Melinda French Gates - National Council of La Raza
At the National Council of La Raza, speaking on school reform.
July 25, 2009
Prepared Remarks by Melinda French Gates, Co-chair
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Thank you, Janet, for your leadership, and thank you for inviting me here. It’s a high honor to speak to the National Council of La Raza. Over the past four decades, NCLR has become a legendary force for civil rights and social change.
From immigration to education to health to homeownership to political empowerment—NCLR is pushing the issues that do most to improve the lives of Latinos. Bill and I have a deep admiration for all your work—and a special respect for what you do in education.
You’ve been leading the fight for higher standards in our schools.
You pushed for more and better instruction for English Language Learners.
You helped break down graduation rates by race and ethnicity to show the inequality in our schools—not so we can blame people for it, but so we can fix it!
You’ve set out to build high quality community schools for Latino students–a vision of Raul Yzaguirre. And today, NCLR and the Gates Foundation are partners on the frontlines of education reform–working together to build schools where all students can make the most of their talents.
The values that motivate NCLR are the same values that inspire our foundation. We share the same passionate belief that all lives have equal value.
Yet in so many public schools today, we are treating some students as if their lives have great value, and treating others as if their lives have no value. It’s appalling. It’s heart-breaking. But it’s starting to change.
President Obama has declared his commitment to educating “every child, everywhere in America.” Congress has passed a stimulus package with billions of dollars for the cause of school reform. New partnerships are emerging. New ideas are getting traction. The day you’ve been fighting for is dawning.
I believe if we push harder than ever and all together, we can break through old barriers that have blocked the success of our children for generations.
That’s what I’d like to talk about with you today.
Last fall, Bill and I went down to the border–down to Hidalgo County, Texas, just north of the Rio Grande. We were guests of a warm and wonderful group of people who live in a colonia. We gathered under the shade of a tree in the backyard of one of the families, and we held a community meeting.
Our hosts opened by leading us in the farmworker prayer–that lyrical prayer written by Cesar Chavez that ends with the words, “So we can change the world.”
And then the mothers and fathers talked about changing the world–starting with their children. They all said they wanted their sons and daughters to graduate from high school and go on to college. They know this is the path to a better life.
But one of the mothers told me she has two young daughters, and neither can speak or read English, even after going to school. Another mother had just received a letter from the school district that said her elementary school just down the road is failing to meet state standards. But they offered her no options.
Many of the mothers and fathers are worried about the economic pressures that push students to leave school to get a low-wage job. And even the brightest students, they said, lose motivation to do well in high school if they don’t see a clear path to college.
But all the mothers and fathers talked about wanting their children to go to college. They all said the same thing:
“Es un sueño.” “Es un sueño.”
That same day, we went to visit Hidalgo Early College High School, an extraordinary public school in Mission, Texas. We visited an 11th grade English class where they were reading The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter. Every student in that class spoke English as a second language, and yet every student was planning to take the AP English exam.
We had lunch with some students, and I asked them what was special about their school. They said: “If we’re having trouble, we can always get extra help from each other or from the teacher–it’s like a family here.”
We later met with parents who were also local school board members. They said, “Every meeting we have is about how to break down the obstacles to college for our kids.”
The difference between the families in the colonia and the families at Hidalgo is not a question of who wants a better future for their children. They both want that. It’s not a question of wealth or privilege. Neither has that. It’s a matter of opportunity. We don’t have to plant the aspiration. We just have to help clear a path and show the way.
Everyone in this room knows that high school is not high enough. We have to create a society that expects all students to go on to college and complete a degree—whether it’s a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree.
We have a lot of work to do. I met one Latino student in California who was part of a movement to promote college for low-income students. He took a trip to the state capitol, and a state legislator said to him: “If you go to college, who is going to fix my car?”
I hope no one fixes his car—because he should never make it to the capitol to cast another vote!
If we are going to change the culture of society so all students are encouraged to complete college, then we have to change the culture of college as well.
Today, the policies of many postsecondary institutions are built around the needs of traditional college kids—young people enrolled full-time in residential four-year colleges who are largely financially dependent on their parents. But this accounts for only 25 percent of all students.
Who are the other 75 percent? They are millions of young men and women who recognize the value of a college credential, but are often under-prepared, attend classes part-time, work to support themselves—and far too often leave college without getting a degree.
Young Latinos are disproportionately found in this 75 percent.
We need to change this system. And we can start by shifting the incentives so that they encourage college completion. Right now, most colleges get paid when the student enrolls. If the schools were paid a percentage of the tuition only when a student completes a year or earns a degree, then the schools would work harder to help students finish.
Models piloted in states from Washington to New York have been designed to accommodate today’s students. These pilots remove a huge barrier to completion by letting students do their remedial work while also earning credit toward a degree, so they can get their degree much faster. We need to encourage this kind of innovation. If we change the incentives, more colleges will be motivated to study and imitate these models.
But the most important change we can make to help Latinos complete college is to make sure they all get an education that prepares them for college.
According to the research, only 20 percent of Latinos leave high school prepared for college. Twenty percent. Average test scores of 17-year-old Hispanic students are 26 points behind white students in reading, and 21 points behind white students in math.
Education is the key to opportunity, and the opportunity is not equal.
When Latino students get an equal opportunity, the results are dazzling.
One of the best examples are KIPP schools–one of your NCLR affiliates. Eighty percent of the students at KIPP schools are low-income kids. Ninety-five percent are black or Latino. Among eighth graders who have gone to KIPP middle schools for four years, average percentile reading scores jumped from 31 to 58; math scores jumped from 41 to 80.
These kids are now on a completely different path in life.
When I asked a group of teachers why they chose KIPP schools over normal public schools, one Latina teacher said: “I wanted to teach at a school where everyone believes you can go to college–even when you look like me.”
At first, her words touched me deeply–then they made me angry. Why should a proud Latina have to say: “even when you look like me?”
In America, when teachers look into the eyes of a young Latina, they should be able to see a Cabinet Secretary… or a Supreme Court Justice …. or the president of the United States!
It is a crime to dash the dreams and waste the talent of even one Latino student. Going to a good school and fulfilling the talents God gave you is not a privilege; it is not an honor; it is a right. Education is a civil right! If it is not given, it must be demanded.
How do you demand your right to a good education? You identify what makes the difference between a good education and a bad one – and demand that your school deliver on what makes the difference.
At our foundation, we have been funding school change for nearly a decade now. We have studied great schools continuously to see what makes them great. And we’ve come to a conclusion: The single most important factor in student achievement is effective teaching.
Teachers matter most.
We have worked with researchers to find out just how big a difference it makes to have an effective teacher.
In one study done in my hometown of Dallas, students who had effective math teachers three years in a row improved their test scores by 21 percentile points. Let’s stop and think about what that means. If you had a hundred kids, and you lined them up first to last based on who knows the most, the kid with the effective teacher moved ahead past 21 other kids.
Once you accept that an effective teacher is the most important factor in student achievement, then the success of school reform pivots on one question: How do we get an effective teacher for every student?
To do that, we need two things we don’t have yet. We need a common set of high standards so all teachers know exactly what their students need to learn. And we need to evaluate teachers based on how well their students are learning it.
All the other improvements—better pay systems, better curriculum, testing, instructional tools, teacher training—flow from these two.
When we say “high standards,” we of course mean standards that match what is being taught in China, Germany, or Japan. But high standards mean more than just teaching all students Algebra 2. It means teaching all students the skills and insights necessary for success in Algebra 2, so they can apply them in different areas throughout their lives and their careers.
Last month, 46 Governors and Chief State School Officers made a public commitment to create and embrace these common standards in their states. This is a big change; it will be a tough political battle, and they need our support.
We need to send the message: “We’re tired of a double standard in education—one set of standards for traditional college-bound kids, and another set for everyone else. We need one set of high standards for all students.”
Then, we need to be able to evaluate teachers by what their students learn. This is the only way to identify and reward good teachers, improve training for all teachers, and increase the concentration of effective teachers in low-income schools.
A lot of battles have been fought over tying teacher evaluation to student performance. Just last year, the New York Legislature passed a law that said: “the teacher shall not be granted or denied tenure based on student performance data.”
But whatever has been said or done on this issue in the past, people are eager for a new conversation. And I hope we can start by acknowledging some facts:
- One: Good teaching is the most important factor in student learning;
- Two: We can’t identify good teachers without measuring student performance;
- And three: There is always a chance that a system that measures teachers based on student performance could be arbitrary. But if there is no measurement, there is no accountability–and no real reform.
These points may be uncomfortable, but they should not be controversial. They’re all true. And they point to one more truth.
The way we can get past the old fights is to find teachers who will help design a system that they will embrace and endorse–because it is fair and because it gives them the insights they need to help their kids learn.
This kind of system, based on common standards, will finally make it possible to support all teachers with the best curriculum, the best instructional tools, and the best training.
For the first time, experts will be able to design terrific courses, videos, and teaching materials that all teachers can use—whether they’re at a rich school in Beverly Hills, or a low-income school on the Mexican border.
Ten years ago, this would have been impossible. But times are changing; new alliances are forming. We can do this now.
Our foundation is working with teachers and school districts that are eager to develop new measurement systems.
The economic stimulus package includes funding for developing the same kinds of systems.
The teachers who are bold enough to lead in this new direction are going to face a lot of opposition; they need our support. It’s time to find a fair way to identify, reward, and spread good teaching.
NCLR has been through this before. You helped the country get more data on student performance. Now we need your support to help get data on teacher performance. It is the key to large-scale, long-term change. Now is our time to get it.
You’ve long been saying that education is a civil right. Now others are joining your call. The leaders of 10 civil rights organizations have joined the “Campaign for High School Equity” –to urge our elected leaders to stand up for change and to back them when they do.
The Latino community has a crucial role to play.
Latinos cast 10 million votes last year—millions more than four years before. You registered more than a hundred thousand new voters. Candidates running for office are coming to you, seeking your support.
You have the standing to say to them: “You want our votes? What are you doing to help Latino students complete college? What are you doing to get more good teachers in low-income schools?” You have the power to say to them: “If you are for Latinos, then you have to be for the good teachers and high standards that will lift the quality of life for Latinos.”
NCLR can say that so the whole country can hear it.
I’m not sure anyone else today can do that.
Let me close with a story about a 9-year-old girl named Sylvia. She lived in California and was trying to go to the public school near her house. The school said: “no”—because she was Latina.
Her father said: “The law says she can come in.”
And the school said: “No, it doesn’t.”
And her father said: “Let’s see what the judge says.”
So they went to court. And the school told the judge: “She can’t learn as well as the white kids.”
And her father said: “Yes, she can.”
And the judge said: “Let’s see what Sylvia says.”
So the lawyers questioned her—to see how smart she was. After listening to Sylvia, the judge ruled on the question of whether Hispanic kids can learn as well as white kids—whether Hispanic kids could go to school with white kids.
“Si se puede.”
So Sylvia went to school with the white kids.
Academically she did well, but socially it was tough, and she said:
“Papa: those kids are mean to me. Why do I have to go to that school?’
And he said: “Because I fought for you to go there.”
That was sixty years ago–that was the court case Mendez v. Westminster, which opened the doors of schools for Latino children in California. It laid legal groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education. Sylvia Mendez’ father was fighting for a million children.
Now it’s our turn. These are our kids. We need to make sure they have the best teachers. The best schools. They need to go to college. They need to get a degree. They don’t lack ambition. They don’t lack talent. They lack a path. Let’s clear a path. It’s their right. Education is their civil right. Let’s get it for them.
Thank you.July 25, 2009
In her speech to the National Council of La Raza, Melinda French Gates addresses the inequities in public schools as a civil-rights issue. Working with Hispanic advocacy organizations such as La Raza, she states, "We can break through old barriers that have blocked the success of our children for generations. With combined effort, we can create a society where all students have the best schools, the best teachers, and a clear path to a college degree."
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Visit our photo galleries on opportunities for Hispanic student success and on our plan for postsecondary success.