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Vicki Phillips Speech to the National PTA

Thank you. I’m here today because I’ve seen firsthand how important engaged parents can be.

In 1998, I became the superintendent of the School District of Lancaster in Pennsylvania. In one of the schools in my district, 54 percent of the students were rated “below basic” in reading, and 76 percent were rated “below basic” in math. Most of the families were poor. A lot of families moved every two or three years. We had no more than 30 people at any school event, including back-to-school night – and a good number of those 30 people were teachers.

Three years later, 71 percent of the students were rated “basic” or higher in reading, and 75 percent were rated “basic” or higher in math.

Now, there were a lot of reasons for that turnaround. Educators worked tremendously hard to make it happen. But one of the biggest reasons was that parents got involved. We taught parents how to help teach their kids at home. We created new activities that engaged parents in the school. By the end of those three years, we had gone from having 30 people at back-to-school night to having 300 people at a poetry night.

I believe every child can learn in school – even those who have difficult circumstances outside of school.  But as I saw in Lancaster, with engaged parents, learning is not just possible – it’s inevitable. 

That’s why educators – from teachers to superintendents to policymakers – need parents like you.

Ninety-seven years before the Gates Foundation existed, Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst created an organization dedicated to the belief that parents can change America’s schools.

They demanded Kindergarten classes, child labor laws, a public health service, hot lunch programs, a juvenile justice system, and mandatory immunizations. At the 1904 St. Louis World Exposition, the “Mother’s Congress” presented a model playground. 

They believed that all children – regardless of background or zip code – deserved a safe, healthy learning environment. It’s easy to forget that at one time, that was a controversial idea. And the reason that it’s no longer controversial – the reason those days are firmly behind us – is that parents around the country refused to accept the status quo.

I’m here today to ask you to refuse the status quo once again.  

For 114 years, you’ve set high expectations. You’ve demanded progress. You’ve provided support.

And for 114 years, you haven’t lost sight of what’s really important. This organization may be called the “Parent Teacher Association,” but your work has never been about what’s best for parents, and it’s never been about what’s best for teachers. It’s been about what’s best for kids.


Thanks to the PTA’s efforts, American students go to schools that are safer and better funded. Thanks to the PTA a lot has changed since that model playground debuted.

Today, I believe we’re on the cusp of dramatic changes to public education in this country.  We, as a nation, are having some tough conversations, looking hard at what works and what hasn’t in our schools.  Being clearer than ever before on what students need to succeed, and what is less central to success. 

To many people those conversations are threatening, because change always causes uncertainty.  But at the Gates Foundation, we think they’re vitally important, because more than ever, change is necessary. 

And those conversations are taking place against the backdrop of one of the toughest economic downturns in our nation’s history.  We need to prioritize and invest in what works, and move away from what doesn’t.

But these changes are primarily driven by the fact that the world has changed, and so the tools needed to navigate – and succeed – in today’s world have to evolve.   

II. THE CHANGING WORLD

Take a look at this, it’s the 1940 census form. 

To help people fill out the census, the form listed five sample occupations and their related industries:  “Frame spinner," "salesman," "laborer," "rivet heater," and "music teacher." The related industries: "cotton mill," "retail grocery," "farm," "shipyard," and "public school."

Only one of those sample jobs required more than a high school degree.

Look at the similar sample professions on this year’s census survey:  “Registered nurse,” “personnel manager,” “supervisor of order department,” “secretary,” “accountant.”

All of those jobs require a high school diploma, and, realistically, a post-secondary degree as well.

With every passing year, a postsecondary degree becomes more important.

It’s estimated that 64 percent of the jobs that will be added in the next four years will require postsecondary education. 

In 2008, the median earnings for someone with a high school degree was 618 dollars a week.  With an associate’s degree, that number went up to 757 dollars. And with a Bachelor’s degree, that number went up to 1,012 dollars.  Put another way: if you have a Bachelor’s degree, by Labor Day, you’ve made as much as someone with a high-school degree makes in an entire year.

And our kids won’t just be competing for these jobs with the kid down the block. They’ll be competing with the children from China, from India, from Germany, from all over the world.

III. GIVING EVERY CHILD AN OPPORTUNITY

As you all know, you can put 10 education experts in a room and get 11 opinions. But when we say that a high school education that puts you on the path to a postsecondary degree is a necessity, that’s not an opinion – it’s a fact.

And if every American child is going to graduate high school ready to go on to college and career, our education system needs to tackle new challenges. Today, our kids still need well-funded schools, they need safe schools, they still need clean schools, but that’s not all they need. They need clear, consistent, high standards and the teaching excellence that will prepare them for college and career.

Today, thanks to parents like Phoebe Hearst and Alice Birney, we know what a model playground looks like. We know what a model vaccination program looks like. But if we are going to follow in their footsteps – if we are going to truly provide for the welfare of every child – we need to ask new questions. What does a model curriculum look like? What does a model teacher look like? What does a model education look like?

IV. CLEAR, CONSISTENT STANDARDS

Let me take a minute and discuss some of the work the Gates Foundation is supporting – some of it with the PTA – to answer these questions. 

Let’s start with the question of standards and the need for a clear, consistent set of standards for our schools.

When you help your kids with their homework or meet with their teachers, you’re helping them meet your state’s standards.

So imagine how tragic it would be if you do everything right, and your kids and their teachers do everything right, and you find out that when your child gets to college, they need to take remedial courses, because doing everything right – doing what their school required – didn’t provide the tools that colleges require.

Imagine moving to a new state and finding out that your child – who was ahead of the class where you came from – was now behind it, because the new state had more rigorous standards. 

Or, worse, what if the expectations in your new state were far lower?  

Millions of parents and children don’t have to imagine. This is happening, right now. In too many states, standards are too low, too diffuse, too confusing, or all of the above. And from state to state, standards aren’t consistent.

Melissa Erickson, one of the PTA’s leaders in Florida, is part of a military family.  She’s moved 8 times in 19 years. And when her family moves, unequal standards hurt her son’s education. After one recent move, her son was forced to repeat many of the math topics he had already covered the previous year. But at the same time, he was suddenly behind in cursive writing, and he had to spend a lot of out-of-school time catching up.

And as you all know, military families are not the only ones who go from one state to another. You might move because of a job, or to be closer to aging parents, or for any number of reasons.

So today, our unequal standards mean that every student – even the ones who do everything right, and graduate high school – are at risk of finding out they’re still not ready for college or for a career.  And poor and minority students are even more disadvantaged, because in a system left to chance, they are less likely to be called upon to meet meaningful standards – and less likely to be assigned a teacher who can help them do that.

This is not theoretical stuff. 60 percent of students beginning community college need to take at least one remedial class. Those classes are expensive, and students who need to take them are more likely to drop out of college. Odds are, if you start in a remedial class, you will never finish a credit-bearing course in that subject. 

That’s why we need consistent standards. We need those standards to be clear enough that parents, teachers, and students can understand them. And we need them to be high enough that kids who graduate high school are prepared to succeed.

Over the last few years, 48 states and the District of Columbia came together to take on this challenge. Working with parents, teachers, and education experts, they’ve assembled a first draft of next generation standards, which were released just a couple of weeks ago.

To gain a deeper understanding of the demands for college readiness, the authors of these new standards studied requirements for introductory-level college courses requirements. To make sure students who meet these standards will be competitive in a global job market, they’re cross-referencing against what business and industry leaders say they’ll need in their workforces of the future. 

What they’ve come up with is a set of consistent standards that prepare students for success. The standards were released on June 2 and already 9 states have pledged to incorporate these standards and at least four more are likely to adopt this summer.

But consistent standards will only take effect if parents recognize that they are common sense … and get behind them. 

I know standards can seem like a nebulous thing – but we need you to be as passionate about standards as you are about safety, facilities, and all of the other more tangible things that contribute to a constructive learning environment.

Some of that work is underway:  Already, by joining the states to help implement the new standards, the National PTA is helping to make them a reality.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the standards conversation is a hard one.  As a nation, we believe in local control.  And local control has made it hard to prioritize content.  So, to a local school board, consistent standards may feel like an abdication of power.

To teachers, they may be seen as scary and hard to implement, curtailing rather than – as I’d argue – expanding their flexibility.

Content experts may be worried their particular subject matter is no longer going to be valued. 

Conservatives may see a consistent system as federalization.

I’d argue against all of those assumptions – and I spend a lot of my time doing just that.

But more importantly, I’d ask you not to fall sway to people who are fundamentally making arguments about what is best for certain groups of grown-ups.  I’d ask you to see clear, consistent standards as totally and completely pro-student. 

They’re the only way to make certain that students are learning what they need to be learning.  By clarifying goals, it means that great teachers will have more flexibility to work creatively to help students achieve those standards.  And they can provide a foundation from which we can start evaluating – fairly and consistently – what constitutes truly effective teaching.

That’s also why the Gates Foundation is supporting the PTA’s effort to explain and advocate for consistent standards. We’ve made significant grants in four states – and this summer, we’re increasing that number to eight.

We’re counting on you to stand up for consistent standards. These standards are the next step in the march toward better student outcomes for all kids, and no one can convey that message better than the PTA.

On behalf of the Gates Foundation, I want to thank you for the important work you’re doing, and that you’ve already done. And I want to especially thank Byron Garrett for his leadership. 

I hope you’re as proud to call Byron your leader as we at the Gates Foundation are to call him a partner. 

Byron has spent decades as an advocate for children – all children. It doesn’t matter if they live in a city, a suburb, or a rural area. It doesn’t matter what background they come from, or how much money their parents make – Byron Garrett is in their corner.

That’s why the Gates Foundation is thrilled to be working with Byron.  I can’t think of anyone better to lead the PTA into the 21st century.

V. FROM STANDARDS TO ASSESSMENT

Once you’ve answered the question, “What do students need to learn?” You can begin to answer another question, “Are they learning it?” We can begin to create the next generation of assessments.

Earlier this year, the Gates Foundation and Scholastic partnered to survey 40,000 teachers, and we found that the current generation of standardized tests are not that popular. And one of the reasons is that they’re often the only assessment used – they only take a single snapshot.  I heard someone call the current standardized tests autopsies – they only tell you what happened after it’s too late to do something about it. 

That’s why we’re supporting assessments that give you a before and after – and often a during --  picture of a child’s learning. We call these diagnostic – or value-added tests, because when you use them, you can measure not just knowledge, but progress. And you can make adjustments if you aren’t where you need to be.

VI. MEASURING EFFECTIVE TEACHING

As we’ve begun to look at these next-generation assessments, the evidence has made one thing indisputable: teachers matter more to student learning than anything else inside a school.

Of course, for engaged parents, the fact that teachers are all very different is not news.

But that makes it even more remarkable that our school systems don’t reflect that fact. To use a phrase coined by The New Teacher Project, we treat teachers as “widgets” – identical cogs in a machine.

We need to figure out which teachers are the most effective. We need to help teachers identify their strengths and weaknesses, and give good teachers the tools they need to become even better.

That’s why the Gates Foundation is funding a program called Measures of Effective Teaching. This program has enrolled 3,700 teachers in seven school districts, including right here in Memphis.

Researchers are working with these teachers to collect seven types of data: Student feedback through surveys, student work, supplemental student assessments, videotaped classroom lessons, teacher reflections on their videotaped lessons, assessment of teachers’ ability to recognize and diagnose student problems, and teacher surveys on working conditions.

This project is unquestionably evidence-based. And because of that, it’s getting real support from teachers’ unions.

This is one of the most comprehensive teacher quality studies ever undertaken. With this research, local districts and schools will finally have the kind of evidence they need to support good teachers, help average teachers get better, and new teachers learn the profession so they can be good.

VII. MYTHBUSTING

I’ll be the first to say that some of what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is advocating  – which is based on nine years of investments and research – is counterintuitive.  It’s like that old Yogi Berra quote: “Who are you gonna believe, me, or your own eyes?” Sometimes the evidence flies in the face of our most deeply held assumptions.

For example, when the Gates Foundation started our work in education, we were sure having small schools and small class sizes would make a big difference. We invested a lot of money breaking up big schools into smaller ones.  Intuitively, it makes a lot of sense – smaller schools, more sense of community… smaller classes, more attention. But when we measured student outcomes, it turned out that changing structure alone barely made a difference.  We were stunned.  But it starts to make sense – it didn’t matter if students receive more attention or have more of a sense of community if they’re still not learning the right material, or the teacher isn’t as strong as they can be.  If you don’t change what’s happening inside the classroom – you don’t change education.

Or take Master’s degrees for teachers. It seems like common sense that students will learn more if their teachers have Master’s degrees in education.  In fact, our country spends $8 billion a year rewarding teachers for earning master’s degrees.  But it turns out they don’t make a bit of difference to student achievement.

And it’s just common sense that on average, teachers who have been teaching for 25 years are more effective than teachers who’ve been teaching for just five years. It turns out they’re not.  Our research found that seniority only matters in the first three years. After year three, teachers usually don’t get significantly better or worse.

So we know master’s degrees have almost no value.

We know certifications don’t make a difference.

We know that after three years, seniority doesn’t really matter

But we do know that how effective a teacher has been in the past tells you a ton about how effective they’ll be in the future -- past performance has huge value.

But what do we reward our teachers for? Master’s degrees, certifications, and seniority.

And what don’t we reward our teachers for?  Past performance.

We’ve built an entire policy set around the things we know don’t work.

These are the hard truths. And acting on those truths is even harder.

Because of the recession, states face huge budget cuts. A lot of teachers are going to lose their jobs. Should we make decisions about layoffs based on how long a teacher has been teaching or  how well the teacher is teaching? Should we prioritize small classes, or excellent teachers?

These are tough questions, but there is only one right answer: we have to retain effective teachers, and we have to get them in front of students.

Anything else wouldn’t be putting students first. 

VIII. WHAT’S AT STAKE

And as I talk about putting students first, it’s fitting that we’re in Memphis today. Memphis is a national leader in education reform.

Memphis has begun programs that will change the way school districts around the country recruit, reward, and retain effective teachers.  In fact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is investing $90 million in the Memphis Schools as part of what we’re calling our “intensive partnerships.”  We’re supporting Memphis’ efforts to change the way teachers are evaluated and compensated – in an effort to dramatically improve the results students achieve.

Also, being in Memphis gives me an excuse to talk about the movies.

How many of you have seen The Blind Side?  Or read the book? Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard the story. Michael Oher [Pronounced “Oar”], is a kid from Hurt Village, one of the worst housing projects in West Memphis. He’s really big, and really athletic, and that gets him noticed by a private school.  He’s enrolled there, he joins the football team, he gets adopted by an upper class white family in East Memphis, and he gets access to a lot of tutoring. He works hard – really hard – his IQ goes up 30 points. He gets into Ole Miss. Today, he’s the starting tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.   And Sandra Bullock gets an Academy Award.

It’s an inspirational story.

But in the shadow of that inspirational story, there are hundreds of thousands of tragedies.

What about the other kids from Hurt Village? What about the kid who could have grown up to become the next great engineer or business leader? What about the kid who never could have made it to the NFL, but who could have made it to the middle class?

The truth is, those kids were abandoned. With very few exceptions, they didn’t graduate high school ready to go to college if they graduated high school at all. 

That’s not to take anything away from young people like Michael Oher. They got their chance to succeed, and they took advantage of it. That’s terrific. But having a chance shouldn’t be left up to chance.

In this country, children should be set up to succeed not by luck, but by design.

IX. CALL TO ACTION

That’s why we’re here today.

It’s up to us, as educators and as parents, not to accept the status quo. It’s up to us to fight for the principle that every child – our children, yes, but everyone’s children – deserves the opportunity to get a good education. It’s up to us to find the evidence we need, to accept it, and yes, to act on it. 

At the moment, some people might say that these ideas aren’t practical. They might say they’re too optimistic. They might say they’re too controversial. 

But as you well know, at one time, they said the same thing about a playground. They said the same thing about a hot lunch, and about so much of the rest of the progress you’ve made possible.

I’m asking you to make possible the next generation of progress as well.  We can change what happens in these classrooms.

Thank you.

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