Stronger Together: The Need for Diversity in America’s Schools

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Good evening everybody. Let me first thank Laura and Nathan for their leadership and for their extraordinary vision and the role PTA should play in our national education conversation,

We gather in a city that has experienced extraordinary trauma in recent weeks. Before coming here tonight, I spent time at First United Methodist Church of Orlando with a group of LGBT young people and allies from the area talking about the impact of the events at the Pulse nightclub on them and their communities. We also talked about their experience in school. I have to say I was reminded in that conversation that the events at Pulse were a national reminder of the impact of hate in our communities. As the young people talked about their experiences of bullying and harassment in school, as they talked about their difficulties just to be themselves in school, I was deeply struck by the urgency of the work we need to do together to ensure that schools are safe and supportive environments for all kids.

I know this has already been very much a part of your conversation here at the conference; I want to thank folks in this room for your leadership, for saying our schools have to be safe and supportive places for every child. When the President was here talking about the events at Pulse he made the point that there is no "us and them," it's just us, the United States of America. And it is in that spirit we must move forward and take this event as a reminder of the urgency of our work as American citizens to knit our communities together, to embrace our communities and all of their diversity. Diversity of race, diversity of socioeconomic status, diversity of religions, diversity of languages in family structure, diversity in sexual orientation, and diversity of gender identity, we must embrace all of our diversity and embrace all of the diversity of our young people.

I appreciate that the PTA is very much a partner in that work and a leader in that work. I also appreciate the leadership of the PTA around the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, and ensuring that communities have a good understanding of what the law provides, especially of what it provides to broaden the definition of educational excellence and to develop better and smarter interventions in schools that are struggling.

I'm also grateful to the PTA for the difference you make in the lives of families every day. My wife and I are PTA members in the Montgomery County schools, and we love our schools and we love our PTA. We see the difference that it makes in our schools to have strong, engaged parent leaders who are not only part of the day-to-day life of the schools, but the decision making in our kids' schools.

I also appreciate the partnership of the PTA around the work to rethink and improve the role of assessment in schools. PTA has been a national leader in demanding that we continue to have good information for parents and teachers every year about student performance and at the same time, the right size of the role that assessments play in schools. You've been leaders in ensuring that we're thoughtful about how we focus kids' time and teachers' time on instruction and learning, and ensuring that we are having assessments that are smarter, better, and—indeed—fewer. And that we are thoughtful about where we have redundant assessments that we can eliminate or assessments that are of low quality that we can improve. So I appreciate the leadership around all of that, and I know that we want to continue to be partners in that. And I believe that ESSA creates opportunities for us to continue to work together to help states and districts to be thoughtful about this work. We've put out guidance's describing how states and districts can use federal resources to review the assessments that are given and decide which ones are important to continue and which ones can be eliminated, and which can be improved, and we want to continue that work together.

We're also committed to seizing the opportunity within ESSA to ensure a well-rounded education for our students. Music and art and world languages, physics, chemistry and biology, social studies, civics, geography and government, physical education and health, coding and computer science—these aren't luxuries that are just nice to have; they are what it means to be ready for today's world.

Today, I'm going to talk about one more essential element of the well-rounded education we want for all children, and that is diversity. Like math and reading, like science, social studies, and the arts, diversity is no longer a luxury; it's essential for helping our students get ready for the world they will encounter after high school and, increasingly, throughout their lives.

A couple of years ago, my predecessor, Arne Duncan, stood at this podium, your podium, and announced a turning point: it was the year that students of color became the majority in America's public schools. Crossing that threshold poses some profound questions about what kind of country we intend to be. Our public school system stands on a philosophical foundation advanced by Horace Mann in 1848: that all our children — regardless of their wealth or station—should go to school together at what he called a common school. The common school would serve, in his words, as "the great equalizer."

He saw the common school as a radically American response to, and I quote, "the European theory, [where] men are divided into classes—some to toil and earn, others to seize and enjoy." Mann's idea was that a shared learning experience would make society stronger and would fend off—and I quote again—the "fatal extremes of overgrown wealth and desperate poverty." It was a radical idea at the time. It seems increasingly radical today because we are still so far from realizing that vision.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education we can look across the country and see communities are more segregated by race—and by class—than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

We can see our society often divided into the haves and have-nots, inhabiting separate countries almost. The haves with more wealth than they can count and the have-nots struggling to just get by. We know that the number of kids that live in poverty has grown significantly and the number of kids living in communities concentrated in poverty is disturbingly large.

In our climate today it's easy to worry about if we've lost our way on the importance of diversity to the future of our country. We see folks responding to the challenges they face by turning on each other rather than lifting each other up. Throughout our history we've relied on the public schools to be the answer to that. We've relied on our public schools to be the place that we prepare students not only for academic success, but for citizenship, for participation in our rich civic life. Public schools have been the place where we prepare students not just to adapt to social and economic changes, but to lead the country toward a brighter future. I want to talk about the importance of school diversity to that vision of a common school to moving beyond the growing inequality we face.

Today we need to work together to promote all types of diversity, not just of race, but of national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and religion.

The decision in the Brown case made clear diverse schools benefit students of color and that segregation goes against our Constitution and values as Americans. And, today, we know that diversity—of all types—benefits all students.

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the use of an applicant's race by the University of Texas in making admissions decisions was justified by the benefits of diversity. The Court agreed with the university's goal of creating an academic environment that offers a "robust exchange of ideas, exposure to differing cultures, preparation for the challenges of an increasingly diverse workforce, and acquisition of competencies required of future leaders." Today, for many reasons, the "compelling interest" in diversity, as the court put it, is greater than ever.

Today, diversity is not a nicety but a necessity, not just for some students but for all students. The evidence that that is true is everywhere. The transformative power of diversity in education is enormous; it boosts empathy and reduces bias, and greatly increases the chances that low-income students will attend college without in any way compromising the academic outcomes of their middle class peers. It exposes students to perspectives and ideas that enlarge their world views.

Diversity also increases the likelihood students will succeed and become leaders in their careers and communities. Because success today requires mastering the art of working productively with folks whose experiences are different from your own. Because success today requires mastering the art of working productively with folks whose experiences are different from your own. The business world gets it.

One study showed that companies reporting the highest levels of racial diversity brought in nearly 15 times more sales revenue on average than those with the lowest levels of racial diversity. But it's not just racial diversity—it's cultural as well.

Our kids need to be ready for a flatter world with more fiber-optics and fewer fences. If your child wants to grow up to work at Google or Facebook, they better be able to relate to people around the world as well as know how to code.

But that's true of just about any company today. No amount of longing for a different time will change the fact that our world is becoming more interconnected—and that is a good thing. We are stronger together.

The task before all of us is not to hide from reality—again, a reality that can and will make us stronger—but to make sure America's students are the best-positioned in the world to thrive in it, to lead it.

And so, what I'm asking you today is to act not only in the interest of someone else's kids, but also to act boldly in the interest of your own.

I am asking us all to demand diversity. Not just in schools, but also in classrooms within those schools. It's not just enough for kids from diverse backgrounds to pass each other in the hallways or on the playground. True diversity requires students to actually learn alongside one another. That's not something that will happen by itself. That requires decisions by policymakers at every level—local, state and federal—and it requires an understanding of the intersection of issues of education and housing and transportation. In fact, Secretary Castro at Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Foxx at the Transportation Department and I wrote a joint letter to state and local leaders calling on them to think together about how education, housing, and transportation need to work together in support of strong, socioeconomically diverse communities and thereby expanded opportunity for all.

Our efforts to promote diversity must also extend beyond the students. We also need a more diverse teaching workforce. As we've talked about, a majority of the students in our public schools today are students of color, but only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color. Just 2 percent of our teachers, for example, are African-American men. Those numbers have barely budged in the last 15 years. We have strong evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers who are positive role models as well as the changes in classroom dynamics that result from having teachers of color.

But all children, all children, benefit if they learn from and are guided by a variety of adults with unique experiences and perspectives. We do our students a disservice if their first interaction with a teacher or a boss, who has a different background from them, is in college or on the job.

We have work to do to promote the kind of diversity that reflects our American values. When I was state commissioner in New York, I helped launch an effort to provide resources to support locally led voluntary efforts to increase school diversity. This year, the President proposed in his 2017 budget a program called Stronger Together that would invest $120 million in locally led, voluntary efforts to increase school diversity.

We wouldn't require any district to participate, but it would be an opportunity to expand and accelerate existing state and local efforts. I am pleased to announce that Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut and Congresswoman Fudge from Ohio will soon be introducing legislation based on the President's proposal. Their legislation will highlight both the importance of socioeconomic and racial diversity; and it deserves the support of their Congressional colleagues. These efforts harness momentum that is already growing from the ground up. It is not happening everywhere, but the Century Foundation did a report showing that in more than 90 communities all around the country there are already efforts to create greater diversity in schools through the creation of a variety of strategies. Some around regionalization. Some around zoning and attendance plans. Some around the creation of dual language schools that draw in native English speakers and native speakers of other languages. Some around the creation of arts magnets that draw students from different neighborhoods or across district lines. Montessori schools that are open to all and that draw from diverse communities. Career and technical education programs that are providing opportunities for students across districts.

Now, not everywhere has the reception been positive. I am sad to say that in my home city of New York City, there are clearly parents who are fighting tooth and nail to resist their children going to school with students from different backgrounds. Students who are less well-off. But there are hopeful signs. There's the work that is happening in Hartford, Connecticut, which has one of the most successful efforts to increase socioeconomic and racial diversity.

Parents there are choosing to send their kids across district lines—suburban communities into the city and urban communities into the suburbs — so that their children can take advantage of diverse educational opportunities. It took a long time for them to accomplish that. It took a lot of work to build the relationships across schools and communities, but it has momentum and that is momentum that we must seize. But it won't happen without an active force of parents encouraging, demanding, the kinds of diversity that genuinely benefit all of our kids.

So if your children or your students go through their school day without diversity as an essential part of their learning experience, ask, really ask, your school leaders why. Are there teachers of color in your school? More than a couple? If not, ask why not. Find out if there is an effort to increase the economic and racial diversity of your school system. If there is, find out if you can help. If there isn't, start it and lead it.

If your school is diverse, but your PTA doesn't reflect that diversity, take the time to get to know parents of different backgrounds and engage them in the PTA activities. [Applause] That's right. [Applause] Invite them to join you and harness their perspectives and learn from them and ensure that they feel a part of the school community and can contribute just as you do.

I know from personal experience the way diversity can shape lives. I grew up in Brooklyn in New York City. [Cheers] Some folks are here from Brooklyn, that's good.

My mother passed away when I was 8 in October of my fourth grade year. My dad when I was 12. I lived with my dad during that intervening period and he was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer's. Home was this place that was scary and unpredictable. But school, school was the place that sustained me. School was the place that was nurturing and supportive and engaging, and I was fortunate to attend a P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island, schools that were intentionally diverse. Schools where I had the benefit of outstanding teachers who saved my life and the opportunity to learn from and with classmates from diverse backgrounds.

As my wife and I have considered where to send our daughters, we wanted them to have the experience of diversity. It is one of the reasons we chose high-quality, diverse public schools in Montgomery County. Schools that are racially and socioeconomically diverse, but that diversity didn't happen by accident. It required careful, thoughtful decision making about housing policy, about education policy.

Now, as adults, we should listen to our children. As is often the case, they are wise beyond their years. So as I was preparing today, I asked one of my middle school daughter's friends what she thought about going to school with students from diverse backgrounds, different from hers. Well, she told me she liked learning about other cultures, and then she said, "Other students help me learn more about life." She also said, and this is my favorite, "When you learn more about others, you also learn more about yourself."

We are living in a strange and complicated time full of worries about our kids' future, and fear can sometimes drive us to stay with what we know rather than to expand our circles. But the option we don't have is a return to a past age—one that might seem golden to some, but was not for others. We must help to mold the world our children will face. That is our duty as parents and as educators. It is also our opportunity.

Today, for the sake of our nation, our communities and, our children, we must work toward a broader definition of the common school. One that corresponds with the needs of today. One that embraces the fullness of our diversity as a country. Our history has often veered away from this ideal, but we must make it our reality. Our nation is always, always strongest when we live and learn together. You can help make it happen. We can make it happen together. Thank you very much. [Applause]