Washington, DC…This week, I went to Memphis, Tennessee, where I spoke to the graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School. Graduations are always happy occasions. But this commencement was especially hopeful – because of just how much the kids at Booker T. Washington High School had overcome.
This is a school in the middle of a tough neighborhood in South Memphis. There’s a lot of crime. There’s a lot of poverty. And just a few years ago, only about half of the students at the school graduated. Just a handful went off to college each year.
But folks came together to change all that. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal and devoted teachers, they started special academies for ninth graders – because they found that that’s when a lot of kids were lost. They made it possible for students to take AP classes or vocational courses. Most importantly, they didn’t just change the curriculum; they created a culture that prizes hard work and discipline, and that shows every student that they matter.
Today, four out five students at the school earn a diploma. 70 percent continue their education, many the first in their families to go to college. So Booker T. Washington High School is no longer a story about what’s gone wrong in education. It’s a story about how we can set it right.
We need to encourage this kind of change all across America. We need to reward the reforms that are driven not by Washington, but by principals and teachers and parents. That’s how we’ll make progress in education – not from the top down, but from the bottom up. And that’s the guiding principle of the Race to the Top competition my administration started two years ago.
The idea is simple: if states show that they’re serious about reform, we’ll show them the money. And it’s already making a difference throughout the country. In Tennessee, where I met those students, they’ve launched an innovative residency program so that new teachers can be mentored by veteran educators. In Oregon, Michigan and elsewhere, grants are supporting the work of teachers who are lengthening the school day, offering more specialized classes, and making the changes necessary to improve struggling schools.
Our challenge now is to allow all fifty states to benefit from the success of Race to the Top. We need to promote reform that gets results while encouraging communities to figure out what’s best for their kids. That why it’s so important that Congress replace No Child Left Behind this year – so schools have that flexibility. Reform just can’t wait.
And if anyone doubts this, they ought to head to Booker T. Washington High. They ought to meet the inspiring young people who overcame so much, and worked so hard, to earn their diplomas – in a school that believed in their promise and gave them the opportunity to succeed. We need to give every child in America that chance. That’s why education reform matters.
Thanks for listening, and have a great weekend.