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Prepared Remarks for Secretary Spellings at the Annual PTA Convention i

Ohanian Comment: Reading Margaret Spellings' remarks to the annual PTA convention requires a strong constitution.

The Voiceless Also Deserve a Quality Education
Prepared Remarks for Secretary Spellings at the Annual PTA Convention in Columbus, Ohio

June 24, 2005 Speaker sometimes deviates from text.

Margaret Spellings

As secretary of education, a mom, and a fellow member of the PTA, I am certainly in the right place. This distinguished organization was founded over 100 years ago, at the dawn of the Progressive Movement. Today, we are at a similar turning point.

And you certainly have the leadership in place to accomplish great things. Let's give Linda, Anna, and Warlene another hand.

As you know, I am the first secretary of education with school-age kids. I have two daughters—one is set to go off to college this fall, and another is entering eighth grade. That means I still worry every day about how my girls are doing in school.

In fact, around the time I was confirmed by the Senate in January, my youngest daughter—typically an A or B student—brought home a D in science. I was mortified!

What did I do? I went up to her school and met with her teachers. I wanted to tackle the problem head-on. I wanted to help get her back on track. Afterwards, my daughter said to me, "I hated that you were in my school." I told her "You get your grades up, and I'll get out of your school."

That's the deal we made, and guess what? I haven't had to visit her school for that reason since. In fact, she got an A in science in the next reporting period. How proud was I! And, I'll be getting another report card this afternoon when I return home. I can't wait.

So I am one of millions of parents struggling with how to help my children and interface with their schools. Many of you may have seen Washington Post columnist David Broder's piece this week that underscored the fact that parents support accountability and testing and the need for more information. And that's where the PTA comes in. You're the ones encouraging parents to play a strong role in the education of their child.

So if the parents can't come to the PTA meetings, then the PTA meetings must to go to the parents. That's especially true for the parents who aren't members, of course. The more parents who understand the power of being involved, the more likely they are to support you. In the next five years, our challenge is to reach twice as many parents as we do today.

How are we going to do this? Well, I have to do my part. I am reaching out to the African- American and Hispanic organizations that are already involved in family advocacy and asking for their help. For example, last week we convened 200 of the top Hispanic leaders at the Department of Education to discuss ways we can reach out more effectively within their community to educate parents on the benefits of No Child Left Behind. I promised them a "Hispanic Family Tool Kit" as part of our "Back to School" effort.

And you're doing great outreach with your new PSA campaign, urging parents to ask questions and get involved in their child's daily routine. One of my colleagues heard your PSA on a multi-language station in Washington, D.C., so the message is getting out!

I know how hard it is to compete for attention in the high-speed, interconnected, I-Pod-lovin', 24-7 media-rich world in which we are raising our children. I am living it, and I know you are, too. It's not easy to stay involved in your child's school, especially if you're a single parent like I was, or a parent who doesn't speak English, or a working mom. The PTA is the bridge between the crazy, overscheduled life we all now lead and the highly confusing, often intimidating school system.

I know that firsthand. Once you enter the schoolhouse doors, it can be like walking into a wall of "edu-speak." I can understand why parents get frustrated. It sometimes feels like we're all speaking a different language. I recognize that No Child Left Behind has added a few acronyms to the list as well—AYP, SES, HQT, and so forth. There are also state-level tests that are being added to the alphabet soup. In Virginia, where I live, we have the SOLs (which had a different meaning when I was in school); in Texas, the TAKS; then there's the ISTEP Plus, the MCAS, the FCAT and quite a few others from states across the nation. And that's not to mention curriculum programs like Read 180, Success for All, Waterford, Saxon Math, Direct Instruction, and again, on and on.

To a lot of people, it sounds like mumbo jumbo. And it's our job to make sure parents understand what it means. What is a highly qualified teacher? Do I qualify for free tutoring? Can I change schools? What is a scientifically based approach? And does my school even use it? It even takes the secretary of education a while to understand those school report cards. And it's my job! If I have trouble, I bet lots of other parents do too, especially those for whom English is not their first language.
No Child Left Behind gives parents information about their school's performance; gives parents options if their local school isn't serving their needs; and provides parents free tutoring for their children who are struggling. In fact, the word "parents" is mentioned 651 times in No Child Left Behind. The law puts parents front and center! We as parents now know more about our schools than ever before and have more options to ensure our children's success. Have you looked at your school report card lately?>

Nationally, our collective report card shows that:

* 37 percent of fourth-graders across the nation are below the basic level of reading. Another 32 percent are just at basic. That means over two-thirds of our students aren't proficient readers by fourth grade. Think about that!
* The dropout rate for Hispanic students is almost four times higher than the rate for white students. And it's over double the rate for African-Americans.

Unfortunately, I could go on and on. We are at a tipping point and I am not the only one saying it.

Innovators like Microsoft founder and Chairman Bill Gates and Intel Chairman Craig Barrett are focused on the workforce of the future. They are both extremely committed to education and have come in to discuss with me how our children are not prepared in math and science to take on the jobs of the 21st century. Our global competitors understand the importance of education in this knowledge economy. That's why, over the last decade, India increased its number of students enrolled in college by 92 percent. Over one-third of all bachelor's degrees awarded in China were in engineering. Compare that to the U.S. where less than 6 percent of bachelor's degrees were in engineering.

Thomas Friedman, in his new book, The World Is Flat, writes that as of the year 2000, nearly 40 percent of scientists and engineers with Ph.D.s in the U.S. workforce were foreign-born. We also don't have the teachers we need to keep a steady flow of scientists in the pipeline.

My deputy, Ray Simon, who was the state education chief in Arkansas before he came to D.C., notes that the teacher training institutions in his home state produced 1,193 physical education majors over a five-year period. And only ONE physics major. That's a ratio of almost 1,200 to ONE!!

He later found out that the one-and-only physics major moved out of the state and is no longer teaching. How do we expect to lead the world in innovation, in math and science, with facts like these?

I just got back from Japan where I saw the country's commitment to education first-hand. The Japanese are busy investing in math and science. Their children are working harder, longer hours, and the majority are taking more rigorous course work. They understand math and science are the new currency. For example, their 15-year-olds are ranked at number 4 in mathematics and we are 24th!

But what are we worried about here in our country? Red vs. purple ink. I hear stories about teachers needing to use so-called "friendly" purple ink instead of the "angrier" red. I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, "All children are honored at [a certain] Elementary school [in my area]." Of course we honor all children, but we really need to honor and educate them all. I hear teachers stopping the use of grades for fear of hurt feelings and parents who are more focused on high school football than academics. The good news is that No Child Left Behind forces us as a nation to focus on what really matters—the education of all of our children.

I recently encountered a mother who told me that her school "had some of those Nickleby kids." It took me a little while to understand what she meant. "Nickleby" wasn't referring to Dickens. It was a reference to No Child Left Behind kids. NCLB. It was said in a derogatory way, like the school was being dragged down because of these children.

So who are these Nickelby kids? The voiceless ones who slipped through the system because they were someone else's problem. They were in someone else's school. But you know what? They weren't. And aren't. They are in almost every school. Your child's school. My daughters' school. And they are gifted young people with much to offer our communities, our country, and our world.

There are attitudes that must be overcome within the schools themselves. For example, the principal of an elementary school in Mesa, Arizona, was quoted in his local paper as saying, "Educators know the truth but are afraid to say it: All children cannot learn." But we know they can, and they will.

So we have double duty: to advocate for all children, not just your own; and to make your community care about all children as well. That's a tall order. How do you make people care about something they don't consider to be their problem? Well, achievement for all students MUST matter to all of us. At some point in the future, if 40 percent of Americans don't have the skills to hold a job, we'll see crime, hopelessness, and despair on the rise.

I am standing here today to tell you that it is imperative for our country's long-term health and well-being to care about every single child.

The PTA is an organization that can help tackle negative attitudes head-on. Over a century ago, Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst started your organization at a time when social activism wasn't as fashionable. In fact, they did not even have the right to vote. Yet these two brave souls vowed then, as you do now, to focus "all mankind and all womankind, regardless of race, color, or condition, [on] the republic's greatest work: to save the children." Not some children, but all children. Just like No Child Left Behind does.

And the good news is that three years into this law, we are making real progress, not only in attitudes but also in results.

Just listen to the words of a Maryland superintendent, as printed in the Baltimore Sun: "'We prodded; we goaded,' [Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Betty] Morgan said. 'People said to us, 'Our kids don't go to college.' What we wanted to do was create higher expectations, to say, 'Yes, every kid can.'"

As a result of those efforts and that can-do attitude, last June, 93 percent of that county's South High's seniors graduated, compared with 74 percent in 2000. In third grade reading, 63 percent of Hispanic students reached or exceeded proficiency, up from 39 percent in 2003. Three times as many students sat for AP exams as in 2000. Now that's impressive!

We need to help every educator with an attitude like the one in Mesa hear the can-do attitude of that educator in Maryland.

We're starting to see that can-do attitude pay off in states across the nation. In New York, the achievement gap in fourth-grade English continues to close. African-American and Hispanic students especially continue to make significant gains. For the first time, a majority achieved all the standards, including over 57 percent of Hispanic students, up from 26 percent in 1999. We've seen similar gains in Maryland and Georgia as well. And a recent poll has found that a plurality of parents have a good opinion of the law.

Nationally, students are taking advantage of what the law has to offer. For instance, in 2003-04, 220,000 students across the nation got free tutoring because of No Child Left Behind. And at least 30,000 students have enrolled in new schools. That number continues to rise. As soon as more parents take advantage of No Child Left Behind, achievement is going to go up even more. We are at the beginning of this journey.

You have such a unique role to play in the overall success of No Child Left Behind. You are a "non-vested stakeholder." You are not on the payroll. You are not captive to the system. You work outside the system to make the system better and are free to ask the toughest questions. You do what you do because you want to, because you believe that all kids deserve to be educated. You serve the kids in the system, not the grown-ups. Your mission explicitly states that your focus is on the parents and the children. That's a unique and important responsibility.

Every one of us in this room has a moral imperative to ensure that every child has the opportunity to be well educated. We MUST maintain our worldwide leadership role as a civic democracy. Our nation was founded on the ideal that every citizen counts and that every person can achieve the American Dream. We all know the ticket to success is a solid educational foundation.

We have a new audience for a new message. Two people that understand that well and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal are Shawn Arevalo McCollough and Ester Parker.

Shawn, principal of Gainesville Elementary School in Georgia, met with parents in a laundromat. He went door-to-door getting parents involved in their children's education. Ester, who is with us today, led a statewide campaign in Maryland called "M-PAC" (Maryland's Parent Advisory Council) that is engaging parents like never before. She has pounded the pavement—district-by-district—listening to parents and finding ways to meet their needs. As she told me earlier this month, she knows when to wear the pearls, and she knows when to get tough and take them off!!

She is dedicated to ensuring that parents—specifically those whose children are most in need of No Child Left Behind—are included and welcomed in the schools. And of course encouraged to join the PTA! I am asking Ester to work with me in modeling many of her successes in areas not yet touched by the PTA or the Department of Education. Thanks, Ester!

So as I close, I first want to thank you for the extraordinarily important work that you are doing in schools all over America. Second, if invited back next year I'd like to measure the progress we've both made doubling the number of parents involved in the schools. Third, I would like to ask you to pledge to take your talents and skills into those communities not lucky enough to have a PTA.

The future of our democracy, our economy and our quality of life depends on it. Every child deserves an advocate—and those advocates are you and me. All of us.

Thank you again for inviting me here today.

— Marget Spellings
U. S. Department of Education


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