Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Inter-American Development Bank


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As I listened to [IDB] President Moreno's remarks, I was struck not by how different the U.S. education system is but rather by how many educational challenges the U.S. shares with Latin America and Caribbean nations.

Every nation, of course, has its own unique history, educational traditions, and culture. But in my conversations with my colleagues--education ministers of other nations--I am often reminded of the common ground and the many shared challenges that educators face across the globe.

As education leaders, we can and must learn a great deal from other nations about how to raise achievement and attainment. Somewhere, sometime, some place on the globe, educators have faced the same challenges of the present-day. And we are all better off trying to work together, and learning from each other, than trying to tackle problems in isolation. That simply makes no sense.

I know the United States has a lot to learn from the practices of high-performing countries--which is one reason we have sought and encouraged international collaboration on education, including sponsoring two international summits on strengthening the teaching profession with our partners at OECD and Education International, the umbrella organization for teachers unions worldwide.

President Moreno spoke about dramatic improvements in access in Latin America in recent decades. But he noted that despite the increase in attainment, schools were not adequately preparing students to succeed in the labor force in today's knowledge-based, global economy.

He said that many educated youth in Latin American countries are either unemployed or out of the labor force and that employers say they can't find workers with the skills they need to be internationally competitive. Latin American and Caribbean nations have large achievement and opportunity gaps, where higher education is too often reserved for the children of the elite.

As all of you know, the United States shares many of these challenges. We, too, have large achievement and opportunity gaps. We also face the problem of other nations out-educating us--and the threat that they will soon out-compete us. And too many of our employers tell me and President Obama that they can't find workers with the skills they need to be competitive.

The U.S. recently emerged from the Great Recession. Yet manufacturers reported last year that--at a time when more than 12 million Americans were unemployed—that they could not fill as many as 600,000 jobs because workers lacked the skills to perform them. Think about the staggering loss of human potential and economic vitality those 600,000 unfilled jobs represent. Our families, our communities, and our country deserve better.

As President Moreno indicated, I'm going to take a few minutes to lay out the reforms and innovations that we are pursuing in the U.S. to transform our education system, and to improve the life chances of our children, youth, and adults.

Let me sketch the big picture first. And then I want to talk in more depth about our reforms to career and technical education, which haven't received the attention they deserve.

As you know, our education system is a federated one. Our 50 states and nearly 14,000 school districts oversee and operate close to 100,000 public schools. The federal government provides only about eight percent of the dollars for K-12 education nationwide. We are the minority investor.

So, the real work of improving schools doesn't happen here in Washington. Our theory of action has been that the federal government should support and incentivize bold, transformational reform at the state and local level.

The North Star guiding our efforts has been President Obama's ambitious goal that by the year 2020, the United States will again have the highest college attainment rate in the world. Just one generation ago, the U.S. led the world in college attainment. Today, we're ranked ninth in the world among young adults.

President Obama and I understand that education is the key to both individual success and collective prosperity in a knowledge-based economy. It's the surest path out of poverty--and in the United States, education has long been the great equalizer, the one force that empowers people to overcome differences in power and privilege.

Our strategy for elevating the quality and quantity of education in America takes account both of the fact that education is the engine of economic growth today, and that the federal role in education in the U.S. is limited.

Our strategy has four core elements. We use incentives and competition. We insist on setting a high bar for academic success. We promote innovation. And we have pursued a cradle-to-career agenda, from early childhood programs through postsecondary graduation.

Through competitive grant programs like the Race to the Top initiative, we have set aside a relatively small portion of federal funding to provide states and districts with new incentives to engage in courageous systematic change and expand their capacity to boost student achievement and close opportunity gaps.

I'm happy to talk more about Race to the Top in the discussion that follows my remarks. But I'll just briefly say here that through the Race to the Top program, we provided states with incentives and support to strengthen the teaching profession, develop useful systems of teacher and principal evaluation, and recruit world-class talent to their schools.

The second element of our approach, which Race to the Top also incentivized, is to set a high bar. We have sought to set high academic expectations for all students, instead of dummying down academic standards as too many states had done under the No Child Left Behind law.

We have tried to flip the traditional tight-loose relationship between the federal government and the states, where the federal government had been loose on goals but tight on means. I thought that was fundamentally backwards and created all kinds of perverse incentives.

We took the position that the federal government should be tight on goals—that academic standards must be set high, so that every child would graduate from high school, career-and college-ready, without the need for remediation in college and be ready to work on day one. But we left it to state and local leaders to determine how to reach that more rigorous goal, rather than spending so much time monitoring the details of grant compliance. Local leaders, not us, know their children and communities best—to try to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington would be the height of arrogance.

Fortunately, state leaders have responded with remarkable courage and commitment. Forty-six states have adopted higher, internationally-benchmarked academic standards. And this effort to design, raise, and implement higher standards was state-initiated and state-led.

Just a few short years ago, none of the experts thought that common standards would ever happen in the U.S. But today, for the first time in the U.S., a child in Mississippi will be held to the same standard of success as a student in Massachusetts. That is an absolute game-changer.

The third element in our agenda is promoting innovation.

We developed a new, rigorous, competitive program, the Investing in Innovation Fund, which we call i3. As it turned out, states and districts had enormous pent-up demand for educational innovation. In fact, the i3 program had far more applicants than any competitive grant program in the history of our department.

The fourth, and final, core element in our strategy is promoting a career-to-cradle agenda. We implemented new programs like a Race to the Top for strengthening early learning, and Promise Neighborhoods, which provides a continuum of support and social services for children in high-poverty neighborhoods.

At the other end of the educational pipeline, we dramatically expanded college access by increasing the number of students who received Pell Grant scholarship aid by more than 50 percent—going from six million to almost 10 million recipients.

Now, in the area of career and technical education—or what we call CTE—we have pursued some of those same elements of incentives and competition, setting a high bar for success, and promoting innovation.

Here in the United States, our CTE programs suffer from many of the same shortcomings as in Latin America.

Contrary to what you may have heard, CTE programs are not a minor part of the U.S. educational system. More than 90 percent of high school graduates take at least one occupational course. And about forty percent of students take at least three full-year courses.

Yet, too many of our CTE programs lack rigor and relevance, and too many have outdated equipment and labs.

Too many programs fail to align educational credentials, like degrees and certificates, with industry-based certifications and certificates.

Instead of diminishing inequality in the U.S., too often some CTE programs perpetuate it.

I saw some of these problems first-hand when I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. We had culinary equipment sitting on the roofs of schools for years, useless, because the internal plumbing, electrical, and carpentry work hadn't been aligned with the use of program dollars to acquire the needed equipment. Everyone was stuck in their programmatic silos.

In Chicago, we created new labs and financed modernization. We built 12 College and Career Academy sites, each organized around a career-theme that led to high-demand, high-paying jobs.

The Career Academies combined a rigorous academic and technical curriculum. And we launched new curriculums in areas like IT-Game Programming, Early Childhood Education, and Broadcast Technology.

So, at the federal level we have proposed transformational changes in career and technical education. Our blueprint for transforming CTE would set a higher bar for quality in CTE programs, and it would introduce competition and new incentives to innovate. We want both to fuel innovation and foster sustainability.

All of that starts with setting a much higher bar for CTE programs. President Obama has urged every American to get at least one year of higher education or post-secondary career training. "Whatever the training may be," President Obama has said, "every American will need to get more than a high school diploma."

The President is suggesting that every American in the future earn a minimum of two pieces of paper—a high school diploma, and a degree or industry-recognized certification.

To reach that ambitious goal, every CTE program must have high-quality standards and clearly articulate a pathway to a well-paying, in-demand occupation, rather than leading to a dead-end job out of high school.

And employers and educators must have incentives to collaborate. Instead of states handing out funding for CTE programs on a formula basis, we want to see states set clear program expectations—and distribute funding by competitive means. Results matter.

To encourage innovation and creativity, we plan to set aside a small portion of CTE funding to provide states with more flexibility and incentives to innovate.

Instead of just hoping that business and industry will get involved in CTE programs, we want states to obtain a 25 percent match of program funds from the private sector, either in cash or in-kind contributions, like equipment. If they aren't willing to invest, why should we?

And instead of maintaining separate silos for secondary and postsecondary CTE educators, we want to break down those silos, by awarding funding competitively to consortia of secondary and postsecondary institutions.

At the same time that we are looking to transform CTE programs, the President has also proposed a new competitive fund to increase the number of high-quality career academies in secondary schools by 50 percent.

Career academies, as I mentioned, combine college-prep and career and technical curricula around a career theme, like health care, business and finance, or engineering.

High-quality career academies work. Studies have shown that high school students who graduate from career academies earn, on average, 11 percent more than their non-career counterparts.

In fact, in Chicago today, CTE graduates are slightly more likely to have enrolled in college and be employed than other Chicago public school graduates.

Now, in the midst of our efforts to strengthen career and technical education, the U.S. does have one great resource, and that is our tremendous system of community colleges.

Some 12 million students are enrolled in more than 1,000 community colleges in the U.S. These are open-admission institutions that have affordable tuition, flexible course schedules, and convenient locations.

Community colleges often have robust CTE offerings but they also provide an inexpensive pathway to a baccalaureate degree for students who want to transfer to a four-year college. The average age nationally of a community college student today is now 29. I think that fact just underscores that college and career-ready skills are really no longer two, separate tracks.

Even in high school, many states and districts now allow students to receive dual enrollment credit for community college courses while in high school. In Iowa, a state in our heartland, more than half of all high school seniors are joint enrollment students at community colleges. The benefits of such accelerated learning opportunities are huge.

Community colleges face their own challenges. Too many postsecondary CTE programs fail to provide portable credits that can transfer to other institutions, forcing students to retake courses and drive up both costs and time to completion.

That's one reason why we have partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor to provide competitive grants to help community colleges increase their capacity and enhance partnerships with industry.

I've described community colleges as the neglected jewel of our higher education system. And while community colleges face challenges, they—along with our system of adult education—provide multiple entry points and second-chance opportunities for adults looking for career and technical training.

I'm thrilled to see that the Central University of Chile has partnered with New York's LaGuardia Community College to open Chile's first community college. I hope there will be more collaborations of this kind in the future because they are absolutely win-win initiatives for everyone involved, most of all our students.

I talk a lot about the economic value and the personal freedom that a world-class education provides. But I absolutely reject the distinction between preparing students to be career-ready, with employability skills, and preparing students to be global, well-rounded citizens, with critical thinking skills.

I believe that is a false choice. In fact, I belief there is a happy convergence between the career skills needed to succeed in a knowledge-based economy and the citizenship skills and global competencies needed to participate in modern democracy and civil society.

Employers today want graduates who have the ability to adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively. They want employees who can both learn independently and work in teams. But many of those same traits—knowing how to ask good questions, working collaboratively with others to solve problems, and appreciating diversity—are also clearly invaluable for participation in civil society.

In fact, these are global competencies that we should want for all our students. A student with a world-class education should be able to use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize other's perspectives, and communicate their ideas effectively to diverse audiences.

I can't finish today without saying how encouraged I am by the expansion of the Inter-American Development Bank's programs, and especially how absolutely critical your work is in Haiti. Thanks to the Bank's Board of Governors, the Bank's capital has increased by $70 billion since 2010. That has enabled the Bank to lend as much as $12 billion per year, double the levels before the financial crisis.

I am heartened that the IDB, working closely with the U.S. and the other IDB shareholders, agreed to forgive almost half a billion dollars of Haiti's debt to the Bank after Haiti was devastated in January 2010 by an earthquake that took over a quarter of a million lives.

The IDB is leading the reconstruction and building efforts in Haiti--and I applaud the IDB's commitment to provide Haiti with $200 million in grants per year for ten years, a portion of which will fund desperately-needed education programs.

I understand that school census data for Haiti are expected to be available in early 2013 to show how many schools have been rebuilt and how many students are back in school.

It is imperative that the U.S., together with other partners like the IDB, help Haiti build a stronger education system from the ruins of its old, broken one—just as America coalesced to build a fast-improving, vibrant school system in New Orleans after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

I was in New Orleans yesterday, and I continue to be inspired by the collective efforts and results there, post-Katrina. From the ashes of destruction, something beautiful can eventually emerge, both in New Orleans and Haiti.

Strengthening education is so essential to Haiti's recovery. In today's knowledge-based economy, education is the game-changer that, throughout the world, propels individual opportunity and national economic growth.

One doesn't have to look far in Latin America to see how elevating and strengthening education can drive a national transformation. Take the examples of Brazil and Chile, both of which have made rapid improvements in attainment and achievement, as shown on the PISA assessments.

It's worth nothing that neither Chile nor Brazil were top-performers in the Latin American region a generation ago. In 1990, the average worker in Brazil had less than four years of schooling. But in both nations, leaders implemented systematic change to propel educational improvement.

Brazil's leaders, for example, implemented Bolsa Familia, a conditional cash-transfer program inspired by a similar program first implemented in Mexico. As a condition of a family receiving aid, children, from the ages of 7 to 17, had to be in school a minimum of 85 percent of the time each school month.

They also moved aggressively to tackle equity issues and instituted a model of data-driven improvement, rich with innovation. Since 1995, the increase in educational attainment of Brazil's labor force has been one of the fastest on record—faster even than China's.

Now, I think my colleagues in Chile or Brazil, as proud as they are of their real accomplishments, would be the first to say that they still face serious educational challenges. And I think they would also say that, with hard work, other countries can also transform their education systems in a relatively short time.

But I do not think they would say that poverty is destiny.

Throughout the world, when leaders make education a top priority, when they commit to change for children, when they have the courage to challenge the status quo, great things can and do happen for children.

My hope is that a better education system will soon help drive the rebirth of Haiti and the recovery of the Haitian people.

Thank you—and now I'd like to open up for discussion.