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Back-to-School Address by Secretary Paige to National Press Club

This is the prepared text of U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige's annual back-to-school address to the National Press Club in Washington.

Thank you. When President Bush took office in January 2001, he saw an educational system in crisis, unprepared to meet this nation's 21st century needs.

The President saw that the majority of students pass through our educational system could not read proficiently. And even fewer achieved proficiency in mathematics or science.

Because he believed that the education of our children is our greatest national responsibility, the core of our democracy, and the source of our freedom, he made reforming our educational system one of his highest priorities.

The President understood that the system needed more than incremental tinkering or small adjustments; it needed major change.

He also understood that the powerful forces of stasis would not allow the needed reform unless the American people themselves rose up and demanded change. Thus, the needed reform would require bipartisan congressional support. What he really wanted was an educational revolution.

On his fourth day in office, the President proposed the No Child Left Behind Act, and with bipartisan support it became the law of the land. The President wanted emancipation for students and parents, and a guarantee of the full promise of our democracy.

Today I would like to discuss the reasons why this revolution was necessary and to give you a report on its progress.

First, some good news. I am pleased to report that many of our K-12 schools are the finest in the world, with outstanding teachers, visionary administrators, and quality resources. Some schools are amazing success stories and make for great news copy, radio actualities, and TV interviews.

These schools are not always in the suburbs, either. They may be in Harlem or Helena, West Chicago or East L.A., Charlotte or Charlottesville, Durham or Denver. Many of them are public schools. There is much for which we can be proud.

But that is not the full story. I wish it were. There are many schools in this same great country of ours that let students leave without teaching them anything.

In those schools time passes slowly. Students attend--they sit there--but don't learn. Teachers speak, but the words are often meaningless, or they fall on deaf ears.

The atmosphere of disregard confirms the student's suspicion that they have already been written off, and that no one really cares if they learn or not. For those passing through these schools, their soul withers, as their lives are wasted.

In such situations, education most closely resembles a holding action, as students mark time and wait to be thrust out into a competitive job market, armed with few skills and little hope.

These students are cheated. They are robbed of the enrichment and empowerment that comes with education. They can never get their elementary or high school years back.

We are facing an unrecognized educational crisis in this country. Our wide and sometimes growing achievement gap confirms that there is a two-tiered educational system.

For the lucky few, their education is the best in the world; virtually ensuring those students have wonderful opportunities for further education, economic security, professional rewards, and personal freedom.

For others, there is an under-performing system. Students come to school, but find little education. The vast majority of students left behind are disadvantaged or low-income.

Effectively, the education circumstances for these students are not unlike that of a de facto system of apartheid. We can document this disparity. Last month, there were many "good news" stories about the national jump in the latest SAT scores.

The headlines read: "Student scores on the SAT rise to all-time high." Yes, this is some welcome news, but if we delve a little deeper, another story unfolds--one that didn't make headlines or copy.

Even as the headlines say "SAT Scores Rise," closer observation reveals that the scores for African American SAT test-takers didn't rise, they remained flat. And Hispanic students' scores actually went down over previous years. Thus, we celebrate by overlooking disparities, disagreeable conclusions, and disadvantaged students.

By the time they reach twelfth grade, only one in six African Americans and one in five Hispanics can read proficiently. Math scores are even worse: only 3 percent of African American and 4 percent of Hispanic students are testing at the proficient level.

To put it bluntly, our K-12 system is not serving some kids well. We let these young children sit quietly in the back of class, while we celebrate because some of our students are succeeding.

These statistics show that there is an education gap in this country; there is also an education gap with other countries. Internationally, our students are falling behind students in other countries.

Two weeks ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a disturbing report. The findings show American students are being rapidly overtaken by students in many other countries. American students read, write, and do math at rates lower than students in Asia and Europe.

This is a shocking report, especially because it also documents that we spend more per student than any of the other OECD countries.

Yet, we receive modest results.

Our students are falling behind, and there is every indication that, if we allow the guardians of the educational status quo to have their way, we will continue to fall behind. And our nation will be left behind.

The report makes it unarguably clear, that if current educational attainments are allowed to continue, underachievement will be a disaster, not only for our students, but our nation as well. Educational disparities threaten the country itself, our very way of life.

Our nation has prospered and is strong. But the world is not static. The world is moving forward and becoming even more complex and intertwined.

Time is speeding on, and forcing us into a race with destiny, into an impending revolution fueled by rapid change, global competitiveness, and yet undefined international relationships.

Civilizations rise and fall depending upon the quality of education. H.G. Wells said, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." We face an uncertain future.

Unless improvements are made, American students will not be competitive with students in other countries, dooming future generations to less opportunity, greater levels of poverty, and further disparities in health status.

The OECD report shows that nearly every European country has made sizeable gains in educational achievement. What this means for the U.S. is that the rest of the world is catching up to us.

Today, our high school graduation rates fall short of the OECD average. These results highlight an extremely important truth about our educational system: we have become complacent, self-satisfied and often lacking the will to do better.

The OECD report shows the urgency of our task at hand: we must improve our educational system before the rest of the world leaves us behind.

Our children and grandchildren's world will be even more complex, inter-related, and global. Can anyone earnestly say that our current education system is preparing them for this world?

In the future, I fear only the well educated will have the necessary skills, insight, and imagination to succeed.

Those who are unprepared will sit on the sidelines, confronting poverty, dead-end jobs, and hopelessness. They will find little choice and much despair. The well educated will live in a world of their own choosing; the poorly educated will wander in the shadows.

This isn't just about jobs...it is also about quality of life. A sound education gives purpose. It provides companionship and solace. It enriches the mind and spirit.

We cannot deny the benefits of education through shortsighted indifference or lack of will. Nor can we capitulate to the guardians of the status quo. The achievement of all our children must improve, across the board. No child can be left behind.

Education matters to all of us. The ripple effect of underachievement touches all Americans. Our citizens pay a huge economic and social price for under-educated citizens.

Welfare rates rise. Poverty increases. Health status diminishes. Tax money is spent to care for those who cannot care for themselves. We find greater strains on Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. Prices increase to cover rising costs of insurance, job re-training, job-related accidents, disability, and poor productivity. Under-employment becomes larger if workers can't hold full-time jobs. Violence, crime, substandard housing, hunger, and disintegration of the family are all linked to low educational attainment.

We must be mindful that we live in an interconnected world.

What affects one part of one community affects the entire community. We cannot be satisfied if even one child is left behind. We all must work together to solve this problem.

This division must end, not by lowering the standards for the lucky, but by raising the quality of education for all of our children. We know such an effort can make a difference.

Here is an example of our task, the remarkable story of Lee Alderman. He was a transfer student from a private school in Northern Virginia. He transferred by choice, moving to Cardozo High School, a public school in a financially disadvantaged area of the District.

And he was a special education student, confronting autism. His development was slow in the early years. But his mom fought for Lee to get a quality education. And the school gave him the attention he needed.

Lee thrived and achieved every academic success. Two years ago, he graduated as valedictorian. He is now in college on a full academic scholarship. Don't tell me every child can't learn. Every child is a potential Lee Alderman.

So the upside is this: we can do this. The President and the Congress have given us the tools we need to reform our educational system--the No Child Left Behind Act.

Because of No Child Left Behind, we will make progress. In the past few weeks, millions of our children have made a pilgrimage back to their schools.

When they crossed the campus threshold, they entered a new era. Yes, many of their same teachers are still there. The buildings are swept and cleaned, and they still look the same. Yet, something is different.

For the first time in the history of our nation, every state in our nation has an accountability plan that holds all schools and all students in their state to high standards.

For the first time in our nation parents and teachers have the information they need to work together to make sure no child is left behind. Every child counts.

Here is a story within a story. It may surprise a lot of you that schools that get an "A" from their state education agency--schools that are on Newsweek's "best schools" list--are suddenly and surprisingly also on another list: schools that under No Child Left Behind are considered "in need of improvement."

Parents more than likely react to this new fact with bewilderment. How can their school be on both lists, they ask. The answer is that some evaluations use group averages, which can hide poorly performing students, while No Child Left Behind counts all students.

They may even be upset that their school received what they perceive as a scarlet letter because a few subgroups didn't make the grade thanks to the new federal law.

And that may make them angry, understandably. But full accountability means telling the entire story, and then acting to correct deficits.

No Child Left Behind is a tough law. But it's a good law. It focuses attention on the children who most need our help; but it benefits all children. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, I'm proud to report that all across the country, communities are making progress in reforming their schools.

This fall, parents in economically disadvantaged school districts can get information about how well their school is performing, about their teacher's qualifications, and about whether their school is safe.

Schools and teachers will have detailed information about their students' achievement, so that they can adapt their lessons and better serve ALL their students.

Parents of students attending high-need schools will receive a letter telling them they have options if their child's school hasn't made sufficient progress over the last couple years. And they will find that this year they have more federal funding, the highest federal support in history.

Many of you know this law has its critics. There has been resistance... stern opposition. We shouldn't be surprised. There are significant, powerful forces entrenched in the old ways... mired in self-interest. They are the old guard... the keepers of the status quo.

Measuring results is a hallmark of the private sector, where management has to be held accountable to their shareholders. Yet, for many, this same accountability is unwelcome in education. But we must have it.

We must be held accountable for our results to our stakeholders: students, parents, and the taxpayers. There are some who are fighting this change in the classroom, in the faculty lounge, in the school board rooms, in the mayor's office, or before the city council. Some are going higher, to the state house and to Capitol Hill.

Some don't believe all children can learn. They say it's silly to have a goal of all children being proficient by 2014. I would ask them what percentage should be our goal? Who will judge which children to leave behind?

Some find their special interests threatened. Some argue we have the right idea, but the wrong approach. Some claim we are underfunding and they will engage in a game of inside-the-Beltway semantics, with talk about "authorizations" and "appropriations" levels.

I understand. Education is a national priority and it is complex and it needs debate.

I welcome analysis of No Child Left Behind and the process in place. That's the whole point... we need information and healthy discussion. We will learn from experience. But those who oppose this law simply to fight change are on the failed side of history.

For example, in the last few weeks, some critics have questioned our fiscal commitment. They claim that we simply need to spend more money on the old system. That would be a big mistake.

We've already tried spending more money on the system with no measurement of results. That didn't work. In fact, we've tried it for the last three decades.

As a nation, we now spend over $470 billion dollars a year on K-12 education--more than on defense. My question to the critics is this: what would they purchase with more money? More programs that don't work? More mediocrity? More poor policy and bad administrative decisions?

Don't be duped, it's not that we don't spend enough. We spend enough for better results. We spend more than many other nations, and still get poor results.

The time to hide inefficiency or mediocrity is past. If money alone determined quality, then the highest spending school districts should be the best. They often are not. Some of the lowest spending school districts produce the highest student achievement. We need to find more efficient and fair ways to use our fiscal resources.

One of the most controversial educational reforms under discussion lately--and one fought the hardest by the guardians of the status quo--have been opportunity scholarships for the District of Columbia's children.

These scholarships would allow some parents to move their children into a school of their choice. These scholarships emancipate both parents and students. They end the tired and self-satisfying monopolistic control of education, by allowing for choice and the pursuit of quality.

I was very pleased to see the House of Representatives approve choice for students in the District of Columbia. I am following the Senate's actions very closely.

And I particularly want to applaud the courage of Mayor Tony Williams, Councilman Kevin Chavous, and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. I have asked them to join us here today.

Opportunity scholarships equal school improvement. That's all any of us want. There are some who think No Child Left Behind is a process to "dummy-down" schools. That is not true. It is a process to make each school excellent, to make each school academically successful.

Every parent should welcome this process. Education is an act of trust. Parents expect educators to perform competently and proficiently. They trust that educators know their subject. No Child Left Behind provides a guarantee that we are doing everything possible to honor the trust placed in us, to maximize the learning experience for each student, and to provide the best possible future for each child.

There are some who think accountability won't work. They are wrong--of course it will. It is the lack of accountability that has gotten us into this mess.

With accountability, schools have a powerful tool to monitor the progress of their students. Tests that evaluate a student's progress are the key to serving them.

Now, once we know what doesn't work, we will fix it. And we will continue to use what is working. It's just common sense.

There are some who worry we have placed the emphasis on tests, not teaching. I am surprised by the debate about the need for tests. How else can we measure if students are learning?

Some worry that instruction will center on "teaching to the test." But there is nothing wrong with "teaching to the test," if you are testing something that students need to learn.

Testing allows us to highlight the places that most need our help--so we can give them the help they need. The results of these tests will determine whether schools have made the grade or "Adequate Yearly Progress."

When a school is identified and placed on the "needs improvement" list, resources are targeted to get them back on track. And everyone springs into action. There is no hostile takeover or mass exodus. Rather, schools will have an entire community focused on improving achievement for all its students.

No Child Left Behind also puts an emphasis on teaching because we know that teacher quality has a direct effect on student achievement.

A good teacher often outweighs the negative effects of all the other challenges a disadvantaged child might shoulder when he or she walks into the classroom.

I know many, many teachers who have made extraordinary sacrifices to share the gift of learning. The new law requires that teachers be highly qualified by their state's definition. Again, that's common sense.

We are committed to working in partnership with the states to meet the goal of having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, not just in schools in economically well-off districts.

But the greatest opposition will come precisely because many people fear change itself.

They like the habits and consistency of repeating the past, even if repetition means disaster for millions of American students. They fear this revolution.

Let us remember that education is the road out of poverty, it is the best weapon against racism, the best correlate to good health, and vital to the continued growth of our economy.

Forty-one years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, spoke at this podium about the need for greater accountability--a guarantee that all Americans enjoyed a full measure of the promise of the American dream. The Civil Rights Act was a landmark in extending political and economic equality to all Americans.

I believe that No Child Left Behind is the logical next step, for it extends educational equality to all Americans. The American Dream begins with, and demands, a meaningful, sound education.

Quality education is a right that must be protected and fulfilled for every child in our country. Such an education is the foundation upon which we will build their future, and the future of this great nation.

In the months and years to come, we will travel a long and hard road. Educational reform must overcome many hurdles, just as the civil rights struggle encountered barriers and obstacles. But we can, and we will, extend the educational franchise to provide quality education to every child.

I find inspiration in the counsel offered by Nelson Mandela. He ends his magnificent autobiography with these words: "We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and more difficult road.... The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning. I have walked that long road to freedom... I have taken a moment... to look back on the distance I have come.... But I can rest only for a moment... and I dare not linger, for my walk is not ended."

Our walk is just beginning. Let's walk together.


— Rod Paige
Education in America: The Complacency Must End
National Press Club


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