March 30, 2004
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Last Sunday, The Washington Post featured an editorial by an admissions officer for Union College. He spoke of reviewing applications and of the amazing stories in them. There were tales of accomplishment, courage, daring and compassion. In his view, the students were remarkable, products of an outstanding education. He congratulated their teachers and parents for, in his words, "the work ethic, kindness, and ... creative craziness these students have already shown...."
Yes, there are millions of success stories every year, stories of lives transformed, leadership and daring, accomplishment and discovery. You should be proud, because many of these students are your students. They are the success stories who have passed through your programs, touched by your own efforts to foster excellence. Because of your good, visionary work, students receive a better, richer and more intense educational experience, greatly expanding their learning and finding larger personal and intellectual growth. Advanced Placement (AP) courses have become a hallmark of excellence in this country.
But there are other students who didn't send in college applications, who were turned off and who turned away from higher education. For these students, elementary and secondary education was an exercise in frustration, a way to mark time, and not a time of educational enlightenment. For them, AP courses were for other studentsthe smart, the wealthy or the gifted. AP courses were like the starsbright but hopelessly distant. And you know, some of these students didn't even know about AP courses. They had never heard of them.
No, these students are not success stories. Some of them have tragic stories; some have no stories at all. They have been ignored, undereducated, disrespected and left behind. They have suffered silently and wasted their youth. Yes, they may have been passed on and passed out, denied a quality education. Many of these children are African American, Hispanic, special needs, English language learners, or low income. They have been left behind because of who they are, because they have already been categorized for failure.
I'm haunted by their stories, by the silence and by the waste. I think about it every day. It is a legacy of segregation and evidence of a re-segregation that harms our students and perpetuates racism and division in this country. It is a sign of indifference and callousness that is immoral and unacceptable. If we are an equitable and compassionate people, and I know we are, then we can and must do more for these students. As Thurgood Marshall said, speaking before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education: "There is no way" you can compensate a child for a lost education. I agree. No way!!! There is no rewind button.
Of course, a major problem is simply attitude: there are some who believe that these students can't learn, that they are the hopeless baggage of the education system. That mind-set is part of the problem. We write these students off, exclude them, because we believe they can't do the work or make the grade. That attitude leads to structural barriers and structural omissions, such as a scarcity of AP courses for disadvantaged or low-income students. There are still some high schools with no AP courses at all.
But these students can learn. They can be among the brightest, best students in the system, if the system were more inclusive, successful and fair. And we can provide advanced courses that meet the interests and needs of these students. We have already done so, and thanks to you, with great success. We know that these students can learn more, and learn at the highest levels, if we only give them a chance.
I believe that the Advanced Placement Program can help us close this vast educational divide. So does the president. The president and I want to dramatically expand the number of students prepared to succeed in advanced courses and in collegeespecially low-income and minority students. That is why President Bush has more than doubled funding for the program in the 2005 budget, asking for $52 million, a $28 million increase over 2004. This support will reach disadvantaged students, paying for test fees and preparing them for advanced courses. It will upgrade school curricula. Working in concert with other programs in the president's Jobs for the 21st Century initiative, a $333 million plan, the AP program will be part of a larger effort to improve reading, mathematics and teaching. And the jobs initiative will complement the No Child Left Behind Act reforms. In all, the president has set federal spending in the Department of Education at $57 billion for 2005, a 36 percent increase since 2001.
There are some who believe that efforts to improve education must inherently "dumb down" educational quality, that the bar must be lowered to include everybody. I don't believe that. The best method of inclusion is to raise the bar and give students the resources they need to succeed. Education reform isn't real reform unless it promotes excellence and expects excellence in return. The AP Program is the best kind of reform; with higher expectations it uses the strength of educational achievement to improve educational quality.
That is why I wanted to talk with you today. Our work togetherour partnershipcan make a tremendous difference. The president's budget is a big help.
Like you, I have the chance to talk with students. There is much appreciation for AP courses. These courses are a mark of distinction. AP courses are characterized by more intensive learning, higher expectations and more pronounced results. They also are the courses that change a life, inspire a career or lead to a love of learning. When students talk, they speak in awe of a teacher or a book or a class. It is amazing how often the courses mentioned are AP.
So, if we are to make education more successful, one driving force must be our AP and other advanced courses. I want us to advance forward boldly. This is the moment to rapidly expand the number of AP courses for low-income and disadvantaged students. We must not be timid. We can make a startling statement of inclusion and quality. I urge each of you to change the thinking in our education system, to promote the radical idea that all students can learn, to make advanced courses available to students who haven't had the opportunity before, and to take advanced courses to school settings that haven't been included in the past.
This is our time to implement our vision. Believe me, there will be some resistance. There are some who won't understand what we are trying to do, and others who will be cynical and difficult. Some will say that these courses are meant only for the "elite." But we must be steadfast, persuasive and visionary. This is how we change the education system: by changing minds, attitudes and expectations. And we do it by making the system more successful, inclusive and fair.
I am asking that we remake the education system. Let us more fully engage our students with the greatness of ideas through a fully inclusive education system. Through AP classes, Beethoven becomes as familiar as Britney, Frederick Douglass has a conversation with a student in Compton, and T.S. Eliot speaks to a reader in El Paso. Newton and Galileo open up the universe to students in downtown Miami and in rural Minnesota.
Excellence will generate excellence. AP courses bring the world to students, opening hearts and minds. Your work is one of the best efforts in our education enterprise. Now, with the support of the president and the Congress, you will be able to reach more students. Inclusivity will teach an important lesson too: that education is an opportunity that should be available to all, and that each student must be included, respected and engaged.
Your presence is a statement of your commitment and concern. This Department will do everything possible to assist you in your work. Thank you for coming to this conference.