At one point,
Kozol tells about his trip to Fremont High School in Los Angeles,
where he meets some children who explain with heart-wrenching honesty
what living in this system is like. One girl told him that she'd
taken hairdressing twice, because there were actually two different
levels offered by the high school. The first was in hairstyling;
the other in braiding.
Mireya, listened as her friend told this story. And she began to
cry. When asked what was wrong, she said, "I don't want to
take hairdressing. I did not need sewing either. I knew how to sew.
My mother is a seamstress in a factory. I'm trying to go to college.
I don't need to sew to go to college. My mother sews. I hoped for
I hoped for something
It's a simple
dream, but it speaks to us so powerfully because it is our dream
- one that exists at the very center of the American experience.
One that says if you're willing to work hard and take responsibility,
then you'll have the chance to reach for something else; for something
The ideal of public
education has always been at the heart of this bargain. From the
moment the earliest Americans stepped out from the shadows of tyranny
and built the first free schools in the towns of New England and
across the Southern plains, it was the driving force behind Thomas
Jefferson's declaration that "...talent and virtue, needed
in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth
or other accidental condition."
It's a bargain
our government kept as we moved from a nation of farms to a nation
of factories, setting up a system of free public high schools to
give every American the chance to participate in the new economy.
It's a bargain we expanded after World War II, when we sent over
two million returning heroes to college on the GI Bill, creating
the largest middle class in history.
And even when
our government refused to hold up its end of this bargain; when
America fell short of its promise and forced Linda Brown to walk
miles to a dilapidated Topeka school because she wasn't allowed
in the well-off, white-only school near her house; even then, ordinary
people marched and bled, they took to the streets and fought in
the courts, they stood up and spoke out until the day when the arrival
of nine little children at a school in Little Rock made real the
decision that in America, separate could never be equal. Because
in America, it's the promise of a good education for all that makes
it possible for any child to transcend the barriers of race or class
or background and achieve their God-given potential.
In this country,
it is education that allows our children to hope for something else.
And as the twenty-first
century unfolds, we are called once again to make real this hope
- to meet the new challenges of a global economy by carrying forth
the ideals of progress and opportunity through public education
We now live in
a world where the most valuable skill you can sell is knowledge.
Revolutions in technology and communication have created an entire
economy of high-tech, high-wage jobs that can be located anywhere
there's an internet connection. And today, a child in Chicago is
not only competing for jobs with one in Boston, but thousands more
in Bangalore and Beijing who are being educated longer and better
than ever before.
America is in
danger of losing this competition. We now have one of the highest
high school dropout rates of any industrialized country. By 12th
grade, our children score lower on their math and science tests
than most other kids in the world. And today, countries like China
are graduating eight times as many engineers as we do.
And yet, as these
fundamental changes are occurring all around this, we still hear
about schools that are giving students the choice between hairstyling
Let's be clear
- we are failing too many of our children. We're sending them out
into a 21st century economy by sending them through the doors of
20th century schools.
Right now, six
million middle and high school students are reading at levels significantly
below their grade level. Half of all teenagers can't understand
basic fractions; half of all nine year olds can't perform basic
multiplication or division. For some students, the data is even
worse: almost 60% of African-American fourth-graders can't read
at even the basic level, and by 8th grade, nearly nine in ten African-American
and Latino students are not proficient in math. More students than
ever are taking college entrance exams, but these tests are showing
that only twenty percent are prepared to take college-level classes
in English, math, and science. For African-American students, the
figure dips to just ten percent.
What happens to
these kids? What happens to the one in four eighth graders who never
go on to finish high school in five years? What happens to the one
in two high school graduates who never go on to college?
Thirty or forty
years ago, they may have gone on to find a factory job that could
pay the bills and support a family. But we no longer live in that
world. Today, the average salary of a high school graduate is only
$33,000 a year. For high school dropouts, it's even closer to the
poverty line - just $25,000.
If we do nothing
about this, if we accept this kind of economy; this kind of society,
we face a future where the ideal of American meritocracy could turn
into an American myth. A future that's not only morally unacceptable
for our children; but economically untenable for a nation that finds
itself in a globalized world, as countries who are out-educating
us today out-compete our workers tomorrow.
Now, the American
people understand that government alone can't meet this challenge.
They understand that we need to transform our educational culture,
from one of complacency to one that constantly strives for excellence.
And they understand that government cannot replace parents as the
primary motivator for the hard work and commitment that excellence
But they also
know that government, through the public schools, plays a critical
role. And what they've seen from government for close to two decades
is not innovation or bold calls to action. Instead, what they've
seen is inaction and tinkering around the edges of our education
system - a paralysis that is fueled by ideological battles that
are as outdated as they are predictable.
You know the arguments.
On one side, you'll here conservatives who will look at children
without textbooks and classrooms without computers and say money
doesn't matter. On the other side, you'll find liberals who will
look at failing test scores and failing schools and not realize
how much reform matters. One side will blame teachers, and the other
side will never ask them to change. Some will say that no matter
what you do, some children just can't learn. Others will make excuses
for them when they won't learn.
Some will say
that the same public school system that succeeded for generations
must now be dismantled and privatized, no matter who it leaves behind.
And others will defend the status quo in these schools even when
they fail to teach our kids.
Like most ideological
debates, this one assumes that there's an "either-or"
answer to our education problems. Either we need to pour more money
into the system, or we need to reform it with more tests and standards.
But we don't make
much progress for our kids when we constrain ourselves like this.
It appeared for a brief moment that the President, working with
leaders like Senator Kennedy understood this, and many of us were
initially encouraged by the passage of No Child Left Behind. It
may not be popular to say in Democratic circles, but there were
good elements to this bill - its emphasis on the achievement gap,
raising standards, and accountability. Unfortunately, because of
failures in implementation, particularly its failure to provide
adequate funding and a failure to design better assessment tests
that provide a clearer path for schools to raise achievement, the
bill's promise is not yet fulfilled.
of NCLB shouldn't end the conversation, however. They should be
the start of a conversation about how we can do better. Yes, it's
a moral outrage that this Administration hasn't come through with
the funding for what it claims has been its number one domestic
priority. But to wage war against the entire law for that reason
is not an education policy, and Democrats need to realize that.
If we truly believe
in our public schools, then we have a moral responsibility to do
better - to break the either-or mentality around school reform,
and embrace a both-and mentality. Good schools will require both
the structural reform and the resources necessary to prepare our
kids for the future.
It's not as if
innovation isn't taking place around the country. It's taking place
in wealthier schools, like Illinois' Adlai Stevenson High School,
which has one of the highest percentages of students taking AP exams
in the country, and California's New Tech High, which puts a computer
in front of every child. But it's also taking place in schools where
large majorities of children find themselves below the poverty line
yet above the national average in achievement -- places like Newark's
Branch Book Elementary and Chicago's Carson Elementary School.
The problem is
that we are not applying what we've learned from these successes
to inform national policy. We need new vision for education in America
- one where we move past ideology to experiment with the latest
reforms, measure the results, and make policy decisions based on
what works and what doesn't.
Now, if we are
going to learn from schools that work, we must begin by admitting
the obvious: money matters. In too many places, kids are going to
school in trailers where rats are more numerous than computers.
Smaller classes, books and lab supplies, better paid teachers, modernized
buildings with the latest technology - all of this is critical if
we are serious about educating our next generation.
But money alone
won't make a difference without reform. And by the way, we won't
be able to muster the political will to get more money into the
system unless taxpayers are convinced that the money will produce
measurable results. Fortunately, those who work in the field know
what reforms really work: a more challenging and rigorous curriculum
with emphasis on math, science, and literacy skills. Longer hours
and more days to give kids the time and attention they need to learn.
Early childhood education for every child so they're not left behind
before they even start school. Meaningful, performance-based assessments
that can give us a fuller picture of how a student is doing. And
putting effective teachers and transformative principals in front
of our kids.
All of these reforms
need to be scaled-up and replicated across the country. But in the
time I have remaining, let me use just talk about a few to point
to what's possible, starting with one place where I think we can
start making a big difference in education right now.
From the moment
our children step into a classroom, new evidence shows that the
single most important factor in determining their achievement today
is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it's not
who their parents are or how much money they have.
It's who their
teacher is. It's the person who will brave some of the most difficult
schools, the most challenging children, and accept the most meager
compensation simply to give someone else the chance to succeed.
One study shows
that two groups of students who started third grade at about the
same level of math achievement finished fifth grade at vastly different
levels. The group with the effective teacher saw their scores rise
by nearly 25%. The group with the ineffective teacher actually saw
their scores drop by 25%.
But even though
we know how much teaching matters, in too many places we've abandoned
our teachers, sending them into some of the most impoverished, underperforming
schools with little experience or pay; little preparation or support.
After a few years of experience, most will leave to pick wealthier,
less challenging schools.
The result is
that some of our neediest children end up with less-experienced,
poorly-paid teachers who are far more likely to be teaching subjects
in which they have no training. Minority students are twice as likely
to have these teachers. In Illinois, students in high-poverty schools
are more than three times as likely to have them. The No Child Left
Behind law, which states that all kids should have highly qualified
teachers, is supposed to correct this, but so far it hasn't, because
no one's followed through on the promise.
If we hope to
give our children a chance, it's time we start giving our teachers
a chance. We can't change the whole country overnight. But what
we can do is give more school districts the chance to revolutionize
the way they approach teaching. By helping spark complete reform
across an entire school district, we can learn what actually works
for our kids and then replicate those policies throughout the country.
So here's what
I'm proposing: the creation of what I call Innovation Districts.
School districts from around the country that want to become seedbeds
of reform would apply and we'd select the twenty with the best plans
to put effective, supported teachers in all classrooms and increase
achievement for all students. We'd offer these districts substantial
new resources to do this, but in return, we'd ask them to try systemic
new reforms. Above all, we'd require results.
Districts, we'd ask for reforms in four broad areas: teaching, most
importantly, but also how teachers use their time, what they teach,
and what we can do to hold our schools accountable for achievement.
We'd begin by
working with these districts to strengthen their teaching, and we'd
start with recruitment. Right now we don't have nearly enough effective
teachers in the places we need them most: urban and rural schools,
and subject areas like math and science. One of the main reasons
for this, cited by most teachers who leave the profession, is that
no one gives them the necessary training and preparation.
Around the country,
organizations like the Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago
are changing this by recruiting and training new, highly-qualified
teachers for some of the hardest-to-teach classrooms in the country.
We need to expand this by giving districts help in creating new
teacher academies that will partner with organizations like this
to recruit effective teachers for low-performing, high-poverty schools.
Each teacher would undergo an extensive training program before
they begin, including classroom observation and participation.
After we recruit
great teachers, we need to pay them better. Right now, teaching
is one of the only professions where no matter how well you perform
at your job, you're almost never rewarded for success. But with
six-figure salaries luring away some of our most talented college
graduates from some of our neediest schools, this needs to change.
That's why teachers in these Innovation Districts who are successful
in improving student achievement would receive substantial pay increases,
as would those who choose to teach in the most troubled schools
and the highest-need subject areas, like math and science. The city
of Denver is trying pay increases in partnership with the local
union, and when Chattanooga, Tennessee offered similar incentives
for teachers who taught in high-need schools, student reading scores
went up by over 10%.
Of course, teachers
don't just need more pay, they need more support. One thing I kept
hearing when I visited Dodge Elementary School in Chicago is how
much an encouraging principal or the advice of an experienced teacher
can make a difference. That's why teachers would be paired with
mentor teachers who've been there before. After a few years of experience,
they'd then have the chance to become mentor teachers themselves.
And to help them
deal with those few disruptive students who tend to slow down the
rest of the class - a problem I hear about from teachers all the
time - we'd expand innovative programs being used in states like
Illinois that teach students about positive behavior.
Finally, we would
also require Innovation Districts to work with their unions to uncover
bureaucratic obstacles that leave poor kids without good teachers,
including hiring, funding and transfer policies. Districts would
work with unions to tackle these problems so that we can provide
every child with an effective teacher.
that help teachers specifically, we'd also ask Innovation Districts
to try reforms that create a more effective teaching environment.
To give teachers more time with their students and more time to
learn from each other, these districts would be asked to restructure
their schedules and implement either longer days or summer school.
In addition to more learning, this would provide kids a safe, educational
environment while their parents are at work.
And we'd make
sure that in every school district across the country, educators
are teaching a curriculum that will prepare our kids for the global
economy. In many states, students are taught the anatomy of a flower
as many as six times over the course of their education. Yet, they
are never taught what they need to become a productive citizen in
a global economy - like computer technology, how the economy works,
why skyscrapers stand, or how to design a new product. Some states
are successfully using this kind of project-based learning to give
our kids real world, hands-on experience in the fields of science,
technology, engineering, and math. We will provide funding for more
of this learning in more of our schools.
To hold schools
and teachers accountable for the results of all these reforms, Innovation
Districts would be asked to support schools that succeed and shut
down those that don't. To find out what works and what doesn't,
we'd provide them with powerful data and technology, and also give
them the option of partnering with local universities to help them
improve performance, like what happens at the University of Chicago's
Urban Education Initiative. Schools that raise student achievement
would be given bonuses. For schools that don't improve, the districts
would close them and replace them with new, smaller schools that
can replicate some of the successful reforms taking place elsewhere.
Entire districts that do not improve would be removed from the program.
These reforms would take an important first step toward fixing our
broken system by putting qualified, supported teachers in the schools
that need them most. But beyond that, they would show us the progress
we can make when money is well spent. And they would allow us to
finally break free from the either-or mentality that's put bureaucracy
and ideology ahead of what works; ahead of what's best for our kids.
When it comes
to education, the time for excuses has passed - for all of us.
During my visit
to Dodge Elementary, I was able to speak with a few of the teachers
about some of the challenges they're facing in educating their students.
And one teacher mentioned to me that in one of the biggest obstacles
in her view is what she referred to as the "These Kids"
She said that
when it comes to educating students today, people always seem to
find a million excuses for why "these kids" can't learn.
That you'll hear how "these kids are nothing but trouble,"
or "these kids come from tough backgrounds," or "these
kids don't want to learn." And the more people talk about them
as "these kids," the easier it is for "these kids"
to become somebody else's problem.
But of course,
the children in this country - the children in Dodge Elementary,
and South Central L.A., and rural Arkansas, and suburban Maryland
- they are not "these kids." They are our kids. They want
a chance to achieve - and each of us has a responsibility to give
them that chance.
In the end, children
succeed because somewhere along the way, a parent or teacher instills
in them the belief that they can. That they're able to. That they're
At Earhart Elementary
in Chicago, one little girl, raised by a single mom from a poor
background, was asked the secret to her academic success.
She said, "I
just study hard every night because I like learning. My teacher
wants me to be a good student, and so does my mother. I don't want
to let them down."
In the months
and years to come, it's time for this nation to rededicate itself
to the ideal of a world class education for every American child.
It's time to let our kids hope for something else. It's time to
instill the belief in every child that they can succeed - and then
make sure we make good on the promise to never let them down. Thank