It is exciting to be here with all of you and even more exciting when you realize the incredible potential we have right here in this room to truly transform education across America.
We have more than 50 legislators from around the country, representatives from more than a dozen governors and mayors, and some of the most talented thinkers from around the world.
All of us share a common goal – which is to build a world-class system of education that prepares each and every student for success in the 21st century economy.
It is a rare and remarkable opportunity when so many people, who span the spectrum of political perspectives, come together to search for solutions to improve the quality of education.
If everyone here successfully adopted just one policy that we discuss during the next two days, the total impact to education would be extraordinary and exponential.
But even more encouraging is that the support for reform extends beyond the people in this room. Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton are “on tour” to build support for education reform. Who would have ever predicted that duo?!
President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have shown a strong commitment to improving education. In fact, we agree more than we disagree on the reforms that are needed. And they are putting money behind those reforms with the Race to the Top Program. The administration will award nearly $5 billion in grants to states to build data systems, improve assessments, recruit great teachers and principals, and turn around low performing schools.
All of these are important to our success, but building a data system that collects and stores data is fundamental to continually improving the quality of education. Frankly, if Walmart can track a box of cereal from the manufacturer to the check-out line, schools should be able to track the academic growth of a student from the time they step in the classroom until they graduate.
And every year of data that is collected and analyzed helps us make more informed decisions about what’s working and what’s not, so we can advance the next set of reforms.
My hope is that we embrace this incredible opportunity and wherever we find common ground, we join forces to advance reform.
We care about the quality of education because we care about the future of our great country.
America is in an educational arms race and we need to wage an aggressive campaign of reform if we want any hope of winning it. Unlike traditional arms races, where there could be a winner and loser, in this race, the world wins if America is successful.
The world we live in today is more interconnected, more interdependent and much more technologically advanced than the one we grew up in. The financial crisis of the last year has only underscored that fact.
Yet, our school system remains, by and large, the same as when we were students.
Imagine if we started from scratch today to build an education system to meet the needs of the 21st century.
In this era of technological innovation, would the school year be based on the agricultural calendar? I doubt it.
In this knowledge-based economy, would success be measured by how long students sit at their desk rather than what they learn? I hope not.
In an age of customization, would we settle for a one-size-fits-all model that moves kids from grade to grade based on their age rather than their skill level? Hell no.
Last year, I said our education system was an 8-track tape in an I-Pod world. That remains true.
I want to make a different comparison this year to something completely different. I wish our schools could be more like milk. You heard me, I said milk.
Go down the aisle of nearly any major supermarket these days and you will find an incredible selection of milk.
You can get whole milk, low fat milk or skim milk. You can get organic milk, milk with Vitamin D or milk enzymes to improve you the way your brain functions. You can get flavored milk — chocolate, strawberry or vanilla – that doesn’t even taste like milk. Most of the time, there is a whole other refrigerator case dedicated to milk alternatives – like soy milk, almond milk and rice milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk.
Who would have ever thought you could improve upon milk? Yet, freedom, innovation and competition found a way.
To really transform education, we need to embrace the fundamental concept that education should be custom-designed to maximize every child’s god given capacity to learn. And then we need to allow freedom, innovation and competition to reshape to education system around the goal of ensuring their success.
Under this system, rigorous academic standards would be demanded – not debated. Standards would be fewer, deeper and more relevant to the world students will enter when they leave school.
We would require more math and science because that is what the emerging job markets demand. We would require a second language or maybe even a third because the global demographics are changing and so should we.
We would make a high school diploma mean the student is ready for the rigors of college as well as the challenges of the workplace. Not one or the other, but both.
And we wouldn’t think twice about testing students to make sure they were measuring up to these higher expectations.
However, in an individualized system, students wouldn’t necessarily take the same test on the same day. Testing would occur when a student had mastered the required skills. In fact, standardized tests – not the calendar year – would become the gateway to the next level of learning.
Doing this would eliminate the need for social promotion. Students who couldn’t read would not be shuffled to the next grade, only to fall further behind because they lack the basic skill of all learning. Students would be promoted when they are ready, not before.
It would also mean more students could take more advanced classes and dually enroll in college before even graduating from high school.
How could we possibly do this for 50 million students? We need to harness technology to tailor lessons to each child’s learning style and ability. This concept was only a dream a generation ago. Now it can be accomplished.
When you think about the possibilities, today’s online courses are really just the beginning.
We have the ability to create the iTunes of the education world where teachers and students could access rich and rigorous content from different sources to create a learning experience that meets the individual needs of the students. Aligning the content to the standards ensures students are learning what is important. But students would learn at their own pace, spending more or less time on particular areas based on their ability.
Can you imagine how liberating and empowering that would be for a student?
Technology wouldn’t replace the teacher but it would redefine their role. Lectures might be given online to thousands of students, while classroom teachers might become more like coaches or tutors available to provide one-on-one support, again based on whatever the student needed.
To make the system truly student centric, we would need to change how we fund education. We would fund achievement – not attendance. We would pay per credit hour upon completion. That would create the incentive for system to ensure each individual student learns.
Finally, we would give parents a choice and a voice in where their children go to school, arming them with quality information and requiring their engagement.
Call it a scholarship, call it a grant, call it a voucher, call it whatever you want.
Students should not be doomed to life of poverty because their parents didn’t have the financial freedom to opt out of a failing school.
Knowing what we know – that a quality education is the proven path to prosperity – how can we deny a child that lifeline to that better living and a more secure financial future?
The great social, moral and economic challenge of our time is providing a high quality education to every child in our nation. Our success will define our destiny.
An educated and highly skilled workforce will attract the investment that fuels job creation and wealth. A quality education will sustain our quality of life and the standard of living that is still the envy of most of the world.
In closing, let me emphasize this, winning the international Education arms race will be a hollow victory if we do not close the achievement gap in our country. We can no longer tolerate a deepening divide between races and family income that is caused by our failure to fix public education.
Moving to a student-centered system will allow us to do both – close the achievement gap and win the international education arms race. We welcome you to Excellence in Action.