Awhile back, I was reading
through Jonathan Kozol's new book, Shame of a Nation. In it, he
talks about his recent travels to schools across America, and how
fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, we have an education
system in this country that is still visibly separate and painfully
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.
Another girl, 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 something else."
I hoped for something else.
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 better.
The ideal of public education
has always been at the heart of this bargain. From the moment we
built the first schools in the towns of New England, 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 across the country.
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 and forced Linda Brown
to walk miles to a dilapidated Topeka school because she wasn't
allowed in the well-off, white-only school; even then, ordinary
people 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.
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 in America.
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 us, we still hear about schools
that are giving students the choice between hairstyling and braiding.
Today 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 children?
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.
The President promised
that he would change all this with No Child Left Behind Act. Unfortunately,
the Administration has failed on the implementation of that law.
Not only have they failed to provide billions in adequate funding,
they've also failed to design better assessment tests that provide
a clearer path for schools to raise achievement.
They've failed to work
with states so that they could honor their own commitment to provide
every child with a highly qualified teacher. As a result, they've
had to exempt numerous states from meeting certain provisions of
No Child Left Behind, and now it appears unlikely that they will
meet their own goal of getting our children to grade level by the
This is unacceptable. If
we truly believe in our public schools, then we have a moral responsibility
to do better - to break the either-or mentality around the debate
over education that asks us to choose between more money or more
reform, and embrace a both-and mentality. Because we know that good
schools will require both the structural reform and the resources
necessary to prepare our kids for the future.
We can learn from innovation
taking place all over the country and right here in Chicago. Chicago
Public Schools are collaborating on a number of innovations with
foundations and groups like New Leaders for New Schools, Teach for
America, the New Teacher Project, the Chicago Public Education Fund,
The Academy for Urban School Leadership and the University of Chicago
Urban Education Initiative. The Chicago Teachers Union is also now
collaborating on the Fresh Start Schools, and we're watching that
experiment with great interest. It's not easy, it's not popular
with everyone, and, in the end, some of the experiments may be rejected.
But we can't stop trying. We have to keep moving ahead for the sake
of our children.
Now, the problem on a national
level is that we are not applying what we're learning from these
reforms to our national education policy. And so 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.
leaders like the people in this room 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, a measure Governor Blagojevich has recently introduced.
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 and principals, 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.
If we hope to give our
children a chance, it's time we start giving our teachers and our
principals 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 the legislation
I'm introducing this week - it's 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
In Innovation Districts,
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 and principals 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 right here 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.
These teacher academies
are also showing us that it's not enough to just put outstanding
teachers in the classroom - we have to place outstanding principals
in the schools as well. In districts across the country, the role
of principal is being transformed from bureaucratic manager to instructional
leader who can set high standards and recruit great talent. With
230 New Leaders serving more than 100,000 kids annually, New Leaders
for New Schools has been at the cutting edge of this process - a
process we need to expand nationally.
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 here 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.
We also know that teachers
can't teach and our kids can't learn when there's violence in and
around our schools, a problem we've seen right here in Chicago this
year in too many tragic incidents. If our kids can't go to school
in a safe place, nothing else we do matters. As we move forward
with reform, we must makes safety a top priority. In the innovation
districts, we'd help do this by expanding programs already being
used in various states 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.
Beyond policies 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 December, I also introduced
the STEP Up Act that addresses this by providing summer learning
opportunities for children at high risk early in their school careers.
In addition to more learning, this would provide kids a safe, educational
environment while their parents are at work.
To hold schools and teachers
accountable for the results of all these reforms, districts that
don't improve would be removed from the program. 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.
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 you.