"See it this way: If we fail to educate our children, we perpetuate the problem. If you ride in the front of the bus and you can't read, you're still not truly free."
Duncan's message at the Marriott Wardman Hotel dovetailed neatly into the PNBC's focus on grooming the next generation of leaders. For five days, from Aug. 7-12, the PNBC's 5,000 delegates celebrated the organization's golden anniversary in the nation's capital. The Progressive National Baptist Convention grew out of a desire by founding members to confront the social and political upheaval that roiled the United States in the 1960s. Members, who were a part of the traditional African American National Baptist Convention, chafed under the leadership of those who were unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo.
PNBC members were intimately involved in the Civil Rights struggle and opposed conservative policies and practices in churches and the wider society that produced a tradition of racism and discrimination against African Americans. The PNBC was instrumental in ushering in radical and widespread social change across the country. Today, that work continues with the organization which has 2,000 churches and 2.5 million members globally.
"I'm so glad to see so many young people here," said Duncan. "No one can do that (give you and education) for you. You have to want this for yourself. There's nothing out there for you without an education. To all the young people here, work hard, get an education and good things will happen."
Duncan said education is a dividing line, with the disparities centered less around class and race, and more on educational opportunity.
"We have no good jobs today for high school dropouts," he intoned. "There are no stockyards and no steel mills. They are distant memories of a bygone era. We have to strengthen families and communities by enhancing higher education and improving trade and technical schools and colleges."
The Education Secretary spoke emphatically about the need for educators, parents, officials, lawmakers, and anyone associated with education to toss away the status quo – such as the one-size-fits-all scenario – to embrace new and innovative ideas and he called on them to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to provide the young with a quality education.
The clearest indication of how much the education landscape needs to be changed, Duncan said, is the school calendar.
"The school calendar is based on the agrarian calendar," he asserted. "How many students do you know who are going out into the field? We have a 19th century model trying to prepare kids for the 21st century."
Parents play a critical role, Duncan said.
"We need parents to be strong, turn off the TV and videogames and read to their children," he said. "My mom and dad were kind of crazy. We had no TV in our house so I had to sneak to a friend's house to see a ballgame."
"You can't just be a child's friend; you have to be their parent. They may want a Wii and sneakers but buy them a book! Be willing to say no, challenge your children."
Duncan listed some dismal statistics to illustrate the nation's dilemma. For example, more than one million teens drop out of school annually, a number that represents a 25 percent dropout rate; of these, between 40 and 60 percent are African Americans. America has fallen from first to ninth in the number of college graduates produced each year; in addition, two million high-skilled, high-wage jobs are currently vacant because companies cannot find qualified applicants to fill them.
Believe it or not, Duncan said, a child's attendance in kindergarten is a good predictor of whether that child will drop out of school later on.
"We have to look in the mirror," Duncan said. "For too long the US Department of Education was part of the problem. We're working to change that. Part of that is telling the truth, highlighting our successes and calling people out."
But every adult also bears some of the responsibility, he added.
"We have to get our babies off to a good start. I am tired of seeing where some children are reading, learning, and studying languages and others don't know the front of the book from the back. Our 2, 3 and 4-year-olds need to be in environments where they are learning socialization skills, literacy and reading. A great foundation is the predictor of success."
Duncan said federal education officials have allocated $500 million to the states to increase parent access to high-quality elementary education. In addition, he said they have a renewed focus on community colleges, which he described as 'unpolished gems.' It is there that workers are being retrained and retooled as they contend with a rapidly changing job market. Two billion has been made available to increase community college capacity.
Another area the feds are reworking is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law of 2001.
"NCLB is fundamentally broken and Congress is broken right now so we're going to the states and work directly with them," said Duncan. "The law is too restrictive and lacks flexibility."
Administration officials seek greater flexibility for states and school districts to attain the standards by fashioning solutions "to the unique needs of students." Duncan said it is counterproductive for schools to make noticeable improvements in standardized scores and yet be punished when they fall short.
Duncan spared no one.
"I challenge teachers to never give up on a child," he said. "We have teachers who think that black and poor children can't learn. They don't believe in their hearts (that they can learn). Schools have to be open six, seven days a week, most of the year."
He cited Texas as an example of a state where childrens' needs are buried under a barrage of regulations that severely punish the children.
"They are arresting, suspending and expelling 50 percent of the students in Texas. That's a pipeline to prison. These are good kids and they need our help and support," Duncan said.
He said teachers needed to be elevated to the position they once held.
"Teachers are beaten down and disrespected. We used to revere our educators but we lost our way. We need to drastically increase their salaries," said Duncan. "We will need one million new teachers as baby boomers retire. We have to invest and value what we believe in."
To church leaders Duncan had this message: "If you're open on Sundays but closed the rest of the week, you're part of the problem. You are amazing community anchors and spiritual leaders. (However), gang leaders are out there 24-7. They outwork, outsmart and are more strategic than us. Mentors and role models are needed."
As the country prepares for the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Memorial, Duncan said, the U.S. is "coming to a moment of truth."
"If all we do is revere the statue and not live the values, you will miss what he worked for," he said. "And if we talk about his legacy and not live his legacy, we do a great disservice to his legacy."
Mayor Vincent C. Gray welcomed the delegates to the nation's capital, and used the occasion to assert his desire for his city to enjoy all the rights and privileges of other states.
"It is unconscionable and incredibly hypocritical for leaders to go all over the world and fight battles for democracy. We can't even appropriate our own budget of five-and-half billion dollars. They (Congress) couldn't even deal with the debt-ceiling but want to tell us how to spend our money."
"Even with our local laws, we have to go to Congress. We know how to run this city! Of 119 nation's capitals, we are the only one who do not have the right to make our own decisions. It's hypocrisy of democracy and it's time for change."
Gray, 68, said justice has come to Washington, DC.
"It's a travesty that we had to wait 26 years for a memorial," he said. "(Dr. King) was an extraordinary humanitarian."
In parting, Gray asked two things: for the delegates to fashion a resolution asking Congress to grant Washington all the rights and privileges other states enjoy and for them to spend freely.
"I ask you to stand with us and ask them to bring democracy to every citizen of America, particularly those in the nation's capital."
"I also hope you will spend every dime you have while in D.C. We take credit, checks, and IOUs because I trust everyone in this room."