States Will Lead the Way Toward Reform

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I am continually struck by the profound wisdomunderlying the American political experiment. Thegenius of our system is that much of the power toshape our future has, wisely, been distributed to thestates instead of being confined to Washington.

Our best ideas have always come from state andlocal governments, which are the real hothouses ofinnovation in America.

On so many issues—energy efficiency, mass transit,public safety, housing and economic development–it'sthe states that are often leading the way, sometimeswith federal help and sometimes without.

Nowhere is this truer than in the field of education,where dedicated practitioners in schools and districtsand states are constantly finding new and better waysto educate our children and prepare them for theworld.

When I was running Chicago's schools I knew thatthe federal government's role was to support ourwork—not to direct it or micro–emanage it but toencourage, reward, and support the innovation andprogress that were being made at the state and locallevels.

Now that I am in Washington, it's even clearer to methat education reform starts locally—in classrooms,schools, districts, and states—and my job is to helpyou succeed.

The call for higher standards is a perfect example.

It started with governors like Jim Hunt and RoyRomer, who are both here tonight, as well as RichardRiley and Lamar Alexander, both of whom have beenvery helpful to me in these first few months.

So I am thrilled to be among the true educationreformers who understand the stakes, want tosee change, and are determined to lift Americaneducation to a new level.

I'd like to start by saluting Jim Hunt and Roy Romerfor their vision and courage on the issue of educationreform. They challenged all of us to make educationmore than a political talking point or an empty slogan.

Governor Hunt called for common national standardswhen it wasn't politically popular. His institute hasdone important work with the National ResearchCouncil that shows that there is the political will toaccomplish this task today.

Likewise, Roy Romer led the call for higher standardsas a governor and as a superintendent. Throughoutthe 2008 election, he kept this issue in the nationaldialogue, and we wouldn't have 46 states and threeterritories agreeing to adopt high common standardsif it weren't for his hard work.

Again I want to thank you both for showingleadership on an issue that is critically important toour future.

Let me start by talking about the unique, historic, andpowerful opportunity we have to transform publiceducation.

We have a perfect storm for reform. We have:

  • The Obama effect;
  • Leadership on the Hill and in the unions;
  • Proven strategies for success; and
  • The Recovery Act providing $100 billion.

Let me give you an update on state fiscal stabilization:

  • As of last week, 31 states had received $24 billion instabilization funds and $11 billion more in Title Iand IDEA funds.
  • Several more states have their applications in andare close to being approved.
  • We are urging governors to get their applications inby July 1.
  • We promise to turn around applications quickly.This is currently taking about 10 calendar days.

We are working as fast as we can because weunderstand that states are hurting in the currenteconomy. We know that you are struggling to balancebudgets, and we appreciate that you are working hardto protect schoolchildren.

I also appreciate that the primary focus of theRecovery Act is to save and create jobs, and we'redeeply grateful that states across America are helpingsave hundreds of thousands of teaching and othereducation–related jobs.

But if all we do is save jobs, we will miss thisopportunity, which is why we are also using thisrecovery money to drive reform in four core areas. I'dlike to talk about them.

It starts with robust data systems that track studentachievement and teacher effectiveness, which Idiscussed in a speech to academic researchers lastweek.

We need to do a much better job of tracking studentsfrom pre–K through college. Teachers need this datato better target instruction to students. Principalsneed to know which teachers are producing thebiggest gains and which may need more help.

We also need to track teachers back to their collegesof education so we can challenge teacher trainingprograms to raise the bar.

This is where reform will play out. It willfilter up from classrooms and schools,districts and localities, but then itwill arrive on your desks. And when itdoes, I urge you to remember that thetruest measure of a society's worth iswhether it offers all of our children theopportunity to go where they want to go,do what they want to do, and fulfill theirdreams.This is the promise of education.This is the American promise.

There's a lot of money available in the Recovery Actto help improve our data systems and I want to workwith you to put the very best technology at the serviceof educators.

The second area of reform is teacher and principalquality, which I will discuss in a speech to the NEA(National Education Association) in July, but let metouch on it briefly.

Nothing is more important than getting greatteachers into our classrooms and great principals intoour schools. And there are millions of hard–working,dedicated teachers in schools all across America.

But there are many schools where the teachingstaff has declined either because of poor leadershipor simply professional burnout. And there are alsosome new teachers who simply don't belong in theclassroom. That's not unique to teaching. It's true inevery field.

But we can't allow that to continue, and we need towork with our education leadership to address this.We need to look much harder at recruiting, training,and supporting our teachers and principals.

We also have to fix our method of evaluating teachers,which is basically broken.

A recent report by the New Teacher Project showsthat 99 percent of teachers are all rated the same, andmost teacher rating systems don't factor in studentachievement.

Some states actually have laws creating a firewallbetween teacher evaluation and student achievement.This isn't fair to kids or to teachers. Worse yet, it's nothonest.

How can you possibly talk about teacher qualitywithout factoring in student achievement?

We also need to have an open mind on issueslike alternative certification and incentive andperformance pay.

I understand that teachers are concerned about thefairness of performance pay. I share those concerns,but I am confident that if we sit down with theunions—instead of forcing it on them—we can findways to reward excellence in the classroom.

The third area of reform is turning around our lowestperformingschools, which I will discuss at greaterlength in a speech to charter advocates next week.

Last year, there were about 5,000 schools in“restructuring” under NCLB (the No Child Left BehindAct). These schools have failed to make adequateyearly progress for at least five years in a row.

The children in these schools can't wait forincremental reform. They need radical change rightnow–new leadership, new staff, and a whole neweducational approach.

We need to build more capacity to turn around these5,000 schools. Everyone needs to get in the game:charters, unions, districts, states, nonprofits.

This is very hard work and very few people do it, butwe have a moral obligation to save those kids.

States and districts need to step up and have thepolitical courage to close failing schools and letothers try. We have $3.5 billion in Title I schoolimprovement funds to support this work and another$1.5 billion in the 2010 budget.

We need leaders with the courage to do the rightthing and we need educators with the energy anddetermination to take on the toughest challenges inpublic education.

That's why our administration is pushing so hard tolift charter caps. We want new educational options forthose communities. We want innovation to flourish,and where charters are doing well there should not bebarriers to growth.

Where they are not doing well, however, they shouldbe held accountable. Many of you have great charterschools in your states. I have visited some of them.

But many of you have charter schools in your statesthat, frankly, are not getting the job done. If they arefailing, they should close and the children should haveanother option.

I opened more than 70 charter schools in Chicago.I closed down three for academic failure andmismanagement. Every state needs to look hard at thequality of their charter schools.

I also think that we need to break through thedynamic that positions charters against unions.

Albert Shanker, the legendary union leader, wasan early advocate of charters. The AFT (AmericanFederation of Teachers) represents something like70 charters and the NEA (National EducationAssociation) represents another 40.

So we should stop fighting over charter caps and unitebehind charter accountability.

The fourth and final area of reform called for inthe Recovery Act is around higher standards andassessments.

We think that every state should set internationallybenchmarked standards and assessments that preparestudents for success in the workforce and college.

World-class standards are the foundation on whichyou will build your reforms.

Some state leaders have been telling us that fordecades. I mentioned governors Hunt and Romerearlier. There have been many others.

Governor Barnes of Georgia and Governor TommyThompson of Wisconsin led a bipartisan commissionon changing NCLB. Fixing our patchwork of 50 [setsof] state standards was a key part of their proposal.

Many other governors have been actively involvedwith Achieve over the years.

I want to thank Governor Pawlenty (Minn.) fortaking a leadership role at Achieve right now, and alsothank governors Granholm (Mich.), Carcieri (R.I.),Rendell (Pa.), Bredesen (Tenn.), Heineman (Neb.),and Patrick (Mass.).

Gene Wilhoit has made national standards his toppriority as the executive director of the Councilof Chief State School Officers. Thanks to hisorganization and the NGA (National GovernorsAssociation). Your hard work and leadership arepaying off.

As I said before, 46 states and three territories havenow committed to creating common internationallybenchmarked college–and career–ready standards.And you deserve a big, big hand for that.

Creating common standards hasn't always beenpopular. Right now, though, there's a growingconsensus that this is the right thing to do.

The list of supporters for this effort is long: TheNational Education Association, the AmericanFederation of Teachers, the Council of the Great CitySchools, and business leaders. From what I've heardon our listening tour, teachers in the classroom aresupporting you as well.

Just last month, the U.S. Department of Educationstarted asking for comments on policy issues throughthe Web site. Our first question was about raisingstandards.

The first response came from a woman namedMichelle Wilson, who identified herself as a librarymedia specialist.

She wrote: “I believe one of our country's weakestpoints in education is that the level of standardsdiffers for every state.”

Education is a state and local issue. Youpay 90 percent of the tab, and our job isto support leaders like you.

Another woman wrote, “If all states followed the samestandards then there would be less inequity for ourstudents.”

I agree with them both. With higher standards thatare common across states we can share best practicesand collaborate on curricula.

We can learn together about how to improveteacher preparation and development so that farmore teachers can help students master challengingstandards.

This can accelerate all of your reform work.

It is especially important that this has started at thestate level because some people will raise concernsthat common standards across states will lead tofederal over–reaching.

I am very sensitive to that issue. As I said before, I wasa local educator before I came to Washington.

Education is a state and local issue. You pay 90percent of the tab, and our job is to support leaderslike you.

So let's be clear: this effort is being led by governorsand chief state schools officers. This is your work andthis is your agenda.

Federal law does not mandate national standards. Itempowers states to decide what kids need to learn andhow to measure it.

But common sense also tells you that kids in big citieslike Newark and San Francisco, or small towns likeTarboro, North Carolina, are no different from eachother.

Standards shouldn't change once you cross theMississippi River or the Rocky Mountains. Kidscompeting for the same jobs should meet the samestandards.

So while this effort is being led at the state level, as itshould be, it is absolutely a national challenge, whichwe must meet together or we will compromise ourfuture.

The president called on us to produce more collegegraduates than any other country in the world. Wecannot reach that goal without your leadership andthe commitment of educators all across America.

You've taken the first step. Your stated goals are“higher, clearer, and fewer” standards, and I absolutelysupport your goals. The standards must be tied tothe end point of making sure students are ready tosucceed in college or in the workplace.

For too long, we've been lying to kids. We tell themthey're doing fine, give them good grades, and tellthem they're proficient on state tests that aren'tchallenging.

Then they get to college and they're put into remedialclasses. Or they go into the workforce and find outthat they don't have the skills they need to succeed.

We need standards that will get them ready for theday after they graduate. That means they must berigorous.

Today, our standards are too low and the results oninternational tests show it. Worse yet, we see thesignals in the international economy as more andmore engineers, doctors, and science and math Ph.D.scome from abroad.

You must resist the temptation to make thesestandards too easy. Our children deserve to graduatefrom high school prepared for college and the jobs ofthe future.

Your standards must be rigorous and they also must betightly focused on the most important things studentsneed to know.

Right now, standards are too broad, covering 35 to 40topics per subject in each grade as opposed to 15 or 20standards in many high–performing countries.

Teachers scramble to cover everything—a little ofthis, a little of that, and not enough of what's reallyimportant.

They can't dig deeper on a challenging subject thatexcites their students. And students can't mastermaterial when they are racing through it.

We must limit standards to the essential knowledgeand skills our kids need so teachers can focus in depthon the most important things their kids should know.

And once these standards have been created—andreviewed by professionals in every state—I encourageyou to adopt them.

That's when everyone will know that you are serious.That's when your leadership will be tested becausepeople will push back.

The fact is higher standards will make some of yourstates look bad in the short term because fewerstudents will be meeting them.

So I will work with you to ensure that your states willnot be penalized for doing the right thing.

And in reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, theadministration will work with you and with Congressto change the law so that it rewards states for raisingstandards instead of encouraging states to lower them.

I always give NCLBcredit for exposing theachievement gap, but the central flaw in the law is thatit was too loose about the goals and too tight abouthow to get there.

As states come together around higher commonstandards, I want to flip it and be tighter about thegoals but more flexible in how you can meet them.

I trust states and districts to find the way, and I don'ttrust Washington to tell you how to do it. You havethe ideas, the leadership, and the ability. I'm here tosupport you.

And then our next step is to work together to find abetter way to measure success, and that brings me tothe real point of this speech, which is the assessments.

Once new standards are set and adopted you need tocreate new tests that measure whether students aremeeting those standards. Tonight I am announcingthat the Obama administration will help pay for thecosts of developing those tests.

As you know, we have $5 billion in competitive grantfunding under the Recovery Act to help advance thesefour reforms.

Congress carved out $650 million for the Investin What Works and Innovation fund, which is fordistricts and nonprofits that are pushing reform.

The administration will dedicate up to $350 million ofthe remaining funds to help develop new assessments.

We haven't worked out all the details yet, but, inthe coming months, we will develop an applicationprocess that supports this effort.

We need tests that measure whether students aremastering complex materials and can apply theirknowledge in ways that show that they are ready forcollege and careers.

We need tests that go beyond multiple choice, andwe know that these kinds of tests are expensive todevelop. It will cost way too much if each state isdoing this on its own.

Collaboration makes it possible for this to happenquickly and affordably.

Now, again, some people may claim that a commonlycreated test is a threat to state control, but let'sremember who is in charge. You are. You will createthese tests. You will drive the process. You will call theshots.

We just want tests that are aligned with your rigorousstandards and accurately reflect what is happening inclassrooms so that teachers, parents, and students cantrust the results.

And we also encourage you to work together todevelop benchmarked tests so that teachers canunderstand how their students are doing during theschool year and can target instruction accordingly.

Once new standards are set andadopted you need to create new teststhat measure whether students aremeeting those standards. TonightI am announcing that the Obamaadministration will help pay for the costsof developing those tests.

This is a growth area for the testing industry, whichmay worry some that assessments used across multiplestates will be bad for business even if it's the rightthing for kids.

However, it's not my job to worry about their business.My job is to worry about kids, and I know that ourkids not only need to be challenged but they want tobe challenged.

Everywhere I go—a Montana Indian reservation, ahigh school in Detroit, or a middle school in WestVirginia—the kids are telling us, “Challenge me, pushme, make me work and I will do it.”

And that means that higher standards will requiremore rigorous teaching and curricula, and that's whythe other three reforms are so important to our overallstrategy.

But it all starts with you: Raising the bar, raisingexpectations, and raising our sights.

Before I finish, I want to talk about the Race to theTop fund. I explained that the Recovery Act provides$5 billion in discretionary funding.

After the set–asides for the Invest in What Worksand Innovation fund and the money for the newassessments, we will have $4 billion for states to driveeducation reform.

This is your opportunity to be bold and creative, tothink big and push hard on the kind of reforms thatwe know will create fundamental change.

But this money will go only to states that areabsolutely pushing reform in real and measurableways—states where great educators are turning aroundour worst schools, meeting the highest standards, andproducing career– and college–ready graduates.

We will ask tough questions around these four reformareas. We will ask you to show us how you will builda coherent strategy around these four reforms toproduce a world–class education system—not just forsome kids but for all kids.

States can also collaborate with each other or apply ontheir own.

In addition to evaluating your Race to the Topproposals, we will consider how your other RecoveryAct dollars are being invested because that's also anopportunity to drive reform.

The draft application will go public in late July and befinal by early fall. We will award grants in two rounds,the first one early next year and the second one inSeptember 2010.

States that lose the first time have a chance to winin the second round. But we must see real andmeaningful change. You must eliminate barriers toinnovation and create the best possible conditions forsuccess.

We have invited education stakeholders across thespectrum to get involved and we encourage youto work with your districts, with educators, withnonprofits, and with labor unions, to put together thevery best applications possible.

We have talked to leading foundations and they areeager to support your work, so I urge you to reach outto them and draw on their expertise and resources.

There has never been this much money on the tableand there may never be again. And there has neverbeen a greater need.

With 30 percent of our kids dropping out of highschool and millions of those in college strugglingto achieve, we are falling dangerously behind othercountries.

Improving education is not just a moral obligation ofsociety. It's not just an economic imperative. It's thecivil rights issue of our generation—the only sure pathout of poverty and the only way to achieve the visionof equality spelled out by our founders.

As we look to the years ahead, we will continue tolook to the governors and state education chiefs forleadership and innovation.

We will continue to find more ways to support yourwork on behalf of children. We will continue to doeverything in our power to fulfill your collectivevision of great schools producing great citizens, greatthinkers, and great doers.

Today, perhaps for the first time, we have enoughmoney to really make a difference. We have provenstrategies for success in schools all across America.

The only question is whether we have the politicalcourage, the will to make the tough choices that areright for kids.

At the end of the day, this comes down to leadership,partly in Washington but mostly in state capitals allacross America.

This is where reform will play out. It will filter upfrom classrooms and schools, districts and localities,but then it will arrive on your desks.

And when it does, I urge you to remember that thetruest measure of a society's worth is whether it offersall of our children the opportunity to go where theywant to go, do what they want to do, and fulfill theirdreams.

This is the promise of education.

This is my promise. This is your promise. This is theAmerican promise.

Thank you.

U.S. Department of Education
Arne Duncan