Agricultural Education in the 21st Century: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the FFA Convention

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Agricultural Education in the 21st Century: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the FFA Convention

October 21, 2010

Thank you! What an incredible gathering we have here today! I look around this Field House, and I am so hopeful about the nation's future.

Take a moment to look around. In this crowd of 14,000 strong, you see the future leaders of America. I see future farmers and ranchers—and so much more. We have prospective policymakers and physicians here. We have technology experts and teachers, artists and athletes. We have biologists and biochemists, lawmakers and lawyers. Among you are future environmental engineers and energy entrepreneurs. They are all here today.

I know. It may seem hard to project that far in the future. But one day you will say: "I knew them when they were in FFA."

Look around and you will see something else. You will feel a shared recognition of the power of education to lift the human spirit, to broaden horizons, to bridge differences.

And finally, look behind me. You will see the outstanding students from the Chicago High School for the Agricultural Sciences who just introduced me.

I've been to their school many times, and I loved those visits. It is an amazing school. I remember when a calf was born there. It is one of the ten largest FFA chapters in the nation. Every day, the Chicago Ag School refutes the myth that agricultural education is just for rural students.

Every day, the school dispels the misconception that agricultural education is a relic with little relevance in the information age.

Every day, their school illustrates the power of rigorous agricultural education to engage students and transform lives and communities.

My message to you today is simple. We need you. Our nation needs your skills and talents to compete and prosper in the global economy. Our communities need your leadership and commitment to civic engagement to thrive. And our families need you to succeed in college and careers—so that one day you can support your own families and strengthen your own community.

Education is like a seed. It is not planted just so it can grow and be harvested. With hard work, education takes roots. It replenishes. It nurtures a lifelong love of learning. It is truly a gift that keeps on giving.

I am not going to kid you. I am a city kid. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I played a lot of playground ball. So as a big-city school superintendent, and now as the Secretary of Education, I've had to get schooled myself about agricultural education.

I've loved that opportunity, and I'll tell you what I've learned. I've learned that agricultural education is central to the future of American prosperity. I learned that agricultural educators face unique challenges—but that they also can tap into unique strengths within their tight-knit communities. I learned that agricultural education is very much about the jobs of the future—and not a backwards-looking curriculum to preserve the past.

I am not sure if most Americans realize that agriculture is the biggest employer in the nation. Twenty-one million Americans, or 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, work in the agricultural sector. And the agricultural sector is growing despite the economic downturn.

The math here is simple. For the U.S. economy to continue to rebound and grow, America's biggest employer has to help lead the way. That can only happen if FFA members—and all students in agricultural education—get a first-rate education that genuinely prepares them for careers and college and readies them to compete in the global economy.

In the information age, companies can now digitize and outsource work to the most competitive individuals, companies, and countries. So in the future, you will be competing for jobs with your peers in China, Canada, South Korea, and Europe. That is why President Obama says that "the country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow."

Just one generation ago, Americans were more likely to have a college degree than any nation in the world. Today, among young adults, we are tied for ninth. While we have stagnated educationally, other countries have simply passed us by. That is unacceptable—it has to change.

To restore our competitive edge, President Obama has set a goal that by 2020, America will once again lead the world in college attainment. It is a bipartisan goal and it is an ambitious one. To reach it, we project that young adults will need to boost their college completion rate by 50 percent over the next decade.

That's why we have increased Pell Grant scholarship aid by more than $40 billion over the next decade. It is why we have simplified the FASFA financial aid form—to make it easier for you to apply for college and get the help you need. We have to make college more affordable and accessible in every county in America.

Now, we know that college enrollment rates, and the proportion of students who attain a bachelor's degree, is generally lower in rural areas. But FFA members have distinguished themselves as leaders and achievers in their communities.

So continue to set an example. Continue to be the great role models that you are. Make sure to get your certificate, your associates' degrees or your bachelor's degree. The nation needs the students and teachers who are here today to influence the next generation to pursue college and career training. While you are at it, please tell your aunts and uncles who didn't get their certificate or degree about the importance of returning to school. It is never too late—I recently learned about an 83-year old woman who is working on her degree.

Yes, America needs you. We need you to exponentially expand the number of entrepreneurs, scientists, great teachers, and school leaders in your own communities. Rural America needs you to become the next generation of agriculture industry leaders, who not only perfect sustainable agriculture but grow sustainable rural communities.

We need your creativity to develop innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, laborers, consumers, and many others in the entire food, fiber, and natural resources system.

We need you to play the lead role in reducing our nation's carbon footprint through the use of second-generation biofuels, methane digesters, crop rotations, and energy-efficient tillage methods.

As you know, farmers today plant advanced seeds that take advantage of modern scientific developments. They operate state-of-the art equipment that requires much less energy. They engage in advanced production practices that require less water, and less pesticides and nutrients. Modern agriculture is more efficient and productive than ever before—in the history of the world.

And all of these developments are the product of scientific investment, driven by young people in the field who became scientific leaders. More than ever, agriculture has tied its future to science—and become an industry that uses new technology and cutting-edge applications on the ground.

Now, this mission to educate our way to a better economy is not just about boosting the number of young adults who have certificates and degrees. It is also about improving the rigor and relevance of agricultural education so that all programs set high academic expectations and help develop 21st century job skills.

In today's knowledge economy, boosting your scientific and technological knowledge is a vital first step. But so is strengthening your communication skills, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. Employers today consistently report that they are looking for college and career-training graduates with the ability to innovate, synthesize data, and communicate clearly.

Even in times of crisis, education can be strengthened and transformed. Think back to President Lincoln. In the midst of the Civil War, he signed the Morrill Act, establishing the nation's land-grant college system. The Morrill Act is one of the most important education laws in American history.

Up until Lincoln acted, colleges and universities had been largely reserved for the few. But President Lincoln believed that in "the race of life", everyone should have equal privileges—and education was the leveler.

The Morrill Act established public land-grant universities in order to provide the working classes with a liberal, practical education. Land-grant institutions taught agriculture and the mechanic arts. But land-grant colleges also provided a classic education in the liberal arts.

In many ways, Lincoln's establishment of land-grant universities foreshadowed the development of FFA. A core component of land grant colleges was the agricultural experiment station, the forerunner of your experiential learning projects.

Lincoln's vision for agricultural education is beautifully captured in the FFA motto:
Learning to do— Doing to learn— Earning to live— Living to serve

It's an absolute honor to be an FFA leader and you should be so proud to be a part of this team. But you also have some big shoes to fill.

FFA alumni have excelled in a host of professions. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner is a FFA alum. Decades after being in the FFA, he still writes regularly about food insecurity and famines. Attorney Morris Dees founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the leading civil rights group dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry.

President Jimmy Carter was an FFA member; so was Sam Brownback, the U.S. Senator from Kansas. In fact, Senator Brownback was the state FFA president and the national FFA vice president. He has said that without FFA, he wouldn't be in Congress. It was the FFA that gave him a better "understanding of government procedures and an enthusiasm for service."

Famous country music singers like Trace Adkins, Lyle Lovett, and Tim McGraw are FFA alum. So is Taylor Swift. (OK, I checked backstage with Kanye—he said it was okay to give her a shout out).

You may not have heard of Peter McPherson. But he is a beautiful example of how the seeds of agricultural education promoted today in FFA can bear fruit for decades to come. Peter McPherson today is the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the very institutions that President Lincoln created.

Throughout his career, agricultural education was never far from Peter McPherson's mind. In the mid-1980s, as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, he oversaw the U.S. effort to relieve famine in Africa.

He later went on to become the chair of the Board of Directors of Dow Jones and Company. But that didn't stop him from founding the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa. It didn't stop him from creating research centers and organizations that deal with soil fertility, agricultural development, and breeding crops for better nutrition.

Peter's story reminds us of the continued relevance of agricultural education. In 1988, more than 20 years ago, the FFA changed its name from Future Farmers of America to the National FFA Organization to reflect the explosion in agricultural opportunities outside of production farming.

That same year Oldsmobile launched its famous advertising campaign for a new line of Olds with the slogan, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile."

I'm glad to say that agriculture education today has successfully evolved. It is not your father's Oldsmobile. It's rural, suburban, and urban. It prepares students for careers in agricultural marketing, horticulture, and food science. It readies young people for careers in forestry, agribusiness, plant biotechnology, and wildlife management.

Nationwide, we have nearly 7,500 high school agricultural education programs and more than 10,000 agricultural education instructors.

FFA is a great example of incorporating a college-going culture with career training in the agriculture sciences, business, and entrepreneurship. Innovative, award-winning FFA programs are represented here today like McBee High School in South Carolina. At McBee, 90 percent of graduating FFA members enroll in postsecondary education. FFA members there even designed and installed landscape irrigation systems for the town's library and the school athletic facility.

In Louisiana, at Ponchatoula High School, FFA members worked hand-in-hand with students with disabilities to create The Special Treats Company, a dog treat business. Students washed and brushed dogs and mixed dough to make the dog treats together.

At the postsecondary level, more than 500 community colleges, technical schools, and four-year universities also have two-year instructional programs in agriculture, food and natural resources. And 90 universities and colleges have teacher preparation programs in agricultural education.

All told, that is an incredible record of accomplishment. And the reach of agricultural education is growing every year.

I don't think there is any question that the interest in food nutrition and horticulture has exploded in the last year. Agricultural education has even reached 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. America's most famous vegetable garden is now at the White House.

I'm talking of course about First Lady Michelle Obama's vegetable garden, planted with the help of school children. Her campaign to get children to eat healthy, exercise, and reduce obesity is now part of a national dialogue both in Congress and at dinner tables across the country.

It even inspired my family to plant some vegetables in our modest yard and on the back porch at our house in Virginia. We planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, strawberries, and eggplant.

Let me just say this: The First Lady's vegetable garden produced 1,000 pounds of produce. The harvest from our family vegetable garden is no threat to that record. We could have used your knowledge—and green thumbs.

But I'd add that our little produce project was a huge hit with our eight-year old daughter, Claire, and our six-year old son, Ryan. They started acting like budding FFA members.

They were out measuring the height of the plants. They started eating more vegetables. My wife started packing sweet peppers for the first time in their school lunches. I'll admit it did take us awhile to figure out it was Ryan who was nibbling the peppers on the back porch. The good name of our local squirrels has been cleared. Seriously, though, it has been amazing to see how much fun they had, and to watch start to ask for snacks of carrots and tomatoes, rather than chips of cookies.

Now, despite the accomplishments and impact of agricultural education, three challenges lie ahead. First, while agricultural education is expanding, all agricultural education must be rigorous and relevant. It should systematically prepare students for high-growth careers through partnerships with K-12 schools, higher education, and employers. We are not there yet in enough places.

Second, the tremendous potential for high-quality distance learning has yet to be truly tapped. Only about one in five schools in small towns and rural areas offers distance learning courses through satellite, television, or the Internet.

Last week, I was in a wonderful school in North Dakota where high school students took an interactive anatomy class by satellite TV with students at three other schools. It was a great class. But technology can do so much more to level the playing field and give children access to college-level and AP classes. These opportunities must become the norm, rather than the exception.

Broadband today has become as important as telephone and electricity. And we are working with our sister agencies in Washington to bring broadband service to schools in small towns, rural, and remote areas across the nation.

USDA and the Commerce Department and the Federal Communications Commission used more than $7 billion in Recovery Act funds to expand broadband service to areas containing nearly 2,000 schools. Those schools served more than 550,000 students. More than 300 of those schools, or almost 82,000 students, are in areas currently not served by broadband at all. The Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has just been a great partner of mine, and a tireless champion of rural schools.

Last but not least, agricultural education programs and many rural schools generally face chronic teacher shortages, especially in hard-to-serve subject areas. We want to support states and districts seeking to expand and replicate successful rural educator and grow-your-own teacher preparation programs in partnership with community colleges and schools of education.

If you are a teacher or administrator here today, please stand up. Day in and day out, you are the unsung heroes of agricultural education and the unsung heroes of our country. We can never do enough to recognize and reward great teachers. We need to cheer for them, just as we cheer for our athletes. Please give America's heroes a huge round of applause.

And, for all the students here, could you please put your hand up if you are considering becoming a teacher?

I want to encourage FFA members to think about becoming teachers. In the next four to six years, up to one million new teaching positions will be filled by the next generation of teachers, as the Baby Boomers retire.

If you want to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of children in your communities, teaching is a unique call to service. Visit You'll find information there about the pathway to becoming a teacher. Every year, a teacher has 180 days in the classroom to shape human potential—to make that personal connection that transforms lives and makes great teachers unforgettable.

Before I close, I want to take a moment to recognize someone else who has made a difference for hundreds if not thousands of FFA members. I want to thank Larry Case for his extraordinary service to FFA and for advancing the cause of agricultural education. He has laid a tremendous foundation for us to build upon.

Larry has been the National FFA Advisor since 1984. He has been my eyes and ears with FFA and for numerous other Secretaries of Education. Although Larry is retiring, our Department will absolutely continue to work closely with FFA to enrich and strengthen agricultural education. Larry, could you please stand to be recognized for more than a quarter century of outstanding service?

Now, when you leave here today, I hope you will take with you the message that in America, education is the great equalizer. No matter what your race, religion, or nationality, every child is entitled to a world-class education. In America, your zip code or your socioeconomic status should never determine the quality of your education.

The founders, from Thomas Jefferson on, understood this truth.

It was Jefferson who favored a school system "which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest."

It was Jefferson who thought that an educated citizenry, civic knowledge, and public service were the essential cornerstones of democratic government.

Jefferson reminds us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. They can help bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. Be one of those leaders. We need you. Help make the world as it should be. Because of all of you, I could not be more optimistic about our future.