President-elect Barack Obama
Over the past few weeks, Vice President-elect Biden and I have
announced key members of our economic team, and they are working as we
speak to craft a recovery program that will save and create millions of
jobs and grow our struggling economy.
But we know that in the long run, the path to jobs and growth
begins in America’s classrooms. So today, we’re pleased to
announce the leader of our education team, whose work will be critical
to these efforts: our nominee for Secretary of Education, Arne
In the next few years, the decisions we make about how to educate
our children will shape our future for generations to come. They
will determine not just whether our children have the chance to fulfill
their God-given potential, or whether our workers have the chance to
build a better life for their families, but whether we, as a nation,
will remain in the twenty-first century, the kind of global economic
leader that we were in the twentieth. Because at a time when
companies can plant jobs wherever there’s an Internet connection, and
two-thirds of all new jobs require a higher education or advanced
training, if we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, we must
out-educate the world today.
Yet, when our high school dropout rate is one of the highest in
the industrialized world; when a third of all fourth graders can’t do
basic math; when more and more Americans are getting priced out of
attending college – we are falling far short of that goal.
For years, we have talked our education problems to death in
Washington, but failed to act, stuck in the same tired debates that
have stymied our progress and left schools and parents to fend for
themselves: Democrat versus Republican; vouchers versus the status quo;
more money versus more reform – all along failing to acknowledge that
both sides have good ideas and good intentions.
We cannot continue on like this. It is morally unacceptable
for our children – and economically untenable for America. We
need a new vision for a 21st century education system – one
where we aren’t just supporting existing schools, but spurring
innovation; where we’re not just investing more money, but demanding
more reform; where parents take responsibility for their children’s
success; where we’re recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of
new teachers; where we hold our schools, teachers and government
accountable for results; and where we expect all our children not only
to graduate high school, but to graduate college and get a good paying
These are precisely the goals to which Arne Duncan has devoted
his life – from his days back in college, tutoring children here in
Chicago; to his work at the helm of a non-profit remaking schools on
the South Side; to his time working for the Chicago Public Schools,
where he became Chief Executive Officer of this city’s school system.
When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of
hands-on practitioners. For Arne, school reform isn’t just a
theory in a book – it’s the cause of his life. And the results
aren’t just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our
children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker
in the world for any job.
When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn’t blink. He’s
not beholden to any one ideology – and he doesn’t hesitate for one
minute to do what needs to be done. He’s worked tirelessly to
improve teacher quality, increasing the number of master teachers
who’ve completed a rigorous national certification process from 11 to
just shy of 1,200, and rewarding school leaders and teachers for gains
in student achievement. He’s championed good charter schools –
even when it was controversial. He’s shut down failing schools
and replaced their entire staffs – even when it was unpopular.
Dodge Renaissance Academy is a perfect example – since this school was
revamped and re-opened in 2003, the number of students meeting state
standards has more than tripled.
In just seven years, he’s boosted elementary test scores here in
Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67
percent. The dropout rate has gone down every year he’s been in
charge. And on the ACT, the gains of Chicago students have been
twice as big as those for students in the rest of the
So when Arne speaks to educators across America, it won’t be from
up in some ivory tower, but from the lessons he’s learned during his
years changing our schools from the bottom up.
I remember a conversation we had about one of those lessons a
while back. We were talking about how he’d managed to increase
the number of kids taking and passing AP courses in Chicago over the
last few years. And he told me that in the end, the kids weren’t
any smarter than they were three years ago; our expectations for them
were just higher.
Well, I think it’s time we raised expectations for our kids all
across this country and built schools that meet – and exceed – those
expectations. As the husband and brother of educators, the Vice
President-Elect and I know this won’t be easy – we’ve seen how hard
Jill and Maya work every day. And we know it’s going to take all
of us, working together. Because in the end, responsibility for
our children’s success doesn’t start in Washington. It starts in
our homes and our families. No education policy can replace a
parent who makes sure a child gets to school on time, or helps with
homework and attends those parent-teacher conferences. No
government program can turn off the TV, or put away the video games and
read to a child at night.
We all need to be part of the solution. We all have a stake
in the future of our children.
I’ll never forget my first visit to this school several years
ago, when one of the teachers here told me about what she called the
“These Kids Syndrome” – our willingness to find a million excuses for
why “these kids” can’t learn – how “these kids” come from tough
neighborhoods, or “these kids” have fallen too far behind.
“When I hear that term, it drives me nuts,” she told me.
“They’re not ‘these kids,’ they’re our kids.”
I can’t think of a better way to sum up Arne’s approach to
education reform. With his leadership, I am confident that
together, we will bring our education system – and our economy – into
the 21st century, and give all our kids the chance to
Secretary of Education
December 16, 2008
[As Prepared for Delivery]