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Full text of Obama's address on education, Wednesday

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Remarks of President Barack Obama-As Prepared for Delivery

Race to the Top Announcement

Madison, Wisconsin

November 4, 2009

Hello, Wright Middle School! It's wonderful to be back in Madison and back in Wisconsin. I've heard great things about Wright so I've got high expectations for all the students here. And I hope you'll keep up the good work so you can go on to succeed in high school, in college, and for the rest of your lives.

One year ago, Americans all across this country went to the polls and cast ballots for the future they wanted to see. Election Day was a day of hope and possibility, but it was also a sobering one because we knew that we faced an array of challenges that would test us as a people. A financial crisis that threatened to plunge our economy into another Great Depression. Record deficits. Two wars. Frayed alliances around the world.

Facing this reality, my administration had two fundamental obligations. The first was to rescue our economy from imminent collapse. And while we still have a long way to go, we have made meaningful progress toward achieving this goal. We acted boldly and swiftly to pass a Recovery Act that has made a difference for families here in Wisconsin and across America. We've put a tax cut in the pockets of 95 percent of hardworking families, and created or saved over one million jobs, including nearly 4,000 education jobs in Wisconsin. We've taken steps to unlock our frozen credit markets so that Americans can get the loans they need to buy a home or a car, go to college or start a new business. And we've enacted measures to stem the crisis in our housing market to help responsible homeowners stay in their homes and curb the decline of home values.

All of this has contributed to the first quarter of economic growth in over a year.  The rate of job loss is slowing, though not nearly fast enough yet.  The work continues, but we are moving in the right direction, and we will continue to fulfill our obligation to do every responsible thing to pull this economy out of the ditch in which we found it.

But we also came into office with another obligation - not simply to do what needed to be done in the short-term, but to make those long-term investments necessary to rebuild our economy stronger than before. It was an obligation to tackle the festering problems that had been kicked down the road year after year, decade after decade; problems that had to be overcome in order for us to move America forward. That's why we're taking up the cause of a better health care system that works for our people, our businesses, and our government alike. That's why we're taking up the cause of a clean energy economy that will free America from the grip of foreign oil and generate millions of good-paying jobs in the process. And that's why we're taking up the cause I'm here to talk about today - offering the best possible education to America's sons and daughters.

The prosperity of our nation has long rested on how well we educate our children. But this has never been more true than it is today. In the 21st century - when countries that out-educate us today will outcompete us tomorrow - there is nothing that will determine the quality of our future as a nation or the lives our children will lead more than the kind of education we provide them.

Here's what we know: over the course of a lifetime, those with a college degree earn over 60 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. Many of the fastest growing jobs require a Bachelors degree or more. And four of every ten new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training within the next decade. Put simply, the right education is a prerequisite to success. It is the currency of our knowledge economy.

And yet, we continue to trail other countries in a number of critical areas. The United States, a nation that has always led the way in innovation, is now being outpaced in math and science education. A handful of states have even gone in the wrong direction, lowering their standards at the very moment we should be raising them. Meanwhile, African-American and Latino students continue to lag behind white classmates - an achievement gap that ultimately costs us hundreds of billions of dollars.

Of course, these problems aren't new. We've heard about them for years. But instead of coming together to solve them, we've let partisanship and petty bickering stand in the way of progress. It's been Democrat versus Republican, vouchers versus better public schools, more resources versus more reform. This status quo has held back our children, it has held back our economy, and it has held back our country long enough. It's time to stop just talking about education reform and start actually doing it. It's time to make education America's national mission.

And I'm proud to say that thanks to one of the best education secretaries America has ever had, Arne Duncan, that's exactly what we're going to do. In the coming weeks, states will be able to compete for what we're calling a Race to the Top award. We're putting over $4 billion on the table - one of the largest investments America has ever made in education reform. But we're not just handing it out to states that want it. We're challenging states to compete for it. We're saying, if you're committed to real change in the way you educate your kids; if you're willing to hold yourselves more accountable; if you develop a strong plan to improve the quality of education in your state, we'll offer you a grant to help make that plan a reality.

Now, before a state is even eligible to compete, they'll have to take an important first step. Any state that has so-called firewall laws will have to remove them - because it shouldn't be against the law to factor in the performance of students when you're evaluating their teachers. And we'll also encourage states to take a better approach when it comes to charter schools and other innovative public schools. When these schools are performing poorly, they should be shut down. But when innovative public schools are succeeding, they shouldn't be stifled - they should be supported.

I'm proud to say that a number of states have already taken up these challenges. Across this country, different groups are coming together to bring about change in our schools - teachers unions and parents' groups, businesses and community organizations. In places like New Haven, educators and city leaders have come together to find a smarter way to evaluate teachers and turn around low-performing schools. States like California, Indiana, and Wisconsin are taking steps to remove so-called firewall laws so we can have a clear look at how well our children are learning, and what can be done to help them do better. And states like Delaware and Louisiana, Tennessee and Illinois are making efforts to let innovative charter schools flourish.

So, a race to the top has begun in our schools, but the real competition will begin when states apply for Race to the Top grants.  We'll take a hard look at a state's application to determine whether it measures up. We'll look at a state's track record to determine whether the steps they've taken have had real results when it comes to their students' education.  We'll look at whether states are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach when it comes to reform. And in particular, we'll look at how states are doing when it comes to four key measures of reform.

The first measure is whether a state is committed to setting higher standards and better assessments that prepare our children to succeed in the 21st century. I'm pleased to report that 48 states are now working to develop internationally competitive standards. This is something I called for earlier this year, and I want to commend the leadership of the governors, and school chiefs who've joined together to get this done. Because of these efforts, there will be a set of common standards that any state can adopt beginning early next year. And I urge all our states to do so and to upgrade what's taught in the classroom accordingly.

I also challenge states to align their assessments with high standards - because we shouldn't just raise the bar, we should prepare our kids to meet it. Understand, this isn't about more tests, and it's not about teaching to the test. It's about finally getting testing right. It's about measuring not only whether our kids can master the basics, but whether they can solve challenging tasks, and possess skills like critical thinking, teamwork, and entrepreneurship; assessments that don't just give us a snapshot of how a student is doing in a particular subject, but a big picture look at how they're learning overall; assessments that will help tell us if our kids have the knowledge and skills to thrive when they graduate. These are the kinds of assessments our states should be putting in place and we're setting up a separate competition where they can win grants to help them do just that.

So, standards and assessments is the first measure. And because we know that from the moment our kids enter a school, the most important factor in their success is the person standing at the front of the classroom, the second measure is whether a state is committed to putting effective teachers in its classrooms and effective principals at the helm of its schools. It's time to start taking this commitment seriously. It's time to do a better job recruiting and preparing new teachers, rewarding outstanding teachers, and moving bad teachers out of the classroom. That means creating alternate pathways to teaching for talented young people by expanding programs like the one used in Boston, where aspiring teachers work side-by-side with effective mentors in a year-long residency. It means bringing quality teachers to the neighborhoods that need them most. It means boosting the numbers of quality teachers who can help our special education and English language learners meet high standards - as you've done here at Wright. And it means improving instruction in science, technology, reading and math, and ensuring that more women and people of color are doing well in those subjects.

The third measure we'll use is whether states are tracking the progress of our students and teachers to make sure every child graduates ready for college and a career. As I said earlier, before a state can even apply for grant, it has to change any laws that prevent us from factoring in the performance of students when we're evaluating their teachers. But that's not enough. If a state wants to increase its chances of actually winning a grant, it will have to do more. It will have to collect information about how students are doing in a particular year - and over the course of an academic career - and make this information available to teachers so they can use it to improve the way they teach. That's how teachers can determine what they should be doing differently in the classroom. That's how principals can determine what changes need to be made in our schools. And that's how school districts can determine what they need to be doing better to prepare our teachers and principals.

Now, even with stronger standards, better assessments, and outstanding teachers, some schools will still be difficult to turn around. That's why the fourth measure we'll use in awarding Race to the Top grants is whether a state is focused on transforming its lowest-performing schools. We'll look at whether they're willing to remake a school from top-to-bottom with new leaders and a new way of teaching, replace a schools' principal and at least half its staff, close a school for a time and reopen it under new management, or even shut a school down entirely and send its students to a better one nearby. These are the kinds of vigorous strategies that are necessary to turn around our most troubled schools.

Transforming our lowest-performing schools. Using timely information to improve the way we teach our children. Outstanding teachers and principals in our classrooms and schools. Higher standards and better assessments that prepare our kids for life beyond the classroom. These are the four challenges that states must take up to win a Race to the Top award. And these are the four challenges that our country must meet for our children to outcompete workers around the world, for our economy to grow and prosper, and for America to lead in the 21st century.

But as I've said before, lifting up American education is not a task for government alone. It will take parents getting more involved in their child's education and schools doing more to reach out to our parents. It will take students accepting more responsibility for their own education. And it will take teachers unions, parents, and elected leaders working together as partners in a common effort. It will take each and every one of us doing our part on behalf of our kids, our country, and the future we share.

I'll never forget one moment many years ago, before I ran for President, before I even ran for the United States Senate, when I was just starting out as a community organizer in Chicago. We had set up a meeting to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods, but no one showed up. So we were pretty downbeat. Our volunteers felt so defeated they were talking about quitting, and I was tired, too.

But just then, I looked outside and saw some young boys playing in a vacant lot across the street, tossing stones at an old apartment building. And I turned to the volunteers, and said, "Before you quit, I want you to answer one question. What's gonna happen to those boys?" I thought, if we can't see that we have a stake in those young boys; if we're not willing to do our part on their behalf; if we fail to recognize that the fight for their future is the fight for their own, then who will? One by one, those volunteers stayed. Family by family, we reached out to the community. And block by block, we helped turn those neighborhoods around. 

That's the spirit of common purpose we need in America today. And I'm absolutely confident that if we're all willing to come together and embrace that spirit - from the living room to the classroom; from the State House to Capitol Hill - then not only will we see our students reach farther or our schools perform better, and not only will we help ensure that our children outcompete workers abroad and that America outcompetes nations abroad, but we will protect the dream of our founding and give all our children, every last one of them, a fair chance and an equal start in the race of life. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

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