Good afternoon! It’s good to have this opportunity to be with you as the National School Boards Association comes together for your 33rd Annual Federal Relations Network Conference.
As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions I appreciate having this chance to speak with you and begin a dialogue I hope will continue throughout this year and into the next. In the months to come we will begin our consideration of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind program. As we do, I will be looking forward to working together with you to make it better and more responsive in the classrooms of the School Districts you represent.
Before I begin, I would like to express my appreciation of the work you do every day across the country. Our school boards are the people who set the agenda, determine the curriculum, and monitor the performance of our schools every day. You play a major role in setting the tone for our education system throughout the nation. That’s why the theme of your conference is so important.
“Educate each child, build a nation.”
Your theme makes it clear that our commitment to education extends to each and every child and each and every classroom throughout the nation. It expresses our belief that knowledge is the golden key that will unlock the door to our children’s future -- and unlock our own capabilities and the promise we hold as a nation as well.
I have always been very aware of the importance of determining how a law, like No Child Left Behind, is working on the local level. That is where it is supposed to do its most good.
In that effort I have been blessed to have two special daughters who are involved in my state’s school system in Wyoming. They keep me in touch with how the policies we are pursuing in Washington are working in Wyoming. Because of Wyoming’s size and relatively small population, we have some unique challenges to face in ensuring all our children receive the best education possible.
One of my daughters is a school teacher, with experience serving as a school principal. My other daughter works for the University of Wyoming.
Whenever we are able to get together as a family, you can imagine that education is a prime subject for us as we gather together at the dinner table.
Whenever I discuss the current status of our education system with them, and with the other teachers and administration officials I meet during my visits back home to Wyoming, it is clear how hard our Administrators and Teachers are working to make our system of education work. Together they are committed to success in the short term – providing our children with the education they will need to continue on up the ladder of success to the next level of their education. They are also committed to each child’s long term success -- to ensure that they will have the skills they will need to find and hold on to good jobs. Those are jobs with good benefits that will enable them to raise a family and start their own children on that same ladder of success.
The important thing to remember about that ladder of success is that there is no top rung. It goes on and on with every lower level mastered just another step up to the next level of education – and opportunity.
That is the secret of today’s education system. No longer do we need a work force that is trained to do one job, a job they will do until they retire. We now need to provide an educational system that will continue to train workers for the changes that are certain to come in the workforce during their working days. In today’s world, school is never over and an education is an ongoing process that never ends.
It’s become a cliché, but the jobs of tomorrow won’t be filled by those who only have the skills of yesterday. The successful worker will be the one who can learn new skills and improve old ones and bring them both quickly and efficiently to the workforce.
That is the workplace of the future – a not too distant future. Those entering the workforce today will find that they will change jobs and careers more often than they will change cars. Estimates are that today’s workers will have 14 careers in their lives -- and 10 of those have not been invented yet. Each change will require a new set of skills or a different application of those a worker has already learned.
Keeping our workforce trained to hold on to and keep the jobs of the future will be a challenge we must meet together. It will require the government to work together on all levels -- local, state and national. It will also demand the cooperation of teachers, school boards, and all interested parties – to ensure a good education is available to all. That is the only way we can ensure our education and anti-poverty programs support our workforce and work in concert to provide the results we will need to keep our workforce competitive. It will also enable us to ensure a quality education is available to everyone – including those with disabilities.
As I mentioned earlier, the HELP Committee will begin working on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act this year. We passed No Child Left Behind four years ago with the goal of ensuring that every child would acquire the basic skills of reading, writing, math and science that are needed to continue their education and enable them to move on to the next level of learning – and achieve their full potential.
It has been rewarding to see it in action. It will need some fine tuning, but on the whole, it seems to be working. Test scores are going up. Teachers, administrators, school leaders, and parents are excited about the possibilities and the results they have already seen. The high expectations of No Child Left Behind are having an impact.
Again, I know not everyone is excited about the new law. There is always room for improvement and I will be looking forward to receiving your ideas and suggestions for a new No Child Left Behind as the legislative process continues.
When I am back home in Wyoming I will often hear from Wyoming teachers who will seek me out to tell me what they think is wrong with the program. I have received some letters that were pretty critical of it, too. In the months to come I’ll be using their input and the comments I will receive from groups like yours to try to make a good law even better.
The criticism I receive usually centers around the finding that their school has been found in need of improvement. Then, after they make it clear that they thought the finding was unwarranted, they go on to explain what they’re doing to change things and help increase the achievements of all students. Their criticism usually ends with a vow that they will never let those problems happen again.
That’s always been the point of No Child Left Behind. It was never intended to embarrass anyone. It was always intended to find and point out areas that needed improvement and making sure our schools have the tools they need to get there.
Another big question you might have on your minds about what is coming up in terms of education policy is what will happen on the issue of high school reform.
There are proposals to extend No Child Left Behind into high school by requiring assessments throughout. There is ample evidence to support student assessments as they relate to improving student achievement. I believe what gets measured, ultimately gets attention, and drives improvements in the areas that need them. The only way to find out where there is room for improvement is to evaluate how you’re doing. That will make it clear what’s working – and what isn’t.
However, while testing is important, it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t address the fact that one in three ninth grade students in this country will drop out before finishing high school. Clearly, we must improve our high schools to ensure that more students graduate. To do that we must ensure they are challenged by their curriculum, and that they enter college and the workforce prepared to succeed.
As part of that process, we must also ensure the education we provide is relevant to the dreams and goals of our children and ensure a support system is in place to assure them that they can be anything they want to be if they are willing to work hard and do whatever it takes to succeed.
The need to urgent action on all those fronts is never more apparent than when we take a close look at what’s going on in our High Schools. Statistics show us that the gap between twelfth grade white and minority students is not shrinking as quickly as we would like. And far too many of our twelfth grade high school students are testing at basic literacy levels or below. I’m excited about the role our high schools can play in improving America’s competitiveness and I pledge my best efforts to join with yours in working to ensure that pipeline to college and a good job continues to improve.
Another statistic that should draw our attention are the estimates that one-third of community college expenses are going toward remedial education. Just think about other ways those resources could be used if more high school students graduated on time with the knowledge and skills they needed to enter post-secondary education and the workforce.
The bottom line is simply this – we’re doing better – but we can and must do a lot better than that. For our children’s sake, and our own, we must raise the bar as to what is acceptable for them – and for us.
The challenge that lies before us becomes more serious when we consider the implications of a global marketplace and a global workforce. When compared on an international basis, the data on our high school test scores presents a disturbing picture about our ability to measure up to international standards. A recent study found that American high school students are below the international average for math and science. The very countries that are performing better than we are, are the ones we will be competing against in the global economy, and that is something that will affect all of us.
I also want to touch on the issue of funding as it relates to the implementation of No Child Left Behind. Some have called the current education budget a “tin cup” budget. I disagree. The federal government has increased its education spending by 40 percent since the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted. That represents a strong commitment to the quality of education we provide our children. A “tin cup” budget implies we are trying to get things done cheaply. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Providing a good, solid education to our children and continued training to current workers is the golden key they will need to unlock their future, find good jobs and keep them. I believe every child is born with a special gift, destined to make a unique contribution to the world that only he or she can make. Through education we must support and cultivate each child’s potential to make their contribution.
Our success in this effort will ensure that every child’s life will be a success story and the cherished American dream a possibility that will be within every child’s grasp no matter where they live or what school they attend. It is only when we ensure that we have educated each child that we will know that we are building a nation that will be strong, secure and competitive in the global marketplace for a long time to come.
I hope that you have a successful and productive conference. Thank you for coming to Washington to share your ideas and suggestions with me and with all your representatives in Congress. We are glad to have them because, in the days to come, the really great strides in our education system will come, not from the legislation we will pass in Congress, but from the dedication of committed people like you and all those who serve on our school boards and teach in our schools. My job is to work with you to ensure that you have the tools you need to do your job.