Jeb Bush's opening address to National Summit on Education Reform
Governor Jeb Bush: 2014 Summit Keynote Address / Foundation for Excellence in Education’s National Summit on Education Reform / November 20, 2014
Remarks Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Denisha, for that very kind introduction. You are the reason we are here. It’s a struggle to reform our schools. The unions fight us. The administrators often fight us. Sometimes we reformers fight amongst ourselves. But when I hear Denisha’s story... I know the struggle is worth it.
And I’m so proud all of you are here to collaborate and champion this work. Welcome to the good fight! In this room are hundreds of lawmakers, educators and policymakers who have the power to make these choices possible for our kids and their parents and families. We need you. And we need thousands more like you. Because it’s not enough to give a choice to Denisha. There are literally millions of Denishas waiting out there to be helped. Waiting for us. Waiting for us to push for policies, to give them a choice... That’s all they want: A choice. A chance. And it’s up to us to provide it. Because in that choice is the promise of a quality education for every American child and with it, a chance to strengthen America.
We have always known the connection between opportunity and education. We have always known that the more we learn, the more we can be. But it took a lawyer and future Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, to connect those dots and make access to a quality education a civil right. Sixty-one years ago, he came to this city... and he stayed in this hotel, to argue Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time, only one in seven African-American children earned high school degrees.
Only one in 40 earned a college degree. This was a legacy of an unjust system of separate and unequal schools... a system that stole the futures of millions of children and denied this nation the full measure of their Marshall argued that an unequal opportunity to receive an education was fundamentally unjust. And by his efforts, and the efforts of so many who followed him, barriers did fall. But today, six decades after the beginning of desegregation, our schools still do not meet high standards for all American children. For some kids, yes, but not for all. Too often, the bar is set low... and too little is expected of children who could do far more.
While African Americans are much more likely to attain a high school diploma than they once did, they are still far less likely to earn a college diploma, compared to white students. Today’s black and Hispanic fourth graders read 2 1⁄2 grade levels below their white peers. This is a civil rights crisis in every sense of the term. Because when schools fail our kids, we deny them more than an education....we deny them their right to their potential. Doors close to them. They become stuck in a world that none of us would choose for our own children.
And in case anyone thinks this is just a problem for just a few kids in a few urban districts, let’s cut to the chase: This is a national problem. Students from higher income families do worse than their counterparts around the world and the same goes for students in the middle class. But when we fail children in poverty, we fail everyone. Children now in failing schools will struggle all their lives. To get a job. To provide for their families. To achieve things they rightly should enjoy. What is endangered here is not just public education, but the core idea that defines America. What my friend Paul Ryan calls the Right to Rise.
As educational opportunity has become harder to attain, so has economic opportunity. Fully 70 percent of people raised at the bottom levels of household income earn below the average of American incomes for the rest of their lives. For them it becomes harder and harder to make a living and lead a productive life. Harder to start and grow a business. Harder to raise a family. And while there are lots of reasons for this, from tax policy to energy policy to overregulation, it starts with access to a quality education...with learning how to read, becoming proficient in math and understanding science. Education is the great equalizer. A math problem doesn’t care whether you were born into privilege or poverty. A great piece of literature doesn’t know if readers went to a fancy college. The periodic table of elements doesn’t worry whether you spoke English, Spanish or Haitian Creole at home. If you learn something, it is portable wealth – and nobody can take that away from you. But if we buy the excuses, if we let kids struggle, if we herd them into failing schools, how can we expect young people to grasp those first rungs of opportunity?
That is why the challenge of fixing our schools must be among the most urgent of national priorities. Let’s agree on this: This isn’t just about saving Denisha and amazing students like her. Education reform is about renewing this country. It is about protecting and promoting the right to rise. We all know the challenge we face: Schools run by entrenched monopolies, more intent on serving the adults who work there than the kids who learn there. A system that every year graduates millions of children unprepared for life, and is never held accountable for that failure. A system that blames the failures of kids on parents... on budgets ... on socioeconomics ... and on just about anything but the people who control the budgets, train and manage the teachers, and design the curricula...
Imagine doing that in any other American endeavor! We know better. Poverty is not an excuse. Look at the Success Academy charter schools that are taking the poorest kids from New York City and thanks to a culture of high expectations and accountability their students are earning among the best test scores in New York State. There are schools like this all across the country. Or take my beloved home state of Florida. Working with the Florida Legislature we implemented a bold suite of reforms, starting with the A+ Plan for Education when I first became governor in 1999.
Florida went from a national failure to a Top 10 state in education. Today, our low-income fourth graders lead their peers in every other state in reading, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Our Hispanic fourth graders do better than or equal to the average student in 34 states and D.C. Our African American fourth graders have advanced 2 1⁄2 grade levels in reading since our reforms began. We are a national leader in providing disadvantaged students access to Advanced Placement classes. Those in this room know what works. We have built a nationwide reform movement based on a set of proven principles. Of course choice is at the center of our reform efforts. But there are others: High standards. Rigorous, high-quality assessments. Accountability for school leaders. Early childhood literacy and ending social promotion. Digital and distance learning. Transparency for parents to see whether their schools are getting better or getting worse. These policies matter. How we achieve them will differ from community to community. We have to make room for diversity in our thinking... even as we reach for common goals.
For example, there’s a lively debate about testing. Do we test the right things? Does testing promote real learning? Do we test too often? I have some views on these issues, and perhaps I might be in the minority some of the time. I believe testing is critical. We need to measure to identify students and schools that are struggling so we can get them the support and resources needed to help them improve. But, we should have fewer and better tests. States should make sure tests measure critical thinking skills, and districts should make sure local tests are used in a way that is helpful to teachers in the classroom. My point is that we should be willing to experiment. We should always look to improve our thinking based on the evidence.
This is why the debate over the Common Core State Standards has been troubling. I respect those who have weighed in on all sides of this issue. Nobody in this debate has a bad motive. But let’s take a step back from this debate for a second. This morning over 213 million Chinese students went to school, and nobody debated whether academic expectations should be lowered in order to protect the students' self-esteem. Yet in Orange County, Florida, that exact debate did occur. And so the school board voted to make it impossible for a student to receive a grade below a 50. You get 50 out of 100 just for showing up and signing your name. This was done, and I quote here from a local official, so the students "do not lose all hope."
But in an international report card on education performance, students from Shanghai ranked number one. Students from the US ranked 21st in reading and 31st in math. The point is this: an over-riding concern for self-esteem instead of high expectations doesn’t help you get to number 1. It gets you to 21. So let’s get real. Only a quarter of our high school graduates who took the ACT are fully prepared for college. More than half who attend community college need to take some kind of remedial course. 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs remain unfilled because we haven’t trained enough people with those skills. And almost a third of high school graduates fail the military entrance exam.
Given this reality, there is no question we need higher academic standards and – at the local level - diverse high-quality content and curricula. And in my view, the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum in classrooms. For those states choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: Aim even higher...be bolder...raise standards and ask more of our students and the system. Because I know they have the potential to deliver it. Even if we don’t all agree on Common Core, there are more important principles for us to agree on. We need to pull together whenever we can.
It starts with a basic question: If we were designing our school system from scratch, what would it look like? I know one thing: We wouldn’t start with more than 13,000 government-run, unionized and politicized monopolies who trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system nobody can escape. We would be insane if we recreated what we have today. So let’s think and act like we are starting from scratch. Let’s start with three ideas that I believe, if fully embraced, would create a surge in rising student achievement so more students are college or career ready. First, parents would have the right to a full and competitive marketplace of school options. Neighborhood schools. Charter schools. Private schools. Blended and Virtual schools. Home schools. Children would be able to cross zip code lines, municipal lines and county lines into neighboring school districts. Families would be given a say over their children’s teachers, and would be given the information needed to make those decisions.
We would make it crystal clear that the student is why schools exist. They go first. Their parents are their advocates, and everyone else would go after them in the pecking order. And that goes especially to the federal government. The states and local communities are where the best ideas come from. They have the capability to make reform happen, and they are ultimately accountable. So if the federal government wants to play a role in reform, it should stop tying every education dollar to a rule written in Washington D.C. They should make more programs – IDEA, Title One, early childhood programs – into block grants that the states can deploy as they see fit, including vouchers to enhance state programs. In my view, every education dollar should depend on what the child needs, not what the federal bureaucrat wants. Where the child goes, the dollars should go as well. When that happens, we’ll see major reforms and major gains for America’s children and the federal government will go back to playing the supportive and completely secondary role it should be playing.
Education should be a national priority, not turned into a federal program. Second, we would treat great teachers like modern professionals... capable of creativity, worthy of autonomy and deserving of personal accountability. For decades, we’ve been treating teachers the way we used to think of assembly line workers. They get paid the same, they get treated the same, regardless of whether they do good work or bad, whether they take on greater challenges or do less. That mistaken view belongs in the last century. If we have good teachers, let’s pay them more and find ways to honor and recognize them for the important work they do. If they volunteer to work with difficult students or in challenging schools, reward them. So let’s hire and train great teachers, and help those who shouldn’t be in a classroom move on to other careers, so every child has a chance to learn with a great teacher.
Remember this: A student who enters a classroom with a great teacher walks out in the summer a full year ahead of a student who had an ineffective teacher. Finally, one of the key organizing principles of schools needs to be turned on its head. Right now, we think an education occurs because of the amount of time students spend in class... not the amount of knowledge they gain. It’s time we reverse that. Time should be the variable and learning the constant. In effect, learning should be customized for each student, where mastery of the material means a student moves on to the next challenge rather than spend a predetermined amount of time in a seat. Today, this can be done through technology, and having spent time with my 3-year old granddaughter Georgia, who plays with a tablet like a violinist plays a fine Stradivarius - I sense that today’s kids will not struggle with this transformation. Digital technology expands choices and makes learning personalized. Any of us can take a class taught by the most impressive minds on the planet. Blended learning helps us reach every child. Learning is no longer bound to the four walls of a school classroom.
If you’re the only kid in your high school who wants to study Latin, you used to be stuck. Now, you can still learn Latin – if you connect to a great teacher online. And if you can move faster than the rest of the class --- or you need more time – there’s no reason a technology solution can’t help. A great teacher, working with 21st century technology, can develop a blended learning strategy that works for every kid.
Look at what’s happening at the Rocketship Education charter schools and the Carpe Diem charter schools or the Khan Academy. In Massachusetts, school officials used digital technology and blended learning to turn around Revere High School, which has a 75 percent poverty rate (FRPL) and a student body which speaks 27 different languages. Once an underperforming school, this year Revere won the Gold Award as the top urban school in the nation from the National Center for Urban School Transformation. Revere even has its own version of a Genius Bar on campus. There is nothing unique about the kids at Revere or at other high performing schools that embrace technology. The difference is that teachers, administrators and students were given every incentive to innovate... to use technologies... to transform the way teachers worked, the way students learned and ultimately, the way the entire school performed. That’s what reform looks like.
I want to make one final point. Education reform, with accountability, transparency and choice, is now in its third decade. All that's been done and all that can be done in the future will require bold leadership from the people in this room. Abundant choices for parents; a 21st century teaching profession; and the full embrace of digital learning will require changes in laws, rules and regulations. Most of the time, it will require a political fight. Monopolies don't go quietly into the night. And it will require leaders like you to stick with it over the long haul. Our movement has become strong, but our work is only beginning. There are millions of kids waiting for us, stuck in failing schools and deserving so much more. Armies of teachers who know we can be better than this.
So let’s do that work. Let’s be disruptive. But let us never lose sight of our greater goal: The future of learning in America. The future of an America where everyone has the opportunity to achieve their potential and earn success. That’s the purpose of this gathering. That’s why we are here and that I why am I proud to be with you. Thank you, and may God bless you.