Education Leadership: An Agenda for School Improvement

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 Education Leadership: An Agenda for School Improvement

Comments of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to The Wallace Foundation’s National Conference on Education Leadership

October 14, 20091

This is an extraordinary time to work in education in this country. Everyone here knows the challenges. Everyone here knows we have to get dramatically better. Everyone here knows we have an overwhelming dropout rate of 30 percent, 1.5 million kids every year going out into the streets. Those students leaving school: they’re not all going early to the NBA; Bill Gates isn’t recruiting them early for Microsoft. Those kids from Chicago, Detroit and LA and New York who are leaving 9th and 10th grade: they are basically condemned to poverty and social failure.

So, there’s a huge sense of urgency. You can say we have an economic crisis in the country. I would argue that we have an education crisis as well. Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, has this great line, “Never waste good crises.” So, we have a pretty good crisis in front of us. Crises are often times of huge opportunity, and it’s often frankly when times are tough that you get the kind of fundamental breakthroughs you need. And sometimes those fundamental breakthroughs are actually harder when things are a little bit better.

So, the question for us as a country is: Can we use this moment of crisis and make it an opportunity? We know the challenges. We know the hardships. We know the difficulties. But we also know what’s possible.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel the country to see what’s working and what’s not. And I can tell you, I am so optimistic. I’ve never seen so many high performing schools. So many great teachers. So many great principals. We know what works. We know what’s possible. And for every school that has a 65 percent dropout rate, there’s another school in a similar neighborhood with a 95 percent graduation rate, and 95 percent of those students who graduate are going on to college.

I’ve always said the good ideas are never going to come from Washington. The good ideas are always going to come from great principals and great teachers at the local level doing the good work. What we have a chance to do is to invest in what works and to take it to scale.

We have $100 billion in new money for education. Money alone is never going to solve our problems, but money does help a little bit. And, what we have that the [U.S.] Department [of Education] has never had before is discretionary resources. I talked to [Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod] Paige; he had about $17 million in discretionary resources. We have north of $10 billion.

Think about that: $17 million to $10 billion. Four billion in the Race to the Top fund. Three-point-five billion in school improvement grants to really turn around schools. (I’ll talk more about that.) Money for technology grants. Money for the teacher incentive fund. Opportunity after opportunity. Investment innovation funds: $650 million.

What we want to do is find those states, find those school districts, find those schools, find those non-profits that every single day are beating the odds … and invest and take those things to scale. If it’s working in 2 classrooms, let’s take it to 10. If it’s working in 2 schools let’s take it to 10. If it’s working in 2 school districts, let’s take it to 10. If it’s working in 5 states, then let’s go to 15. And that’s the opportunity we have.

A couple of things that are really, really important to us:

  • We have to raise the bar dramatically. Our standards as a country are far too low and I’ve argued that in many states we are actually lying to children. When the state standards have been dummied down so much that meeting that standard doesn’t mean much, I think we do those children and those communities a great disservice. Now, I frankly come from one of those states – Illinois – where students who were “meeting that state’s standard” are absolutely inadequately prepared to go to a competitive university and graduate. They are barely prepared to graduate from high school. So we have to raise the bar.
  • We have to do a much better job and be much more transparent about tracking our students’ success and tracking their data over time. How much are students gaining each year? I’m a big believer in looking at growth and gain rather than absolute test scores. I think that levels the playing field. I want to know which teachers are helping the students grow the most. And I want to know which schools of education are producing the teachers that are producing the students that are learning the most and really to be very, very transparent around that.
  • In education … great talent matters tremendously. And how do we get great principals and great teachers into our toughest communities? There have been many disincentives to get the best and brightest where we need them most. We need to start trying to figure out a way to make that the capstone of folks’ career, to go into those communities – the inner city urban world, wherever it might be – where the students and communities that have to have the best and brightest to be successful will have that chance. As a country we’ve talked so much about the achievement gap. I’m much more focused on what I call the opportunity gap. If we can close the opportunity gap, I think the achievement gap will take care of itself.
  • And then finally, we want to really challenge the status quo where schools aren’t working. I put schools in a couple of categories. The top 10 percent of our schools are probably among the best 10 percent in the world. Phenomenal schools. We should be learning from them, replicating those and sharing best practices. There are a set of schools in the middle that are improving each year, aren’t at that level yet. But we need to keep supporting those teachers and supporting those principals to get better. [Then] … if we just took the bottom 1 percent … the bottom 1,000 schools each year … and fundamentally challenged the status quo – stopped tinkering around the edges, stopped just playing with it, stopped looking for incremental change, but did something dramatically different – then we could transform the opportunity structure for children and for communities that have been underserved for a long, long time.

We have about 2,000 high schools in the country (it’s not that big a number) … that produce half of our nation’s dropouts. Those 2,000 high schools produce 75 percent of our dropouts from the minority community – our African-American and Latino young boys and girls. That’s just unacceptable. As a country we haven’t been open and honest about that. We have to be willing to challenge the status quo and do some things very differently where things aren’t working for children.

And I’m convinced if we can do all of those things well – raise the bar dramatically; have good assessments behind that; think very, very differently about clarity and transparency around data – if we can get great teachers and great principals working where we need them, and think about turning around struggling schools, we have a chance to dramatically improve the country.

“The dividing line in our country today between the haves and the have-nots is less around race and class than it is around educational opportunity.”

The president has drawn a line in the sand. The president has said that by the year 2020, we need to have the highest percent of college graduates in the world. We used to have that. Go back a couple of decades. We have flat-lined, we have stagnated, and other countries have passed us by. I think we have paid a huge economic cost in that, and I do think that this is the civil rights issue of our generation – that we have to give our children a chance to chase the American dream, and the only way we do that is by giving them a good quality education.

I’m convinced that the dividing line in our country today between the haves and the have-nots is less around race and class than it is around educational opportunity. Children can be very poor and from very tough communities, but if they have a chance to go to great schools, guess what? They’re going to do just fine. And if they don’t have that opportunity, there’s nothing out there for them. So the stakes have never been higher.

All those things work only if we have great principals in our schools … What Wallace has done for the past nine years is shine a spotlight – an increasingly, actually a larger and larger spotlight – on leadership. And, as everyone here knows, there are no good schools in our country without a great principal. It isn’t just a cliché. It just doesn’t exist. And, I’ve found, throughout my time in Chicago, quite the opposite: that you can have a great principal that can build a school slowly for 8, 10, 12 years, and without the right succession plan that school can be a disaster in 6 months. It is much easier to tear this work down than it is to build it up.

And if at the end of the day, our 95,000 schools each had a great principal, this thing would take care of itself. Great principals attract great talent. They nurture that great talent and they develop that great talent. Bad principals are the reverse: bad principals don’t attract good talent, they run off good talent. They don’t find ways to improve those that are trying to get better. They don’t engage the community.

Our principals today, I think, are absolutely CEOs. They have to manage people. They have to be first and foremost instructional leaders. They have to manage multi-million dollar budgets. They have to manage facilities. They have to work with the community. The demands and the stresses on principals have never been greater. …

I’m really challenging ourselves just as much as challenging everyone else around the country. I think in many of these areas the Department of Education, frankly, has been a piece of the problem. We have dramatically under-invested in principal leadership. From a budget of tens of billions of dollars, we’ve put relative peanuts into principal leadership.

So as we go forward with our next budget submission, we want to find a way to really bring more resources to what we think is so hugely important. We want to think about the entire pipeline: how we identify the next generation of great leaders to come into education to become principals; how we also think about not just that early pipeline, but how we make the capstone of a principal’s career going to a tough community.

In many places your best principals end up in your wealthiest communities with the most privileged students. Not that those jobs are easy; those jobs are very, very challenging. But we need the best talent on the front lines.

So how do we think about, as a country, how do we get 1,000 warrior-principals every single year to go into communities that for 10 and 20 and 30 years the dropout rate has been 60 percent, in elementary schools where students are falling further and further behind. How do you get that next generation of great principals to say: “The last 5, the last 8, the last 10 years of my career, I’m going to devote my life to turning around this school and turn around this opportunity structure for this community.”

So, if we can do those things well, if we can really challenge the status quo, I think we can fundamentally break through.

We want to be part of the solution. We want to change our behavior … If we can get this piece right, we’ll change our student’s lives forever. If we don’t get this piece right, we can do all of the other big picture things that we want, but if it’s not happening in real schools, in real classrooms, we’re kidding ourselves. Great principals make it happen, make it a reality day to day.

… And if we can put [principals] in a position to be successful, then we’re part of the solution. If not, we’re part of the problem.

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1. These comments are a lightly-edited transcription of Duncan’s talk. A few of his remarks have been omitted for space or clarity; these cuts are indicated with an ellipsis. A video of the Duncan’s presentation speech is available at Wallace’s web site.