Reauthorization of ESEA: Why We Can't Wait
The global achievement gap is growing. The president has challenged us to boost our college completion rate to 60% by the end of the next decade.
We want to be first in the world again and to get there we cannot waste a minute. Every year counts. Every class counts. Every child counts.
And so the work of reauthorizing ESEA begins in states and districts across America--among educators and policy makers, parents and community leaders.
Our task is to unite education stakeholders behind a national school reform movement that reaches into every town and city-- and we need your help to do it.
In the coming weeks, two people who are developing our proposal will convene these conversations -- Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development Carmel Martin--and Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Thelma Melendez. I will attend as often as possible as will other members of our staff. To begin the conversation, I want to take you back to a few years before the original ESEA was passed in 1965.
I want to take you back to 1963 -- to a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama where a courageous young Black preacher fighting to end segregation was illegally confined for three days after being arrested for leading non-violent protests in the city. He had nothing to pass the time except for local newspapers--one of which ran an open letter from several White clergymen urging patience and faith and encouraging Blacks to take their fight for integration out of the streets and into the courts.
That preacher wrote a response to those White clergymen in the margins of a newspaper. It was Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail--one of the most powerful and moving pieces of writing I have ever read.
It ran almost 7000 words and eloquently made the case for non-violent civil disobedience --precisely because state and local governments continued to drag their feet in integrating schools and communities and the judicial path would take too long. This was nine years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violated the constitution, but most minorities were still isolated in their own classrooms. Many still are today and we must work together to change that.
The Birmingham letter explained why Blacks could not wait for judges across America to hear their cases and issues their rulings. Blacks had been waiting for centuries and--with Dr. King's leadership--they would wait no longer.
Even many of King's allies in the civil rights movement--like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP--and Thurgood Marshall who would later serve on the Supreme Court -- were urging the legal route--in part to avoid confrontations for fear that they would lead to violence-- as they eventually did in Birmingham.
King had to convince them as well, that they could not wait. As he told them, justice too long delayed is justice denied.
Now I mention this because we are now in our fifth decade of ESEA--nearly half a century of education reform and direct federal involvement in this state and local issue. We've had five decades of reforms, countless studies, watershed reports like A Nation At Risk, and repeated affirmations and commitments from the body politic to finally make education a national priority. And yet we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future.
We're still waiting to get great teachers and principals into underperforming schools. We're still waiting for a testing and accountability system that accurately and fairly measures student growth and uses data to drive instruction and teacher evaluation.
We're still waiting for America to replace an agrarian 19th century school calendar with an information age calendar that increases learning time on a par with other countries. We're still waiting and we can't wait any longer.
Despite some measurable progress in narrowing achievement gaps, boosting college enrollment and developing innovative learning models, we are still waiting for the day when we can take success to scale in poor as well as wealthy communities--in rural, urban and suburban communities.
For too many of our children -- the promise of an excellent education has never materialized. We remain complacent about education reform--distracted by tired arguments and divided by the politics of the moment.
We can't let that happen. In this new century and in this global economy, it is not only unacceptable to delay and defer needed reforms-- it's self-destructive. We can't allow so much as one more day to go by without advancing our education agenda.
We need to bring a greater sense of urgency to this task--built around our collective understanding that there is no more important work in society than educating children and nothing should stand in our way-- not adult dysfunction, not politics, and not fear of change. We must have the courage to do the right thing.
And to those who say that we can't do this right now--we need more time to prepare and study the problem--or the timing and the politics isn't right--I say that our kids can't wait and our future won't wait.
When the ministers in Birmingham told King his protests were untimely King responded: "I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well-timed..."
This is our responsibility and our opportunity and we can't let it to slip away. The President has talked a lot about responsibility. He's challenged parents and students to step up and do more. He's challenged teachers and principals to step up ;and do more.
He's called on business and community leaders and elected officials at every level of government to step up and do more.
Education is everyone's responsibility-- and you who represent millions of people across this country with a direct stake in the outcome of reauthorization-- have a responsibility as well-- to step up and do more. It's not enough to define the problem. We've had that for 50 years. We need to find solutions-- based on the very best evidence and the very best ideas.
So today I am calling on all of you to join with us to build a transformative education law that offers every child the education they want and need-- a law that recognizes and reinforces the proper role of the federal government to support and drive reform at the state and local level.
Let's build a law that respects the honored, noble status of educators--who should be valued as skilled professionals rather than mere practitioners and compensated accordingly.
Let us end the culture of blame, self-interest and disrespect that has demeaned the field of education. Instead, let's encourage, recognize, and reward excellence in teaching and be honest with each other about its absence.
Let us build a law that demands real accountability tied to growth and gain in the classroom--rather than utopian goals--a law that encourages educators to work with children at every level--and not just the ones near the middle who can be lifted over the bar of proficiency with minimal effort.
Let us build a law that discourages a narrowing of curriculum and promotes a wellrounded education that draws children into sciences and history, languages and the arts in order to build a society distinguished by both intellectual and economic prowess.
Let us build a law that brings equity and opportunity to those who are economically disadvantaged, or challenged by disabilities or background--a law that finally responds to King's inspiring call for equality and justice from the Birmingham jail and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Let us build an education law that is worthy of a great nation--a law that our children and their children will point to as a decisive moment in America's history-- a law that inspires a new generation of young people to go into teaching--and inspires all America to shoulder responsibility for building a new foundation of growth and possibility.
I ask all of us here today--and in school buildings and communities across America--to roll up our sleeves and work together and get beyond differences of party, politics and philosophy.
Let us finally and fully devote ourselves to meeting the promises embedded in our founding documents--of equality, opportunity, liberty--and above all -- the pursuit of happiness.
More than any other issue, education is the civil rights issue of our generation and it can't wait -- because tomorrow won't wait--the world won't wait--and our children won't wait.
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