students. And we're going to make an unprecedented effort to increase not only college enrollment but college completion.

President Obama's goal is for the U.S. to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And he wants every American to have at least one year of college or technical training.

The department's budget, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted earlier this year, provide the largest commitment to higher education funding since the GI Bill sent World War II veterans to college and built the American middle class.

The cash value of Pell Grant awards for low-income students will increase by about 10 percent. And we are boosting the number of students receiving Pell Grants from 6 million to 7 million students. All told, we are going to be increasing Pell Grant funding by almost $42 billion over the next five years.

I'm pleased to report that we have also simplified the form for federal financial aid and will soon make this new version available in Spanish.

I am a big supporter of the Dream Act because every child, regardless of their status, deserves an equal opportunity to a high-quality college education. President Obama worked to pass the Illinois state version of the Dream Act, and he worked hard with Senator Durbin to move the federal version of the bill through the Senate.

Still, all of these new resources will not be enough if parents and communities don't do a better job of encouraging and supporting kids to college graduation.

While our public schools have more Hispanic students than Black students, just the opposite is true in college. Hispanic students are less likely than black students to enroll in college or get a degree. In 2005, only 11 percent of undergraduate students were Hispanic.

I know that the low rate of college attendance and completion among Hispanic students has complicated roots. The Hispanic community has so many strengths to draw upon—a strong work ethic, and strong religious and family values.

But there are times when some of these very strengths do not help students climb the mountain to college. When young Latino males drop out of high school to take jobs to support their family, they are ultimately limiting their potential. When working parents keep their kids at home to do babysitting because they don't believe in organized day care, those students are losing out.

I believe we need to create a stronger culture of college-going in low-income Hispanic communities. We need more parents like Sonia Sotomayor's mother, who said you will study hard and you will succeed at college and you will graduate—even if I have to work six days a week to make it happen.

We need more parents who will tell their kids to not only turn off the X-box but to get out the Encyclopedia Britannica and hit the books.

So I want to challenge parents and communities to become more involved in cultivating that culture of college-going and celebrating the importance of academic achievement.

And as part of that mission I want to encourage you to develop a new generation of Hispanic teachers. Twenty percent of all public school students in the U.S. are Latino. But only 5 percent of their teachers are Latino.

In Chicago, the numbers are just as lopsided—41% of students are Latino but only 15% of teachers are Hispanic.

I know that change of the sort I'm asking for does not come easily. But it can be done. From 2004 to 2008, the college enrollment rate for Latino graduates of the Chicago Public Schools rose nine percentage points, much faster than the small uptick in college enrollment among Hispanics nationally.

So as you go back to your communities at the end of this conference, I thank you for your service and celebrate the extraordinary contributions of La Raza and the Hispanic community.

But I also want to challenge you to help us, to help take the next step of making college an expectation for our young Latino students, and not an exception available to the lucky minority.

We are moving toward realizing the dream of equal educational opportunity. It has taken us a long time to get there. But together, for the good of our children, let's seize this unique moment in the history of education reform.

Thank you for all you have done—and continue to do—to improve our nation's schools.