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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Remarks by Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley
Improving America's Schools Conference
Chicago, Illinois
December 17, 1999


Thank you, Jim Kohlmoos, for that kind introduction. And thank you for
making these "Improving America's Schools" conferences such a grand success.
Attendance has grown by leaps and bounds, and it's because you and your
staff have made these conferences so helpful to educators all across the
country. Now you are moving on to a new career, but I hope you will continue
to contribute to these conferences. You're just too valuable to lose.

Friends, I have to report a problem with the speech that I am about to
deliver. Last night, the "Y2K Bug" sneaked into my office and jumped into my
computer. As a result, my computer believed it was the year 1900. And
instead of printing out the speech I wrote, it printed out a speech that
somebody wrote almost exactly 100 years ago, describing the state of
education back then. That speech reads as follows:

"Today, in 1900, very few Americans get a good education. For example, the
high school dropout rate is about 90 percent. But we shouldn't be worried
about this because most jobs in America are semi-skilled or unskilled, and
require little education.

Also, because of the recent Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson,
schools will continue to be segregated and black children will receive a
poor education, or no education at all."

That old speech went on to say, "Higher education here in 1900 is almost
exclusively for white males. The mission of our colleges and universities is
to train men in academics and athletics. We don't need to train women in
academics, since they can't vote in almost all states in 1900 or hold down
important jobs in our economy. And we have no need to train women in
sports-after all, American women don't have a chance of winning a World Cup
in soccer or anything like that.

"Learning opportunities for the disabled also remain extremely limited here
in 1900 because even if they could learn, they could never overcome the
physical barriers they find in the world. We should deny the disabled
educational opportunity because it would be cruel to give them false hope of
a better life."

Finally, the old speech declared, "And we actively discourage young girls
from taking math and science because as we all well know, girls aren't as
smart as boys in those subjects."

Luckily, at this point, I discovered the problem, took off my shoe, and
squashed that mean old "Bug." The computer immediately went back to our
time, and began to print out my real speech. And here's how that goes:

We've come a long way in education in this century. Today, about 89 percent
of all students get a high school diploma, and 60 percent go on to receive
at least some degree of higher education. And with all of the college tax
credits and Pell Grant increases that we've achieved in the past few years,
we're opening the door to everyone who wants to go to college or who seeks
lifelong learning.

In addition, women today earn 43 percent of all doctorates in biology, 23
percent of all doctorates in math, and 22 percent of all doctorates in the
physical sciences-and I'm sure those numbers will rise. So much for the
notion that women cannot excel in math and science! And a disabled child now
has the same right to an education as any other child.

And while many African-American children-and Latino and other minority
children-still do not get the top-notch education they deserve, we are
committed to ending the tyranny of low expectations that has held these
children back. During the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, we recognized
that equality in America depended upon legal equality. Now, in the
Information Age, we must recognize that equality depends upon educational
quality for all children. That is why it is time to declare that a quality
education for every child is the new civil right.

Every day, all of you have the responsibility to deliver that quality
education. You have the most important job in America, and often the
toughest. That's why I get a little impatient with those who are constantly
putting down our public schools.

We need partnership, not partisanship, in education. That's why I am sick
and tired of those who create wedge issues to pull us apart, like vouchers.
Voucher proponents think there's a parallel universe of schools waiting to
take in over 46 million public school children. But this parallel universe
exists only in their minds. To drain our public schools of precious
resources just when student enrollments are at an all-time high is
disastrous public policy, and I will use my voice against it so long as I
have a voice.

The editor of "The Oklahoma Observer," Frosty Troy, recently wrote an
article entitled, "Public Schools-Doing God's Work." Let me quote from that

"Look who comes to public school: 6 million [children] for whom English is a
second language...6 million special ed children...more than 2 million abused
children...[and] nearly 500,000 [who have] no permanent address...

"For nearly 30 percent of public school children, [school lunches are] the
only hot meal they get... There's hardly an elementary school in a poor
neighborhood...that does not have a closet stuffed with [clothing] for
have-not children. Last year, the average teacher spent more than $400 in
personal funds for such things as workbooks and pencils for poor children. ?

"[Public schools] take millions of little ones...[and] redeem the
dispossessed and the delinquent... The teachers who minister to them are
scorned on editorial pages...but they keep on keeping on... With all its
warts, public education produces math and science brains... From astronauts
to Pulitzer Prize winners, from Nobel laureates to the clergy, they're in
the front rank." Unquote.

All this reminds me of a recent episode of the "Bill Cosby Show" on TV.
There was a fantasy sequence where teachers got paid what star athletes get
paid, and the athletes got paid what teachers are paid. Wouldn't it be grand
if teachers, principals, guidance counselors, and educators could get paid
what the Bulls here in Chicago used to pay Dennis Rodman, even for just a
couple of weeks? What a nice dream.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "He has the right to criticize who has the heart
to help." So today I say to the critics of public education: When you see
something wrong, have the heart to help. But if you don't have the heart,
please just get out the way and let the rest of us get on with the job of
improving our schools.

I think we ought to begin by making sure that principals and teachers and
students are safe. About 90 percent of our public schools have never
suffered serious violence. Let me repeat that -- about 90 percent of our
public schools have never suffered serious violence. Yet I remain deeply
troubled by some of the things that I see in our society and in our schools.

I think something must be done about violent video games. The boys who
committed the murders at Columbine High School modeled their behavior on a
video called "Doom." And recently, a former military officer appeared on TV
and described another video for children that resembled the training he once
gave Navy SEALS, who are trained to fight in the most violent circumstances.

To overcome these negative influences, I have worked to expand after-school
programs that give young people wholesome alternatives to life in the video
arcade. I have also urged parents to talk to their children and know what is
on their minds, and urged schools to connect every student to at least one
responsible teacher, guidance counselor, or friend. And I have said to our
public officials: Make gun control a top priority. Close the gun show
loopholes. Save the lives of children and teachers. And if you can't do
it-or won't-than make room for those who will.

Yet despite all of the problems that society brings to our schools' doors,
we must admit that many of our problems in education have been
self-inflicted. For example, many of our schools made a disastrous
assumption for most of this century. It was all about "one-thirds." Schools
determined that one-third of all students would be prepared for college;
one-third would be allowed to drift through school without being challenged,
and sent off to work in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs that were plentiful
then but disappearing today; and the bottom one-third would be allowed to
drop out or be "socially promoted."

Now, as we end the century, we are going in a whole new direction. Virtually
every state has developed challenging standards for all students and they
are putting them into action in their classrooms. Over the past 10 years, it
often seemed like waiting for standards was like waiting for Godot. But at
long last, standards are a fact of life, and they are working.

For example, I issued a report this morning citing nine inner-city
elementary schools that have achieved excellence, including James Ward
Elementary School here in Chicago. How did they do it? By focusing on three
strategies: Good teaching, putting children's needs first, and insisting on
challenging standards.

And this brings me to something that I want to discuss with you in a serious
way. I am disturbed by a new phenomenon called the "standards backlash."
This is happening in only a few places, but it deserves attention.

Some well-intentioned people want to water down the rigorous new standards.
They fear that too many children won't be able to measure up. And they argue
that teachers and students have not been given the preparation or tools they
need to teach or reach the new standards.

I agree that teachers and students should get the help they need. That is
why President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and I have fought tooth-and-nail
for the past seven years to provide resources to improve the skills of our
educators and give our children extra help when they need it.

We dramatically expanded after-school programs to provide extra learning
time, as I have mentioned. Children's minds don't close down at 3 p.m., and
neither should their schools. We're helping schools to hire 100,000 well
prepared teachers to reduce class size in the early grades and to make sure
that every child can read by age eight. We also fought for the E-rate, which
is helping to connect over one million classrooms to the Internet. We have
called upon all employers, all parents, all senior citizens, all civic
groups, and all citizens to support principals and teachers and children
because it's going to take everyone working together to get us where we want
to go.

I know raising standards is hard, but running away from standards is not the
solution. And going backwards is unthinkable. I refuse to return to the days
of watered-down curricula, meaningless diplomas, and tracking systems for
the poor and disadvantaged that put them on the road to nowhere. I refuse to
believe that our children aren't smart enough or our educators aren't good
enough. I refuse to send our children out into the most competitive
international economy in world history without the education they will need
to succeed for themselves and for our country. We must never go back to the
days when standards were too low, unclear, or nonexistent. Never.

My friends, five days from now the movie version of Frank McCourt's
unforgettable biography, "Angela's Ashes" will be released. I had the
pleasure of visiting Frank in Ireland one summer, and seeing him again here
in America.

I'm sure many of you have read "Angela's Ashes," a memoir of Frank's
childhood, which was filled with great poverty. But the book includes
uplifting passages about education. In one, Frank's teacher, Mr. O'Halloran,
says to his class:

"You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about
history and everything else. But you can't make up an empty mind. Stock your
mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure, and no one in the world
can interfere with it... You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but
your mind is a palace."

On behalf of the American people, I want to thank all of you for helping our
nation's children to fill that palace with knowledge and joy and wonder. No
one stands taller than when he or she stoops down to help a child, and that
is why you all stand very tall in my eyes today. Thank you very much.

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