Remarks of President Barack Obama A Complete and Competitive American Education

Remarks
of President Barack Obama

A
Complete and Competitive American Education

US
Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

March 10,
2009

Washington,
DC

Every so often, throughout
our history, a generation of Americans bears the responsibility of seeing this
country through difficult times and protecting the dream of its founding for
posterity. This is a responsibility that has fallen to our generation. Meeting
it will require steering our nation’s economy through a crisis unlike any we
have seen in our time. In the short-term, that means jumpstarting job creation,
re-starting lending, and restoring confidence in our markets and our financial
system.  But it also means taking steps that not only advance our recovery, but
lay the foundation for lasting, shared prosperity.

I know there are some who
believe we can only handle one challenge at a time. They forget that Lincoln
helped lay down the transcontinental railroad, passed the Homestead Act, and
created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of Civil War. Likewise,
President Roosevelt didn’t have the luxury of choosing between ending a
depression and fighting a war. President Kennedy didn’t have the luxury of
choosing between civil rights and sending us to the moon. And we don’t have the
luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over
the long term.

America will not remain true
to its highest ideals – and America’s place as a global economic leader will be
put at risk – unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and
transform the way we use energy, but also do a far better job than we have been
doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and
skills they need in this new and changing world.

For we know that economic
progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America. Land-grant
colleges and public high schools transformed the economy of an industrializing
nation.
The GI Bill generated a middle class that made America’s economy unrivaled in the
20th century. And investments in math and science under President
Eisenhower made it possible for Sergei Brin to attend graduate school and found
an upstart company called Google that would forever change our
world.

The source of America’s prosperity, then, has never
been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people.
This has never been more true than it is today. In a 21st century
world where jobs can be shipped wherever there’s an internet connection; where a
child born in Dallas is competing with children
in Delhi; where
your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know – education is
no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it is a prerequisite.

That is why workers without
a four-year degree have borne the brunt of recent layoffs, Latinos most of all.
And that is why, of the thirty fastest growing occupations in America, half require a Bachelor’s
degree or more. By 2016, four out of every ten new jobs will require at least
some advanced education or training.

So let there be no doubt:
the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens – and my fellow
Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation. We have the best
universities and the most renowned scholars. We have innovative principals,
passionate teachers, gifted students, and parents whose only priority is their
child’s education. We have a legacy of excellence, and an unwavering belief that
our children should climb higher than we did.

And yet, despite resources
that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our
schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us.
In 8th grade math, we’ve fallen to 9th place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers
outperform ours three to one. Just a third of our thirteen and fourteen-year
olds can read as well as they should. And year after year, a stubborn gap
persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African
American and Latino classmates. The relative decline of American education is
untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for
our children – and we cannot afford to let it
continue.

What is at stake is nothing
less than the American dream. It is what drew my father and so many of your
fathers and mothers to our shores in pursuit of an education. It’s what led
Linda Brown and Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez to bear the standard of all who
were attending separate and unequal schools. It is what has led generations of
Americans to take on that extra job, to sacrifice the small pleasures, to scrimp
and save wherever they can, in the hopes of putting away enough, just enough, to
give their child the education that they never had. It’s that most American of
ideas, that with the right education, a child of any race, faith, or station,
can overcome whatever barriers stand in their way and fulfill their God-given
potential.

Of course, we have heard all
this year after year after year – and far too little has changed. Not because we
are lacking sound ideas or sensible plans – in pockets of excellence across this
country, we are seeing what children from all walks of life can and will achieve
when we do a good job of preparing them. Rather, it is because politics and
ideology have too often trumped our progress.

For decades, Washington has been
trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated
our educational decline. Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea
of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can
make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have
opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its
importance. It’s more money versus more reform, vouchers versus the status quo.
There has been partisanship and petty bickering, but little recognition that we
need to move beyond the worn fights of the 20th century if we are
going to succeed in the 21st Century.

 

Well, the time for
finger-pointing is over. The time for holding ourselves accountable is here. 
What’s required is not simply new investments, but new reforms. It is time to
expect more from our students. It is time to start rewarding good teachers and
stop making excuses for bad ones. It is time to demand results from government
at every level. It is time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker,
anywhere in the world. It is time to give all Americans a complete and
competitive education from the cradle up through a career. We have accepted
failure for too long. Enough. America’s entire education system
must once more be the envy of the world.

And that is exactly what the
budget I am submitting to Congress has begun to achieve. At a time when we’ve
inherited a trillion-dollar deficit, we will start by doing a little
housekeeping, going through our books, and cutting wasteful education programs.
My outstanding Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will use only one test when
deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars. It’s not whether
an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works. This will help free up
resources for the first pillar in reforming our schools – investing in early
childhood initiatives. This isn’t just about keeping an eye on our children,
it’s about educating them. Studies show that children in these programs are more
likely to score higher in reading and math, more likely to graduate from high
school and attend college, more likely to hold a job, and more likely to earn
more in that job. For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly
ten dollars back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health costs, and less crime.
That is why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act I signed into law invests
$5 billion in growing Early Head Start and Head Start, expanding access to
quality child care for 150,000 more children from working families, and doing
more for children with special needs. And it is why we are going to offer 55,000
first-time parents regular visits from trained nurses to help make sure their
children are healthy and prepare them for school and life.
 

Even as we invest in early
childhood education, let’s raise the bar for early learning programs that are
falling short. Today, some children are enrolled in excellent programs. Some are
enrolled in mediocre ones. And some are wasting away their most formative years.
That includes the one fourth of all kindergartners who are Hispanic, and who
will drive America’s workforce of tomorrow, but
who are less likely to have been enrolled in early education programs than
anyone else.

That is why I am issuing a
challenge to our states. Develop a cutting-edge plan to raise the quality of
your early learning programs. Show us how you’ll work to ensure that children
are better prepared for success by the time they enter kindergarten. If you do,
we will support you with an Early Learning Challenge Grant that I call on
Congress to enact. That is how we will reward quality, incentivize excellence,
and make a down payment on the success of the next generation.

Second, we will end what has
become a race to the bottom in our schools and instead, spur a race to the top
by encouraging better standards and assessments. This is an area where we are
being outpaced by other nations. It’s not that their kids are any smarter than
ours – it’s that they are being smarter about how to educate their kids. They
are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching
things that do. They are preparing their students not only for high school or
college, but for a career. We are not. Our curriculum for eighth graders is two
full years behind top performing countries. That is a prescription for economic
decline. I refuse to accept that America’s children cannot rise to
this challenge. They can, they must, and they will meet higher standards in our
time.

Let’s challenge our states
to adopt world-class standards that will bring our curriculums into the
21st century. Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks
for academic success means 4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly
70 points lower than students in Wyoming – and getting the same grade. Eight of
our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on
par with roughly the bottom 40% of the world.

That is inexcusable, and
that is why I am calling on states that are setting their standards far below
where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The
solution to low test scores is not lower standards – it’s tougher, clearer
standards. Standards like those in Massachusetts, where 8th graders
are now tying for first – first – in the world in science. Other
forward-thinking states are moving in the same direction by coming together as
part of a consortium. More states need to do the same. And I am calling on our
nation’s Governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and
assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a
test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like
problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity. That is
what we will help them do later this year when we finally make No Child Left
Behind live up to its name by ensuring not only that teachers and principals get
the funding they need, but that the money is tied to results. And Secretary
Duncan will also back up this commitment to higher standards with a fund to
invest in innovation in our school districts.

Of course, raising standards
alone will not make much of a difference unless we provide teachers and
principals with the information they need to make sure students are prepared to
meet those standards. Far too few states have data systems like the one in
Florida that
keep track of a student’s education from childhood through college. And far too
few districts are emulating the example of Houston and Long
Beach, and using data to track how much progress a
student is making and where that student is struggling – a resource that can
help us improve student achievement, and tell us which students had which
teachers so we can assess what’s working and what’s not. That is why we are
making a major investment in this area that we will cultivate a new culture of
accountability in America’s schools.

To complete our race to the
top requires the third pillar of reform — recruiting, preparing, and rewarding
outstanding teachers. From the moment students enter a school, the most
important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income
of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom. That
is why our Recovery Act will ensure that hundreds of thousands of teachers and
school personnel are not laid off – because those Americans are not only doing
jobs they cannot afford to lose they are rendering a service our nation cannot
be denied.

America’s future depends on
its teachers. And so today, I am calling on a new generation of Americans to
step forward and serve our country in our classrooms. If you want to make a
difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make the most of your
talents and dedication; if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will
endure – join the teaching profession. America needs you. We need you in our
suburbs. We need you in our small towns. We need you in our inner cities. We
need you in classrooms all across our country.

And if you do your part,
we’ll do ours.  That is why we are taking steps to prepare teachers for their
difficult responsibilities and encourage them to stay in the profession. That is
why we are creating new pathways to teaching and new incentives to bring
teachers to schools where they are needed most. It is why we support offering
extra pay to Americans who teach math and science to end a teacher shortage in
those subjects. And it is why we are building on the promising work being done
in South
Carolina’s Teacher Advancement Program, and making an
unprecedented commitment to ensure that anyone entrusted with educating our
children is doing the job as well as it can be done.

Here is what that commitment
means: It means treating teachers like the professionals they are while also
holding them more accountable – in up to 150 more school districts. New teachers
will be mentored by experienced ones. Good teachers will be rewarded with more
money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more
responsibilities for lifting up their schools. Teachers throughout a school will
benefit from guidance and support to help them improve.

And just as we have to give
our teachers all the support they need to be successful, we need to make sure
our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and
school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Let me
be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no
excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards
failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We
can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children’s teachers and to
the schools where they teach.

That leads me to the fourth
part of America’s education
strategy – promoting innovation and excellence in America’s schools. One of the places
where much of that innovation occurs is in our most effective charter schools.
These are public schools founded by parents, teachers, and civic or community
organizations with broad leeway to innovate – schools I supported as a state
legislator and United States Senator.

Right now, there are caps on
how many charter schools are allowed in some states, no matter how well they are
preparing our students. That isn’t good for our children, our economy, or our
country. Of course, any expansion of charter schools must not result in the
spread of mediocrity, but in the advancement of excellence. That will require
states adopting both a rigorous selection and review process to ensure that a
charter school’s autonomy is coupled with greater accountability – as well as a
strategy, like the one in Chicago, to close charter schools that are not
working. Provided this greater accountability, I call on states to reform their
charter rules, and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools,
wherever such caps are in place.

Even as we foster innovation
in where our children are learning, let’s also foster innovation in when our
children are learning. We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed
when America was a nation of farmers who
needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That
calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive
disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in
South
Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a
21st century economy. That is why I’m calling for us not only to
expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to
incorporate more time – whether during the summer or through expanded-day
programs for children who need it. I know longer school days and school years
are not wildly popular ideas. Not in my family, and probably not in yours. But
the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can
do that in South Korea, we
can do it right here in the United States of America.

Of course, no matter how
innovative our schools or how effective our teachers, America
cannot succeed unless our students take responsibility for their own education.
That means showing up for school on time, paying attention in class, seeking out
extra tutoring if it’s needed, and staying out of trouble. And to any student
who’s watching, I say this: don’t even think about dropping out of school. As I
said a couple of weeks ago, dropping out is quitting on yourself, it’s quitting
on your country, and it is not an option – not anymore. Not when our high school
dropout rate has tripled in the past thirty years. Not when high school dropouts
earn about half as much as college graduates. And not when Latino students are
dropping out faster than just about anyone else. It is time for all of us, no
matter what our backgrounds, to come together and solve this
epidemic.

Stemming the tide of
dropouts will require turning around our low-performing schools. Just 2,000 high
schools in cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia produce over 50% of America’s dropouts. And yet, there
are too few proven strategies to transform these schools. And there are too few
partners to get the job done. So today, I am issuing a challenge to educators
and lawmakers, parents and teachers alike – let us all make turning around our
schools our collective responsibility as Americans. That will require new
investments in innovative ideas. That is why my budget invests in developing new
strategies to make sure at-risk students don’t give up on their education; new
efforts to give dropouts who want to return to school the help they need to
graduate; and new ways to put those young men and women who have left school
back on a pathway to graduation.

The fifth part of America’s education strategy is
providing every American with a quality higher education – whether it’s college
or technical training. Never has a college degree been more important. And never
has it been more expensive. At a time when so many of our families are bearing
enormous economic burdens, the rising cost of tuition threatens to shatter
dreams. That is why will simplify federal college assistance forms so it doesn’t
take a PhD to apply for financial aid. And that is why we are already taking
steps to make college or technical training affordable.

For the first time ever,
Pell Grants will not be subject to the politics of the moment or the whims of
the market – they will be a commitment that Congress is required to uphold each
and every year. Further, because rising costs mean Pell Grants cover less than
half as much tuition as they did thirty years ago, we are raising the maximum
Pell Grant to $5,550 a year and indexing it above inflation. We are also
providing a $2,500 a year tuition tax credit for students from working families.
And we are modernizing and expanding the Perkins Loan Program to make sure
schools like UNLV don’t get a tenth as many Perkins Loans as schools like
Harvard. To help pay for all of this, we are putting students ahead of lenders
by eliminating wasteful student loan subsidies that cost taxpayers billions each
year. All in all, we are making college affordable for seven million more
students with a sweeping investment in our children’s futures and America’s success. And I call on
Congress to join me – and the American people – by helping make these
investments possible.

This is how we will help
meet our responsibility as a nation to open the doors of college to every
American. But it will also be the responsibility of colleges and universities to
control spiraling costs. And it is the responsibility of our students to walk
through those doors of opportunity. In just a single generation, America
has fallen from second place to eleventh place in the portion of students
completing college. That is unfortunate but it is by no means irreversible. With
resolve and the right investments, we can retake the lead once more. That is
why, in my address to the nation the other week, I called on Americans to commit
to at least one year or more of higher education or career training, with the
goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the
year 2020. To meet that goal, we are investing $2.5 billion to identify and
support innovative initiatives across the country that achieve results in
helping students persist and graduate.

And let’s not stop our
education with college. Let’s recognize a 21st century reality: learning does
not end in our early 20s. Adults of all ages need opportunities to earn new
degrees and skills. That means working with all our universities and schools,
including community colleges, a great and undervalued asset, to prepare workers
for good jobs in high-growth industries; and to improve access to job training
not only for young people who are just starting their careers, but for older
workers who need new skills to change careers.

It is through initiatives
like these that we will see more Americans earn a college degree, or receive
advanced training, and pursue a successful career. That is why I am calling on
Congress to work with me to enact these essential reforms, and to reauthorize
the Workforce Investment Act. That is how we will round out a complete and
competitive education in the United States of America.

So, yes, we need more money.
Yes, we need more reform. Yes, we need to hold ourselves more accountable for
every dollar we spend. But there is one more ingredient I want to talk about.
The bottom line is that no government policies will make any difference unless
we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents. Because government, no
matter how wise or efficient, cannot turn off the TV or put away the video
games. Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your
children leave for school on time and do their homework when they get back at
night. These are things only a parent can do. These are things that our parents
must do.

I say this not
only as a father, but as a son. When I was a child, living in Indonesia with my mother, she didn’t
have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school so she
supplemented my schooling with lessons from a correspondence course. I can still
picture her, waking me up at 4:30 in the morning five days a week to go over
some lessons before I left for school. And whenever I’d complain or find some
excuse for getting more sleep, she’d patiently repeat her most powerful defense
– “This is no picnic for me either, buster.” And it is because she did this day
after day, week after week, and because of all the other opportunities and
breaks I had along the way, that I can stand here today as President of the
United States. And I want every child in this country to have the same chance
that my mother gave me, that my teachers gave me, that my college professors
gave me, that America gave
me.

I want children like Yvonne
Bojorquez to have that chance. Yvonne is a student at Village Academy High
School in California. Village Academy is a
21st century school, where cutting edge technologies are used in the
classroom, where college prep and career training are offered to all who seek
it, and where the motto is – “respect, responsibility, and results.” A couple of
months ago, Yvonne and her class made a video talking about the impact that our
struggling economy was having on their lives. Some of them spoke about their
parents being laid off, or their homes facing foreclosure, or their inability to
focus on school with everything that was happening at home. When it was her turn
to speak, Yvonne said:

“We’ve all been affected by
this economic crisis. [We] are all college bound students…We’re all businessmen,
and doctors and lawyers and all this great stuff. And we have all this
potential,” she said, “but the way things are going, we’re not going to be able
to [fulfill it].”

It was heartbreaking that a
girl so full of promise was so full of worry that she and her class titled their
video, “Is anybody listening?” And so, today, there’s something I want to say to
Yvonne and her class at Village Academy. I am listening. We are listening.
America is listening. And we are not
going to rest until your parents can keep their jobs, your families can keep
their homes, and you can focus on what you should be focusing on – your own
education. Until you can become the businessmen, doctors, and lawyers of
tomorrow, until you can reach out and grasp your dreams for the future.

For in the end, your dream
is a dream shared by all Americans. It is the founding promise of our nation.
That we can make of our lives what we will; that all things are possible for all
people; and that here in America, our best days lie ahead. And
I truly believe that if I do my part and you, the American people, do yours –
then we will emerge from this crisis a stronger nation and pass the dream of our
founding on to posterity, ever safer than before. Thank you. God bless you. And
may God bless the United
States of America.