Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Education Trust Conference

Dispelling the Myth School Awards Dinner

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This is a day of celebration in so many ways. I'm thrilled for our nation, and I'm thrilled for our nation's school children, that President Obama has been re-elected.

And to top it off, we're going to hear from Sweet Honey in the Rock next. I know what a treat that is—my dad helped organize a folk music festival at the University of Chicago for years. And Sweet Honey in the Rock was always one of the groups we loved listening to most.

The American people reaffirmed many things on Election Day. But one of the most important things they affirmed is that education is an investment in the future of our nation and our children—all of our children. It is not just an expense on a budget line that can be sacrificed in tough economic times.

In the next two months, many tough decisions lie ahead. The fiscal cliff and the threat of sequestration could cripple our efforts to expand access and increase attainment. But today I am so happy to see that the American people have recognized education as the key to economic growth and prosperity—and the surest path out of poverty in our knowledge-based economy.

Now, we have to turn that recognition into action. We know how far we have to go. Our graduation rate is unacceptable. Our opportunity gap is unacceptable. Our achievement gap is unacceptable.

As the President said on election night, there is still so much urgent work to do. We have so much to accomplish before education is truly the great equalizer it must be for all children in America. But we are on our journey now. We are moving forward.

I'm thrilled to be here to join in Ed Trust's Dispelling the Myth awards celebration and dinner. The truth is that we don't do nearly enough to celebrate success in education.

As you've just heard, the three terrific schools honored here today are dispelling the myth that poverty is destiny. They are showing that all children can learn—and that great schools prepare children for college and careers no matter their zip code, skin color, their parent's bank account, or their parents' national origin.

I'll talk more about these three great schools in a moment. But first I want to give a big shout-out to Education Trust for their outstanding and tireless leadership, day in and day out, on behalf of children, from pre-K thru college. Kati Haycock and her team are champions of educational equity and equal opportunity. You speak truth to power. And you are helping to show the way forward for school leaders and educators across the nation.

Over the last few months, Ed Trust has shown tremendous courage and leadership in advocating for the use of ambitious goals and accountability systems through the state-led waiver process. Contrary to what you may have read, these waivers will push states to dramatically accelerate achievement and attainment for disadvantaged students and students of color.

As everyone here knows, the No Child Left Behind law set a goal that 100 percent of students would be proficient in 2014.

That goal is laudable and lofty. But the 2014 goal was not credible. And the results were predictable.

Faced with meeting a utopian goal, too many states took the easy path. They dummied-down their standards to make it look like more students were proficient. And too many schools—like those that we are honoring tonight—that were successfully educating black, brown, and poor children, and were actually closing achievement gaps, were labeled as failures.

States gamed the system. Under NCLB, only about 20 percent of schools in Kentucky were accountable for the performance of African American students—even though 85 percent of schools there have African American students. Thankfully, that reality has been fundamentally changed. Under the state's new waiver, Kentucky is now holding 99 percent of schools, not 20 percent, accountable for the performance of African American students.

No one was more hurt by setting unrealistic goals and states gaming the system than disadvantaged students and students of color. As Amy Wilkins has said "quick fixes and lofty promises that made adults feel good have failed black, brown, and poor children for generations."

Now, our goals for waivers in remaking NCLB are clear: Protect children, set a high bar, and provide as much as flexibility as possible. We must get the goals right. But frankly, that is simply a starting point, not an ending point. As important as goals are, what's most important are actual outcomes for children.

What matters most is results: Whether kids are learning, and if achievement gaps are narrowing dramatically. As Ed Trust has clearly pointed out, "goals themselves do not raise achievement or close gaps. In fact, goals only matter to the extent that they prompt educators, policymakers, advocates, and parents to do what it takes to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education."

As you are aware, Ed Trust helped develop and pioneer the idea that states should initially seek to cut the achievement gap in half, with the ultimate goal of eliminating it. The premise of that approach is obviously not that educators should lower expectations for students of color but rather that we need to demand more and faster progress for students of color.

Unlike the 2014 goal in NCLB, cutting the achievement gap in half in the near-term is very ambitious but is also achievable. And unlike the 2014 goal, the cutting the gap in half approach takes account of the fact that some students start far behind their more privileged peers.

So, I thank Ed Trust for its leadership on this complex and important issue. I think you have it right. As we move forward over the next four years, we must stop fighting the wrong educational battles.

No accountability framework will ever be perfect—and we have more work to do to ensure flexibility is implemented correctly and that states help all students succeed.

But we can't let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We can't let the utopian become the enemy of the excellent. And we can't let rhetorical purity become the enemy of rigorous practice.

I want to close by giving a shout-out to the three amazing schools and the leaders and teachers that are being honored tonight. I know how hard this work is and the effort, commitment, and passion that it takes to transform the life chances of students. I can't tell you how much the examples you set mean to me personally.

Each of these schools has their own unique features that other schools can learn from. De Queen Elementary in Arkansas is showing the way forward on how to adapt to the Common Core in the classroom, especially in under-resourced rural areas. It even has a literacy coach who is a self-described "CCSS Ninja." I love that job description.

Laurel Street Elementary School in Compton has developed an award-winning program for teaching writing to English language learners. More than 60 percent of the schools' students are English learners. Yet Laurel students perform on par with schools in affluent California neighborhoods.

Finally, the Edward Brooke Charter School, in the Roslindale section of Boston, has pioneered teacher collaboration and rigorous teacher evaluation. Every Wednesday afternoon, for four hours, teachers work in school-wide and grade-level teams to learn from each other's successes and to analyze what works and doesn't work in the classroom.

Each teacher is also videotaped at least ten times during the school—and formally and informally observed at least 30 times throughout the year. They are de-privatizing public education by making teacher practice open and transparent, not something that goes on behind closed doors.

Brooke students—despite being low-income students selected through a random lottery—often top the state in reading, writing, and math. And they are competitive with—and often out-perform—students from Wellesley and Brookline.

All of these three schools are unique. But they also have so much in common. They all have a rigorous curriculum and set high behavioral expectations. They all create a safe and orderly learning environment and a college-going culture.

At all three schools, teachers collaborate and students learn both to excel individually and to work in teams.

And at all three schools, as Frank Lozier, the principal at Laurel says, teachers "believe that no matter what your zip code is, you should be able to get an excellent education and be able to compete with students throughout the globe."

So, please join me in applauding the amazing, critically important work of school leaders and educators at these three fantastic schools. Could the teams from each school stand to be recognized one more time? Thank you—thank you for all that you do for children.

Collectively, you move us closer to the day where "Dispelling the Myth schools" are not the exception but the norm for students of color. Through your example, through your commitment, through your leadership, you are showing the entire nation the way forward.


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