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U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon Delivers Keynote Address at the RSA Edge Lecture: No Child Left Behind—Partnership for Learning in the United States


U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon today delivered the keynote address at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) Edge Lecture: No Child Left Behind—Partnership for Learning in the United States. In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Simon highlighted the successes of No Child Left Behind in the U.S. and discussed the role of the Federal government in supporting and facilitating academic gains in America’s schools. Following are his prepared remarks:

I have been a teacher of one sort or another for almost forty-three years, working across all levels of the education delivery system from the classroom to the federal government. I have come to the realization that successful, comprehensive school reform is only possible with a true partnership among all these entities, and finding the right tension among those partners in terms of autonomy and accountability.

Today’s discussion will focus on the effectiveness of the United States Department of Education in leveraging its limited constitutional and funding authorities as it works to carry out the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. More fundamentally, however, the discussion is really about celebrating, expanding, and rewarding outstanding teaching and learning.

A reading of the United States Constitution finds no mention of the federal government’s role in the education of its citizens, thereby relegating that responsibility primarily to individual states. Although constitutionally absent, events in our country’s history have nonetheless established a clear national interest in an educated citizenry, with federal law so reflecting that.

Most pertinent to today’s topic are events dating back to 1965 with the passage of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), beginning for the nation a new era of responsibility for our country’s poorest school children. ESEA was designed to level the playing field between the rich and poor by focusing federal money on high poverty areas. The law has been in existence continually since that time, undergoing periodic renewal (what we call reauthorization) roughly every seven years. No Child Left Behind represents its latest reauthorization.

I began my teaching internship just a few weeks after the signing of that historic law. At that time, learning standards were almost exclusively teacher-based. My standards were not necessarily those of the teacher in the adjacent room teaching the same subject. As long as I covered the textbook or major portion thereof, and did it in a way that kids were learning, no one really cared.

Federal financial support, although limited, was welcomed and offered opportunity for new programs beyond what state and local funding provided. Schools met the accountability requirements of the law primarily by documenting that the money was spent on allowable products and services, such as equipment or professional development. State education departments and local school districts were the principal drivers of school reform.

By the late 1980s, even longtime supporters of the law were becoming concerned about the lack of evidence that the federal funds were making a substantial difference in the education of poor and minority children. It was then that the federal interest began to shift to standards and accountability for academic achievement.

The 1994 reauthorization, known as the Improving America’s Schools Act, required states to develop more rigorous standards, establish tests to measure against those standards, and disaggregate the testing data to identify which population subgroups were being underserved. Because the 1994 version lacked accountability mechanisms for rigorous enforcement, by the time of NCLB in 2001, only eleven of our fifty states were in compliance.

NCLB, signed by President George W. Bush with overwhelming bi-partisan support in the Congress, expanded the law’s requirements even further, establishing meaningful achievement and compliance provisions. Both the President and Congress made it very clear that this time, they really did mean it—children must be able to read and do math at or above grade level; no more excuses.

Today, learning standards are state-based, with annual state-developed and administered tests in reading and math required in each of the grades three through eight and once in high school. The goal is that every child performs at or above grade level in those subjects by 2014.

Accountability is measured at the school level, with each state setting the improvement trajectory for its schools, taking them from their current level of performance to 100 percent by 2014. In order to accomplish this, every child is expected to have a highly qualified teacher every year.

Schools report annually to parents and the public on how well they are doing. Those that fail to meet their annual improvement goals have additional sums of money targeted to interventions that will help their students get better, including tutoring and in some cases allowing children to transfer to another school that is meeting its targets.

Schools that chronically under-perform are subject to more extreme interventions, including replacing staff, being taken over by other public or private entities, or eventual closure.

Federal aid has been substantially increased under NCLB and now stands at an all time high, but still accounts for only about nine percent of the average school district’s financial support. In exchange for this money, a state voluntarily agrees to be held accountable for the law’s provisions, submitting a plan that sets out the manner in which it will fulfill these requirements. This includes proof that its standards are indeed aligned with its testing and that highly qualified teachers are being distributed equally among the classrooms of poor children and their more affluent counterparts.

Each year, each state is told how much it will receive in federal funds, and each year the state is free to decline those funds and thus avoid any obligation to implement its plan. No state has yet refused the money. The federal government, although a minority funding partner in a voluntary endeavor, is now driving much of the country’s school reform efforts.

Some question whether the mission of NCLB, getting every child to grade level or above in reading and math by 2014, is doable. The fact is, it is already being done in a growing number of schools around the country, schools where today all or most of students are meeting that standard. These are what I call the “2014 is today” schools.

What distinguishes these successful schools from those similarly situated in terms of demographics and other measures, but that are not making progress or are among the chronic underperforming schools?

First and foremost, successful schools know what to do—and what to do centers around a really good teacher. Specifically, these schools believe that their students can achieve to high standards. These standards, and the expected behavior to reach them, are clearly communicated to the students and their parents. Highly qualified, effective teachers use data to guide instruction daily and they work with an outstanding school-level administrator who has knowledge and authority to effect change, reward innovation and enforce high expectations.

One of the immediate challenges for educators and policymakers is to provide information to all schools about what really works and what doesn’t. Then, we must have the wisdom and courage to stop what doesn’t work and concentrate exclusively on what does.

Slide Rule and Calculator—Does anybody know what this is? It’s a slide rule, a calculating device that has its origins dating back to the seventeenth century. I don’t mind telling you I had a time getting this through airport security; some of the younger screeners were convinced it was some sort of weapon, but just couldn’t prove it.

Slide rules came in various sizes and were made of various materials, including fiberglass, wood, plastic, and metal. The one I am most proud of, and which was given to me in 1963 by my brother as a high school graduation present, is made of fiberglass and has numerous advanced features that are not on the plastic version I hold in my hand. Unsure of whether or not this would be allowed on the plane, I just couldn’t risk bringing the better one.

The accuracy of the instrument varied, depending on the material of construction, giving different answers depending on the temperature, relative humidity and nervousness of the operator. A slight twitch at any point in the process could skew the final answer significantly. The operator had to be good at estimating the answer; for instance multiplying 572 times 1,320 required the same settings as multiplying 5.72 by 13,200.

No mathematician, scientist or engineer dared do his or her work without the slide rule. You especially looked cool when you could wear one on your belt in a leather carrying case. The slide rule remained the machine of choice for computation even into the computer age. The first calculators were called “electronic slide rules”, just like the first cars were called “horseless carriages”. In 1951, IBM bragged that it took 150 slide rules to match the power of one of its new computers.

American engineering achievements that owe their existence to this device include the Empire State Building, Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, Boeing 707 airliner and the Saturn 5 rocket used by the Apollo and Skylab programs.

This instrument, that carried the world from the Renaissance to the moon, was rendered obsolete overnight.

It was replaced with the microprocessor, represented here by an electronic calculator. These devices are millions of times faster and infinitely more accurate. They are the machine of choice for computation for today’s generation.

It took a wizard to use the slide rule, and only after weeks of training and persistent use. Anyone can use a calculator with only a few minutes of training—but you can’t look cool carrying it on your belt.

I use this analogy between the slide rule and calculator to illustrate where I believe the United States as a nation finds itself in discussing our system of education and the reforms necessary to make it work better for students.

One of the major successes of NCLB has been in its insistence on scientifically-based research and the gathering and use of reliable data—data that can tell the truth, whether or not we want to hear it. There exists in too many of our schools what President Bush has called the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for certain subgroups of students, including those in special education, those whose first language is not English, and our poor and minority children.

In some of our high schools, this list has been extended to include those enrolled in Career and Technical Education (CTE). I know that CTE is of significant interest to many of you here today. I will talk specifically about this topic a little later.

Only 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 sixty percent of Americans have no postsecondary credentials at all.

Only ten percent of Latinos earn bachelor’s degrees by age twenty-nine.

Among countries participating in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States ranks first in the percent of the population fifty-five to sixty-four years old who have completed both high school and college. When you look at those same statistics among twenty-five to thirty-four year olds, we rank tenth in each category. These and other similar statistics illustrate that a large number of our students lack the skills to succeed in the global knowledge economy. If we choose to ignore this reality, too many of our citizens run the risk, as history has documented for the slide rule, of being rendered obsolete overnight.

These young people are being released with slide rule skills to compete in job markets that demand the ability to work not only with multi-functional calculators, but also with advanced computer systems.

Our very best schools are extraordinary, but there is a diversity of quality in far too many, where expectations for students haven’t been set high enough. In other words, contentment with the status quo equates to losing ground. When business as usual fails our students, informed innovators need to step forward and give the status quo the heave ho.

On a positive note, it is apparent that No Child Left Behind, in partnership with state and local school reform efforts, is working for students. In addition to annual state testing, the law requires that all states participate every two years in reading and math portions of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at grades four and eight. NAEP, known as our nation’s report card, is the only true national exam given.

Results from the 2007 administration show that at fourth grade, reading and math scores are higher than ever, with math gains between 2003 and 2007 equivalent to adding an extra half-year of instruction. Math scores at eighth grade are higher than ever. The biggest gains in both grades and both subjects came from our Hispanic and African-American students, among those traditionally left behind by our education system.

Similar results have been shown on the state administered tests. Highly qualified teachers are now found in over ninety percent of our classrooms, which is an all-time high.

I mentioned earlier that CTE students have traditionally been one of the groups for whom too many of our high schools have had low expectations. NCLB is helping change that mindset as well. Our philosophy on CTE is that the best preparation we can give these students is to equip them with a solid academic foundation, especially in math, science and technology that will give them a clear path to postsecondary education.

Under recently passed federal legislation, states and local school districts must develop and implement CTE programs that incorporate rigorous state academic standards, link secondary and postsecondary education in a coordinated, non duplicative progression of courses and lead to an industry-recognized credential or certificate, or an associate or baccalaureate degree.

A number of states have collaborated on, and are implementing, a common set of standards for programs in sixteen broad career areas, from general workplace knowledge and skills to specific technical skills needed for a particular occupation. These efforts will help ensure that students have flexibility, choice, and the ability to change their educational and career choices and still be successful.

The advisory committees for these collaborations have also developed sample plans of study, which include recommended courses at the secondary and postsecondary levels to prepare students for new and emerging occupations such as biomedical engineer, nanobiologist, and streaming media specialist—none of which require proficiency with the slide rule.

These actions confirm our continuing need to address the reality of our shifting demographics and rising workforce demands that require us to educate more students to much higher levels than we have ever done before.

To ensure that the goals of NCLB continue to be met for all students, the President has proposed a series of modifications for the Act’s current reauthorization. These refinements are meant to foster and honor further innovation, where such new thinking will increase the opportunities for teachers to teach and students to learn. He wants to make sure that the law works better for states, schools, and the children they serve while not sacrificing its core principles of accountability, high standards, enhanced choices for parents and sound, proven methods of instruction.

We have learned a lot over the past six years—what works well and what needs to be changed. We have heard from students, teachers, parents, administrators and policy makers from all levels of school governance, the business community and advocacy groups. Consensus has generally formed around a limited number of changes, some of which Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has already addressed through her limited authority provided in the law to waive certain aspects of its provisions.

The Secretary has already made allowances for a limited group of special education students and for those children whose first language is not English. We have worked with states and local districts to make it easier for them to offer more tutoring options for children who fall behind.

We believe the law needs to be changed to accommodate the use of what is known as a growth model, where schools can get credit for improving the performance of the same students over time as they move from grade to grade. When NCLB began, few States had the data capacity to calculate such individual academic progress. The Secretary has already permitted nine states to use this method and recently announced its future availability to all others eligible.

We need to increase the flexibility and capacity for states and school districts to help them turn around struggling schools by going from the current pass-fail system to a more nuanced approach that makes distinctions between those chronic underperformers and those schools that are missing their targets in just one or two areas. This involves both intervening early when signs of trouble develop and also being more innovative and aggressive at the other extreme when chronic underperforming schools just don’t seem to be able to get it right.

We need to make sure our children graduate prepared for the jobs of the twenty-first century by increasing accountability and access to a more rigorous curriculum in our high schools. States should be required to develop course-level academic standards for English and mathematics that prepare those students to succeed in college and the global workplace, administer assessments aligned to these standards and publicly report how well the students are doing. Consistent graduation rate calculations should be used, so that we know for sure how many of our students actually finish twelfth grade.

We need to reward our best and most effective teachers by paying them more for helping students achieve to high standards and for working in our most challenging schools.

Talented and qualified professionals from math, science, and technology fields outside of education should be encouraged to teach middle and high school courses, especially in low-income areas.

All children have a right to be taught by a highly qualified, effective teacher every year, and to go to a high performing school. That is what NCLB is really about—taking the excellent teaching and learning that is already occurring in many of our schools and bringing it to scale. It is about investing heavily in incentives, financial and otherwise, to keep good teachers teaching. The fact is, slide rule teachers tend to graduate slide rule students—our children deserve better than that.

Dedicated teachers in the “2014 is today” schools with whom I have spoken all tell me the same thing—“We have never felt more like professionals. We have never felt more empowered and able to use our creativity to really innovate and make a difference.”

Reading books such as The World is Flat by Tom Friedman has convinced me that twenty-somethings will soon rule the world. The one room schoolhouse has evolved into a one world school house. Competition for jobs, economic development, and educational opportunities is now waged across international borders.

I believe the days are numbered for the traditional system of starting work in an organization or company and then moving up through the ranks to eventually assume leadership or ownership at middle-age or older. We must get these young people ready to lead immediately. They will not all have the luxury of learning on the job or learning for the first time, what we should have taught them before graduation. In many instances, they will be creating the jobs in which they work.

Let’s look ahead to the day that the mission of No Child Left Behind becomes reality—that all children are able to read and do math at or above grade level. Let’s imagine that mission being expanded to include no graduate left behind—that all our young men and women enter the workforce or continue on to higher education fully prepared, with advanced reading, math and technology skills.

Let’s look ahead to the day that whatever ground some students have lost in the arena of global competitiveness is fully recovered. That day should be viewed not as the end of our efforts, but the beginning.

If we become overly satisfied achieving the goals I just mentioned, if we become content with the fact that we indeed are producing microprocessors rather than slide rules, then we run the risk of becoming complacent. Complacency very likely could lead to the following scene unfolding.

It is the year 2040. One of my grandchildren, Alex now six or Ana now three, is giving an RSA lecture on the relevance of education. At some point he or she will hold this instrument up for view—“Does anybody know what this is? It is a microprocessor-based electronic calculator. It was the machine of choice for computation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries when my granddad was still working. It became obsolete overnight.”


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