Education Speech

First of all, let me thank you for the introduction and let me thank all of you for being here...I do want to say to all of you that are teachers or who have an education background, that you do not have to be a lawyer to run for the Senate. As a matter of fact, I think being a teacher is a better background because what I did back in 1990, I had been teaching for 20 years was I called all the students I had given A's to and this became the nucleus of the campaign.

That's not quite true, but I want to first of all just say that I know this has been a hot conference and I'd like to thank you all for being here for another reason. I was a college teacher for 20 years and I am convinced that the best thing I ever said to students was you will be more credible and you will be more powerful in a positive way if you do not separate the lives you live from the words you speak and if you can pick a career choice which is aligned with the values you hold.

There are a lot of people in this room who Sheila and I know, but we honor your work and I want to tell you how proud I am to be at this conference with you and I also want to introduce my wife Sheila, her work, which by the way is directly related to the work of many of you, has to do with how we can reduce and hopefully someday end violence in homes. In fact, one of the pieces of legislation we have right now is to provide some support for children who witness violence. We're always talking about the violence on television, the violence children see in the movies, a lot of the violence children see in their living rooms. And that affects how well they're able to do at school. There is a statistic that about every 13 seconds a woman is battered in her home. A home is supposed to be a safe place. Sheila does all that work in our office for us.

I came up here at this gathering on this day on my way to Minnesota but I thought it was important to speak with you because as a United States Senator, I do want to speak out boldly against this trend toward high stakes testing, because I believe it is a bad idea which holds children responsible for our own failure to invest in their future and their achievements. I also come to speak out against what I believe to be a very harsh agenda for education, because children is really my passion, children and education has been my adult life. It has been my passion as a United States Senator. I want to speak out against this trend of high stakes testing because I have spent a lot of time in low and moderate income communities as a community organizer before I was a United States Senator and as a United States Senator and I believe, I am aware of the concerns and circumstances in children's lives and all of the inequalities that they face every day and that's another reason and this will be a part of this lecture speech and I have come here today to Columbia Teachers College to speak against this trend of high stakes testing.

And finally, I come to speak out against this because for the last almost 10 years as a United States Senator, I have been in a room with students about every 2 weeks and based upon what I have see with my own eyes and what I have heard, I have seen the abuse of high stakes tests by too many states in school districts across the country. I'd like to just read from a piece that is very powerful from the Baton Rouge paper earlier this year. As you may know, Louisiana is implementing the high stakes tests and we're talking about the leap test, which is 5 days and it determines whether or not the students will be promoted and also whether schools will be awarded. The article describes where one teacher said, "I'm thinking about having a scream day sometime in March, where we just stop and scream." She continues to say her principal is keenly aware of the stress on both students and teachers. He's arranged to have all of the schools janitors on duty to clean up the mess. It is no wonder that the students are stressed because the article goes on to say that for the past few weeks, the North Western School billboard stated daily the number of school days until the tests. When I read this story, I cannot help but say to myself as a father, as a grandfather, why can we not let children be children? Why do we impose this misplaced pressure on children as young as 8 years old?

As I see what's happening around the country, as I see more and more states and more and more school districts have these high stakes standardized tests, I'm struck by Bob Chase's comparison of all these trends to the movie ‘Field of Dreams'; if you test them, they will perform. Making students accountable for test scores, talking about putting an end to social promotion is bumper sticker slogan politics. Well, politicians can thump themselves on their chests and say we are all about responsibility and high standards, about ending social promotion, but far from improving education. As a United States Senator, I would argue high stakes tests marks a major retreat from accuracy, from fairness, from quality and from equity. I do not believe that on a single multiple choice, standardized test to determine whether or not third graders become fourth graders for education reform. I view it as a great step backwards.

It is a bitter irony because standardized tests historically have been...they can be used to ensure more opportunities in education. But that's if we're talking about these tests as a diagnostic tool. That's if we also make sure that we put into place some other really important steps. We're going to make a standardized test a single multiple choice test the sole determinate whether or not a child can go from third to fourth grade or whether or not a young person can graduate from school or for young children what grouping they're in. I would argue that we are not going to be expanding opportunities. As a matter of fact, we're going to be lessening opportunities for children.

First, the most obvious argument is this: if in fact we're to hold students back because they don't pass a standardized test, we're going to hold an 8-year-old back because he or she can't pass, we at least ought to be able to say to our children with 100 percent certainty that we have done everything possible to make sure that every one of these children and young people has the same opportunity to master this material for these tests.

Jonathan Kozol's last book, Savage Inequalities, was just over a few years ago. His latest book I think will be a hopeful book, but he writes about savage inequalities and it seemed to me that if we do not do anything about the savage inequalities and we just give students these tests, then we set them up for failure. We don't make sure that each child comes to kindergarten ready for a level playing field, so the learning gap is great at age 5. Then, children if they're behind, we don't make sure we do everything possible to have the best teachers, we don't make sure that these schools have the resources and that these children have access to them and maybe most important of all, we don't do much to change the concerns and circumstances of their lives before they go to school and when they go home, but we're going to fail them, third graders. That, I believe, is cowardly. I think it's cowardly and I don't think we're going to deal with the learning gap unless we're willing to do something about the investment gap.

Now, in my view, and I'm sorry because I am not a cynical person, I'm full of optimism and I'll speak today with optimism. But I'll make a remark that is cynical. In politics, every breed of politician I know wants to have his photo taken next to children. We are all for children, we are all their mission, they are our future but as a matter of fact, when it comes to making the investment and the money, we come up a dollar short. Fanny Lou Henderson, great civil rights activist once uttered the immortal words "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." I am sick and tired of symbolic politics with children and I will just simply shout it from the mountaintop that the fact of the matter is we are never going to be able to renew our vow of equal opportunity for every child, which I really believe is at stake, which I really believe is what this conference is about, unless we are willing to reach into our pockets and invest in resources and skills and character of our children and it won't be done on tin cup budget. Where is that investment? And if you look at the results in my state of Minnesota, it's predictable.

I'll just look at the results of our standardized tests from kids who graduate. In the first round, 79 percent of low income students fail the English part of the high school exit exam and 74 percent failed the math part. Those numbers improved some, but it's really clear who is losing out in public education, those students with the least amount of opportunity. There's a pattern whether it be Massachusetts, whether it be Texas or whether it be any other state. One of the ways to measure progress can be a standardized test. But overall, with other measures of achievement because all the teachers tell us that that's the only responsible thing to do. We need more of a commitment to more subsidized education reform and with more of a commitment to the investment in the schools and the investment in the children. And yes, I would also investment in dramatically increasing the economic opportunities in the communities where these children live and in their parents, because it's really important. You can't cop out and say schools have no accountability, teachers aren't great, and principals can't make a difference. On the other hand, it is a crazy, de-contextualized argument that the grinding poverty and all the conditions around these children have nothing to do with how they will do or not do in school.

As a U.S. Senator, I came to the conference to say that I'm committed to this fight, especially the abuse of the high stakes test, that's what worries me the most and when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act comes to the floor, which will be now in about 3 weeks and the end of April or the beginning of May, I'll introduce an amendment that will require states and districts to use multiple measures of student performance in addition to standardized tests if they're going to use tests to make this high stakes decision. I think it's only reasonable. So, the argument will be for the national community when there is an issue of civil rights or an affect of it is discriminatory, you'll see we're a national community and there are some values that unite us as a national community. I feel that strongly about this and I want to just announce this today that we're going to have a major floor debate even if it doesn't pass, we have to have the debate and we have to have the discussion around it and there need to be a much more careful discussion, I think, around about what we are doing with these high stakes tests, there needs to be, and I know many of you do too but I want to make a commitment that I'm just going to keep doing what I can, although frankly, there is organizing that needs to be done around the country. We're not there with an equal opportunity learning standard. I mean, what we keep saying is yeah, let's hold all of our children to the most rigorous standards, but let's also make sure they can at least achieve these standards, and that's of course the justice agenda for America.

And a final amendment, which is one that if the one I announced to you doesn't pass, which it maybe will but it might not. Gunnar Myrdah and his classic book American Dilemma wrote, and I love these words; they should be immortal, "Ignorance is never random." In other words, we sometimes don't know what we don't want to know. I've been trying for two and a half years to get a study of what welfare is really doing out in the communities. In other words, we've reduced the assistance, the question is have we lessened the poverty for the children, right? But what I am going to call for is at least that we have a thorough study of high stakes tests and on education, we've already had some of them, but I don't want this to be done without any kind of study. I would like to thank you for inviting me, I would like to thank you for listening to what I said. I think ultimately this is really about how we as a nation can renew our vow of equal opportunity for every child. If you were to ask me what I care about more than anything else, I would like to conclude in hopefully not a melodramatic way exactly what happened to me. When our oldest grandchild Kari was born, I was about 46. I held her in my hands and I thought to myself, because it had been awhile, we had our children when we were young and they grew up like "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof. But I held her in my hands and I thought, I know what I believe in. I believe that every infant that I would hold in my hands, every child, with every color of skin, no matter who, no matter boy or girl, rich or poor, not matter religion, that every child have the same opportunity to reach her full potential and his full potential. I believe, as the son of a Jewish immigrant, born in the Ukraine and fled persecution from Russia, that's the goodness of our country. I believe that's the American dream and I think we should continue to do our writing and our teaching and our lobbying and our advocating and our fighting for our country to do better.

March 31, 2000