Thank you to everyone, here and on the livestream, for joining us today for an important conversation on what it will take to Raise the Bar in education – and Lead the World – in three key areas: academic excellence, boldly improving learning conditions, and preparing our students for a world of global competitiveness.
Achieving those priorities is part of a broader journey we can take to transform our education system for the better.
It’s a journey that was made possible by President Biden and Vice President Harris’s leadership to make education a top priority and deliver the American Rescue Plan – a historic $130 billion investment in supporting our schools -- helping them reopen swiftly and safely, and invest in the academic recovery they urgently needed.
Without that leadership, we would be talking about a very different situation today. But we can’t rest there. We must do more. We need to Raise the Bar.
That means putting the era of fiscal neglect in education firmly in the rear-view mirror – mustering the collective will to act boldly and unapologetically to address student underperformance and the decades of underinvestment in education..
People often ask me what the hardest part of the job is.
Simple: the toughest part of the job, just as it is for so many at the Dept, is the time away from family.
For me, to this day, the best title I have earned in my life is, “Papi”.
So, to help make this better, I started a routine with my 16 year old daughter..
We started 2 years ago with this thing called Saturday shenanigans.
Basically, we get up Saturday mornings really early and we get in the car and go…. We go anywhere.
We usually start off with a coffee. Then, we end up either at a beach, at a park for a hike, or sometimes we stop at a pet store. Other times, it turns into a driving lesson for her.*
And after two years of doing this every Saturday morning, getting in the car and going nowhere in particular, and watching my daughter grow in front of my eyes, I realized that sometimes, as a father, the journey is the destination.
That means that, it’s not an event or one specific place. It’s a process of improving over time to solve problems and ensure lasting, continuous growth and strong relationships. The journey is the destination.
Today, I’m here to tell you that, in education, too, the journey is the destination.
You won’t be hearing about any shiny new initiatives today. But you will hear me invite you to join me on a journey of transformation in education — a journey of raising the bar in education, together.
I know education opens doors* – because my wife Marissa and I are proof of it. Because I’ve seen firsthand the way it transforms lives – as a student, as a teacher, school principal, and as a parent.
So when we talk about the future of education, I could not believe more strongly that we have to get it right – and we have to center our work on what we know really matters: engaging students, effective teaching, and quality content — or what Elmore, Cohen, and Ball refer to as the Instructional Core.
Over the course of my career, and I am sure for many of you here, we’ve seen education policy veer away from improving the instructional core.
We have seen shiny silver bullets from the federal level promising to “fix” education. We’ve seen big initiatives with clever names that promise everything, only to fade away after the sense of urgency is over.
That’s not what this Administration is about.
This Administration is about substance, not sensationalism* in education. It’s about real solutions to complex issues, informed by real experience – with an unrelenting focus on the instructional core.
In my experience, and in conversations with dedicated educators, local elected education leaders, parents and students, our children cannot afford another round of policies that are not grounded in what is best for kids. What they don’t want is more partisan politics or culture wars in education.
What we do need is a collective will to fight complacency and status quo in education with the same passion we used to fight COVID. We need the same spirit of unity and bipartisanship we had in the first two months of the pandemic, when we looked past red and blue, and tapped into our humanity, courage, and American spirit*.
I call on my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in Congress, in local elected leadership, and leading our systems, to join us in putting our shared goals in education at the forefront.
Today, we Raise the Bar in Education. The same is not good enough anymore. If we do what we’ve done, we’re going to get what we’ve gotten. We’re better than that. Our children deserve better than that.
The first area where we must raise the bar is Academic Excellence..*
As much as it is about recovery, it’s also about setting higher standards for academic success in reading and mathematics. It’s unacceptable that in the most recent PISA test, an assessment which is done internationally, our students scored 36th place out of 79 countries in math.
That’s unacceptable. We must do better. We must act like our national security depends on it.
What does this mean to Raise the Bar in Academic Achievement? How does this connect with the field?
-We need to follow the science of literacy and ensure that students have strong decoding skills taught while embracing a lifelong intrinsic passion for reading.
-We should provide all students with access to financial literacy and ensure they can take high level math courses that prepare them for college and STEM careers.
-It means districts taking a close look at instructional materials to ensure high standards so that an A in school actually means something.
-It means that we pursue good pedagogy in a well-rounded education that includes and embraces the Arts—and reject a school experience that is narrowed to only what is tested.
We need to recognize once and for all that standardized tests work best when they serve as a flashlight on what works and what needs our attention – not as hammers to drive the outcomes we want in education from the top down, often pointing fingers to those with greater needs and less resources.
- And it also means recognizing that a strong start in education makes a big difference. Let’s get behind President Biden’s call for free universal early education, and get started by expanding preschool in Title I schools and enhancing kindergarten as a sturdy bridge to the early grades.
Raising the Bar also means boldly improving learning conditions. It means transformational shifts in how we invest in and provide mental health supports to go from a reactive school model to a proactive model that focuses on a student’s overall well-being*
Not only through the American Rescue Plan, but the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, billions of dollars were provided to raise the bar in access to mental health supports and safe and supportive learning environments for students. We’ve also increased support for Full-Service Community Schools from $30 million to $150 million. This provides critical wraparound services for students in their local communities.
Without these types of services, we cannot be shocked when our current educational systems result in exclusionary school discipline practices for black and brown students or there is an announcement of a youth mental health crisis.
If we believe that a student’s mental health impacts learning, then let’s ensure they get the support they need to be their best.
What does this look like? Well I have visited close to 40 states and I’ve seen:
-Counselor to student ratios improve in some schools, from 500 students to 1 counselor, to less than 250 students per counselor.
-Better professional development on Trauma informed practice for all educators
-And since we know districts cannot do it alone, we have seen districts use ARP dollars to create contracts with hospitals and other Community Based Healthcare Organizations to give the students and families what they need to succeed like I saw in Hazard, Kentucky last week.
And yes, I know that ARP is not intended to last forever, that the funds should be used by the end of next year. It was intended to accelerate reopening and recovery, not to fill decades of underinvestment in education funding and support for students.
Now as leaders, it’s time for us to stand up for students and expect more in education.
Let’s not have pandemic amnesia and forget how schools closed because they did not have enough teachers. Let’s learn from that experience and make the case for improved funding.
Investing in our children is no different than investing in defense. Both protect our tomorrow.
When I say we must raise the bar, we must do so also with respecting the teaching profession.*
Did you know that in the last 25 years, wages for college graduates have gone up by 28% while weekly wages for teachers have gone up by a measly 2%?
Basically, that’s an increase of $29 per week for teachers, and a $445 increase for other professionals with college degrees. It feels sometimes like a teacher tax.
Also, we have sat idle while normalizing the fact that in many states, mid-career teachers qualify for state welfare programs.
Have we, as a country, minimized the profession so much that we are OK with teachers driving Ubers or getting a second or third job on the weekend to earn enough money to pay the bills? I’m not ok with it.
From my experience as a teacher and as a father, I know the teaching profession changes lives. It’s a profession that makes all other professions possible. Teachers help children discover their own gifts, in some cases, when they lack confidence, or struggle to learn. It is the best profession, and we at the Department of Education will do all we can to ensure it is valued—and this includes competitive salaries.
I recently had a one on one meeting with the Minister of Education in Finland. We spoke of our systems and it was glaring how much we agreed that respecting the profession is a prerequisite for achievement.
Here at the Department of Education, we are providing over $2.6 billion to prepare, support, and retain high-quality educators. This Administration has also enacted the biggest increases to Title I, ever. Now, we’re pushing to go even further, fighting to double Title 1 and increase IDEA funding – which will result in better teacher-to-student ratios. And for the first time, we’re putting millions into ensuring grow your own programs are developed to bring talent into the profession through the Augustus Hawkins Grant program.
Yes, I expect that our students achieve better than every other country, but that starts with respecting the profession.
It translates to eliminating the teacher shortage by:
-Providing a Competitive salary. At a minimum, no teacher should make less than the average salary of people with similar degrees in their state. It also means discharging debt for our educators who are public servants. To date, under this administration, over $24 billion in loans have been forgiven for over 2 million public servants.
We are working at the Department of Education to increase transparency on the teacher salary issue across the country and have called on states and districts to raise salaries to a competitive level.
-Raising the Bar for the profession means better professional learning and career expanding opportunities such as master teacher status, teacher leader experiences, free advancement education for those who qualify and deserve it.
Lifting the profession also means respecting the voice and seeking the input of teachers when creating policies, not just asking teachers to co-sign someone else’s plan. True, authentic engagement requires shared ownership and multiple perspectives. Second only to parents, who knows the students best?
Raising the Bar also means reimagining college and career pathways*.
Currently, our Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12 system and college systems are disconnected.
For too many students, the gaps between the systems are too big to cross.
For example, the skills for the high paying jobs that will be made available through the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act must be better infused into our K-12 education system, especially STEM and Career Technical Education courses, so our students graduate with options for success.
-This means that dual enrollment courses for local colleges should start at 11th grade and that ambitious high schoolers can graduate with an associate’s degree or credential without paying a penny.
Already, we’ve secured over a billion dollars in funding for career and technical education through the Perkins Grant program and $25 million for career-connected high schools. Now is the time to build on that.
To help get there, in November, we launched a new pathways initiative called Raise the Bar: Unlocking Career Success – together with the First Lady and the Secretaries of Labor and Commerce. As we roll out this initiative, it will include very specific plans on how our high schools should be evolved to meet the career and college pathways of today and tomorrow. Look out for our plan: Better yet, put it to good use.
-It also means that Career Pathways in high schools can lead to micro credentials for the jobs of today and tomorrow. We have the students for the careers needed to build America. We just have to better align our systems and clear the path for our students.
We must challenge our myopic view that emphasizing the importance of career pathways is about limiting students, or the view that it’s four-year-college or bust.
Advancing career pathways in high schools is about more options for students, not less. What it does is prepare them for the careers of today with options, and in some cases, their employer will pay for their future education.
If we do this well, our graduates will be able to compete on a global stage.
It’s my intention to Raise the Bar so we can lead the world in advanced career and technical education.
And speaking of global competitiveness, if we are to prepare our students for a global market, let’s Raise the Bar to provide better opportunities for our students in America to be Multilingual.
Recently at a ministerial meeting in France with 38 other countries, I was surprised that we were one of a few countries that was primarily monolingual.
Learning another, or multiple languages should be expected of our students and anchored as a skill that will enhance their global engagement and increase opportunities for success. Ya es tiempo de aprender otro idioma!
What does it look like to increase multilingualism?
-First off, it means improving our bilingual and dual language program to follow the research on second language development.
We will provide support and assistance to the 50 states who are working to improve their English Development Programs and Multilingual Language Programs. Don’t forget: every year, there is $760 million in Title III funding from the Department of Education that can help you support English learners.
Let’s look at our students in bilingual programs as gifted with assets that we want other students to have. Being bilingual and bicultural is a superpower!
- Let’s place a high value on having graduates be multilingual. Recognition for that, such as earning a Seal of Biliteracy, which many states have, should be celebrated at graduation as much as an honors cord. Let’s face it: you will have more options in life being bilingual.
-Let’s improve multilingual education to give our students opportunities to excel in global markets where multilingualism and cultural differences are embraced and valued.
At the Department of Education, we will prioritize these focus areas and expand opportunities for technical assistance and use of federal funding.
In the coming months, you will hear more details for each of these categories. Our actions at the Department must support our beliefs, and we intend to do that.
But it will also require states and districts to step up and match the urgency that the President and Congress demonstrated through the American Rescue Plan – and will continue to demonstrate through our annual budget proposals.
Now, the question is: will we step up and seize this opportunity to raise the bar for education for years to come?
How we answer that question will determine whether we can maximize the potential of our students, our schools, and our country.
So today, my challenge to state governors and legislators, local mayors and superintendents, principals and policymakers alike is this: let’s do what needs to get done.
Let’s fight for the sustainable, long-term state and local funding streams that will make good on the promise of the American Rescue Plan as a down payment for transformative change. Let’s raise the bar.
Almost twenty-five years ago, I walked into Room 106 at Israel Putnam Elementary School in Meriden, Connecticut. It was my first classroom.*
I can still remember the excitement of teaching my first class of fourth graders – and the effort I put into my first classroom bulletin board to welcome them. On it, I put up a picture of a rocket ship going up, with the words, “let the journey begin.”
My journey as an educator started that day. And it’s been a joy to embark on that journey ever since – to learn from the amazing educators I met along the way, to help every child, every young person discover the promise of education to open doors they didn’t even know existed.
That journey became my life’s purpose. That journey became the destination.
Today, I invite you to join me on that journey.*
If you believe that every child in this nation deserves a shot: join me on this journey.
If you believe that it’s worth taking a few lumps as we challenge the protectors of the status quo in education: join me on this journey.
If you believe that we as a nation have the collective will and capacity it takes to step up and lead the world: join me on this journey.
If we embrace that journey together, I know that our students and families will be prepared for the careers of the future – and that they will be able to engage in, and prosper on the world stage.
So if you believe we can do this – if you believe now is the time to raise the bar in education – I say: let the journey begin. Thank you.