The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Barack Obama
Remarks in Chicago Announcing the Nomination of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education
December 16, 2008
Over the past few weeks, Vice President-elect Biden and I have announced key members of our economic team, and they are working as we speak to craft a recovery program that will save and create millions of jobs and grow our struggling economy.

But we know that in the long run, the path to jobs and growth begins in America's classrooms. So today, we're pleased to announce the leader of our education team, whose work will be critical to these efforts: our nominee for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

In the next few years, the decisions we make about how to educate our children will shape our future for generations to come. They will determine not just whether our children have the chance to fulfill their God-given potential, or whether our workers have the chance to build a better life for their families, but whether we, as a nation, will remain in the twenty-first century, the kind of global economic leader that we were in the twentieth. Because at a time when companies can plant jobs wherever there's an Internet connection, and two-thirds of all new jobs require a higher education or advanced training, if we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today.

Yet, when our high school dropout rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world; when a third of all fourth graders can't do basic math; when more and more Americans are getting priced out of attending college - we are falling far short of that goal.

For years, we have talked our education problems to death in Washington, but failed to act, stuck in the same tired debates that have stymied our progress and left schools and parents to fend for themselves: Democrat versus Republican; vouchers versus the status quo; more money versus more reform - all along failing to acknowledge that both sides have good ideas and good intentions.

We cannot continue on like this. It is morally unacceptable for our children - and economically untenable for America. We need a new vision for a 21st century education system - one where we aren't just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation; where we're not just investing more money, but demanding more reform; where parents take responsibility for their children's success; where we're recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of new teachers; where we hold our schools, teachers and government accountable for results; and where we expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to graduate college and get a good paying job.

These are precisely the goals to which Arne Duncan has devoted his life - from his days back in college, tutoring children here in Chicago; to his work at the helm of a non-profit remaking schools on the South Side; to his time working for the Chicago Public Schools, where he became Chief Executive Officer of this city's school system.

When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners. For Arne, school reform isn't just a theory in a book - it's the cause of his life. And the results aren't just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job.

When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn't blink. He's not beholden to any one ideology - and he doesn't hesitate for one minute to do what needs to be done. He's worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality, increasing the number of master teachers who've completed a rigorous national certification process from 11 to just shy of 1,200, and rewarding school leaders and teachers for gains in student achievement. He's championed good charter schools - even when it was controversial. He's shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs - even when it was unpopular. Dodge Renaissance Academy is a perfect example - since this school was revamped and re-opened in 2003, the number of students meeting state standards has more than tripled.

In just seven years, he's boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent. The dropout rate has gone down every year he's been in charge. And on the ACT, the gains of Chicago students have been twice as big as those for students in the rest of the state.

So when Arne speaks to educators across America, it won't be from up in some ivory tower, but from the lessons he's learned during his years changing our schools from the bottom up.

I remember a conversation we had about one of those lessons a while back. We were talking about how he'd managed to increase the number of kids taking and passing AP courses in Chicago over the last few years. And he told me that in the end, the kids weren't any smarter than they were three years ago; our expectations for them were just higher.

Well, I think it's time we raised expectations for our kids all across this country and built schools that meet - and exceed - those expectations. As the husband and brother of educators, the Vice President-Elect and I know this won't be easy - we've seen how hard Jill and Maya work every day. And we know it's going to take all of us, working together. Because in the end, responsibility for our children's success doesn't start in Washington. It starts in our homes and our families. No education policy can replace a parent who makes sure a child gets to school on time, or helps with homework and attends those parent-teacher conferences. No government program can turn off the TV, or put away the video games and read to a child at night.

We all need to be part of the solution. We all have a stake in the future of our children.

I'll never forget my first visit to this school several years ago, when one of the teachers here told me about what she called the "These Kids Syndrome" - our willingness to find a million excuses for why "these kids" can't learn - how "these kids" come from tough neighborhoods, or "these kids" have fallen too far behind.

"When I hear that term, it drives me nuts," she told me. "They're not 'these kids,' they're our kids."

I can't think of a better way to sum up Arne's approach to education reform. With his leadership, I am confident that together, we will bring our education system - and our economy - into the 21st century, and give all our kids the chance to succeed.

Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

DUNCAN: Thank you so much, Vice President-elect and President-elect Obama.

I'm deeply, deeply honored to be asked to serve in your administration. Like so many Americans, I was inspired by your campaign. I'm even more inspired by the team of people you are building to help bring much needed change to our country.

While many issues will demand your attention, I am convinced that no issue -- no issue is more pressing than education. Whether it's fighting poverty, strengthening our economy, or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread. It is the civil rights issue of our generation, and it is the one sure path to more equal, fair and just society.

Education has been my life's work. Starting on the South Side of Chicago where I grew up along with my sister and brother as a part of my mother's inner city after-school tutoring program. Her remarkable courage and dedication has been a constant source of inspiration to me.

It continued throughout high school, college, and much of my professional life, including Australia where I worked with under- privileged young people when I wasn't playing basketball. I am grateful that you have recognized all the hard work our team here in Chicago has done to turn around struggling schools, and create new learning options and opportunities across this city.

I absolutely did not do this alone. And I am confident that the progress will continue. We are on a winning streak here, and have proven it twice the rate of the state on elementary test scores and at twice the rate of the state on the ACT test. Those trends must continue.

I'm also eager to apply some of the lessons we've learned here in Chicago to help school districts all across our country.

We have worked with a the tremendous sense of urgency because we can't wait. Our children have just one chance to get a quality education, and they need and deserve the absolute best.

While there are no simple answers, I know from experience that when you focus on basics like reading and math, and when you embrace innovative new approaches and when you create a professional climate to attract great teachers, you can create great schools.

We are producing more nationally board certified teachers than any other big city school system in the country. And in this work, talent matters tremendously. We must continue to attract and support the best and brightest teachers who are committed to making a difference in the lives of our children.

I just want to take a moment to thank a few people who made it possible for me to be here today, starting with Mayor Daley. He had the confidence in me seven years ago when he asked me to take my current job, and he has always supported me when we made tough decisions, like the one to close and reopen this school right here.

I want to thank our mutual friend John Rogers, who's been a mentor and friend to me since I was 10-years-old. He gave my sister and I the opportunity to start a great school in the South Side of Chicago, and that has become a model for success in urban education.

I want to thank my children, Claire (ph) and Ryan (ph), and my wife Karen for all the tremendous support she's provided me during this job. And I want to thank her in advance for what I expect to be an even more demanding job in the years ahead.

And, finally, I want to thank all the people of Chicago who helped make us a national model for reform, starting with my partner, Bob Resin Watkins (ph) and our board president, Rufus Williams.

I know how important teamwork is, and it takes a lot of teamwork just to (INAUDIBLE) an education. I am deeply, deeply grateful to be a part of the Obama team. And together we have a chance to do something extraordinary for our nation's children.

Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: Excellent. (APPLAUSE)

OK.

[APPLAUSE]

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: I just wanted to dispel one rumor before I take questions. I did not select Arne because he's one of the best basketball players I know.

[LAUGHTER]

Although I will say that I think we are putting together the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history.

[LAUGHTER]

And I think that is -- that is worth noting.

I'm going to take a few questions.

Q: (OFF-MIKE) mentioned the ties between education and the economy, and that's where I'd like to take us.

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: Sure.

Q: The Federal Reserve is expected to lower the fed funds rate today to 50 basis points, one of the lowest rates in history.

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: Right.

Q: I'm just wondering, how confident are you in Ben Bernanke's decision? And with that decision, are we running out of options to jump start the economy?

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: Well, I don't think it's good policy for the president or a president-elect to second-guess the Fed, which is an independent body. But let me just make an observation that we are running out of the traditional ammunition that's used in a recession, which is to lower interest rates. They're getting to be about as low as they can go. And although the Fed is still going to have more tools available to it, it is critical that the other branches of government step up. And that's why the economic recovery plan is so absolutely critical.

And my economic team, which I'm going to be meeting with today, is helping to shape what is going to be a bold agenda to create 2.5 million new jobs, to start helping states and local governments with shovel-ready projects -- rebuilding our roads, our bridges, making sure that schools like this one are energy efficient, putting people back to work, getting businesses to start seeing some increase in demand, so that we can get, instead of a downward spiral, start getting on an upward spiral.

And I'm confident that we can accomplish that if we've got Democrats and Republicans, federal, state, and local governments all working together. But, look, we are going through the toughest time, economically, since the Great Depression. And it's going to be -- it's going to be tough.

And we're going to have work through a lot of these difficulties, these structural difficulties that built up over many decades, some of it having to do with the financial industry and the huge amounts of leverage, the huge amounts of debt that were taken on, the speculation and the risk that was occurring, the lack of financial regulation; some of it having to do with our housing market, stabilizing that.

It's going to be, I think, critical for us to look at some of the long-term issues that I talked about during the campaign, health care and energy.

And, finally, education is going to play a critical role in this. You know, what the Fed does or what our administration does, in terms of short-term, emergency action, is obviously going to be important to people's everyday lives.

But if we pursue the kind of strategy that Arne Duncan's pursued and I want to see our administration pursue, which is making no excuses and expecting high achievement from every child.

If we can get young people focused on education; if we can change our culture so that we are once again valuing intellectual achievement; and if we are willing to all pull together around making our schools better, that's going to be the single biggest determinant, in terms of how our economy does, long-term, OK? John McCormick (ph)?

Q: (INAUDIBLE). First of all, given the situation here (INAUDIBLE) do you favor (INAUDIBLE) special election to fill your -- vacancy, and secondly, you told us at your first press conference after the election that you were going to take a very hands-off approach to filling that spot. Over the weekend, The Tribune reported that -- Rahm Emmanuel, your incoming chief of staff, had presented a list of potential names...

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: John, let me -- let me -- let me just cut you out, because I don't want you to waste your question. As I indicated yesterday, we've done a full review of this. The -- the facts are going to be released next week. It would be inappropriate for me to comment, because the -- the -- for example, the -- the story that you just talked about in your own paper, I haven't confirmed that it was accurate, and I don't want to get into the details at this point. So do you have another question?

Q: There's no conflict between what (INAUDIBLE) your hands-off approach and the possibility that (INAUDIBLE)...

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: John -- John, I said -- The U.S. attorney's office specifically asked us not to release this until next week.

Q: What about on a special election?

(INAUDIBLE) given the (INAUDIBLE) chaos here in Illinois? (LAUGHTER)

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: You know, I've said that I don't think the governor can serve effectively in his office. I'm going to let the state legislature make a determination in terms of how they want to proceed.

Q: Do you or Duncan have a better jump shot?

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: Duncan much better. That one's an easy one.

All right. Mary-Anne (ph) (INAUDIBLE)?

Q: (INAUDIBLE) all of their achievements, there have still been many who believe they could do much better. Families wrestle with where to go to school...

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: Right.

Q: ... you yourself have sent your daughters to private schools. What kind of commitment can you make for resources now, as president for the public school system. Do you agree with Arne Duncan's proposal of cash incentives -- giving kids who receive A's and B's, perhaps, $100? And what did the mayor say when you told him that you were taking Arne Duncan away from Chicago?

[LAUGHTER]

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: The...

Q: (INAUDIBLE) I had to get them all in.

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: I understand.

Well, first of all, I think Arne, Joe, myself, all agree that the Chicago public schools aren't as good as they need to be, and that the vast majority of schools that are under performing can do better. That's our job: To raise expectations for parents, for students, for principles, for school administrators. And that's what Arne has consistently done.

What I've been so impressed with is the dedication that he has -- has shown in continuous steady improvement. And that's what we're looking for.

Look, we're not going to transform every school overnight. And there's some school systems -- not just big city school systems -- there are rural schools and suburban schools that just aren't up to snuff. But what -- what we can expect is that each and every day we are thinking of new, innovative ways to make the schools better. That's what Arne's done. That's going to be his job. That's going to be his task.

And one of the things that Arne and I share, I think, is a deep pragmatism in terms of how we go about this.

If -- if pay-for-performance works and we can work with teachers so they don't feel like it's being imposed on them but instead they've got an option for different compensation mechanisms in order for us to encourage high performance, then that's something we should explore. If charter schools work, let's try that. You know, let's not be clouded by ideology when it comes to figuring out what helps our kids.

And I think Mayor Daley could not be prouder of Arne Duncan and the fact that the same dedication, hard work that he has shown here in Chicago he's going to be able to show to the entire country.

OK. Carol Lee? Where Carol? Carol from (INAUDIBLE).

There you go.

Q: (OFF-MIKE) you had said before that you were going to appoint a number of Republicans to you Cabinet, and so far we haven't seen that many. Do you -- what can we expect in that area?

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: I'm not giving you a preview. We've got some more appointments to make. And I think that when you look at our entire White House staff and Cabinet and various appointments, I think people will feel that we followed through on our commitment to make sure that this is not only an administration that is diverse ethnically but it's also diverse politically and it's diverse in terms of people's life experience.

Arne's somebody who has really been working on the ground, for example. You know, he's not a creature of Washington. That's not where he cut his teeth. He cut his teeth working with kids individually, working in schools like this.

You know, we have other people, obviously, who have Washington experience, and I think that blend is going to make us extraordinarily effective on not just our education agenda but our broader agenda to help American families live out the American dream.

OK. Thank you guys.

Citation: Barack Obama: "Remarks in Chicago Announcing the Nomination of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education", December 16, 2008. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=85072.
 
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