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Secretary Spellings Delivers Keynote Address at Greater Houston Partnership 2008 State of Education Luncheon


U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today delivered the keynote address at the Greater Houston Partnership 2008 State of Education Luncheon. Secretary Spellings discussed her action plan for higher education, which aims to make higher education more accessible, affordable and accountable. She also highlighted the important role the business community plays in preparing students for the global workforce. Following are her prepared remarks.

Thank you, Charles Miller, for introducing me. You have been a champion of education reform and a champion of children for decades. Our nation owes you a great deal of thanks.

I’m enjoying my time in Washington, D.C. Well, mostly... but as you know, once a Texan, always a Texan. I grew up here in Houston, and I’m a proud graduate of Houston public schools and the University of Houston.

I also cut my teeth in the policy arena here in Texas, working on behalf of Texas school boards, for the Texas legislature and for two governors, including George W. Bush.

I had the honor of working with many of the business leaders who helped pioneer education reform here in Texas, including: Ben Love, who left a great legacy of service when he passed away last year; Larry Faulkner, who now chairs my National Math Panel, is here with us today; Marc Shapiro; Mark White; Darv Winick; Rob Mosbacher; and Charles Duncan, a true father of the accountability movement in education and a pioneer who was “country before country was cool,” as we say here in Texas, on the importance of closing the achievement gap; and many more.

My childhood friend, Jo Ann Scofield, is also here today. She’s an English teacher in Fort Bend.

One of the things I think that Texans have long understood is that when it comes to education, people generally take one of two points of view.

The first camp thinks that everything is just fine the way it is.

The second camp thinks the first camp is in denial.

Just like anything else in life, which group you join has a lot to do with where you’re standing. If the system serves you well, you may be less likely to see a need for reform.

But one of the things that the business community understands best, is that if the system lets some kids down, then ultimately lets down all of us.

To find one of the world’s most eloquent defenders of this viewpoint, we need look no further than my friend Charles Miller.

Years ago, he realized that shifting demographics and rising workforce demands required that we educate more students to much higher levels than we had ever done before. So he began speaking out against rationing opportunity by race or income level. In doing so, he’s helped to shape a movement that has redefined our country’s educational landscape forever.

For decades, we tried the “ostrich approach.” Instead of addressing problems, we buried our heads in the sand.

Today, we’re using data to drive decision-making and to empower consumer advocates. After decades of doling out federal dollars and hoping for the best, we’re now expecting - and beginning to get - results. Much of this reform was incubated here in Texas because of people like you.

You sparked a movement to use standards and measurement to drive reform for every single student. And it’s no accident that the places like Houston that first championed this approach are now reaping the greatest results.

But we still have a long way to go. I like to say, we’re pleased but not satisfied.

Today, just half of African American and Hispanic students graduate from high school on time.

Ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education or training. Yet 60 percent of Americans have no postsecondary credentials at all.

What does it mean for our country-and for our state and city-that if you’re white, you have a pretty good chance of getting to college, but if you’re an African-American student, and particularly an African-American male student, you don’t?

What does it mean for our future that only 10 percent of Latinos earn bachelor’s degrees by age 29? This should be especially troubling here in Texas, where Hispanics are the largest student group.

Think about it. Don’t you want a college degree for your child? So, why do we think other parents want something else?

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest domestic policy issues of our time. If we do not make a college degree more accessible and more affordable for more people we will not sustain our economic edge.

So, what must we do?

Just as you would in any business, we must start by taking a good, hard, honest look at the state of our schools, getting out of denial, and eliminating the rationing of quality that so often goes on in our schools.

I know I’m preaching to the choir. You know as well as anybody that we must increase rigor to make sure students are prepared for college-level work. And we must make higher education more accessible and affordable by addressing the interrelated issues of cost, financing, quality, and accountability.

With No Child Left Behind, we’re focusing on the first part of this equation. By measuring progress annually and holding ourselves accountable for the goal of every child on or above grade level by 2014, this law is helping all students improve.

It’s also causing a profound, and often uncomfortable, transition. As I said, many would prefer to go back to pretending nothing’s wrong-to the “ostrich approach.”

But in this high-tech, knowledge-based economy we cannot ignore the fact that so many of our students are unprepared for college and the workforce.

Now that a college degree is all but essential, do we want to argue whether it’s possible for every student to graduate from high school?

Houston prides itself on serving as the headquarters for 23 of the Fortune 500 companies. So I know you agree that instead of debating whether it’s reasonable to teach the fundamentals of reading and math we should be talking about how to prepare every student for college and today’s global economy.

That’s why two years ago, I launched a commission to start a national conversation on access, affordability, and accountability in higher education. I asked Charles to lead it because of his willingness to speak frankly on behalf of students and families.

In this information age, consumers want to know, how will U of H, or Texas Southern, or Rice University help achieve their goals? At what cost? How long will it take? And will it be worth the sacrifice?

As a parent and a policymaker, I think these are reasonable questions, especially because a college education is often one of the most important, most costly, and most time-consuming investments students and families make.

The commission uncovered serious challenges, including a Byzantine financial aid system, and a credentialing system that’s veiled and confusing even for many within higher education-let alone for students and families. They found duplication, obfuscation, and a tendency to focus on process over results.

In many ways, it’s as if we’re trying to keep people out of college not helping them get in and out!

In a country long accustomed to-and proud of-having the “finest” higher education system in the world, the commission’s boldness caused quite a ruckus. Charles himself has been praised for his “agitated brilliance” and labeled “the most controversial figure in higher education today.”

That one kind of irritates me. I thought I was!

A chain reaction has followed the commission’s report. We’re seeing some very encouraging things.

A coalition of institutions began sharing information that has never before been publicly available, including graduation rates for low-income students. Texas is using the accrediting process to increase access and innovation in higher education. Ivy league universities have increased aid to students. More consumers are talking in terms of quality, affordability, and return for investment. They’re asking why rising tuition costs continue to outpace inflation, family income, and even health care costs.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, the Congress is considering legislation that fails to address many of the issues of real concern to students and families. It doesn’t simplify the complex system of federal financial aid for families. It doesn’t provide timely notification of aid to students. It doesn’t target resources to those who need them most. And it doesn’t address the needs of a growing population of adult learners, without whom our economy would not function.

That’s unacceptable-to me, to President Bush, to my commission, and to many policymakers and taxpayers nationwide. That’s why we will continue working to simplify the financial aid process and provide more need-based aid, including raising the Pell grant to its largest annual amount ever, going from 3,750 dollars when the President took office to 4,800 dollars in his 2009 budget, the largest increase in 30 years.

In exchange for these greater resources, we must continue to ask for the same transparency from higher education that we expect from almost every other field - from prescription drugs to welfare, to airline fees and children’s toys. And we must continue working to put more and better information in the hands of parents, students, and taxpayers.

As you know, Houston owes much of its prosperity to its strong leadership in education. Your school system helped pioneer the use of standards to drive improvement and innovation. Institutions like my alma mater, the University of Houston, are models of workforce development. And K-12 schools like the KIPP model are setting the pace for educational progress all around our country.

Thanks to people like you, Houston has long served as an incubator for reform. It’s a city of pioneers, a city of new arrivals and a city of promise.

This is a “can do” place that’s got a lot of Wild West left in it. I’m counting on that Texas “can do” spirit to once again help lead the way to providing every child and every student with a quality education and an opportunity to live the American Dream.

Perri Jones said it just right. With our eyes, we can see it. With our minds, we believe it. And with our hands, we will one day achieve it.

Thank you.


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