Citizenship and Pathways for a Green Economy: Remarks by Under Secretary Martha Kanter at the Sustainability Education Summit

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Citizenship and Pathways for a Green Economy: Remarks by Under Secretary Martha Kanter at the Sustainability Education Summit

September 20, 2010


In last year's address at the U.N. Summit on Climate Change, President Obama left no doubt: it is imperative that we act now to create a sustainable future.

He said: 'Our generation's response to [the challenge of climate change] will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it — boldly, swiftly, and together — we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe. '

As the President made clear, we must not let this happen, and we will not.

But we need to commit ourselves to a Call to Action to answer the following questions:

Who will prepare the scientists, technicians, engineers, entrepreneurs and global humanitarians that can convert urgency into opportunity, replace fossil fuel dependence with clean energy innovation, and rebuild our economy and society on a new and greener foundation? Who will educate citizens ready to master these new realities and ensure exemplary stewardship of our planet for now and for future generations?

The answer is right here in this room. America's educators, in fact, our nation's entire education system must rise to this challenge, and our higher education leaders and communities, in particular, must lead the way.

Secretary Duncan – who will speak with you tomorrow – often says that we must educate our way to a better economy. To expand on his remarks, we must educate our way to a green economy and a better environment!

To that end, the Department of Education's 'Green Team" is focused on policies and strategies to educate our citizenry and to support clearly articulated education pathways toward a sustainable future.

Developing Good Environmental Citizens – Individuals and Institutions

Committed environmental citizens – students, professors, teachers, parents and community leaders are our key change-agents.

Greening our Schools and Educating Engaged Environmental Citizens

As we know, in the K-12 system, millions of students spend their days in public school facilities that have suffered from years of neglect. Many of these facilities are dilapidated, and have environmental conditions – asbestos, mold, toxic caulk – that pose serious health risks to students and staff.

According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, approximately 14 million students attend schools that are in need of extensive remediation or replacement.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds are helping to change this. With stimulus funding from the Education, Treasury, Energy, Interior and Agriculture Departments, States and local governments received billions of dollars in funds, bond authority and other stimulus strategies for construction, modernization, and repairs to school facilities or for acquisition of land for the construction of school facilities.

Outdated school buildings aren't just bad for students' health. Research shows a connection between facility quality and student achievement. Studies suggest that students attending schools in poor condition score 11% lower on standardized tests than students who attend schools in good condition.

Evidence indicates that environmentally safe facilities with good indoor air quality, daylight and other factors lead to improved student productivity, and a decline in absenteeism.

This touches another Summit theme – environmental and intergenerational justice – since children in poor communities are disproportionately affected by problems like contamination from industrial sites.

At the same time, greener environments can help educate students about the impact of their behavior. For example, youth in these demographics are, on average, online 9 or more hours per week. Sixty percent of them have cell phones. Unplugging a cell phone charger and turning off a computer can shave 5% off a site's energy use. The waste amounts to $4 billion a year nationwide.

And, teens and young adults have enormous spending power: $124 billion in day-to-day spending, influencing $358 billion in family spending. These students can affect their parents' consumption patterns. They can influence everything from whether their parents buy and eat locally, purchase an electric or hybrid vehicle, or install solar panels in their home.

Quite simply, the daily choices our young people make will shape the future of our planet – and America's teachers are the gateway to giving every student a 'green" education.

Building a Groundswell of Good Institutional Citizenship

At the same time, our colleges and universities are working together to bring good environmental citizenship to scale, increase efficiencies and reduce global warming through the American College and University President's Climate Commitment. This effort is significant because it represents a group of colleges and universities and their presidents who have made a public commitment to leadership, action and accountability. Those who sign on commit to develop comprehensive action plans and set a date to achieve climate neutrality.

They agree to create institutional structures to support their plans, inventory baseline environmental impacts, and measure progress toward the goals on an annual basis. They pledge to make sustainability part of the curriculum and the educational experience of all students, and to bring other institutions on board by participating in communities of practice.

Members take up its Call to Action in seven areas, from ensuring that all new campus construction meets U.S. Green Building Council 'LEED" standards, to encouraging the use of public transportation, to setting policies for renewable energy consumption and waste minimization, to disseminating key results.

Thus far, more than 674 institutions of higher education have signed on to the Climate Challenge. While this is a bold step forward on the part of these institutional leaders, and while I am thankful to them for their vision and dedication, and for the great diversity of institutions and students that are engaged, we must do more. With 6000 colleges and universities in the U.S., we're reaching a little more than10% so it's a great beginning in such a short time, but there's a lot more to accomplish!

Before joining the Department of Education as Under Secretary I served for 16 years as president and then chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California – one of the nation's largest community college districts, serving about 45,000 students every quarter throughout the year.

While there, I had the pleasure of serving on the Steering Committee of the President's Climate Commitment. I was deeply affected as a leader after joining with my colleagues in this effort.

We retrofitted nearly every building and built our first platinum LEED-rated facility with two more in construction on our two hundred acres of land. We changed out the food in the dining room, purchasing fresh produce from local growers in the Salinas Valley, and we expanded our environmental studies program six-fold, adding new programs in energy management, solar technician training, and environmental stewardship, so much so that it went from being a program to being named a Department of the college. In doing all of this, we saved many hundreds of thousands of dollars for sure. But in retrospect, the most sustainable outcome for me was when our governing board unanimously passed our Sustainability policy because it meant our commitment would be carried forward in the years ahead.

Just as importantly, we partnered closely with our area K-12 schools and universities with the understanding that stakeholder engagement is a powerful catalyst for change at all levels of our education system and communities.

Today, at the Department of Education, we want to support America's higher education institutions to model the way forward by showcasing sustainable methods that are being used to pilot and implement high-imact 'green" practices, increase productivity, and reduce costs. We want to support more college and university professors, students, staff and administrators to be the transformational leaders and role models for the nation's green revolution. We want to disseminate information, provide technical assistance, and work with our colleges, universities, schools and states to shine a spotlight on the high impact practices that support the 'greening" of K-12, higher education and the communities we serve across the country.

Greening the Curriculum

We're delighted to see a growing number of 'green" schools incorporating lessons on the environment into their courses. Green Schools, a non-profit in Mansfield, Massachusetts has more than 65 public and private schools that have joined together to address indoor air quality, health food and habits and the 3Rs. Seventeen other states have joined in their efforts. In Wisconsin, 200 charter schools are part of the Green Charter Schools network. Los Angeles has an environmental charter high school in a high-poverty area. Eleven New York City green schools opened in past six years. In Berkeley, California the Green Schools Initiative is focusing its efforts on eliminating toxics, using resources sustainably, creating green spaces and buildings, serving healthy food and teaching stewardship. These K-12 'Call to Action" efforts are creating the tipping point for our sustainability efforts as a nation.

Like our K-12 partners, hundreds of community colleges and universities across the country are leading the way to green their campuses and prepare graduates in green and clean technology and other environmental science fields of study. Many are creating green curriculum pathways from high school through higher education. If you take a look at Furman University, the University of Minnesota at Morris, Lane Community College, Ball State University, Cape Cod Community College, Dickinson College, or the University of New Hampshire, you'll see what I mean. I was thrilled to learn that Arizona State University has incorporated sustainability into its college orientation program for entering freshmen. And you'll learn more about what they're doing when Dr. Crow presents his keynote this morning.

All of these efforts must be encouraged. At the U.S. Department of Education, we want to identify resources that our institutions can use at every step of the education pipeline, to support environmentally-rich courses and programs focused on reducing contamination, eliminating invasive plants, improving water quality, reducing carbon emissions, and/or razing low scale housing, to name a few of hundreds of exciting topics of study. More students are taking environmental and conservation courses to gain a better understanding of sustainability in architecture, economics, business, the humanities, and in many other academic disciplines.

And this brings me to our second theme: building the pathways to equip students with the academic, technical and career skills they need to lead the green revolution in the 21st Century.

Building Pathways to Success in the Green Economy – and STEM Fields

One especially exciting effort to define pathways to green, clean-technology careers, and to build a competent 21st century green workforce, is in the field of career and technical education.

Through the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, our Office of Vocational and Adult Education is funding a green-focused technical assistance academy. Right now, the Department is working with five states – Ohio, New Jersey, Oregon, Georgia, and Illinois – over two years, to develop replicable models for taking 'green" programs of study to scale from high school to 2 and 4-year programs of study.

Each state is working on a unique area of study. Ohio is focused on biotech and agriculture. Oregon is working on wind, solar, and sustainable building. Georgia is exploring energy, construction and transportation.

These programs of study combine rigorous academic and technical content with employer-validated "green technology" standards to prepare secondary and postsecondary students for high-skill, high-wage, high-demand employment in "green-focused" fields – including the President's priority areas of energy, transportation, housing, and construction.

So what does a green pathway look like? Well, with sixteen hours of training, students can launch a new green career as a certified solar PV installer. With a 2-year Associate of Applied Science degree, students can upgrade their knowledge, skills and salary as an energy management technician. A four-year Bachelor of Science degree in renewable energy opens up careers in energy design, management or international sustainable development, to name a few. Further along the pathway, students may continue through graduate school to become a climate scientist.

Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier shared with me some exciting examples of how innovation is finding its way into classrooms and making a difference. For instance, Shell Oil Company hosted an Eco-marathon to secondary and postsecondary students, with a goal of designing a car that would travel the farthest distance using the least amount of energy. In Washington State, a group called the Granite Falls High School Shop Girls is building homemade cars focused on fuel-efficient designs. Their design for a diesel-powered vehicle – dubbed the Iron Maiden – got 470 miles to the gallon! Needless to say it won the diesel fuel competition and the cash award that went along with it. These are examples to support the pathways to a sustainable future.

As you can see, the Obama Administration is focused on equipping the next generation with 21st century knowledge and skills to create a world-class workforce. This includes a special emphasis on promoting student achievement and careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

Preparing a new generation of environmentally literate citizens goes hand in hand with sparking students' interest in high-demand STEM careers. We need to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the STEM professions. We need to engage students so that more of them pursue STEM majors, and complete their degrees in STEM fields. What better than an opportunity to study our environment and become a 'green" scientist.

Toward this end, we need to support the development of 21st century courses and find innovative ways to make science more interesting and relevant to students. We need new and better ways to help students master STEM inside and outside the classroom. And, we need to grow the partnerships linking secondary, postsecondary, non-profits and private industry to prepare students to become the next generation of innovative 'green"engineers, scientists, researchers, and technology leaders.

A focus on good environmental citizenship and pathways for sustainability will help us achieve all of these goals. The same themes that drive this Summit can also help us launch new generations of American innovators in STEM fields.


From Edison, New Jersey, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, the U.S. map is dotted with historic sites for innovation and entrepreneurship. In the 21st century, America's schools and college campuses must become the map of the new green revolution.

Secretary Duncan has spoken of the campaign to transform education in America as our generation's moonshot. Nowhere in the field of education is this truer than the drive to equip new generations to be environmentally literate citizens, responsible energy consumers, and successful leaders in the new green economy.

We must seize this opportunity with all the excitement and urgency of the space race, and strive for equally pioneering results.

We need to support every institution, every school, and our entire education pipeline, to implement our sustainability mission. There is no greater challenge. It is fundamental to our future and to the future of generations who will succeed us. Thank you for your leadership and for taking up this Call to Action for our institutions, our nation and for Planet Earth.