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U.S. Secretary Of Education Margaret Spellings Delivers Remarks At National Summit On America’s Silent Epidemic


Today, Secretary Margaret Spellings delivered remarks at the “National Summit on America’s Silent Epidemic” in Washington, D.C. on the federal role in ending the high school dropout crisis. Following are her prepared remarks:

Next week, I’ll travel to Little Rock, Arkansas where 50 years ago nine African-American teenagers braved violence, ridicule, and prejudice to claim their right to a quality education.

They represented the end of a long, hard struggle to gain equal access to the classroom. Today, the struggle is about what’s going on inside the classroom, and the stakes are just as high.

Despite our best efforts, there are still vast inequities within our education system. In too many of our cities, the reality faced by minority and low-income kids is shocking. As you’ve heard, 15% of our high schools produce more than half of our dropouts.

Of these dropout factories a majority of the students trapped in them are minorities, and their high school experience looks vastly different from what most kids encounter.

They go to schools where trash litters the floors, where graffiti decorates the walls... where most freshmen enter unable to read or do math at an eighth grade-level, and where graduation is a 50/50 shot, or worse.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy decried the fact that four out of ten 5th-graders did not finish high school. He called it “a waste we cannot afford.” Forty-four years later, the dropout rate for African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students approaches 50 percent. We are wasting not just lives but time.

By 2050, the majority of our population will be African American and Hispanic. We must turn around these “dropout factories.” We must ensure the same opportunities available to kids in the suburbs are available to kids in the city. If we don’t, we will most certainly become a poorer, more divided nation of haves and have-nots.

Today, a quality education is more important than ever and solving our dropout crisis is not just a moral imperative, it’s an economic necessity. The United States has the most severe income gap between high school graduates and dropouts in the world.

The days when you could earn a good living off the sweat of your brow are disappearing. In industries ranging from manufacturing to micro-processing, a high school diploma is the bare minimum for success.

Yet, every year nearly a million kids fail to graduate high school with their peers. It’s hard to believe such a pervasive problem remained in the shadows for so long. That’s in large part due to state reporting systems and data collection that masked the severity of the situation.

For example, in some districts, a student who leaves school is counted as a dropout only if he or she registers as one. In others, a dropout’s promise to get a G.E.D. at an unspecified future date is good enough to merit “graduate” status. With such loose definitions of what it means to be a high school graduate it’s no wonder this epidemic has been so “silent”.

Fortunately, today it’s a different story.

All 50 governors have agreed to adopt a common, more rigorous graduation rate measure. The “Silent Epidemic” report, my Department’s graduation rate report, all contains more accurate, real-time measures of state and district graduation rates. Data is helping us shine a light on the magnitude of the crisis. And as I like to say, what gets measured gets done.

Thanks to the efforts and leadership of many people in this room we’re finally moving from a state of denial to a state of acknowledgment. But now that we’ve diagnosed the problem, we need to take action and solve it.

Solving the problem, or as Time magazine put it, “stopping the exodus”, will take all of us. And I believe the federal government has a critical role to play. This Administration is already moving forward with policies to help ensure every child is given a chance to graduate, and that their diploma is a ticket to success, not just a certificate of attendance.

We have all been talking about this problem for years and the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind gives us the perfect opportunity to act.

It’s clear high school students need high expectations, challenging courses that prepare and engage them, excellent teachers that care, and extra time to catch up when they fall behind. Our policy blueprint for No Child Left Behind reauthorization includes several key proposals to help meet these needs and address the dropout issue head-on.

First, we would increase Title I spending by more than a billion dollars to improve and strengthen our public high schools serving low-income students. These targeted resources will bring more equity to the system, something that’s desperately needed if we’re going to have any hope of transforming dropout factories to flourishing high schools.

We also propose increasing funds for reading intervention so that teachers can help struggling students get back on track before they fall too far behind.

As the Silent Epidemic report found, the number one reason cited by high school dropouts for their decision was that they simply didn’t feel challenged. That’s something we aim to change.

A significant portion of our NCLB reauthorization calls for increased rigor in our high schools including:

Strengthening math and science instruction;
Calling on business and higher education officials to work with states to better align curriculum to meet workforce and college expectations;
Creating an Adjunct Teacher Corps that will bring math and science professionals into the classroom to share their expertise.
When I was in Senator Bingaman’s state of New Mexico I visited a local high school where scientists from Sandia Labs were teaching chemistry. We need to make this the norm around the country.

We’re also calling for the expansion of AP/IB classes. We know that rigorous coursework is one of the best ways to improve student achievement. Studies show that just taking one or two Advanced Placement courses increases a student’s chance of going to college and the odds of graduating in 4 years.

Yet, nearly 40 percent of our nation’s high schools don’t offer any AP courses, and many of those schools serve low-income and minority students. There’s something wrong when right here in the Washington, D.C. area, suburban Langley High School offers 24 AP courses, which is great, while inner-city Anacostia High School offers only four.

We need to do everything we can to encourage our students to pursue this more rigorous curriculum and make sure that it is available for every child that wants to take advantage of these opportunities.

We’re also working with state and local educational entities to increase the rigor of career and technical education programs to ensure that all students receive challenging academic course work and are better prepared for high-skill, high-wage occupations in current or emerging professions.

Finally, we propose to build on the Governors call for a more accurate graduation rate. By 2012 we would require all states to disaggregate this data by race and ethnicity so we can see clearly who’s dropping out and report it as part of their accountability plans.

We must make states and schools accountable for their dropout rates and provide them with the resources to improve. Without accountability, we’re just posting numbers and hoping for the best. Our children deserve better than that.

And while the problem before us is daunting, I have great hope and encouragement we’ll solve it. Because there’s so much good work already being done.

I see it in classrooms all over the country where dedicated teachers with a “no excuses” attitude are determined to help their kids succeed.

I see it when I visit my friend Joel Klein in New York City and witness his innovative strategies that are transforming the public schools there. In a recent visit to Harlem with President Bush, we saw the inspirational work being done by educators who in spite of tough circumstances are helping their students achieve.

I see it on Capitol Hill where efforts such as Senator Bingaman’s are putting high school reform at the top of the priority list. Where leaders like Charlie Rangel, himself a former dropout, are making it a personal mission to keep other youngsters from making the same mistake.

And I see it here, where our country’s best thinkers and dedicated leaders have come together united in our commitment to solve this crisis. This is urgent work. Too many Americans are being left behind at a time when it has never been more important to obtain an education.

Education is the key to our continued competitiveness and essential to our democracy. It is indeed the new civil right. Together we can end what the President calls “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Together we can ensure America lives up to its promise and provides every child access to the same quality education.

There’s another reason we engage in this effort. We know the pain and regret that accompanies the decision to drop out of school. We hear it in the voices of young adults who have shared their experiences with us today, who wish they could turn back time and do it over again.

It can be hard when all you see before you is another assignment, another test, another night of homework but a bright, hopeful future as an adult depends on the decision to stay in school. I want to thank the young people here for the courage to tell your stories and the determination to keep others from making the same mistake.

Fifty years ago, we witnessed similar courage when nine brave youngsters put everything on the line to walk into a classroom. They understood education is the key to a better life. Let’s make sure their struggles were not in vain and that every student, regardless of race, income, or locality, is given the necessary tools to rise and reach their potential.

Thank you.


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