Someone Else’s Children

Commencement Address to USC Rossier Graduate School of Education

Hello, Rossier! To Dean Gallagher, the Board of Councilors, faculty, staff, and especially the graduates, it is an honor to join you on this special day.

Let me start, on behalf of the Senate, by thanking USC.

In an era of attacks on the free press, the “fake” news, and it seems, truth itself, you have given a platform to the gold-standard of journalism in our time: America’s Anchorman, Ron Burgundy.

I tested that joke on my daughters, and 60 percent of the time, it worked every time.

Rossier, increasingly, Americans pursue one set of concerns — their families, their businesses, their communities — while Washington pursues another. That is especially true for education, which seldom earns attention in our politics or media. Just consider how many questions K-12 education received during last year’s presidential debates — the answer is zero.

That is unfortunate — because if we examine what Americans truly value, education ranks at the top.

Education leads families to move to neighborhoods they can’t afford for a decent school for their kids; it makes bleary-eyed parents rise before dawn to pack their kid’s bag, then fight exhaustion to read with them before bed; and it led many of you to mortgage your future to pay for your degree.

Your sacrifice is even more noteworthy, because you have dedicated your education to the education of others.

Before I say anything else, I’d like to thank you for making that noble and necessary choice.

Today, I want to focus you on a choice that none of us made. One of the enduring truths of being a human is that we don’t get to choose our parents. We don’t choose to be born to a home of wealth or poverty, or a home that values books and learning, or one which, for whatever reason, does not. That is the lottery of life. And yet in America, that lottery’s outcome almost always determines educational outcomes.

Let’s consider what conditions we’ve tolerated in this country for a child born, through no fault of her own, into poverty in our country — the richest, most innovative, and most powerful in history.

By age four, a girl born into poverty will hear 30 million fewer words than her more affluent peers. When she’s older, what is the likelihood her neighborhood school will meet her needs; how about a school a mile away; or even five miles away? Not high in many of American cities and rural communities. When she reaches the fourth grade, her chances of being a proficient reader are one in five. Earning a college degree? One in ten.

Would any of us accept those odds for our children? Would any Senator or cable pundit accept those odds for theirs? Of course not.

The truth is that, for generations, we have treated America’s children in poverty like they were someone else’s. And so the question is: what is our obligation as a nation to remedy the burden of bad luck for millions of children?

At a minimum, I believe it means we have a moral duty to assure that less fortunate kids have educational opportunities to fulfill their God-given potential.

What would the education debate look like if we fulfilled this duty, if we treated the country’s children as our own?

Surely we would:

Provide every child access to early childhood education from age zero to age five. We’d ensure every child can attend a high performing school from kindergarten to 12th grade. We’d enable every young person to pursue higher education without bankrupting her family.

If these goals seem obvious — even unimaginative — to many Senators, that is because many of us take them for granted for our own children. But for any children living in poverty, these goals are as out of reach as flying to the moon.

Rossier, we must put these goals in reach and treat America’s children as our own. That starts with rejecting the notion that poverty and a bad education are inseparable; that children in urban school districts should expect another 20 years like the last 20 years; that we can’t break down what’s wrong with our schools and what’s right, so that all our kids, at long last, have what they are due as Americans.

I know change is possible; we see it in my hometown of Denver. There, we envisioned a future where every child had a great school in her neighborhood. We asked high school students — whom so many had counted out — to meet the highest graduation requirements in the State.

And while none of us, least of all me, are satisfied with outcomes today, more of Denver’s kids make progress each year. Compared to a decade ago, 62 percent more kids graduated this year, with a 120 percent increase in Latino graduates.

At the same time, drop-outs fell 60 percent. Successful AP exams tripled. Sixty-seven percent more students enrolled in college, and Denver posted the second fastest academic growth in the country for any district with over 25,000 students.

And despite that progress, no one is satisfied. No one is content. We still have an infuriating achievement gap, and too many of our kids still face persistent, structural barriers to a quality education.

The good news for all of you is that schools are human institutions; they can change if we summon the will and the imagination. And we must, because across America, we need to change profoundly how we educate our kids.

Let’s start by rejecting the notion that an education system designed deep in the last century (or even the century before that) can deliver for 21st kids. A century ago, discrimination forced working women to become either nurses or teachers and stay in that profession for life. Thankfully, the world has evolved. But our system of recruiting, developing, and retaining teachers has not.

We are in a new landscape, where talented women have endless options, but also where technology has transformed how we use information and the skills kids need for good jobs. And with inequality reaching levels in this country not seen since 1928, modernizing education becomes even more vital.

We need to start by fostering a society that fully values teaching as America’s engine of opportunity.

There is no job harder in America than teaching in a high-poverty school. My colleagues may not realize it, but it is certainly harder than serving in the U.S. Senate.

More than anyone else in our country, teachers will define the potential of our prosperity.

So let’s reward teachers for serving in high-need areas and delivering results. Let’s value them as resources for kids, but also for each other and the broader community. Let’s offer teachers diverse career options beyond simply repeating the same thing year after year, or abandoning their passion to work in administration.

These outdated incentives produce not just a market failure, but a moral failure for our country.

That is why, today in Denver, you will find teachers teaching peers (and being paid for it), joining colleagues as co-instructors, and helping students with targeted interventions. At our best, a school in Denver is a place not just for children to learn but for teachers to come and perfect their craft as teachers.

For our kids to attain a 21st century education, teaching must become a 21st century profession — supported, respected, and revered.

I know it is easy to speak about these things. I know it is easy to call for them in speeches. But changing the incentives, transforming the systems — that is hard.

Believe me, I’m still recovering the sleep I lost as Superintendent. And this President’s tweets are not helping.

Fixing a system that has been broken for decades can prove frustrating in a culture hungry for instant results. And many people I’ve known have given up. Others blame broader forces affecting student learning, like healthcare and housing, and lower expectations for what schools and classrooms can do.

All of you — as future educators, administrators, counselors — will wade into this. I’m sorry to break it to you, but almost nothing about it is going to be easy.

Because your job is not to keep things the same, for that is no better than accepting the cruel results we see for our kids.

Your job is to make change, to transform schools, to lead the debate in this country. And that means revolutionizing the craft of teaching by trying new methods and questioning how things are done. Questioning things you were taught in this place. And by the way, that will help all kids regardless of their families’ income. That won’t always make you popular, but you’ve got to persevere. Because as hard as it may get for you, the kids have it harder.

And I know that some of you have sat in those chairs and have sat in those seats. So you know how hard it can be. I’ve met kids who wake up at 5:30 am and take three buses so they can attend a better school across town; who squeeze homework in between midnight shifts at a fast food restaurant that help pay the rent; who poured their heart into schoolwork only to learn in the 9th grade that college is not for them because of an immigration status they didn’t even know they had.

They have it hard.

We have a responsibility to ease their burden and to brighten their future.

For in that work lies not only their future, but the future of our entire country.

Especially now, when sacred institutions of this country have come under attack, when the truth itself feels besieged, we turn to teachers to ensure our youngest Americans appreciate our oldest values.

To preserve the American spirit that drew Lena’s parents here from Egypt and Syria 40 years ago; to sort out “fake news” from fact; to help students place today’s prejudice in the arc of our broader progress; and to appreciate their power as citizens to push us ever forward.

We ask that of you today, and tomorrow.

It is also right that you should ask all of us, your fellow Americans, to strive for an economy that better supports our middle class and those striving for it; reforms a criminal justice system to better serve our communities; fixes broken immigration laws to keep families together; and expands healthcare and nutrition so kids come to school only hungry to learn.

You are right to expect that of us, and we should deliver that to you.

For all Americans need to come to understand that the fate of our democracy lies in your classrooms; that the crisscrossing paths of our children will weave America’s future; that your work provides our greatest chance to fulfill the founders’ great hope that out of many, we would become one.

Thank you, Rossier.

And congratulations to all the graduates and their families!

Remarks as delivered by Senator Michael Bennet at USC Rossier Graduate School of Education on May 12, 2017.