U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at a D.C. elementary school Monday about the administration's priorities for national education law, including keeping annual testing of student proficiency, adding funds for preschool and evaluating teachers. Speech is as prepared for delivery.
"America's Educational Crossroads: Making the Right Choice for Our Children’s Future"
Draft remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
January 12, 2015
• Wade Henderson for that warm introduction
• Kaya Henderson, what DC has accomplished is exactly what we’re here to talk about today –
• Teacher Josefina De Campos Salles for the great words
• Principal Kim Jackson and the Seaton community for having us here – a school that is proving
that regardless of income and zip code, kids will achieve – one of the fastest improving schools
in one of the fastest improving districts in America
• Members of Congress who are here – all great advocates for education:
o Bobby Scott, the Senior Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee
o Ruben Hinojosa, recently chair of the Hispanic Caucus
o Raul Grijalva, chair of the Hispanic Caucus education task force
o Chaka Fattah and Mike Honda, co-founders of the Equity and Excellence Commission
o Gregorio Sablan, chair of the education task force for the Asian Pacific-American Caucus
o Jared Polis, a strong voice for education reform
o Suzanne Bonamici, a leader in the effort to eliminate unnecessary tests
o Mark Takano, a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee
Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress and the nation to establish "full
educational opportunity as our first national goal."
LBJ's message introduced our country's cornerstone education law, the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act of 1965. And when he signed that bill, he said, and I quote, "I believe deeply [that] no law
I have signed, or will ever sign, means more to the future of America."
Johnson’s belief came from what he had seen with his own eyes.
As a 20-year old, he had interrupted his college studies to teach in an elementary school in south Texas
that had no lunch hour, no school bus and no playground. Every student there was Mexican-American,
poor, and spoke little or no English.
Recalling that experience, Johnson said, “I made up my mind that this Nation could never rest while the
door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”
A half-century later, as it moves toward a new ESEA, Congress faces a choice. One path continues to
move us toward that promise of equity; the other walks away from it.
Let’s choose the path that makes good on the original promise of this law. Let’s choose the path that
says we, as a nation, are serious about real opportunity for every single child.
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I believe we can work together – Democrats and Republicans – to move beyond the tired, prescriptive
No Child Left Behind law. I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more
support – more money – than they receive today. A law that recognizes that no family should be denied
preschool for their children. A law that recognizes the hard work educators across America are doing to
support and raise expectations for students, and lifts up the profession of teaching by recognizing that
teachers need better preparation, better support, and more resources. A law that says that educational
opportunity isn’t an option, it’s a civil right.
Like so many of you in this room, I’m a parent, with two children in public school. What we, as parents,
want for our kids is an education that isn’t just about knowledge – it’s about those moments of
excitement that we hear about at the end of the day, about creativity and wonder. Fundamentally, we
want our kids to have wonderful choices in their lives. Let’s work together to pass a law that says that
every single child in America deserves the kind of education we’d want for our own kids.
The challenge to reauthorize ESEA: moving forwards or turning back the clock
In building a new ESEA, we should celebrate America’s progress toward “full educational opportunity,”
while being honest that we have further to go to achieve that vision – and that it would be an enormous
mistake to turn back now.
Because we’re making important progress. That progress shows in our highest-ever high school
graduation rate, in the millions more now in college, in higher overall achievement and in narrowed
racial achievement gaps. It is striking that black and Latino nine-year-olds are doing math today at about
the level that their 13-year-old counterparts did in the 1970s.
In the last 15 years, leaders from both parties have agreed to focus on the progress of all students, and
to take action when some fall behind. And consider what has happened in those years.
A young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be
enrolled in college. The number of black and Hispanic students taking AP exams increased nearly fivefold. For the first time, four out of five students are completing high school on time. And black and
Hispanic college enrollment is up by more than a million just since 2008.
But we cannot allow ourselves to believe we are yet doing justice by all of our young people. Not when
other countries are leaping ahead of us in preparing their children for college and work. Not when
millions of children start kindergarten already behind because their parents couldn’t afford preschool.
Not when thousands of preschoolers are being suspended. Not when a third of black students attend
high schools that don’t even offer calculus. Not when it’s still possible to take the courses required for
high school graduation – and not be qualified to go to your public university.
As a country, we owe our children better.
Let’s choose the path that expands opportunity for every child, strengthens our nation economically,
improves resources for schools, and supports and helps to modernize the teaching profession.
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Let’s choose the right path forward.
The path forward
The path forward hews to core American ideals of fairness and justice. It recognizes that equal
educational opportunity is a national priority, and a national responsibility. In this year – when we
estimate that the nation’s public schools have become majority-minority for the first time – equity
matters more than ever.
I believe deeply in that mission. And I want to lay out to you a set of core beliefs that I think should form
the foundation of a new ESEA:
I believe every single child is entitled to an education that sets her up for success in college, careers and
I believe education can’t be boiled down to reading and math. I believe the arts, history, foreign
languages, and advanced math and science are essentials, not luxuries.
I believe that all students should be held to high expectations for learning, no matter their zip code, race
or ethnicity, disability, or whether they are still learning English. I believe that states should choose
those standards, as they always have, and that those standards should align with what young people will
need in jobs and in college. In a globally competitive economy, that’s an absolute necessity for a secure
I believe that every single child deserves the opportunity for a strong start through high-quality
preschool, and that expanding those opportunities should be part of a new ESEA.
I believe that every family, and every community, deserves to know that schools are making a priority of
the progress of all children, including those from low-income areas, racial and ethnic minorities, those
with disabilities, those learning English, and others. And I believe they deserve to know that, when
students in those groups fall behind, their schools will take action to improve.
I believe that no student deserves to be cheated out of an education by being stuck in a school that fails
most of its students, year after year.
I believe that school should be a pipeline to opportunity, not prison.
I believe that we should create new incentives to support bold state and local innovation in support of
students. We should support leaders in the field to build on evidence and evaluate these efforts so that
educators and policymakers can learn about what works. And we should support innovations in
promising areas that increase equity – from building students’ social-emotional skills to expanding socioeconomic integration of schools.
I believe that every single child deserves fair access to the resources of her school and her district – and
to excellent teachers.
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So much of this relies on the teachers, principals and other educators whose skills and passion are the
heart of our students’ learning. So let me talk about what they deserve.
I believe all teachers and principals deserve excellent preparation, support and opportunities for growth
that go beyond what exists in most places today. You’ll hear more when the President presents his
I believe teachers deserve to be paid in a way that reflects the importance of the work they do –
regardless of the tax base of their surrounding community.
I believe teachers and schools need greater resources and funds. This year, President Obama's Budget
will include $2.7 billion for increased spending on ESEA programs, including $1 billion for Title I. And we
will fight to make sure Congress provides more resources as part of rewriting ESEA.
I believe those in low-income schools should have resources and support comparable to that in other
I believe all teachers deserve fair, genuinely helpful systems for evaluation and professional growth that
identify excellence and take into account student learning growth. Assessments – and they have to be
good ones – are one indicator but they should be only one part of the picture.
I believe parents, teachers, and students have both the right and the need to know how much progress
all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. That means all students need
to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned with their teacher’s classroom instruction in
reading and math in grades 3-8, and once in high school.
But I think we need to do more to support schools, educators, families and students in a time of
enormous change. And it’s hardly a secret that testing has been one of the hardest topics. I believe we
need to know what progress students are making – but we also need to do more to ensure that
tests – and preparation for them – don’t take excessive time away from instruction. In many places,
there are too many tests that take up too much time, and I know many educators and families are
frustrated about that. I believe we need to take action to support a better balance.
That’s why we want to work with Congress to urge states and districts to review and streamline the tests
they are giving and eliminate redundant and unnecessary tests, and provide support for them to do so.
We’ll urge Congress to have states set limits on the amount of time spent on state- and district-wide
standardized testing, and notify parents if they exceed these limits. We want to empower states to
accelerate the efforts they are already taking on in this area – from North Carolina to Maryland to New
Mexico to Rhode Island – to carefully consider the tests students are required to take to make sure
students have time to learn and teachers have time to teach.
To help states and districts make these changes, the President will request funding in his budget to help
improve the quality of tests and streamline unnecessary tests. The call for change from educators and
families has been clear. Let’s take action.
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Offering America’s students more, supporting their teachers and principals better, won’t happen
because of wishful thinking. It will happen because we, as a nation, make a deliberate choice for equity.
A deliberate choice for all of our students.
This won’t be the easy path. But I will quote one of my great heroes, Marian Wright Edelman, who has
fought for equal opportunity for half a century.
As she puts it: "If we don't stand up for children, then we don't stand up for much."
Opportunity Is Not Optional
Yet there are some who believe not just that the fight is over, but that we should head in a very
Let me say clearly: I respect my Republican friends in Congress – and their commitment to education.
For example, there is strong bipartisan interest in expanding support for high-quality, public charter
schools. And governors in both parties have been great partners and leaders in improving education.
I'm committed to continuing to work together. But if recent bills, news accounts, and public statements
are any guide, I’m concerned about where concerned about where a Republican-only ESEA
reauthorization might be headed.
I believe that we may have fundamental differences with some congressional Republicans about
whether or not the quality of education for every child, regardless of where they live, is an essential
interest of this nation – or whether it is optional.
But I am optimistic we can come together on these vital issues.
So let’s ask the hard questions:
Will we work together to ensure that every single child has high expectations for learning that will
engage, challenge, and prepare him or her for college, careers, and life? Or is that optional?
Will we work together to ensure every parent’s right to know every year how much progress her child is
making in school? Or is that optional?
Will we work together to ensure that every public school makes a real priority of the educational
progress of minority students, those living in poverty, those with disabilities, those learning English, and
other groups that have struggled in school in the past? Should enduring achievement gaps require
action? Or is that optional?
What about schools where, year after year, huge numbers of students drop out or never learn to read?
Do families have the right to expect that leaders will put in place meaningful supports and a real plan for
improvement? Or is that optional?
Will we work together to expand access to high-quality preschool, so students don't start out behind? Or
is that optional?
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I think we need to stand strong on a new ESEA that will let us answer "yes" for every child. Educational
opportunity cannot be optional for any child anywhere in this country.
I think we need to stand strong for accountability to ensure that students are making progress, and that
taxpayer dollars are producing results for children.
Let me says a few personal words about why.
In between my junior and senior year at college, I took a year off to work in my mom's after-school
tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago. One of the students I tutored was a basketball player at
the local high school, studying for the SAT.
He was a great kid who had done all the right things, including staying away from the gangs. He was an
honor roll student with a "B" average, on track to graduate.
But as we worked together, I was heartbroken to learn that he was basically functionally illiterate. He
was reading at a 2nd or 3rd grade level, and unable to put together a written paragraph. He had been
led to believe that he was on-track for college success.
He wasn’t even close.
The educational system had failed him. But the buck stopped nowhere.
As a nation, we owe our young people better. Let's not walk away from our responsibilities.
What does that mean?
It means schools, families and communities need to know what progress students are making in their
learning. It means using that information to take action to serve all students better – especially when
they’re falling behind. It means figuring out where schools are doing well, and learning from them; and
supporting them where they have room to improve. It’s about accountability.
That’s why Senator Robert F. Kennedy amended the original ESEA, so parents and communities would
know how their schools were doing, and would know, based on objective measures, how disadvantaged
students were performing each year.
That’s why Al Shanker, the legendary leader of the American Federation of Teachers, said that without
"accountability we will never get the right system. … As long as the discussion is not about education
and student outcomes, then we're playing a game as to who has the power."
For a party that has fought hard against wasting money, that has pushed for a focus on results for
taxpayer dollars, turning back the clock would be truly hypocritical.
This country can’t afford to replace “the fierce urgency of now” with the soft bigotry of “It’s optional.”
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Turning back the clock
And let me be clear: if we walk away from responsibility as a country if we make our national education
responsibilities optional – we would turn back the clock on educational progress, 15 years or more.
Back to the days when, in too many places, the buck stopped nowhere for student learning.
Back to the days when expectations for how much a student should learn often depended on what side
of town he or she grew up on. The days when the only factor that never seemed to matter in teacher
evaluation was how much students were learning; and when parents and teachers had little information
on how much progress students were making from year-to-year.
Back to the days when achievement gaps for black and Hispanic 4th-graders were 30 to 40 percent
larger. When the high school graduation rate was stagnating. When high school dropout rates were
almost twice as high for African-Americans, and more than twice as high for Hispanic young people.
The moral and economic consequences of turning back the clock are unacceptable. We would be
accepting the morally and economically unsupportable notion that we have some kids to spare. We
For the sake of our national identity and the health of our economy, every single young person should
be able to look forward to a future that holds promise. And when so many states and districts have put
in place the building blocks to sustain educational progress, when so many educators are working so
hard to raise the bar for their students and support them in getting there, reversing course would be a
Coming Together to Expand Opportunity
The simple fact is, America’s educators already have done much of the hard work of lifting up
expectations for young people. Teachers and principals have worked immensely hard to usher in some
of the most far-reaching changes in public education in decades. The challenges of changes this big have
been significant. But they’re paying off for students.
Many of the places where this shift has been boldest and most sustained – places like Washington, D.C.
and Tennessee – have seen the most dramatic progress for children. Teachers, parents, and school and
community leaders and students are working together to make that change possible.
Let’s work together toward a law that will sustain, and accelerate, the enormous progress America’s
educators have driven in recent years.
Let’s dispense with No Child Left Behind, and give states more flexibility. No Child Left Behind created
dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed, or to reward success. We
need to do precisely the reverse.
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Let’s work together on a law that fosters innovation, advances equity, and supports children and
educators. A law that will help ensure that every young person in America is prepared for a future where
success isn’t based just on what you know, but on what you can do with what you know.
In the end, there is much we can debate about in ESEA reauthorization and areas for productive
compromise. But Congress must not compromise the nation's vital interest in lifting up all students and
protecting the vulnerable.
In America, education has been a bipartisan cause – and it must continue to be. I look forward to
working with Chairman Alexander and Senator Murray, Chairman Kline and Representative Scott, and
others – to reauthorize ESEA.
We are at an educational crossroads in America, with two distinct paths for moving forward. This choice,
this crossroads, has profound moral and economic consequences. In making choices for our children’s
future, we will decide who we are as a nation.
For the sake of our children, our communities, and our country, let's make the right choice. Thank you.
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