A MATTER OF JUSTICE AND POSSIBILITIES”
Address to the Jill and Ken Iscol Lecture
Series By First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
Columbia University Teachers College
New York City, New York
April 19, 1999
Thank you. Thank you so much. I am absolutely thrilled to be here, and to see all of the energy and enthusiasm for education and for teachers and children that fills this auditorium.
I want to thank my friend Jill for her dedication and for that introduction. I am very much awareas those of you who know her are as wellthat she is passionately committed to creating a more just world for all children. And she is a very good friendsomeone who listens and counsels and provides all kinds of support. It would not, therefore, be surprising that she and Ken would imagine this kind of lecture seriesto create an opportunity for this revered institution to re-imagine education; to think clearly about justice and possibility in light of what we know about teaching and learning; to apply research and intuition; to reach out across the lines that too often divide us; and in the process, begin to translate into reality the vision of an educational system that would truly serve all of our children.
I want to thank everyone associated with the college for their kind invitation and for their warm welcome. I also want to thank the Margaret Douglas Elementary School Choir, who, I think, entertained us with a very original and honest song, which I for one was very impressed by. I particularly also want to acknowledge, if she's hereshe's on my list but I haven't spotted her yetmy friend, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, and Congressman Anthony Wiener, whom I'm told both are here or will shortly arrive.
Now I have been introduced in many different waysand described probably in more ways than I care to rememberbut I think President Levine did an unusual job of staying true to his mission and creating a little excitement in the room. And that is certainly fitting, because he has brought to his position of leadership here a single-minded determination to reach every one of the students here to give that student the tools to become the very best teacher he or she could be.
And I also want to recognize the creative vision of Peter Cookson, whose Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation brings to the challenges we face some of the best minds thinking about the hard problems of education and equity, justice and community that you are so concerned about. And it isn't an accident. Because, as President Levine said, this institution arose from the thoughts and concerns of people very much like many of you in this auditoriumwho, in the Progressive Era, looked around and said to themselves, What can we do in the midst of this rapidly changing society to create better opportunities and to educate more successfully all of the children?
And the philanthropists and the college presidents and the bishops and others who came together understood that education was then, as it remains, the key to opportunity in our society. They also knew that people bring very different backgrounds, experiences and expectations to the educational process. And therefore they had to be far-reaching in their thoughts. They had to be willing to take some risks about what it meant to be an educator.
And so, then as now, you would find in this institution people who were on the front lines of educational research and practice. That commitment which you began with, you carry on today. And we see it in the work of Columbia's Teachers College. We see it in the results that your graduates are able to achieve. We see it in the ways that help to change and shape institutions. We see it in the partnerships that you have created with schools, particularly here in New York City. You've initiated writing projects. You've helped to transform professional development courses. You've mentored first-year teachers. You have worked very hard to make sure that the promise of education within these ivy-covered walls doesn't just stay inside, safe from any challenges, but instead walks out into the bright sunlightinto every street, into every schoolto bring the message of change, of justice, of possibility.
The collaborations that you have helped to pioneer between Teachers College and city schools are really creating positive results. And that's important. Because there is a lot of rhetoric about education these days that doesn't necessarily hold up under the scrutiny of research and objective concern. So what you have done is create a database. You created research designs. You've been honest in looking at what works and what doesn't work. And we need that more than ever.
I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that, just as at the beginning of the founding of this institution, today we face serious challenges. Not only to how we will educate all children, but whether we will remain committed to public education. Will we be willing to do what is necessary to continue to support the changes, the reforms, the practices, that will guarantee that 100 years from today someone can still stand in an auditorium hereor more likely a virtual auditorium somewhereand say that Columbia's Teachers College has continued to make its contributions to a strong, dynamic, vital public education system?
Now there are many stories, as well as research data, that one could compile and tell about why it's important that our country, in particular, remain devoted to public education. That we not give in to the naysayers who point fingers and place blame about what does and does not happen inside our public schools. But that instead we honestly, realistically look at what we do right, and what we need to improve on, and how we can better provide possibility for every child. But without giving an inch in the overall debate about why it is critical that we maintain the strongest possible public education system that we can have here in the United States at the end of this century.
Now I am privileged to travel to many different countries and visit with many different people. And I have become convinced over all of those travels that one of the great reasons that the United States has been successful and remains successful is because of our public education system. And when I talk about success, I am not merely talking about economic or monetary success. I am talking about how we have, through fits and starts and difficulties over our entire history, maintained this unusual experiment in democracy. How we have welcomed to our shores and integrated into our society people from all backgrounds, cultures, walks of life, races, religions and ethnicities. If we need to be reminded of how essential it is that we still invest in and believe in common institutions that help to fill the public space that defines who we are as citizens, we have only to look around our world today.
I remember being in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with a group of women who we had helped to bring togetherProtestants and Catholics who had never been in a room with each other before. They had never listened to each other talk in any personal setting. And slowly, as they traded personal stories and experiences, they began to say what you and I would think of as commonplace. One would say to the other, I didn't know you felt that way. Or, I had no idea that's how you people acted and thought. All of this time that had gone by, with all of the troubles that had been endured, and there had been so much separationthere was no opportunity to listen.
And I particularly remember, at the end of one of the workshops, a woman saying to me, We have a very big obstacle to lasting peace in Northern Ireland, and that is that our children have never gone to school together. There's a separate school system for Protestants and a separate school system for Catholics. And our children don't play together; they don't learn together. And insofar as it's been possible, when they grow up, they don't live or work together either. And she went on to say, We will never have a unified, peaceful society if we don't have a public education system that is open to and encourages children from all backgrounds.
I think about that when I look at what's happening in Kosovo. You know, here in America it is easy for us to sometimes just shrug our shoulders and roll our eyes, isn't it? We say, My goodness, these people are still fighting over things that happened 600 years ago. How can that be?
Well one of the reasons it can be is that all sides to whatever historical event happened 600, 500, 200 years ago have kept alive the grievances and the problems that they feel are left unsolved and put them in a position of disadvantageto the extent that their schools teach a brand of history that goes unquestioned because there's no one else sitting in the classrooms to question them. If there's a particular ethnic view of history, and the teacher is promoting that and the children are dutifully writing it down, and there's no one to say, But that's not what I'm taught at home. Maybe we should have a discussion about that. Imagine how unlike that is in the classrooms of the public schools of America.
Now for many of you who are teachers, you may wish that it was a little more like that, because you can hardly get a word in edgewise sometimes when you start talking in front of a group of young people from many different backgrounds, all of whom have been perhaps told something at home or watched a certain version of an event on TV, and somebody else has a different or contrary point of view. But it is through that debate, it is through that dialogue, that discussion among differences, that people have to work out what it means to be citizens in a democracy. You cannot expect to maintain a democracy that requires debate and compromise among strongly held and often opposing viewpoints if people have not been given that opportunity to work with and understand and relate to and, yes, I hope, respect difference as they are coming through their own educational experience.
So the public education system, which you here at this college have been devoted to improving, is one that all of us have to be willing to stand up and support. Yet we know that our public schools are, in many places, under great challenge. And there are many reasons for thatmore than we could possibly discuss in one lecture, but which you study and worry about here at the college. But the bottom line is that when our public schools do not work, and do not prepare to the highest possible standard the girls and boys entrusted to them, then several things happen.
One, those young men and women are not prepared for this changing environment. Just as the immigrants who came in the great tidal waves of immigration at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one had to be in some way helped to understand what it would be like to live in this new society, to acquire skills that would be useful in the marketplace here; soas we face not the Industrial Age but the Information Agedo the young men and women from all walks of life, from every backgroundwhether they've been here for many generations or just recently arrivedhave to be prepared and challenged as well. So we don't do any service to the young men and women whom we hope to educate if they are not prepared.
Secondly, if our public schools don't work, it gives ammunition to those who don't want them to work for many different reasons which I think are shortsighted and unfortunate. Because they would, I believe, undermine what everyone in this country has come to take for granted: our blessingsdespite our difficultiesa social stability and economic prosperity and opportunity for those who are prepared to seek it. And the undermining of the public education system leads to an undermining of the public goodthat intangible something that keeps us all connected together. That prepares the ground for all of us to meet despite our differences and disagreements.
So it is not only an issue of individual children and the impact it has on their lives and the impact it has on the economy with respect to future workers and citizens. But it also betrays our capacity to continue to support those public institutions that are vital for our common future.
So therefore, how do we face those issues of justice and possibility that should be addressed? And what kind of framework do we use to try to have common ground among us about what needs to be done in order to promote the best possible outcomes for the greatest number of students in our public schools? Well, clearly, if you see the challenges as I doof unleashing the potential, the possibility within every human being, every little boy and girl who was up here singing for usthen we can't be complacent and we can't just continue to do what we've always done if it doesn't work. And we have to do a better job of presenting the legitimate needs of our public schools, and particularly our public school teachers, to the broader community. And we have to enlist more allies, and we have to be sure that parents understand their role and responsibility as well.
Now over the years, I've heard many different ways of expressing what we should be doing with our public schools. But I must say that the simple mantra that is used at Public School #1 here in Manhattan, I think states it as well as any treatise I've ever read. Here's what it says: All children can learn... No exceptions... No excuses.
Now if you think about that, that is a revolutionary and profoundly American statement. There are not many cultures who would say it, and far fewer who would mean it if they did say it. There are great groups of children all over this world who are written off from the moment of birthor maybe at the age of 11, or maybe at the age of 14 or 17when it comes to education. So by our commitment to this very simple value that all children can learn, we are already starting from a breathtakingly revolutionary point. Because we know that children learn differently. We know that some come with the nature/nurture combination that make them destined for educational success whether we do anything or not, to be honest. And we know that some have so many problems that it doesn't seem possible that any group of dedicated teachers in the best school in the entire country could make much of a dent. Yet we have to believe that. Because by believing it, we are constantly poised to do everything possible to make it as real as we can. And that requires re-imagining.
I have been privileged to be involved with re-imagining the education system for quite a number of years. Jill mentioned one of my earliest experiencesfirst as a law student working for the Children's Defense Fund, and then as a lawyer working for the Children's Defense Fund. We were concerned about children who were dropped out, kicked out, or never entered into the public school system. We did an extensive survey. And I did, as Jill said, actually knock on doors and go into people's homes. Because we looked at Census track data from the 1970 Census, and we looked at school enrollment, and we saw this great discrepancy. Where were all these children that were of school age? They certainly weren't in the schools in many states. And by going door to door, I personally saw a lot of the obstacles that thankfully we have reducednot completely eliminated.
But just think, it wasn't that long ago that children with even the slightest handicap were not welcomed anywhere in school. I remember going into a small apartment and a child had a very bright and eager look on her face, but she was confined to a wheel chair and had never been to school.
Not only the physical disabilities that were in many ways minor and other ways more profound, which in every case eliminated public school enrollmentbut many social and family problems as well. In an immigrant community that I knocked on doors, there were children who were taken out of school when they turned 10 or 11 to help in whatever the family business was, or to care for younger children. So there were many reasons why justice was not served, and we began to try to remedy that by legislation and by education of public officials, parents, and others.
I had a further chance to re-imagine education when my husband asked me to chair a committee in Arkansas aimed at improving the educational system there. And that too was an incredibly eye-opening personal experience for me. Because I didn't just meet with people who were already convinced of the problems and the inadequacies. But I traveled to school districts, I met with all kinds of groups of people, and I saw that there was a real disconnect between some of the expectations that parents and teachers held, and some of the realities about what children would face when they left the protected environment of those small community schools.
Because of the hard work of a lot of people and the leadership that my husband gave, we began to create alliances with businesses to improve public schools. We began encouraging parents to do more to understand what it meant to have a true education that would make a difference. We put in systems of accountability. We tried very hard to raise expectations across the board, and to try to say in a united way that we were not doing any of our children any favors by not having high expectations for them and not providing the means through which they could realize those high expectations. That worked. It was going on in Arkansas. It was simultaneously going on in a number of states all over the country because of the Nation At Risk report back in 1983 that flatly declared we were committing unilateral disarmament because we were not doing what needed to be done to keep our schools performing at the level that that generation of students required.
And then for only the third time in our history, the presidentPresident Bush thenconvened an Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va. And my husband was one of the co-chairs. They came together with what was also a revolutionary concept: that we ought to have national standards. And those national standards would be useful for states and localities and even classrooms to have a better idea of how to measure themselves in terms of what they were achieving. Because there were many people around our country, and still are, who didn't know quite what it was they were supposed to measure up to.
What was the benchmark? It's fine to talk about standards, but what does that mean if you're in a poor school district, on an Indian reservation, or in an inner-city, and you're told that this is what you're supposed to do, but you don't really know how you're supposed to get there? So that began a national effort, and when my husband became president, he set to work with another former governor, Dick Riley, who he made secretary of Education, to support national goalsand to help schools, teachers, and students meet them.
Now we've made progress, I believe. Among the President's, and certainly the Administration's, proudest achievements in the first term were Goals 2000 and the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Because really, from the national level, you don't have all that many tools. You have the bully pulpit, and you do have the federal legislation that provides a very small amount of direction and money for the states and the cities. But if we didn't try to do what we could at that level, then how could we influence what went on further down the line?
So the idea was to go ahead and set goals. And for the first time, Goals 2000 required states to establish academic standards and develop assessments aligned to those standards. The newly revised Title I built on that requirement by mandating that states use these standards for disadvantaged students, thus ending the practice of setting lower expectations for low-income students.
I recall very well speaking to a group of school superintendents from a number of states back in the early 80s. And I was asking them if they had had an opportunity to keep up on any of the research that could perhaps give them guidance about how to set and implement higher standards. And their basic response was that they just couldn't keep up with all that because they were just trying to keep things going at home.
And I knew of one school district that, through the help of some foundations and enlightened schools of education, had transformed the entire district in the way that it related to kids and what it expected of them. And I remember saying to these superintendents, Well, have any of you thought about maybe traveling to district so-and-so, and spending the day and seeing what they're doing and maybe getting some help from them? And I'll never forget this one superintendent who looked at me and said, You know, that just wouldn't work in my district. Our people just don't expect that sort of thing. They know that most of our kids won't go to college, and there's just no point in getting all excited about it.
And I said to him, Well, how do you know that every child yet unenrolled in your school district won't want to go to college? You're making decisions that not only set low expectations, but set insurmountable obstacles because you're not providing the kind of curriculum and challenge that these kids need to be able to go on.
So Goals 2000 said, Here are some standards, and here are some ways that you can meet them. And you have to make sure they're equally applicable to poor, disadvantaged students.
These two reforms fundamentally changed the federal role in elementary and secondary education. In the past our system had too often supported, and even encouraged, a two-tiered education system that did have and was satisfied with low expectations for poor children. And over the past six years, we have been working very hard to dismantle that unequal and unjust system. And I think throughout the country, we've begun to see some results.
Now the most important ingredient in seeing those results is the quality and dedication of the teachers who are asked to try to meet those standards. There isn't any argument that there is no more important ingredient. And if we do not do more to support and respect and understand and, yes, pay better our public school teachers, much of our hopes will not be realized.
We have learned that standards-based education reform that puts teachers in a position of authority and respect actually works. A recent study of education reform in North Carolinawhich has one of the best track records of improving achievement and closing racial achievement gapsshows us how it can be done, particularly for disadvantaged students. You need to have a sustained commitment to raising academic standards. And that is critical. Not a commitment that comes and goes with different superintendents, or is viewed as some kind of a fad, but one that is truly incorporated into the operation, ongoing, of a school system. We need to provide schools with the flexibility to target resources to help low-performing students, and hold schools accountable for their results.
A few weeks ago the government released new data that tells us our nation's reading scores are up for the first time in all three grade levels that are tested4th, 8th and 12th. Our achievement scores are up for math and science. SAT scores are once again heading in the right directionwith the largest gains in mathematics. For the first time in history, SAT and ACT scores have increased each year for the past five years.
Now because we have seen these signs of success, and because we can look at states like North Carolina and districts that have made the sustained commitment, we have a much better idea of what we need to do to help fulfill the possibility of every student.
The President has laid out a bold strategy for the future. Because once again we have the opportunity to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and through this process we can, we believe, continue to push forward on the agenda of justice and possibility equated with high expectations and results.
Now the three-part strategy that is going to be employed with respect to this authorization is to first provide federal support to help improve teacher quality. Second, target increased investments to disadvantaged children with particular attention to the early years of schooling. And third, promote real accountability for results.
John Sanford, the late superintendent of the Seattle school system said, The victory is in the classroom. And there is no doubt in anyone's mind that that victory only comes because you've got a dedicated, qualified teacher in that classroom. And certainly I would argue, and I think any fair assessment would agree, that the vast majority of our teachers are both dedicated and qualified. But that doesn't mean that they are always given the support they need or the encouragement they desire to improve their skills, to have opportunities that are not just meaningless workshops, but sustained professional development that enable them to translate into action what they want to do for their students.
Today the President, back at the White House, honored the 1999 Teacher of the Year, a gentleman from Georgia, Andy Baumgartner, whoI love this descriptionis an ex-Marine who now teaches kindergarten. And some would argue that that is probably one of the best qualifications for teaching kindergarten these days. But he was honored because of the dedication and the quality and the imagination that he brings to his classroom. And we could honor so many countless other teachers. But in order to do that, we have to make sure we fulfill our obligations to our teachers, that they are provided with the support they need through training and other means.
Let's be very frank. Many teachers teach subjects for which they lack adequate preparation. Fully one quarter of secondary school teachers do not even hold a minor in their main teaching field. And that number is even higher in schools with high proportions of disadvantaged students.
We have to do a better job of creating an environment in which state licensing is based on demonstrated performance, knowledge of subject matter, and teaching skills. And there are examples all around that we can look to if we can persuade states and districts to really value that kind of preparation and continuing professional development.
The President's ESEA proposal will require states and school districts to phase out out-of-field assignments and emergency certification. We want to send a message that we really encourage school districts to put the resources into recruiting and retaining teachers who are fully qualified to teach the subjects they are assigned to teach by the districts. That sounds like a tautology. But if you look at the data, indeed it seems not to be connected at all in the administration of school districts all over our country.
The reauthorization legislation will also ask states to adopt performance examinations for new teachers requiring demonstration of subject matter knowledge and teaching expertise, and will provide federal resources to help teachers meet those goals. Now because of retirement, we will need to hire up to 2 million new teachers over the next 10 years. Now there are those who say it can't be done. But I believe it can if we do more to improve the opportunities and the teaching conditions for teachers; if we adopt new strategies to recruit talented candidates; if we show respect for our teachers; and if we provide the financing that teachers need to do their jobs.
One of the ways we have been planning to try to recruit more people into teaching is to get the word out to as many people in as many different settings as possiblefrom the Marine Corps to the Peace Corpsthat teaching is an exciting, satisfying profession, and that our attitudesour national attitudestoward the importance of teaching and education are beginning to really turn around. After a period of, I think, unfair, unnecessary, unwarranted teacher bashing in too many quarters, we are finally back to a more sensible position, saying clearly that teachers are the most important resources we have if we expect education to work in America. And in order to do that, we need school boards, administrators, unions, and the entire community to work together to make sure that the best interest of students are the top priority, and that the interest of teachers are understood as absolutely linked to meeting that top priority.
Now there is a lot of interesting discussion among a lot of my friends who are teachers about what has been the reaction in the last several years as people have said, Well, we need more professional development. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told about the totally useless, one-shot workshops that last a half a day, that are required for teachers to attend, that have absolutely no relevance to their subject matter or the classroom environment. We do not need one-shot, for-profit, faddish workshops. We need a program of serious, sustained development based on research that works and is relevant to a teacher's classroom needs. And in order to do that, we should use that data that has been collected at places of excellence like Teachers College to design such programs. And the President has proposed a fund of $1.2 billion for true professional development activities.
We also believe it is imperative to reduce class size, particularly in the elementary grades. We're very pleased that Congress last year, at the very end of the Congressional session, made a down payment toward the goal of hiring 100,000 new teachers. But we have a lot of work to do if we are really going to fulfill that promise. And it's not just something that teachers tell us is a good idea. We know, based on research, that it works. You would probably know more about the latest research than any of us who could come and talk to you, but I know that study after study over the last few years has confirmed that schools having a smaller classroom teacher-student relationship really does make a difference.
A recent five-year study of Milwaukee schools confirms that schools having a 17-1 student-teacher ratio outperform not only students in the public schools, but also those students who received vouchers under the Wisconsin plan to go outside the public school system.
Small class size is also good for teachers, not just students. I have been in classrooms where a single teacher is attempting to teach 25, 30, 35 students. And it is a daunting task that some teachers, yes, can handle very well. But most teachers, with the variety of students and learning levels and backgrounds and languages and many other differences that our young people bring into our schools confront a teacher with, find it very difficult to give all the students the attention they need.
The Administration also supports the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to create, as it has been since 1987, a national voluntary system to assess and certify teachers who meet higher standards. But, of course, we believe that if a teacher goes through that voluntary system, that teacher ought to be rewarded with higher compensation for having demonstrated the professional competence that the voluntary system at the Board requires.
So we're not there yet in terms of systems in place to give teachers the kind of support they need, but we have some good examples and models that we need to build on.
We also have to make a point, as I mentioned earlier, of helping our teachers have classrooms of students who are ready to learn. It is incredibly difficult for many teachers to stay in the profession in the face of the needs of students they know they can not meet. That is why we lose every year large numbers of teachers in their first, second or third year of teaching, who feel somewhat lost, unmentored and overwhelmed by the needs that their children bring in. I have met so many people who started out as teachers, and wanted to stay as teachers, but didn't feel that they were given the support, and they certainly weren't given the compensation that they could easily find if they shut the door on those kids and walked across the street to push some paper and perform another task. It was a lot less demanding, but far more remunerative.
Until we clearly state that we will only have as good an education system as our teachers can make it, if we can not recruit and retain vital, dynamic, intelligent, dedicated individuals, then we will not have done all we can to make sure our public school system not only survives, but flourishes. And as we raise standards, we ought to raise salaries as well.
I also believe that it is a simple question of justice as to how well-prepared children are for school. The disparity among children begins even before birth when a mother's access to prenatal care can make the difference between a healthy baby and one who will suffer lifelong disabilities. We now know from brain research what happens in those first three years of life as a child is either stimulated and those brain cells multiply and those synapses connect, or a child is not. It's very important that we continue to do what we can to provide better pre-school opportunities for as many children as possible. That is why I have supported increased federal support for programs such as home visiting, for Head Start, for child care, for early Head Start. And I'm pleased that we've made some progress, but we still have a long way to go to ensure that every child is school ready.
And there are many challenges to school readiness, and again, you know them well, those of you who are students and teachers here at Teachers College. But some of them we need, again, to be honest about and confront. We still have not done the job that we need to do to persuade parents, particularly parents with limited educations themselves, that they must do all they can to encourage the highest expectations and the best performing schools for their children. We still have far too high a dropout rate among some of our communities. We have closed the dropout rate and the high school graduation rate for African-American students. And I am very proud, because that was a concerted effort by families, communities, educators. But we have not done a good job closing that gap with Hispanic students who still drop out at a very high rate. Or with Native American students who have probably the highest dropout rates of any population right now in our country.
So parents must be more committed. And we have to give parents the tools to act on the commitment. That's why reaching them in the early years, giving them the opportunity to know what they can do to help their own children, understanding how simple things like telling stories and reading books can help prepare their child for schoolthat is the kind of investment we should be making in families. We know that if we target parents, we can make a difference. And we know if we target low-performing students we can break the cycleso that if students don't have the help they need before school, they need to get it once they enter school. And if there are many, many students in a school which leads to a low performing school, then we should make sure we do all we can to help turn that school around.
And there are a lot of plans and proposals for that. The President's proposal is to require states to identify the schools with the lowest achievement levels that will then be required to take corrective action. I have been in too many schools, and I know many of you have, where you can tell when you walk in the door what the attitude is, can't you? You can walk in a school in one part of a city, and you can walk in a school not very far away where the kids come from the same socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. But in one school, learning is happening. And in another school, there's a feeling of just being in a dead end. I have been in public schools where I have seen sixth graders sitting at their desks doing workbooks that have been erased and crossed over because they were so old and there was not money to buy new ones for the increase in the student population. And they're not even workbooks that challenge an 11- or 12-year-old. And I've been in the same kinds of schools not very far away where the sixth graders are alive with learning and energy, because there is that commitment and that understanding of what it takes. And there are still too many schools that are not performing well, and nobody is holding them accountable. And the teachers I know who are assigned to those schools, they shut their door in September and they hope nobody interferes with their kids so they can let them out in June and hopefully they will have learned something. But they get no help, no encouragement, no challenge from that school or from the community it serves.
Now that leads me to an issue that I alluded to earlier, and that is: What do we do about creating more competition, more challenge, more encouragement within the public school system? Well, I believe strongly in giving parents more choices in selecting their public schools. I believe that charter schools and magnet schools are making a difference. Not only for the students and teachers they serve, but for the systems in which they operate. By giving schools greater flexibility and freedom, they can experiment with new approaches and still be held accountable.
When the President came into office, there was one independent, public charter school in America. Now there are 1,100. We hope there will be 3,000. And much of the reason for that hope rests in districts and examples like East Harlem, the first public school choice system. That district was ranked last, as many of you know, when it adopted public school choice over 20 years ago. It is now still performing better than schools in New York City with similar concentrations of poverty. I've seen it in other cities. I've seen the kind of change that can happen when teachers are empowered, when citizens feel obligated to once again be part of the public education commitment.
We need to make sure that as we move forward, we have greater accountability, we have higher standards, we have greater public school choice, and we do not allow ourselves to be pulled off track by false debates, particularly by those who claim that using public money for vouchers for private schools are a solution to improving public education and fixing failing schools. At a time when we are beginning to see the fruits of the labor of many people over the last two decades to turn schools around, to understand the mix of socioeconomic and racial characteristics with teacher and learning characteristics and community support; when we are beginning to really unwrap that and understand it. We need to fix our public schools, not abandon them. And as a result I hope the re-imagining of education that Jill and Ken have asked us to do and that will be the theme of this lecture series is truly committed to both of the goals they set: justice and possibility.
Now all of us know that schools by themselvesno matter how well staffed, no matter how many resourcescan not, in and of themselves, give any child a world-class education. We as a nation, we as communities, we as citizens, not only must hold our schools accountable, we must hold ourselves accountable. What is it we will do to help schools succeed? What is it we will do to encourage parents to believe in the importance of education and to support their schools, their teachers, and most importantly, their children? What is it we will do to persuade businesses to really make an investment in the schools that will provide them an educated, skilled workforce? What is it we can do to sound our voices together on behalf of the value of public education, and on behalf of the changes that are transforming schools all over this nation?
We can never take for granted that America's public school system is a cornerstone of our democracy. And the interdependent world of the next century requires constantly expanding knowledgeat its base, not just at its elite top. Failure to spread that knowledge not only perpetuates injustice, but injures our common potential for growth, prosperity and social stability.
America's greatest markets for future opportunity are right here at home in our inner-cities, in our rural communities, in our aging suburbs. Their hopes, and our hope, begin with a constantly revitalizing dynamic system of public education. Yes, the maintenance and reform of the public school system is not for the faint hearted. It requires imagination and daring, commitment and experimentation, resources. But standing here in front of all of you who are part of this great institution of teaching and learning, I'm absolutely convinced we are on the right track if we will sustain our commitment, if we will learn from one another, if we will be unafraid to change what does not work and adopt what does. We can do no less, not only for our children, but for the future we hope to share together in the kind of America we value in the years to come.
Thank you very much.