October 22, 2002
Dear Chief State School Officers:
This year our nation entered a new era in education: we declared that we will build an education system in which every child learns. We will support schools that make sure children are safe and parents involved. And we will construct a system in which schools and educators are held accountable for student achievement.
Americans all across our country understand the nature of the challenge before us. They have repeatedly told their elected representatives at the state, local, and federal level that educating every child is our nation's most important domestic priority.
In Washington, both Democrats and Republicans heard this call and united behind an extraordinary moral vision to answer it. Our leaders made a bold commitment to provide equal education under the law by passing the No Child Left Behind Act.
I am writing to thank those of you who have accepted the challenge of that law and to applaud you for your efforts to educate every child and improve every school.
In response to the new federal law, nearly every state has recognized the absolute reality that thousands of schools are in need of improvement and that millions of children are not learning. In fact, some states have taken a bold stand and listed hundreds, even thousands, of schools "in need of improvement" in an effort to get those schools the help they need.
It is important to note the law does not use the term "failing" schools, because in some cases, schools identified as "in need of improvement" may, in fact, be succeeding in some measures. What's important is that we know these schools are capable of getting better results for all their students. By identifying schools as "in need of improvement" you are indicating your commitment to help them reach their potential as soon as possible. In fact, you are blazing a new trail as you confront the evidence and do something about it. I applaud you for your courage.
Such actions reinforce the message that No Child Left Behind is a constructive law and its reforms flow from a bipartisan spirit and belief that every child can learn. Simply put, a school identified as "in need of improvement" is a school that the President, the leaders in Congress, and the American people believe can improve.
By devoting new energy to those schools identified for improvement, you have refocused the debate and taken the first steps toward changing students' lives for the better. Such honesty is a badge of courage and should be acknowledged as such by the citizens in your state. It shows that many of you understand that real accountability begins with informing the public and inviting support as well as scrutiny. You are not trying to "game" the system for short-term benefits and no one can accuse you of trying to lower the standards for what your students should know.
The American public already understands that our schools can and must do better if we are to continue to live as a free and prosperous people. When more than two out of every three fourth-graders can't read proficiently on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we know there is a problem that requires decisive action.
To confront our nation's education challenges we must be bold and we must be honest. Only by openly discussing our schools' weaknesses can we begin to enact reform and build new strengths.
In many instances, we have seen principals and districts embrace the new spirit of accountability and achievement, embodied by No Child Left Behind. In Oregon, for instance, when several neighborhood schools were listed as in need of improvement, the principals gathered together with parents and presented a clear plan for action showing exactly what they will do to improve achievement.
Such leaders understand that change begins with accepting the truth -- the truth that we can do better. Indeed, as studies of effective management and leadership show: encouraging excellence begins with attracting the right people as well as facing harsh realities.
Unfortunately, some states have lowered the bar of expectations to hide the low performance of their schools. And a few others are discussing how they can ratchet down their standards in order to remove schools from their lists of low performers. Sadly, a small number of persons have suggested reducing standards for defining "proficiency" in order to artificially present the facts. This is not worthy of a great country. I hope these individuals will rethink their approach for the benefit of the students in your states.
The law is meant to spur improvement, encourage reform, and inspire new initiatives so that every boy and girl learns.
Thus, it is nothing less than shameful that some defenders of the status quo are trying to hide the performance of underachieving schools in order to shield parents from reality.
Not only is this political tactic an embarrassment, it undermines the public's trust in education as a cornerstone of freedom.
In order to ensure authentic school reform, our nation must raise the bar of expectations. Every child can learn. Every child must learn. And thanks to this bipartisan law, every child will learn.
Those who play semantic games or try to tinker with state numbers to lock out parents and the public, stand in the way of progress and reform. They are the enemies of equal justice and equal opportunity. They are apologists for failure.
And they will not succeed.
Right now, the challenge for state officials is to ask which schools are improving, how to emulate their success, and to believe that reform isn't just possible; it is inevitable. The American people demand it.
Once parents discover that children in their local schools are not learning as well as they could, they will demand results -- no matter how much one state tries to buck accountability.
As a former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, I understand the promise and peril of improving schools. It takes courage to confront the forces of bureaucracy, regulation, and special interests that try to cripple even the most sincere efforts to increase achievement and accountability.
Fortunately, there are schools and reform leaders across our nation who have shown how quickly effective leadership can transform student achievement and how swiftly success can sweep through a school. With a dedicated focus on accountability and achievement, any school that needs improvement can create a new culture of learning and excellence in just two years or less.
The good news is that we know what works: scientifically proven methods, aligned standards, assessments, and instruction, school and district leadership focused on student learning, accountability for results, and highly qualified teachers will improve achievement and bring success.
Admittedly, our nation's commitment -- to teach every child -- is ambitious. But we have the tools. And we have the know-how. Where we face a real challenge is in generating the will to see this vision through.
Americans agree that we need higher standards and higher expectations to press our schools to new successes. It is also why President Bush and Congress want to build a world-class teaching corps, so that every school and state has the chance to perform well.
Inside the classroom, nothing is more important than a teacher who has mastered his or her subject. That's why the law supports finding and recruiting teachers who have the content knowledge and the life experiences to teach confidently and effectively. Our nation needs its most inspiring and dynamic citizens to teach the next generation.
By providing for alternative routes to the classroom, our schools can supplement their faculties with engineers and programmers, nurses and researchers, soldiers and scientists, who are willing to step forward to help children learn.
Although some critics continue to attack aspects of the law and some naysayers have even convinced themselves that some children are too poor or too different-looking to learn, we know they are wrong.
Many of you have seen real reform in action because you have personally pressed reform forward. We share the belief that our efforts to improve achievement for all children will succeed if applied openly, honestly, and resolutely.
For those who have embraced the challenge, I thank you. The President, Congress and the American public believe that every child can learn and every school can improve, if we work toward that end as a people united.
Our nation's schools are up to this task. They will find a way to ensure every child gets the kind of education that opens the doors of opportunity, provides the skills to succeed, and preserves the precious freedom of our nation.
In closing, let me reiterate this Department's full commitment to forge a working partnership between the federal government and every state to get the job done. America's children are counting on us.