Inequality and Education

The U.S. Senate committee that oversees education is preparing to debate a bill to fix No Child Left Behind. Our office has been working with the committee’s chairman, Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and its senior Democrat, Patty Murray, from Washington. Together, we might actually be able to rise above political dysfunction to pass a bill.

Last week, I spoke on the Senate floor and urged my colleagues to work together to pass a bipartisan update that modernizes No Child Left Behind to improve equity and accountability, spur innovation, and provide greater flexibility for our schools. We should modernize the law to help break the cycle of poverty that often predetermines whether a child has a chance at educational opportunity and economic mobility. I also suggested the creation of a standing committee in the Senate focused exclusively on our children and their future.

I thought you might be interested in this speech. You can watch the video or read the text below.

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Mr. President:
I rise to talk about our schools but really to talk about our values and our morality; what we stand for as a country. To ask whether we are able to look forward and create a better future for our children. And so to set the record straight, let me be clear — when it comes to our children, I have fallen short — you have fallen short — this body has fallen short. Let me explain why.
We’ve learned in the last couple of weeks that over half of the public school children in this country are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced lunch at school; children who, through no fault of their own, are reaping the whirlwind of 15 years of stagnant middle-class family income and the effects of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
By many measures, Colorado’s economy leads the Nation’s, but, even in my home state, we see more children living in poverty. In fact, the number of children in poverty is growing faster in Colorado than in most of the 50 states.
As a country, and as a state, we are making a lot of progress in a number of dimensions, but we are headed in the wrong direction when it comes to our kids. That’s a bad sign for any country, but particularly for a democracy that aspires to be the land of opportunity.
You see, a girl in poverty in the United States is five times more likely to become a young single mother than a child from a middle class family, and a boy in poverty is twice as likely to be incarcerated as his middle class peers. Children from low-income families in this country are about three times less likely to graduate from high school on time.
Someone from a family in poverty stands only a nine in 100 chance of earning a college degree; the equivalent number for children in the top quarter of income earners is almost 80 out of 100.
In other words, in a way that is profoundly at war with our founding ideals, poverty breeds deeper poverty; lack of educational achievement breeds deeper academic failure; and broken families are the surest predictor of more broken families in the next generation and the generation beyond that.
This is a sentence of unequal opportunity for all poor Americans, no matter the color of their skin. It is a generational sentence for 7 out of 10 children who will remain at the bottom of the income scale.
Are there people who defy these odds? Of course, there are. As superintendent of the Denver Public Schools and in this job, I have met scores of children who have overcome the odds; sometimes alone, but often, also, with the help of a parent who would not quit; a teacher who would not take no for an answer; a former gang member whose sworn duty was to keep youngsters out of gangs; a philanthropist who insisted that Denver’s kids would go to college. In these exceptional children, I have seen the indomitable nature of the human spirit persevere against all odds and have recognized how little I (and most of us) have achieved by comparison.
I’ve met kids who take three buses both ways to school, leaving as early as 5:30 am, just to have the benefit of a better school on the other side of town; kids who can’t get up in the morning because they have worked to 11 or 12 at night in fast food restaurants to help pay the rent; kids who pour their heart and soul into their school and their work only to learn that college is not for them because of an immigration status they did not even know they had. I’ve met kids who are the primary caregivers for their younger brothers and sisters, who are taking of care of their ailing parents and grandparents; who have made it to college for the first time in their families’ history.
As one of our Denver Public School students, Chaunsea Dyson, from South High School, told a radio reporter, “When you are growing up in poverty, when you are 15 or 16 that means you are grown.”
Mr. President, as the father of three girls 15, 14, and 10, I’d say that’s an awful lot to ask of a 16 year old, especially one coming from circumstances few in this chamber could overcome.
My point here is that while there are many heroic people — kids, teachers, and principals succeeding in our school systems today — heroism is not a standard we tend to count on for the success of most human enterprises. We simply can’t scale heroism to address the scope of our achievement gap: it’s too much to ask, and it’s not fair to kids who have no control over the circumstances of their birth.
One of the enduring truths of being a human being is that we don’t get to choose our parents. We don’t choose to be born to a home of wealth or poverty, a home that values books and learning, or a home which, for whatever reason, does not. That’s a matter of good and bad luck. And yet, those circumstances today almost always determine educational outcomes. And so the question is: what is our obligation as a nation to remedy the burden of bad luck for millions of children? I believe, at a minimum, it means we have a moral duty to assure that our less lucky children have educational opportunities that let them make the most of their God-given potential.
If we’re honest, Mr. President, then by any reckoning, we are all failing to meet this moral duty today.
And if we ask ourselves why we’re failing to do our duty, it comes down to a sad and simple reality: we are treating America’s children as if they were someone else’s children, rather than our own.
Let’s consider what conditions we’ve allowed to exist for a child born, through no fault of her own, into poverty in the United States of America in 2015.
We know that by the age of 4, she will have heard 30 million fewer words than her more affluent peers. 30 million. Ask any elementary school teacher in the country whether that will make a difference in how prepared she is for kindergarten. Fewer than half of poor children start school with the skills they need to succeed in kindergarten.
What are the odds that her neighborhood school will meet her needs; how about a school a mile away; five miles away? Not likely in many American cities and rural communities.
When she reaches fourth grade her odds are no better. She is 9 years old, and there are 30 children in her classroom. On average, 24 of her classmates cannot read at grade level. Her chances of being a proficient reader? 20 percent. One in five. Would any of us accept those odds for our own children? Would you still be in Washington, engaged in the Potemkin debates we are having, if your child couldn’t read by 4th grade?
Of course you wouldn’t. But we act as if it’s not really our children who are the casualties.
And so we smile and stroke our chins on the cable TV, and pretend that this is all somehow out of our hands, too hard to solve, someone else’s problem.
Here is where it ends. In this knowledge-based global economy — only 9 out of 100 kids from families in poverty will graduate with a college degree or its equivalent. 91 will not.
These are the results we have produced for our children in an increasingly unforgiving global economy.
But for once, let’s put aside the finger pointing and the blame. Let’s ask instead the questions our children might reasonably ask to judge their nation’s leaders.
For example, why do we trail behind 35 other developed nations in our math scores?
Why does the United States rank 20th in increasing educational attainment from one generation to the next?
Why are American children much more likely to be stuck in the economic class into which they were born, than children in at least 12 other countries, including Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia and Denmark?
Why we are consigning our children to a social and economic framework that is increasing, not decreasing, inequality in this country when other countries are headed in the opposite direction? In recent decades, income inequality in America has grown significantly, much faster than in other industrialized countries.
I know there are disagreements about whether federal, state, or local government should serve our kids. I’m even sympathetic to many arguments about how poorly Washington is often situated to help. But, surely, we as a nation — one way or another — have a moral obligation, here. That’s our legacy as Americans — “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…
Imagine how much less powerful the preamble to the Constitution would have been if it stopped with “ourselves.” But it didn’t. It resolved the question in favor of “our Posterity.” Our posterity. Not someone else’s. Our children; not someone else’s.
What would this debate sound like, if we were serious about this moral obligation? Without deciding today who would deliver and pay for these important social goods, if we were treating the country’s children as our own children, we surely would:
Provide every parent and her child with the choice to access early childhood education from birth to age five, in order to attack that 30 million word deficit;
Ensure that every child — without exception and regardless of where she lives — has the choice to attend a high performing school from kindergarten to 12th grade;
Enable every young person, consistent with most of our Post-War history, the chance to attain a college degree or other advanced technical training without bankrupting her family.
These goals—early childhood education, a great K-12 school, affordable college— might seem obvious — and even unimaginative — to many in this chamber, but that might be because we take them for granted for our own children. The terrible reality for most poor children in this country is that these simple goals are as out of reach as flying to the moon.
Some say we can’t afford to change. I say we can’t afford not to. The costs of failure are simply too high. Since the Industrial Revolution we have been the greatest economy the world has ever known. If we are to remain so in the 21st century, we must educate our people. And we can.
I am not proposing today a new federal program. However, I will say that if it were left up to me, we’d have a standing committee in the Senate focused exclusively on our children and their future. Such a committee would, for example, examine every funding stream in the federal budget related to kids and ask what’s working and what’s not; what redundancies exist; and how we could align every single taxpayer dollar or tax credit to support the health, education, and well-being of our children.
I suspect that in addition to increasing efficiency, we would decide to spend more of our resources in and around schools. That’s where our kids are, and that’s where the people who serve them in our communities need to be, instead of tied up in the red tape of compliance with outdated and unimaginative federal rules and regulations.
We need to explore more efficient ways to finance social welfare programs; promote more creative ways to weave our social safety net; reform our criminal justice system (a good start would be to graduate children from high school since around 80 percent of our prison inmates are high school dropouts); and better engage with the private and non-profit sectors when government isn’t working.
This is all part of a larger, but essential, conversation — one that this body continues to avoid while it wanders from one phony conflict to the next. And one that becomes more difficult and more expensive the longer we wait.
In the meantime, we have before us the potential to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary School Act. Fixing No Child Left Behind is only one piece of the puzzle.
Given where we are, this is all pretty modest stuff. But, there are some encouraging signs.
Although the law has plenty of flaws, there is some good in No Child Left Behind. It required us to face the facts about how our kids in poverty are doing in our schools. It shed light on the achievement gap. And some school districts stepped up.
The Denver Public Schools is one such district. Over the last decade, the district has implemented a number of changes and has seen real results. Almost 30% more students graduated and went to college last year than in 2005.
Denver has recognized the importance of providing access to high-quality early childhood education, and now an estimated 70 percent of Denver’s 4 year olds are enrolled in preschool.
This seems to be having an effect, as kids who attend the Denver Preschool Program track higher in school readiness. They know more about the alphabet, words and books, have a higher vocabulary and are able to comprehend basic math. And in kindergarten, first, and second grade they show better literacy and math skills than their peers.
The dropout rate has decreased 60%. The teen pregnancy rate has also fallen 60%.
More than that, DPS has gone from being the district with the lowest rate of academic growth among major districts in the state to the highest — for 3 straight years.
Last year, DPS students from low-income families had stronger growth in math and writing than non-free and reduced lunch students statewide.
And DPS’s non-free and reduced lunch students showed more growth than their state counterparts in math by 9 points.
We would not have had the proliferation of high performing charter schools if it were not for No Child Left Behind. In addition, Denver also has 33 innovation schools where teachers and administrators have the flexibility to modernize their teaching practices and have more autonomy to make decisions at the school-level to better meet the needs of individual students.
We have also seen progress across the country.
In the three decades prior to No Child Left Behind, the average nine-year-olds reading score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased only four points. Four points in 30 years.
Contrast that to the gains from 1999 to 2012 — which is roughly the life of No Child Left Behind. During that span, nine-year-olds gained nine points in reading. That’s about seven times as much annual progress.
We have seen similar progress in math. Nine-year-olds only increased 2 points from 1990 and 1999. But from 1999 to 2012, they gained 12 points. In that same time span African American students improved by 15 points and Latino student by 21.
The achievement gap shrunk as well. In reading, the gap between white and African American nine-year-old students dropped from 35 to 23 points.
This represents progress, but as I have said, in the face of stiff competition worldwide, it is not enough.
Since 2000, we have dropped from 2nd to 12th in the world in the production of college graduates.
We need to write a bill that builds on our successes and turns us away from the failed practices of the past.
And we can’t do that if we are constrained by the typical politics — the small politics — of Washington. We can’t afford to have the same tired fights.
We won’t always agree on everything, but I know we can find a way to pass a bill that helps our schools and school districts to make the decisions they think are best for the kids they are educating.
In a significant demonstration of leadership around here, Chairman Alexander and Senator Murray have told us that they intend to write a bipartisan bill.
Their process has the potential to be a rare exception to the gridlock that has gripped the Senate — along with our bipartisan work on the farm bill and on immigration. Senators Alexander and Murray have both expressed a willingness to work together because they appreciate the importance of this task. They understand the consequences of failure.
In January of 1941, during one of our nation’s most difficult times — at the height of the Great Depression and on the eve of our entry into the Second World War — Franklin Roosevelt declared there were four universal freedoms that all people possessed: freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.
Today, in the 21st century, some of these freedoms may be obtainable. But an honest assessment tells us that it is impossible to achieve all of them without something additional — freedom from ignorance. In the end, freedom from ignorance is the surest relief from the shackles of poverty.
So, Mr. President, where does this leave us as we begin this important but long overdue national conversation on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act? First, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, America’s children would benefit if we treated our work less as legislators than as parents and grandparents with a real stake in the outcome. Second, we must be clear eyed about the federal government’s proper role in American education, and what it is not.
As a superintendent, I learned that there are many things the federal government cannot and should not do when it comes to educating our children. Above all else, Washington cannot and should not micromanage our schools or our school districts or cultivate systems driven by compliance rather than creativity.
I believe the evidence of our failures and our successes over the last 15 years suggests three primary federal responsibilities: equity accountability, and innovation.
The deep and intractable inequities that persisted across lines of race and class and geography in the America of the 1960’s drove Lyndon Johnson to pass the first Elementary and Secondary Schools Act.
They drove the creation of Title 1, specific funds targeted toward students who needed the greatest support.
Sadly, half a century later the data reveals that these profound inequities persist and that our students need our help now more than ever. But there is also reason for hope in this data. We now have evidence that sustained support can make the difference in closing the pernicious gaps that remain for low-income kids around the country. Our deep commitment to equity, therefore, is as important today as it was in 1963. This means not just committing Title 1 resources, but continuing to expand efforts to open the best schools and attract the best teachers and principals to our communities with the greatest need.
We need to fundamentally change the way we recruit, prepare, support, retain teachers…
In particular, we must help teachers who are saying they want better preparation. They want an excellent principal to lead their school. They want better a better compensation system and opportunities for leadership that allow them to continue working with students.
At DPS we’ve made some strides. We created the Denver Teacher Residency Program and introduced differentiated pay; we used federal innovation dollars to help us improve and expand early on. We are creating leadership roles for teachers who demonstrate results with their students. And we survey our teachers every year, and their satisfaction rates are much higher than the national average and improving. But in Denver, like everywhere else in the country, we have more work to do.
Second, those of us working in the field know that we must have a clear, shared system of accountability; a system that allows us to monitor, understand, and improve outcomes for students. This requires annual assessments that monitor progress and growth across all our cities and states; it requires breaking down data to show how and if we are closing the gaps for all students in all our school districts; and it means requiring that states take courageous action to turn around those schools that consistently fail our children.
That is not just about paying attention to how we are serving our low income students in cities like Denver or Detroit. It means examining how well we serve our historically disadvantaged students even when they live in some of our most advantaged communities.
As we do this, we need to work to reduce the amount of testing in our schools. As the father of three daughters in the Denver Public Schools, I am concerned about how much they are tested: But as their father, I also want to know, each year: how they are doing against a set of rigorous standards and compared to kids in Denver, across Colorado, and around the world. Will they be ready for college? Do they have the skills they need to succeed in this global economy?
Third, we have learned over the last decade that there is a vital federal role when it comes to innovation in our schools. We can help create the preconditions for success by providing incentives for educators on the ground to apply their own creative thinking to address our most persistent education problems.
We will never solve the challenges our teachers and students face from Washington, period. But, we can help local leaders break free from a status quo that will never succeed for enough of America’s children. We should help identify the challenges; provide resources to local educators to overcome them in the context that works best for their communities and their students; and we should continue to be the clearinghouse that gathers these stories of successful innovation and provide the resources to invest in scaling what works and sharing these practices across communities and states.
Equity, Accountability, Innovation: that is our charge and the commitment we must keep if we are to build an America where we treat every child as if she was our own.
As a parent myself, I am well aware that it is the first responsibility of every parent to educate her child. I’m also aware that many people believe that a bad education is just one more outcome produced by corrosive poverty in this country. Fix poverty, and you will fix education. Maybe so, but that is cold comfort to millions of children in our schools today. In the end, we have a duty as a Nation to ensure that education liberates our children, rather than reinforces the circumstances into which they are born.
In that sense, America’s children are our children, our responsibility, not someone else’s. Can you really accept an America in which your little girl has just a one in five chance of being able to read well, or a 9 in 100 chance to graduate from college? Can you really demand heroism as a precondition of success?
If this were your child would you still be in the Senate? Or would you go home and solve the problem?
It’s been said that “the future has no lobby in Washington, D.C.” Are we really content to have that depressing observation be the ultimate verdict on our leadership?
I doubt we are, so I’d raise this as a bipartisan challenge. Let’s forge a lobby for the future; let’s agree that the obligation we owe the Founders is to create more opportunity, not less, to the generation coming after us; let’s pledge that every child in America is our child; and that our future rests with her — as it most assuredly does.