Closing The Opportunity Gap

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

Press Office, (202) 401-1576,

Thank you for that generous introduction, Dennis [Van Roekel].

One of the most extraordinary opportunities in my job is that I get to visit hallowed ground. I get to stand in the footsteps of giants who fought and won battles for equal educational opportunity. And so it is today.

We are at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, the very school that Linda Brown attended as a ten-year old—my own daughter's age—in 1953 and that helped launch a civil rights revolution.

Since President Obama took office, I've had the opportunity to speak at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Dr. King preached.

I had the opportunity to speak at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where state troopers infamously beat peaceful protesters on Bloody Sunday with clubs and bullwhips as they tried to walk across the bridge, all because African Americans wanted to secure the basic right to vote.

And I spoke at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The legendary Little Rock Nine—nine teenagers—bravely dared to integrate that high school in 1957, as an angry white mob of a 1,000 people hurled racial epithets at them.

Whenever I have the opportunity to help recognize and honor our nation's civil rights heroes, I am struck by two truths.

The first is the paradox of progress. As a nation, America has made enormous strides in race relations since Brown v. Board of Education. And yet we know we still have so far to go to live up to the American dream of providing equal educational opportunity for all.

So many of us dedicate our lives to this work because of our passion for achieving that dream. It is what drives us, what gets us out of bed every morning, and what sometimes keeps us awake at night.

Today, the need to fulfill that dream is still urgent. The Supreme Court affirmed the value of integration in Brown, but not even a Supreme Court decision can make equal opportunity a reality on the ground—in schools, in classrooms, and in hearts and minds. So, Brown v. Board of Education is not just part of our history. It is part of our future, too.

The second truth that stands out at these historic landmarks is that our civil rights heroes were often ordinary men, women, and children. They remind us that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. From unexceptional circumstances, comes exceptional courage—and transformational change.

Oliver Brown, Linda Brown's father and the named plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, was not a legislator or a fancy lawyer. He was a shop welder for the railroad. Other plaintiffs who sued to end school segregation in the Brown case were secretaries, teachers, and students.

Mr. Brown wasn't trained in the intricacies of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. He was a quiet man—and not a militant voice in the vanguard of the civil rights movement.

But Oliver Brown knew right from wrong. He knew that America was built on the promise that your origins should not dictate your destination in life.

He knew he didn't want his daughter to have to walk to a distant bus stop, or walk 21 blocks through a railway switchyard in the midst of a Topeka winter to attend the all-black Monroe Elementary School—not when Sumner Elementary was just seven blocks from their house.

So, in the fall of 1950, he walked with his daughter to the Sumner Elementary School. He tried to enroll her. And Linda Brown, even though she was only eight at the time, never forgot overhearing the raised voices in the principal's office. The principal told her father that a black child could not attend his school.

But Oliver Brown didn't quit. He didn't give up hope. He understood that change would take time. He understood, as Chief Justice Warren would famously write in the Brown case, that separate but equal was "inherently unequal."

Now, we know that Oliver Brown was not the only unexpected hero to emerge from the Brown case—even right here in Topeka. Dozens of black parents in districts across the South were plaintiffs in the Brown case.

But if Oliver Brown was only one of many unexpected heroes, let me tell you about one more young man from Topeka who stood up to say that "separate but equal" was inherently wrong.

In 1948, Topeka High School was integrated in the classroom and on the playing field—but not on the basketball court. For nearly two decades, Topeka High School had two basketball teams—the Trojans, an all-white team, and the Ramblers, an all-black team.

Mayor Bunten was a senior on the 1948 Trojans—and he has told this story before.

He befriended one of the most talented juniors on his team, and would later room with him at college. But the next year, after Bill Bunten graduated from high school, his friend, now a senior, went to the principal at Topeka High to protest the policy of having two, segregated basketball teams.

Some of you may know how this story turns out—the young man who went to talk to the principal was named Dean Smith.

Now, Dean Smith obviously wasn't famous then. He hadn't become one of the most respected basketball coaches in the history of the game.

He wasn't renowned yet for leading the integration of big-time college basketball in the Deep South, or for integrating segregated restaurants in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

He was just an 18-year old kid who knew in 1949 that segregation was wrong. The school's policy, Dean Smith later said, "was embarrassing. I was taught that we're all human."

The principal turned down Dean Smith's request to integrate the two teams. But guess what? The next year, the two teams did merge to form one Trojans' hoops squad.

America has made enormous strides since then. You heard earlier from Dr. Beryl New. She attended Monroe Elementary School as a child. And when she went to Highland Park Junior High School in the late 1960s, and later Topeka High School, the schools were rife with racial tensions.

Today, she is the outstanding principal at Highland Park High School. And that once-unimaginable racial progress has continued—not just in Topeka, but all the way to the Oval Office, where our nation has elected its first African-American president.

And yet for all the progress that Dr. New and President Obama can testify to, as a nation we are still far from truly achieving equal educational opportunity.

In America, in 2012, children of color not only confront an achievement gap, they confront an opportunity gap that, too often, is unacceptably wide.

After the Brown decision, school segregation declined dramatically in the South. But nationwide, our schools today are as segregated as they have been at any time since after the death of Martin Luther King. Nearly 40 percent of black and Hispanic students now attend schools where more than 90 percent of students are nonwhite.

Think about that for a moment. The data are clear: A decrease in diversity and an upswing in racial isolation are one reason the opportunity gap isn't closing.

In a knowledge-based economy, academic rigor also matters more than ever in preparing students for college and careers. But today, a student in a school with high minority enrollment is much less likely to go to a school that offers calculus and physics than a student in a high school with low minority enrollment.

Less than eight percent of students taking AP mathematics or AP science courses today are African American. And here in Topeka, white students are about four times as likely to participate in a gifted and talented education program as their African-American or Hispanic peers.

What sense does that make? How do unequal opportunities help close the achievement gap? They don't—instead they perpetuate the gap.

Closing the opportunity gap will require that school resources, talent, and spending be targeted to the kids who need help the most.

Simply put, today they are not. In fact, we are one of the few advanced nations that has this backwards, providing students in better-off schools with access to more teachers and more experienced teachers.

State and local leaders should be doing far more than they are doing today to get the best teachers and principals to where they are needed most, to offer rigorous classes for all students, to enforce discipline with equity, and to direct resources to underfunded districts.

Tragically, the opportunity gap starts before kindergarten and continues into the college years. Even more troubling, new studies find that the opportunity gap has grown significantly in the last generation between students from better-off families and working-class families.

The persistence, and even the recent expansion of the opportunity gap, should be an urgent wake-up call that America is still not a color-blind society that provides equal educational opportunity.

That painful recognition is deeply at odds with the American creed—that if you study hard and play by the rules, you get a fair shot at the future, regardless of your zip code, skin color, or the size of your bank account.

The American dream was never about guaranteeing equality of results. But it has always been about ensuring equality of opportunity. Today, our nation is failing to live up to that core American ideal.

I agree with former governor Jeb Bush on this point, who said recently that "the sad truth is that equality of opportunity doesn't exist in many of our schools . . . That failure is the great moral and economic issue of our time and it is hurting all of America."

I've repeatedly called education the civil rights issue of our generation. Why do I say that? Because in America, education has always been the great equalizer—it is the one force that can overcome differences in race, privilege, background, and national origin.

A world-class education has become a prerequisite for achieving individual success and national prosperity in our globally-competitive economy. The United States simply cannot afford the enormous waste of human capital, talent, and the economic costs of the opportunity gap.

Yet today, perhaps for the first time in decades, a growing opportunity gap threatens to decrease social mobility and solidify the transmission of privilege from one generation to the next.

Now, some national leaders like Republican congressman Paul Ryan, have taken the position that in tight economic times it's necessary to disinvest in education.

I absolutely disagree.

I don't see how the answer to the opportunity gap can be to cut early childhood education and slash Pell Grant scholarships for low-income students, many of whom are first-generation college-goers.

Public officials should always scrutinize education programs carefully for effectiveness. But all levels of government—local, state, and national—need to invest wisely to help close the opportunity gap. Education is not an expense on a budget line—it's an investment in the future.

President Obama and I believe there is no better investment in children's future than high-quality early childhood learning.

Once children have started school, all levels of government should be rigorously enforcing laws that require schools to provide equal educational opportunities. Federal, state, and local governments should be providing more on-ramps for students who are off track to get back on the road to success—like a rich and rigorous curriculum, top-notch community-based programs, and enhanced access to universities and community colleges.

That's the administration's position—and we've made historic investments to boost achievement and attainment.

But let me close by mentioning one final investment in closing the opportunity gap.

For too long, educators and members of the public often shrugged their shoulders in the face of persistently poor performance in the nation's lowest-achieving schools. Too many school leaders wrote off poor children, treating poverty as if it was somehow destiny.

President Obama and I refuse to accept that fatalism. So the administration created a $5 billion School Improvement Grant program to drive dramatic improvement in our lowest-performing schools.

This is some of the toughest work that educators will ever take on. But that's exactly what Dr. New is doing at Highland Park High School—with the help of a three-year, $5.8 million School Improvement Grant.

She, and other courageous leaders and educators across the country, are part of a new national movement to dramatically change the life chances of hundreds of thousands of students. This work is difficult and controversial. But it is also some of the most important work in education today.

When Dr. New became principal of Highland Park two years ago, the school was struggling. Achievement was low and discipline was a problem.

The school lacked a system for identifying kids who were falling through the cracks, or for tracking migrant students. Rigorous instruction was often in short supply. Administrators reported that students played with their cell phones in class and teachers sometimes showed movies, instead of engaging their students in learning.

Under Dr. New's leadership, and with the hard work and support of teachers at Highland Park, the high school has started to turn around.

The school now has an early warning system, based on a model adopted from Johns Hopkins University, to identify students at risk for dropping out. The AVID program has been expanded to get students in the academic 'middle' prepared to attend a four-year college.

The school culture has been transformed. Many new teachers have joined the school, and teachers have more time to collaborate and improve instruction.

Last year, the school's theatre students had the honor of presenting a student-written play at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland—and raised the money to make the trip.

At the same time, money from the federal turnaround grant was used to fund an innovative, first-of-its-kind robotics class with Yaskawa Motoman Robotics. Students in the class will earn operator, technician, and programmer certificates that lead to real jobs.

The hard work is far from finished at Highland Park. But the progress under Dr. New's leadership during the first two years of the federal grant is real and it is exciting.

Major discipline incidents have decreased by 80 percent. Eighty percent!

Math proficiency is up, by a double-digit gain of 14 percentage points. Reading proficiency is also up significantly. Even more encouraging, the huge achievement gaps that existed between white and black students in 2010 almost vanished by June 2012. I can't wait to see the results from this school year!

The federal grant at Highland Park, new funding for early childhood learning, and the unprecedented expansion of Pell Grant scholarships and aid for community colleges are all part of the administration's effort to transform educational opportunity.

All of these efforts share a common goal: To create a level education playing field.

As ambitious as that may sound, I am confident that Topeka and our nation can make dramatic progress toward true equal educational opportunity.

Why am I so confident that Topeka and Kansas can help lead the nation where we need to go? Because you have done it before.

A century ago, America's education system faced challenges that parallel many of those today. It was a period of massive immigration and sharply growing inequality.

The idea that every youth should go to high school was considered radical.

Many adolescents worked long hours in factories. And high schools were reserved for a small number of affluent students to prepare them for college. In 1910, only nine percent of American youths earned a high school diploma.

But out of the progressive movement, the high school movement was born.

The idea that all children in a community should go to high school did not originate in big cities. Small towns and rural hamlets in places like Kansas and Iowa fostered the high school movement.

It was here in Kansas that communities rejected the argument that universal secondary school education was somehow just too expensive to afford.

It was here in Kansas that counties passed free tuition laws that all youths had the right to attend high school free of charge—even if their district did not have a high school.

It was here in Kansas that the state enacted early laws mandating compulsory education and banning child labor.

And what was the result of that moral leadership? The high school movement fueled America's rise to an economic superpower. As much as any single transformation in America, it made the 20th century the American Century.

Between 1910 and 1940, the percent of students graduating from high school nationwide increased more than five-fold—from one in 11 young adults to just over half of all young adults.

So, Kansas, I know you can lead the nation again to where we need to go educationally.

Today, the globally competitive economy places new and urgent demands on our schools and universities. They must not only dramatically accelerate achievement and attainment but do so while creating a level playing field.

So as I stand here today, I am reminded that transformational change never comes easy or fast. But it cannot ultimately be stopped.

As Dr. Martin Luther King said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." In the long run, in the long game, knowledge and moral force will trump ignorance and injustice.

The story of America, as First Lady Michelle Obama has said, is "the story of unwavering hope grounded in unyielding struggle."

America's story is not the story of the triumph of the status quo. It cannot be the story of the preservation of privilege.

When it comes to closing the opportunity gap, there is no "us" and "them." As Dean Smith said simply "we're all human."

So, here, in the shadow of a once-segregated school, let us redouble our efforts to close the opportunity gap.

Here, let us remember that ordinary men and women accomplish extraordinary things on behalf of children against the greatest of odds.

And finally, here, of all places, let us affirm again that in America, education is and always must be the great equalizer.

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