Monday, September 15, 2008

Margaret Spellings on the State of American Education

U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, kicked off the National Education Summit by discussing where are in public education and where we need to be.

“Our children.” We hear those words all the time. They’re the reason we’re here today. As Secretary of Education, sometimes I hear “our children” in a different way. When I talk about reform, too often the response is, “Oh, that’s not for our children. That’s for other people’s kids. My school is just fine.” I reject that. These are our kids. And they need us—the grownups—to speak up for them.

I know you understand. We’re not just advocates, we’re agitators. Our movement to hold schools accountable did not start in Washington. It began in states and school districts all across the country. And it resulted in the No Child Left Behind Act. The law is a household name. But it's often misunderstood. No Child Left Behind has been called, “A war on childhood.” “A curse on both teachers and students.” “A ploy to destroy public education.” And my favorite: An “unredeemable experiment that has done incalculable damage to our schools.”

Wow. I’ve seen it blamed for everything from obesity to head lice. It’s clear that some people don’t like accountability. These keepers of the status quo prefer inertia and obfuscation to reform. But it’s not about them. It’s about—you guessed it—our children. It doesn’t bother me if a few grownups are uncomfortable or second-guess our efforts!

So now, it’s fair to ask, how are we doing?

Test scores are up. The achievement gap is narrowing. According to the Nation’s Report Card, since 2000, more kids are learning reading and math. In math, especially, we’re making great progress. And the children once left behind are making some of the greatest gains. The fact of the matter is, minority students will be a majority by 2023. So we’ve got to get it right.

Of the students that entered kindergarten in 2000, one in 10 was limited English proficient. Four in 10 were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunches. Seven in 10 were not proficient in reading and math by the 4th grade. And, if past trends continue, three in 10 of all high school students—and half our Hispanic and African-American students—will not graduate from high school on time.

Think about that. Think of the untapped potential. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Folks, the fact that half the black and Hispanic kids who walk into a school do not walk out with a diploma should matter to all of us. And, frankly, even shame us. What does dropping out cost an individual? And what does it cost society?

An adult who dropped out is 41 percent more likely to be unemployed…..
Fifty-one percent less likely to vote….
And 57 percent more likely to receive food stamps.

The thing is, we know where the problem lies. Fifteen percent of high schools produce 50 percent of our dropouts. It’s in these schools where our most effective teachers are needed. But too often, that’s not where they wind up.

I know many people in this room are working to change that. And I think we could make an even bigger difference if we paid teachers for results. We know what works—effective educators, reliable data, and proven strategies. Educators now use data to improve performance. Parents now get report cards on their schools, not just their kids. And schools now have a deadline for results: grade level or better by 2014.

This is a sea change. And I think we hit a nerve!

Here’s what some have said about that: It’s “setting up schools to fail.” “Unrealistic expectation[s] for teachers.” An “absurd goal.” To those who reject this goal, I would ask, what’s your answer? I have yet to meet a parent who does not want their child on grade level, now, today, not 2014. It’s not absurd; it’s the least we can expect from our schools. But the “excuses crowd” doesn’t see it that way.

They say that teaching reading means you can’t teach art. That helping students with disabilities means ignoring gifted students. And that “test” is a four-letter word. I disagree. And I know that many teachers and principals disagree, too—because I’ve met lots of them.
Including Dr. Molly Howard, National High School Principal of the Year. She said that “accountability is here to stay, the genie is out of the bottle.”

The excuse that some students will drag down everyone else is worse than false. It’s the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” So, enough excuses! If we don’t believe that education is a civil right and a matter of economic competitiveness, we’re kidding ourselves.

The world doesn’t grade on a curve. In 1975, America was number one in college completion rates. In 2005, we were number 10. And the world continues to pass us by. Just to stay competitive, post-secondary education must become twice as productive. Studies show that 20 million more Americans will need higher education by 2025.

Today, a college graduate stands to earn one million more dollars than a high school graduate. The American Dream is about our kids doing better than us. But at current rates, my daughters’ generation will not be better educated than mine.

We need more accountability, not less.

I believe that what gets measured gets done. In Texas, we say, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” Because of No Child Left Behind, we have more information than we did six years ago. A lot more. It’s because states test kids annually, disaggregate the data, and attach consequences to it. So we must resist pressure to water down or weaken accountability.

We also need to know, how are we doing as a nation?

For years, we’ve measured our economy with the Leading Economic Indicators. So what are the Leading Education Indicators? Do kids know how to read and do math? Are minority students lagging behind their classmates? Are kids graduating from high school on time? Are they prepared for college work? And have they earned a degree?

These five indicators are national, results-based, and reliable. Together, with NCLB, they provide a barometer of success. Let’s take them one by one.

Achievement in Reading and Math. Two-thousand was the first year we had data from the Nation’s Report Card for both subjects. Since then, our 4th and 8th graders have gained eight percentage points in proficiency.

The Achievement Gap. On that same test, black and Hispanic students used to achieve at less than one-fourth the level of white students. Now they’re above one-third. Better, but not good enough.

High School Graduation Rates. While our youngest kids are doing much better, because that’s where we’ve focused, the same can’t be said for older students.

College Readiness. Scores on the SAT and ACT are flat. Only 42 percent are really ready for college work.

Finally, College Completion. Among 25-to-34-year-olds, we’re at 31 percent. Folks, Denmark and Norway are passing us by!

I took these five indicators, weighted them equally, and came up with a number that parents and policymakers can follow. While we’ve improved by 5 points since 2000, we still have a lot of work to do. And the American people need to know it. We used to measure schools by how much money we spent, not asking what we got for it. I want Americans to follow our progress. I want them to hold us accountable for keeping our promise to provide a quality education to every single child—the only outcome that matters.

If they’re informed, they’ll care. They’ll expect—and demand—change. And they’ll join us in our fight for reform. Meaningful reform can only be sustained with public support, the kind that ended slavery and gave women the right to vote. President Lincoln said America cannot long survive half-free. I believe it cannot long survive half-educated, either.

You tell me whose child we will pick to leave behind. Yours? Mine? Someone else’s?

The last slide, I left blank for a reason. Because a child is not a statistic. Every child is another chance for us to do better. Will we have the courage to work together to sustain this accountability movement? I want a quality education for my kids. That’s what you want for yours. Why would we think other families want anything less for theirs?

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