Education is the Only Solution

Archived Information

Education is the Only Solution

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Global Education Summit

August 6, 2013

Good morning. Thank you, Christie, for the kind introduction, and for your tremendous work here at USAID. I also want to recognize Administrator Rajiv Shah and Assistant Administrator Eric Postel, for their leadership.

Thank you all for working to guarantee every child, in every corner of the globe, the universal right to education. As all of you know, we live in a hyper-connected, highly inter-dependent world, where knowledge is the most important currency.

That makes education more important than ever before. And it makes your work the most meaningful work that anyone can do.

Nothing could make this clearer than Malala Yousafzai's remarkable, moving address to the United Nations last month. "We realize the importance of light," she said, "when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced."

And, when the Taliban came for her and her classmates, she said, and I quote: "We realized the importance of pens and books, when we saw the guns."

Malala was speaking on her 16th birthday—a day the extremists tried to stop her from ever reaching. She urged the world community to "wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism."

"Education," she said, "is the only solution."

This solution has never mattered more than it does today. Across the globe, nations, multilateral organizations, NGOs and other partners are working to realize education's full power to unlock human potential, and raise global standards of living.

In the United States, we're working hard to implement a comprehensive vision for cradle-to-career reform, so every child can receive a world-class education. Yes, we want to hone our competitive edge in the global marketplace. But we're also committed to an international education agenda that's deeper and more collaborative than ever.

Today's global economy is not a zero-sum game. Instead, education is the new currency by which nations keep competitive and grow the pie for all.

Increasing educational attainment by a single grade level boosts lifetime income by 10-20 percent for girls, and 5-15 percent for boys. A global increase in attainment by just four grade levels could increase global economic demand by 50 percent or more.

As President Sirleaf just noted in her powerful opening statement, a better educated world is a more prosperous world.

A better educated world is also a healthier world. Ensuring schooling for girls, especially, can literally mean the difference between life and death.

We know a mother who can read can better protect her children from chronic illnesses, from AIDS, and from dying young. A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five.

A better educated world is a better steward of the planet, and—with low educational attainment among the strongest predictors of violence—a safer world.

In a better-educated world, everyone benefits.

All of you here today are working to make that vision a reality, by helping children in the early grades get the fundamental skills they need for success. Today, around the globe, some 57 million primary-aged children are out of school, and more than half of them are girls. A great many of these children live in countries torn by conflict, from the Central African Republic to Syria.

This is a time of unprecedented urgency. But it's also a time of unprecedented opportunity.

It's these opportunities that I want to highlight today—along with some education reform lessons we're learning here in the United States.

In the digital age, we have game-changing technologies that can help teachers personalize learning, and connect students and teachers with the best content the world has to offer, no matter where they live.

We have a growing body of research about which investments—from preschool to blended learning—have the biggest impact on student success.

And, I believe that, we've reached an extraordinary international consensus about key education reform priorities.

From the U.N. to USAID to the Obama Administration, all aim to improve early learning and K-12 education, to build stronger workforces through postsecondary-and-private sector partnerships, and to prepare better global citizens.

And, there are some compelling signs of progress. Consider some figures from the recent U.N. report, designed to build on the Millennium Development Goals.

In the 13 years since the millennium, we've seen the fastest reduction in poverty in human history—with half a billion fewer living in extreme poverty.

Globally, child deaths have fallen by 30 percent since the year 2000—that's 3 million lives saved each year. In 2011, a record 590 million children in developing countries attended primary school.

Gender gaps in youth literacy rates have also narrowed, with a new global high of 96 literate young women for every 100 young men, in 2010.

We should absolutely celebrate these victories. Still, we all know there's so much more to do. Collectively, we have to accelerate the rate of progress.

We're all troubled by polarizing trends in both wealth and economic mobility. Around the world, the 1.2 billion poorest people account for just 1 percent of world consumption, while the richest billion make up 72 percent. And, the average child in a poor country performs worse academically than 95 percent of children in a rich country. These odds are unacceptable and unsustainable.

Here in the U.S., we're also battling an alarming polarization of wealth, and stubborn barriers to economic mobility. We're struggling against persistent learning gaps fueled by opportunity gaps based on family income, race, geography and other factors.

Our education agenda is designed to close these gaps and rebuild our middle class, and it includes many of the same strategies you are applying around the world. This is a moral imperative, as well as a civic and economic necessity.

The U.N. also found that globally, progress on primary school enrollment slowed in the period from 2008-2011. But even as we work to quicken the pace, we know it's not just enrollment that matters. Worldwide, just as in the U.S., we also need to focus on educational quality, attainment and completion.

And, despite the great need and all the evidence of return on investment, there's been a troubling downturn in funding. Last year, less than 1.5 percent of overall humanitarian funding went toward education.

Worst of all, UNESCO and Save the Children reported more than 3,600 incidents of violence, destruction and intimidation involving education last year. Whether in Khartoum or Chicago, schools must be safe havens for children, parents and teachers.

Your work is helping to change the conditions that breed ignorance and violence. And I know that, as part of this effort, many of you are working hard to build stronger partnerships between parents, schools, and communities.

Parents will always be their children's first and most important teachers, and can have tremendous impact on their children's school readiness, motivation to learn, and study skills, as well as on high school graduation rates and college preparedness.

Christie has shared with me some of her experiences during a recent visit to USAID programs in Africa. I could see how inspired she was by your efforts to strengthen those families' ability to advocate for their children's education. That is real empowerment.

Here in the U.S., we share that commitment to parent engagement, and to identifying and scaling up what works. We're also focused, like never before, on the impact of early learning and care—and the crucial stages from pre-literacy to literacy. Research shows that quality early learning opportunities translate to individual success in both school and life, and have great civic and economic benefits for communities.

President Obama has put forward an ambitious plan that—in partnership with our states—would provide for high-quality preschool for every four-year old.

We have to stop playing catch-up, and level the playing field for our children before they start kindergarten.

At the same time, the fast-evolving field of education technology—from cloud computing to personal learning devices to Open Education Resources like the Khan Academy, which my two young children enjoy—has huge potential to transform education.

Technology can increase equity and access, as well as raise the bar for all children. It empowers teachers and engages students in their own learning.

Technology can help highly-skilled teachers deliver personalized learning that equalizes differences in income, race, disability, language learning needs, and other factors.

With personalized learning, teachers use data and differentiated instruction to tailor their approach to each student. Students advance to new concepts based on demonstrated mastery, rather than seat time in class. The shift from seat time to competency can't come soon enough. We should all be interested in what students know and can do—not how long they sat in a class.

Finally, parents gain important transparency, in real time, that helps them support their children.

To speed this revolution, the President just launched a new initiative to connect 99 percent of America's students to high-speed Internet over the next five years.

And, we're poised to make the first free, U.S. government-funded digital learning materials—designed to improve postsecondary training in high-demand careers—available for use and improvement. We're excited to see how providers around the globe use and customize these materials for the needs of their learners.

In an excellent report for the Brookings Institution, my good friend Marshall Smith and Rebecca Winthrop—who will speak in the next session—summarize both the challenges and benefits to using education technology in the developing world.

Up front, nations need to address issues like reliability and sustainability, infrastructure and equity, ease of use, and the availability of resources in student's and teachers' native languages.

Open Education Resources and other communication tools can help improve and expand teacher training and professional development—a huge opportunity in countries grappling with large teacher shortages and under-educated teachers.

In places like Pakistan, mobile devices can enable students to learn anytime, anywhere, and to keep in contact with teachers through conflict conditions or other breaks in schooling.

But, as we're learning in the U.S., it's important always to start with the education challenge, and then determine which technology, if any, meets the need and adds value to other solutions. It's tempting to make it about new, glamorous gadgets—but that can distract from simpler and more effective approaches—like, the success of USAID-funded interactive radio instruction in Southern Sudan.

And even more important, we must ensure that technology becomes a force to narrow, not widen, existing gaps of wealth and privilege.

But let me conclude with this: For generations, from 20th Century Mississippi to 21st Century Mali, young people around the world have risked their safety—and even given their lives—to get the education that will unlock their full potential.

From the podium of the U.N. Youth Assembly, Malala spoke to—and for—the world's children. Her message was clear. "We want schools and education for every child's bright future. We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education. No one can stop us. We will speak up for our rights and we will bring change through our voice."

All of you are helping to answer that call. I thank you for your service, commitment, creativity and courage. Let's work together, in individual nations and around the world, until there are no more cracks for students to fall through, no more barriers to run into, and no threats to their safety as they pursue their dreams.

It's been said, "If you want peace, work for justice." But we know that one solution cuts to the root—the very heart—of the challenges confronting humanity.

If we want both justice and peace, then we must work for education.

Thank you.