The Importance of Education Reform

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor and my privilege on this, the occasion of the centennial of the National Urban League and the Urban League Movement to welcome the President of the United States. (cheers and applause) The President:
Hello, hello, hello. (cheers and applause) Thank you. (cheers and applause) Thank you; thank you. Everybody, please have a seat. Have a seat. Take a load off. (cheers and applause) Thank you. (cheers and applause) Thank you so much. (cheers and applause) Thank you; thank you
very much; thank you. (cheers and applause) Thank you very much. (cheers and applause) Please, please, have a seat. Good morning, Urban Leaguers. Audience:
Good morning. The President:
Yeah. It is wonderful to be
here with all of you. It is wonderful to be here. And let me begin by
congratulating Marc Morial for his outstanding leadership,
his great friendship. (applause) I want to thank the entire
National Urban League on your centennial. From your founding, amid
the great migration, to the struggles of the
civil rights movement, to the battles of today, the
Urban League has been on the ground, in our communities, working quietly — day in, day out — without fanfare; opening up opportunity, rolling back inequality, making
our union just a little more perfect. America is a better place
because of the Urban League. And I’m grateful to all
of you for the outstanding contributions that you’ve made. (applause) The last time I spoke with
you was during your Orlando conference in August — (applause) — got Orlando in the house. (laughter) Orlando conference
back in August of 2008. I didn’t have any
gray hair back then. (laughter) Say that’s all right? (laughter and applause) But I want to remind you what
things were like in August of 2008. Our economy was in freefall. We had just seen seven
straight months of job loss. Foreclosures were
sweeping the nation. And we were on the verge of a
financial crisis that threatened to plunge our economy into
a second Great Depression. So, from the moment
I took office, we had to act immediately
to prevent an even greater catastrophe. And I knew that not everything
we did would be popular. Sometimes when we do
things, the scribes, the pundits here in Washington,
they act surprised. They say, why would you do such
a thing, it doesn’t poll well. And I have to explain to them
I’ve got my own pollsters. (laughter and applause) But I wasn’t elected just
to do what’s popular; I was elected do what was right. That’s what you
supported me for. (applause) And because of what we
did, America, as a whole, is in a different place today. Our economy is growing,
instead of shrinking. Our private sector has been
adding jobs for six straight months, instead of losing them. (applause) Yesterday a report was put out
by two prominent economists — one of them John
McCain’s old economist — that said if we hadn’t taken
the actions that we took, we would have had an additional
8 million people lose their jobs. Now, that doesn’t mean that
we’re out of the woods yet. Every sector of our economy
was shaking by the crisis; every demographic
group felt its impact. And as has been true in the wake
of other recent recessions, this one had an especially
brutal impact on minority communities — communities that were already struggling long before the financial crisis hit. The African American
unemployment rate was already much higher, the incomes and
wealth of African American families already lower. There was less of a cushion. Many minority communities — whether in big cities or rural towns — had seen businesses and
opportunities vanish for years, stores boarded up, young people
hanging out on the street corners without
prospects for the future. So when we came in to office, we
focused not just on rescuing our economy in the short run, but
rebuilding our economy for the long run — creating an economy that lifts up all Americans. (applause) Not just some, but all. That’s why we passed health
insurance reform that will give every American — (applause) — more choices, more control over their health care; will narrow the cruel
disparities between Americans of different backgrounds. That’s why we passed
Wall Street reform — not only to make sure that
taxpayers aren’t paying for somebody else’s foolishness, but
also to protect consumers from predatory credit cards
and lending practices, regulating everything from
mortgages to payday loans; making sure that we’re
protecting our economy from the recklessness and
irresponsibility of a few. (applause) Across agencies, we’re taking on
the structural inequalities that have held so many of our
fellow citizens back, whether it’s making more housing
available and more affordable, making sure civil rights and
anti-discrimination laws are enforced, making sure our crime
policy is not only tough, but also smart. So yesterday, we took an
important step forward when Congress passed a fair
sentencing bill that I look forward to signing into law — (applause) — a bipartisan bill to help right a longstanding wrong by narrowing sentencing disparities
between those convicted of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. It’s the right thing to do. (applause) We’ve gotten that done. So we’ve made progress. And yet, for all
of our progress — progress that’s come through the
efforts of groups like the Urban League; progress that makes it
possible for me to stand here as President — we were reminded this past week that we still got work to do when it comes to promoting the values of fairness and equality and mutual understanding that must bind us together as a nation. Now, last week, I had the chance
to talk to Shirley Sherrod — an exemplary woman whose
experiences mark both the challenges we have faced and
the progress that we’ve made. She deserves better than
what happened last week — (applause) — when a bogus controversy based on selective and deceiving excerpts of a speech led her — led to her forced resignation. Now, many are to blame for the
reaction and overreaction that followed these comments — including my own administration. And what I said to Shirley was
that the full story she was trying to tell — a story about overcoming our own biases and recognizing ourselves in
folks who, on the surface, seem different — is exactly the kind of story we need to hear in America. (applause) It’s exactly what we need to
hear because we’ve all got our biases. And rather than jump to
conclusions and point fingers, and play some of the games
that are played on cable TV, we should all look inward and
try to examine what’s in our own hearts. (applause) We should all make more of an
effort to discuss with one another, in a truthful and
mature and responsible way, the divides that still exist — the discrimination that’s still out there, the prejudices
that still hold us back — a discussion that needs to
take place not on cable TV, not just through a bunch of
academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels, not
through political posturing, but around kitchen
tables, and water coolers, and church basements,
and in our schools, and with our kids all
across the country. (applause) If we can have that
conversation in our own lives, if we can take an opportunity to
learn from our imperfections and our mistakes, to grow as
individuals and as a country, and if we engage in the hard
work of translating words into deeds — because words are
easy and deeds are hard — then I’m confident that we can
move forward together and make this country a little more
perfect than it was before. (applause) Now, since we’re on the topic
of speaking honestly with one another, I want to devote
the balance of my time, the balance of my remarks, to
an issue that I believe will largely determine not only
African American success, but the success of our
nation in the 21st century — and that is whether we are
offering our children the very best education possible. (applause) I know some argue that as
we emerge from a recession, my administration should focus
solely on economic issues. They said that during health
care as if health care had nothing to do with economics;
said it during financial reform as if financial reform had
nothing to do with economics; and now they’re saying it as
we work on education issues. But education is an
economic issue — if not “the” economic
issue of our time. (applause) It’s an economic issue when the
unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is
almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. (applause) It’s an economic issue when
eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a
higher education by the end of this decade. It’s an economic issue when
countries that out-educate us today are going to
out-compete us tomorrow. Now, for years, we’ve recognized
that education is a prerequisite for prosperity. And yet, we’ve tolerated a
status quo where America lags behind other nations. Just last week, we learned
that in a single generation, America went from number one to
12th in college completion rates for young adults. Used to be number one,
now we’re number 12. At the same time, our 8th
graders trail about eight — 10 other nations — 10 other nations in science and math. Meanwhile, when it
comes to black students, African American students trail
not only almost every other developed nation abroad, but
they badly trail their white classmates here at home — an achievement gap that is widening the income gap between black and white, between rich and poor. We’ve talked about
it, we know about it, but we haven’t done
enough about it. And this status quo is
morally inexcusable, it s economically indefensible,
and all of us are going to have to roll up our
sleeves to change it. And that’s why — (applause) That is why, from day one
of this administration, we’ve made excellence in American education — excellence for all our
students — a top priority. And no one has shown more
leadership on this issue than my Secretary of Education, Arne
Duncan, who is here today. (applause) I chose Arne not only because
he’s a great ballplayer — (laughter) — Arne and I play a little
bit on the weekends — I chose Arne because
I knew that for him, closing the achievement gap,
unlocking the potential of every child, isn’t just a job, it’s
been the cause of his life. Now, because a higher education
has never been more important — or more expensive — it’s absolutely essential that we put a college degree within
reach for anyone who wants it. And that’s why we’re making
higher education more affordable, so we can meet the
goals I’ve set of producing a higher share of college
graduates than any other nation by 2020. I want us to be back at number
one instead of number 12. (applause) And in pursuit of that goal, we
eliminated taxpayer subsidies to big banks. We saved tens of
billions of dollars, and we used those savings to
open the door to additional financial aid — to open the door for college to millions more students. This is something that a lot
of you may not be aware of, but we have added tens of
billions of dollars that were going to bank middlemen, so
that that money is now going to students — millions more students who are getting scholarships to go to college. (applause) That’s already been done. We’re making loan
repayment more manageable, so young people don’t graduate — like Michelle and me — with such big loan
payments every month. Audience Member:
Thank you! The President:
You’re welcome. Right there. (laughter) You can relate. (laughter) And we’re reinvesting in our
Historically Black Colleges and Universities. (applause) Our HBCUs, we are
reinvesting in them, while at the same time reforming
and strengthening our community college, which are great,
undervalued assets — (applause) — great assets that are a lifeline to so many working families in every
community across America. But here’s the thing. Even if we do all this good
stuff for higher education, too many of our children see
college as nothing but a distant dream — because their education went off the rails long before they turned 18. These are young people who’ve
been relegated to failing schools in struggling
communities, where there are
too many obstacles, too few role models — communities that I represented as a state senator; communities that I fought to lift up as a community organizer. I remember going to a school
back in my organizing days and seeing children — young children, maybe five or six — eyes were brimming with hope,
had such big dreams for the future. You’d ask them, what do you
want to be when you grow up? They’d want to be a doctor;
they’d want to be a lawyer. And then I remember the
principal telling me that soon, all that would change. The hope would start fading from
their eyes as they started to realize that maybe their dreams
wouldn’t come to pass — not because they
weren’t smart enough, not because they weren’t
talented enough, but because through a turn of
fate they happened to be born in the wrong neighborhood. They became victim
of low expectations, a community that was not
supporting educational excellence. And it was heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking. And it reinforced in me a
fundamental belief that we’ve got an obligation to lift up
every child in every school in this country, especially those
who are starting out furthest behind. (applause) That’s why I want to challenge
our states to offer better early learning options to make sure
our children aren’t wasting their most formative years — (applause) — so that they can enter into kindergarten already ready to learn — knowing their
colors, knowing their numbers, knowing their shapes,
knowing how to sit still. (laughter) Right? That’s no joke. You got to learn that,
especially when you’re a boy. (laughter) That’s why we placed such heavy
emphasis on the education our children are getting from
kindergarten through 12th grade. Now, over the past 18 months,
the single most important thing we’ve done — and
we’ve done a lot. I mean, the Recovery Act put
a lot of money into schools, saved a lot of teacher jobs,
made sure that schools didn’t have to cut back even more
drastically in every community across this country. But I think the single most
important thing we’ve done is to launch an initiative
called Race to the Top. (applause) We said to states, if you
are committed to outstanding teaching, to successful
schools, to higher standards, to better assessments — if you’re committed to excellence for all children — you will be eligible for a grant to help you attain that goal. And so far, the results have
been promising and they have been powerful. In an effort to compete
for this extra money, 32 states reformed their
education laws before we even spent a dime. The competition leveraged
change at the state level. And because the standards
we set were high, only a couple of states actually
won the grant in the first round, which meant that the
states that didn’t get the money, they’ve now strengthened
their applications, made additional reforms. Now 36 have applied
in the second round, and 18 states plus the District
of Columbia are in the running to get a second grant. (applause) So understand what’s happened. In each successive round, we’ve
leveraged change across the country. And even students in those
districts that haven’t gotten a grant, they’ve still benefited
from the reforms that were initiated. And this process has sown
the seeds of achievement. It’s forced teachers and
principals and officials and parents to forge
agreements on tough, and often
uncomfortable issues — to raise their sights
and embrace education. For the most part, states,
educators, reformers, they’ve responded with great
enthusiasm around this promise of excellence. But I know there’s also been
some controversy about Race to the Top. Part of it, I believe, reflects
a general resistance to change. We get comfortable with the
status quo even when the status quo isn’t good. We make excuses for why things
have to be the way they are. And when you try to shake things
up, some people aren’t happy. There have been criticisms from
some folks in the civil rights community about particular
elements of Race to the Top. So I want to address
some of those today. I told you we’re going to
have an honest conversation. First, I know there’s a concern
that Race to the Top doesn’t do enough for minority kids,
because the argument is, well, if there’s a competition, then
somehow some states or some school districts will get
more help than others. Let me tell you, what’s not
working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native
American kids across this country is the status quo. That’s what’s not working. (applause) What’s not working is what we’ve
been doing for decades now. So the charge that Race to the
Top isn’t targeted at those young people most in need is
absolutely false because lifting up quality for all our children — black, white, Hispanic — that is the central
premise of Race to the Top. And you can’t win one of these
grants unless you’ve got a plan to deal with those schools that
are failing and those young people who aren’t doing well. Every state and every
school district is directly incentivized to deal with
schools that have been forgotten, been given up on. I also want to directly speak
to the issue of teachers. We may have some teachers
here in the house. (applause) I know Urban League
has got some teachers. Nothing is more
important than teachers. (applause) My sister is a teacher. I’m here because
of great teachers. The whole premise of Race to the
Top is that teachers are the single most important factor in
a child’s education from the moment they step
into the classroom. And I know firsthand that the
vast majority of teachers are working tirelessly, are
passionate about their students, are often digging into their
own pockets for basic supplies, are going above and
beyond the call of duty. So I want teachers to
have higher salaries. I want them to
have more support. I want them to be trained like
the professionals they are — with rigorous residencies
like the ones that doctors go through. (applause) I want to give them a
career ladder so they’ve got opportunities to advance, and earn real financial security. I don’t want talented young
people to say I’d love to teach but I can’t afford it. (applause) I want them to have a fulfilling
and supportive workplace environment. I want them to have
the resources — from basic supplies to
reasonable class sizes — that help them succeed. And instead of a culture where
we’re always idolizing sports stars or celebrities, I want
us to build a culture where we idolize the people who are
shaping our children’s future. (applause) I want some teachers on the
covers of some of those magazines. (applause) Some teachers on MTV, featured. (applause) I was on the “The
View” yesterday, and somebody asked
me who Snooki was. I said, I don’t
know who Snooki is. (laughter) But I know some really good
teachers that you guys should be talking about. (laughter and applause) I didn’t say the teacher
part, but I just — (laughter) The question is, who
are we lifting up? Who are we promoting? Who are we saying is important? So I am 110% behind
our teachers. (applause) But all I’m asking in return
— as a President, as a parent, and as a citizen — is some measure of accountability. (applause) So even as we applaud
teachers for their hard work, we’ve got to make sure that we’re seeing results in the classroom. If we’re not seeing
results in the classroom, then let’s work with teachers to
help them become more effective. If that doesn’t work, let’s
find the right teacher for that classroom. (applause) Arne makes the point very
simply: Our children get only one chance at an education,
so we need to get it right. I want to commend some of the
teachers unions across this country who are working with
us to improve teaching — like the Delaware
Education Association, which is working with state
leaders as part of their Race to the Top efforts, not only
to set aside 90 minutes of collaboration time a week
to improve instruction, but to strengthen teacher
development and evaluation. That’s the right way to go. So, for anyone who wants to use
Race to the Top to blame or punish teachers — you’re missing the point. Our goal isn’t to fire
or admonish teachers; our goal is accountability. It’s to provide teachers with
the support they need to be as effective as they can be, and to
create a better environment for teachers and students alike. Now, there’s also the question
of how hard our teachers should push students in the classroom. Nations in Asia and Europe
have answered this question, in part by creating standards
to make sure their teachers and students are performing at the
same high levels throughout their nation. That’s one of the reasons that
their children are doing better than ours. But here at home, there’s often
a controversy about national standards, common standards — that violates the principle of local control. Now, there’s a history to local
control that we need to think about, but that —
that’s the argument. So here’s what Race to the Top
says: Instead of Washington imposing standards
from the top down, let’s challenge states to adopt
common standards voluntarily, from the bottom up. That doesn’t mean
more standards; it means higher standards,
better standards, standards that clarify what our
teachers are expected to teach and what our children
are expected to learn — so high school graduates are
actually prepared for college and a career. I do not want to see young
people get a diploma but they can’t read that diploma. (applause) Now, so far, about 30 states
have come together to embrace and develop common
standards, high standards. More states are expected to
do so in the coming weeks. And by the way, this is
different from No Child Left Behind, because what that did
was it gave the states the wrong incentives. A bunch of states watered down
their standards so that school districts wouldn’t be penalized
when their students fell short. And what’s happened now
is, at least two states — Illinois and Oklahoma — that lowered standards in response to No Child Behind — No
Child Left Behind — are now raising those
standards back up, partly in response
to Race to the Top. And part of making sure our
young people meet these high standards is designing tests
that accurately measure whether they are learning. Now, here, too, there’s
been some controversy. When we talk about testing,
parents worry that it means more teaching to the test. Some worry that tests
are culturally biased. Teachers worry that they’ll be
evaluated solely on the basis of a single standardized test. Everybody thinks that’s unfair. It is unfair. But that’s not what Race
to the Top is about. What Race to the Top says is,
there’s nothing wrong with testing — we just need better tests applied in a way that helps teachers and students, instead of stifling what teachers and students
do in the classroom. Tests that don’t
dictate what’s taught, but tell us what
has been learned. Tests that measure how well our
children are mastering essential skills and answering
complex questions. And tests that track how well
our students are growing academically, so we can catch
when they’re falling behind and help them before they
just get passed along. (applause) Because of Race to the Top,
states are also finding innovative ways to move beyond
having just a snapshot of where students are, and towards a
real-time picture that shows how far they’ve come and
how far they have to go. And armed with this information,
teachers can get what amounts to a game tape that they can study
to enhance their teaching and their focus on areas where
students need help the most. Now, sometimes a school’s
problems run so deep that you can do the better assessments
and the higher standards and a more challenging curriculum,
and that’s not enough. If a school isn’t producing
graduates with even the most basic skills — year after
year after year after year — something needs to
be done differently. You know, the definition,
somebody once said, of madness is you do the same
thing over and over again and keep expecting a
different result. If we want success
for our country, we can’t accept failure in our
schools decade after decade. And that’s why we’re challenging
states to turn around our 5,000 lowest performing schools. And I don’t think it’s any
secret that most of those are serving African American
or Hispanic kids. We’re investing over $4
billion to help them do that, to transform those
schools — $4 billion, which even in
Washington is real money. (applause) This isn’t about — unlike
No Child Left Behind, this isn’t about labeling a troubled school a failure and then just throwing up your
hands and saying, well, we’re giving up on you. It’s about investing in
that school’s future, and recruiting the whole
community to help turn it around, and identifying viable
options for how to move forward. Now, in some cases, that’s going
to mean restarting the school under different management
as a charter school — as an independent public school
formed by parents, teachers, and civic leaders who’ve got
broad leeway to innovate. And some people don’t
like charter schools. They say, well, that’s going
to take away money from other public schools that
also need support. Charter schools
aren’t a magic bullet, but I want to give states and
school districts the chance to try new things. If a charter school works,
then let’s apply those lessons elsewhere. And if a charter school doesn’t
work, we’ll hold it accountable; we’ll shut it down. So, no, I don’t support
all charter schools, but I do support
good charter schools. I’ll give you an example. There’s a charter school called
Mastery in Philadelphia. And in just two years, three of
the schools that Mastery has taken over have seen reading and
math levels nearly double — in some cases, triple. Chaka Fattah is here, so he
knows what I’m talking about. One school called Pickett went
from just 14% of students being proficient in math
to almost 70%. (applause) Now — and here’s the kicker
— at the same time academic performance improved,
violence dropped by 80% — 80%. And that’s no coincidence. (applause) Now, if a school like Mastery
can do it, if Pickett can do it, every troubled school can do it. But that means we’re going to
have to shake some things up. Setting high standards,
common standards, empowering students
to meet them; partnering with our teachers
to achieve excellence in the classroom; educating our children — all of them — to graduate ready for
college, ready for a career, ready to make most
of their lives — none of this should
be controversial. There should be a fuss if we
weren’t doing these things. There should be a fuss if Arne
Duncan wasn’t trying to shake things up. (applause) So Race to the Top, isn’t simply
the name of an initiative. It sums up what’s
happening in our schools. It’s the single most ambitious,
meaningful education reform effort we’ve attempted in
this country in generations. And I know there are a number of
other steps we need to take to lift up our education system
— like saving teachers’ jobs across this country
from layoffs — and I’ll continue fighting to
take those steps and save those jobs. But I’ll also continue to
fight for Race to the Top with everything I’ve got, including
using a veto to prevent some folks from watering it down. (applause) Now, let me wrap
up by saying this. I know there are some who say
that Race to the Top won’t work. There are cynics and naysayers
who argue that the problems in our education system
are too entrenched, that think that we’ll just fall
back into the same old arguments and divides that have
held us back for so long. And it is true, as I’ve said
since I ran for President, and that everybody here knows
firsthand, change is hard. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. That’s why I’ve got
all this gray hair. (laughter) Fixing what was broken in our
health care system is not easy. Fixing what was broken on
Wall Street is not easy. Fixing what’s broken in our
education system is not easy. We won’t see results overnight. It may take a decade for
these changes to pay off. But that’s not a reason
not to make them. It’s a reason to start
making them right now, to feel a sense of urgency
— the fierce urgency of now. (applause) We also know that as significant
as these reforms are, there’s going to be one more
ingredient to really make a difference: parents are going
to have to get more involved in their children’s education. (applause) Now, in the past, even
that statement has sparked controversy. Folks say, well, why are
you talking about parents? Parents need help, too. I know that. Parents need jobs. They need housing. They need — in some
cases — social services. They may have substance
abuse problems. We’re working on
all those fronts. Then some people say, well, why
are you always talking about parental responsibility
in front of black folks? (laughter and applause) And I say, I talk about parental
responsibility wherever I talk about education. Michelle and I happen to
be black parents, so — (laughter and applause) — I may — I may add a little umph to it when I’m talking to black parents. (laughter) But to paraphrase Dr. King,
education isn’t an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and proposition. It will take both more
focus from our parents, and better schooling. It will take both more
money, and more reform. It will take both a
collective commitment, and a personal commitment. So, yes, our federal government
has responsibilities that it has to meet, and I will keep
on making sure the federal government meets those
responsibilities. Our governors, our
superintendants, our states, our school districts have
responsibilities to meet. And parents have
responsibilities that they have to meet. And our children have
responsibilities that they have to meet. (applause) It’s not just parents. It’s the children, too. Our kids need to understand
nobody is going to hand them a future. (applause) An education is not something
you just tip your head and they pour it in your ear. (laughter) You’ve got to want it. You’ve got to reach out and
claim that future for yourself. And you can’t make excuses. (applause) I know life is tough for a lot
of young people in this country. The places where Urban League is
working to make a difference, you see it every day. I’m coming from the
Southside of Chicago. (applause) So I know — I see what young people are going through there. And at certain
points in our lives, young black men and women
may feel the sting of discrimination. Too many of them may feel
trapped in a community where drugs and violence and
unemployment are pervasive, and they are forced to wrestle
with things that no child should have to face. There are all kinds of reasons
for our children to say, “No, I can’t.” But our job is to say
to them, “Yes, you can.” (applause) Yes, you can overcome. Yes, you can persevere. Yes, you can make what you
will out of your lives. (applause) I know they can, because I know
the character of America’s young people. I saw them volunteer
on my campaign. They asked me questions
in town hall meetings. They write me letters about
their trials and aspirations. I got a letter recently
postmarked Covington, Kentucky. It was from Na’Dreya
Lattimore, 10 years old — about the same age as Sasha. And she told me about how
her school had closed, so she had enrolled in another. Then she had bumped up against
other barriers to what she felt was her potential. So Na’Dreya was explaining to
me how we need to improve our education system. She closed by saying this:
“One more thing,” she said. (laughter) It was a long letter. (laughter) “You need to look
at us differently. We are not black, we’re not
white, biracial, Hispanic, Asian, or any other
nationality.” No, she wrote —
“We are the future.” (applause) Na’Dreya, you are right. And that’s why I will keep
fighting to lead us out of this storm. But I’m also going to keep
fighting alongside the Urban League to make
America more perfect, so that young people
like Na’Dreya — people of every race,
in every region — are going to be able to reach
for that American Dream. They’re going to know that
there are brighter days ahead; that their future is full
of boundless possibilities. I believe that, and I know
the Urban League does, too. Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you. God bless the United
States of America. (applause)

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