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September 21, 2005 Extra Credit
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September 21, 2005

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Katrina: A Teachable Moment

The following is the text of U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Address to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., today:

During the last few weeks, I've made several visits to the Gulf Coast. We've all witnessed both terrible destruction and heart-warming acts of generosity. I am gratified by schools that are opening their doors—and their hearts—to displaced students. But I'm not surprised. Educators are simply showing America once again what a treasure they truly are.

I met a teacher in Houston who talked about how this has been an opportunity to give back and grow. I heard about a kindergartener in Dallas who was walking down the hall when he doubled-back toward the classroom. His teacher asked where he was going. He said he was going to get his backpack and lunch box. The teacher told him not to worry, his things would be there went they got back. He replied, "You just never know."

After the pictures we've all seen on television, and the looks on these children's faces, one thing I know for sure is that these young people need and deserve a quality education. In fact, we're having what educators call "a teachable moment." What is a teachable moment? It's an opportunity to learn from, and act on, the moment you're in. Katrina is a potent reminder to all of us that every single one of our children must be given the opportunity to learn and the chance to share in the American dream.

I hope the tragedy of Katrina drives this point home. As a nation, it is our moral obligation to leave no child behind.

If Katrina shows us anything, it shows how vulnerable we are. In fact, Tom Friedman's latest bestseller, The World Is Flat, spotlights some challenges to our future. Many of Friedman's points about America's waning competitiveness speak directly to education, and I want to highlight a few of these.

But there's also one passage I want to address head on. That's where Friedman chides political leaders for failing to "acknowledge that there is an education gap emerging and that there is an ambition gap emerging and that we are in a quiet crisis."

Well, I agree and I'll say it: There is an education gap. And we are on a mission to close it.

Business, political, and education leaders are regularly sounding the alarm. Alan Greenspan has spoken at length on the need to "adapt our educational system to the evolving needs of the economy".

The president and CEO of Cisco Systems, John Chambers, was even more direct when he said, "We are not competitive."

As the international playing field becomes flatter, our students need better education and training to compete.

I could devote a whole speech to this, but let me just say, this matters to everybody. Take a look at our high school graduation rates.

Among ninth-graders, five out of 10 minority students fail to finish high school on time. Overall, three out of 10 don't finish on time.

Would we tolerate three out of every 10 planes going down? Would we tolerate three out of every 10 heart surgeries failing? Then why is three out of 10 kids dropping out of high school OK with us?

Leaving our high school students behind is not only morally unacceptable—what the president calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations." It is also economically untenable. Studies show the staggering cost of high school dropouts. In addition to lost earnings for the individual, consider the cost to society.

The one million students who drop out of high school each year cost our nation more than $260 billion dollars. That's in lost wages, lost taxes, and lost productivity over their lifetimes. In federal dollars, that will buy you 10 years of research at the National Institutes of Health. When you lose a million students every year that's a tremendous impact on our economy. And it represents the American Dream … denied.

So I would suggest, for this and a host of other reasons: How well our students are doing is not just an "education issue." It's an economic issue, a civic issue, a social issue, and a national security issue. And … it's everybody's issue.

Now that we've identified the problem, the question is, what are we doing about it? With No Child Left Behind, President Bush and the Congress led our nation in a historic commitment to give every child a quality education.

We said we will close the achievement gap by 2014 across the board. With states measuring our children's progress each year in reading and math, and by focusing on each student and each group of students, we can discover where they need help before it's too late.

We now have proof that high standards and accountability are paying off. Scores are at all-time highs for African-American and Hispanic students, especially in the early grades. We've made more progress in the last five years than in the previous 30 combined.

We're on the right track. I see it in places like Pueblo, Colo., where its poorest schools posted a 20-point gain in fourth-grade reading scores. Superintendent Joyce Bales says, "Anybody can do what we're doing. It's easier to complain and whine than it is to do this hard work. We work hard. We work hard all the time."

In Garden Grove, Calif., a largely urban district where 75 percent of the students do not speak English and nearly 60 percent are poor, all but two of the district's 67 schools met or exceeded the goals of No Child Left Behind. How did they do it? Superintendent Laura Schwalm says, "We do it one kid at a time. We use No Child Left Behind to set the targets we want to hit. We align all our actions and resources to hit those targets. And we believe the kids can do it."

Every day I am inspired by hard-working parents and policymakers—and teachers and administrators like Joyce and Laura—who believe that every child can learn. Truly, those taking on this challenge are part of something historic. I'd like to acknowledge just one of these dedicated leaders who has joined us today, Donna Pasteur, the principal of my eighth-grade daughter's public school.

While we have encouraging results for younger children, our nation's recent education report card has shown no progress for high school students in 30 years. So, it's time to focus on improving high schools. That's why the president and I are supporting high school reform that focuses on reading, math and science to help more of our students reach the finish line on time and ready for college or work. We are also asking states to gauge student progress throughout high school.

A recent survey by the Educational Testing Service reveals that the majority of Americans, especially parents like me, believe that all students, teachers, and schools should be held to the same performance standards, regardless of background or race.

We know students who take rigorous courses in high school stand a far better chance of succeeding in college. But something is wrong when right here in the Washington, D.C. metro area, suburban Langley High School offers 21 Advanced Placement courses while inner-city Ballou High School offers four. And 40 percent of high schools nationally offer no AP courses.

AP courses help students succeed in college and in the workforce. The president and I want to expand these programs so that students in urban schools like Ballou have the same opportunities as children in the suburbs.

In our global economy, 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs will require education or training beyond high school. Just this week I announced a Commission on Higher Education to ask some of the vital questions we are facing in that arena.

For example, how can we ensure that college is affordable and accessible? And while we have a fine higher education system, will it be adequate for the future?

It's time for a vigorous public debate about higher education in America, and I look forward to the commission's findings next summer.

Here's one more thing. As you heard Rick say earlier, I am the first mother of school-age children to hold this job. I want to take a moment to speak to my fellow parents.

One of the parts I like best about Tom Friedman's book is what he calls the "dirty little secrets." Parents must understand what he terms the ambition gap, the numbers gap, and the education gap.

He says, "Compared with the young, energetic Indians and Chinese, too many Americans have gotten too lazy." The numbers gap refers to the fact that we are simply not producing enough engineers and scientists. And the education gap means that U.S. high tech companies are seeking employees abroad—not just because they can pay them less, but also because they are more skilled and more motivated. In other words, they're not following the money, they're following the brains. So the first thing parents need to realize is that this is not the same world we grew up in.

The more technology levels the playing field, the more critical postsecondary education becomes. In today's world, you need a meaningful high school education and a couple of years of college to succeed as a plumber or mechanic or electrician.

I agree with those who say there comes a time to toss out the Game Boy and turn off the TV. But I go even further. Take a look at your kids' after-school schedule this week—the swimming, soccer, and football. The numbers on your child's report card should be as important as the numbers on the scoreboard.

I know a parent's job isn't easy. I've been a single mom. I work full-time. I try to pay attention. But you've got to worry about dinner, the laundry, paying bills, and kids doing homework. Still, the fact remains: Parents must be as interested a consumer in their children's education as they are in restaurant or travel deals. Think of all that time you've spent on the Internet trying to save $50 dollars on a plane ticket. As parents, we have no more important task than to help our children develop academic skills, and character, and a little ambition if we are going to succeed in this flattening world.

I don't know if you've been to the post office lately and seen the new stamps. But it got me thinking. Here we have a series on our favorite Disney characters. We all love Snow White and Dopey, Mickey Mouse and Pluto!

Then there's another new series called "American Scientists"—portraits of a famous geneticist, physicist, and thermodynamicist. Name that scientist, anyone?!

Today, there is no Sputnik to galvanize the nation into action, but Katrina has! The education gap, the achievement gap, the quiet crisis will cast a very long shadow over our future if we do not summon the will to stay competitive. And competitiveness begins with education.

We know the cure. We can do this! High standards with measured results. High expectations. Quality curriculum. Great teaching. Parental focus.

This is our mandate and our mission. It's also the right thing to do. Our children and our country deserve no less.

Thank you very much.

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NCLB Extra Credit is a regular look at the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush's landmark education reform initiative passed with bipartisan support in Congress.

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Last Modified: 08/14/2013