Getting America Wired for Educational Opportunity

Archived Information

Getting America Wired for Educational Opportunity

Arne Duncan Remarks for The Cable Show 2013, Walter E. Washington Convention Center

June 12, 2013

Thank you so much, Michael, for that kind introduction. And I always love following Jennifer Lopez.

I'm going to talk to you about some really sexy topics like academic learning standards and fiber-optic cable installation.

But I promise you—and I hope—it'll be a lot more exciting than it sounds because I'm going to talk about the intersection of education and technology, and that means I get to take you into the future.

Last month, I visited a school in the heart of Detroit, Brenda Scott Academy. It's one of the lowest-performing schools, not just in the city but in the state, in a very, very tough neighborhood.

They're working very, very hard to turn that school around and create new opportunities for the children there. But you wouldn't know about the past history and the challenges or any of that if you visited Kristie Ford's classroom.

If you did, you would see young children working independently and in small groups. You would see them discussing their study of the solar system and building 3-D models of it. You would see others engrossed in learning games and apps on their laptops.

And you would see Ms. Ford—not at the front of the class lecturing, not closely directing the flow of the activity—but simply working quietly with a few students who need help. All her students are on "individual learning plans," working at their own pace.

And if it sounds like good teaching, it absolutely is. If that sounds like a wonderful way to learn, it is as well. But it's also an example of what technology makes possible, through both the flexibility it gives teachers and the opportunities it gives to our nation's students.

Teachers are asked all the time to "personalize" their lessons for each kid's strengths and needs, which is very important. But it's also really hard to do. They're asked to know how each student is motivated and match that to the right content and instructional approach. That's also powerful, and it's also hard. Technology helps to turn those goals, those aspirations, into reality.

It also allows fantastic teachers like Ms. Ford to give her students experiences that you and I never could have dreamed about having in school.

She can send them on virtual trips to other countries. She can let them apply their mastery of physics by designing a bridge, using tools that real engineers use.

She can connect them with virtual and real tutors and experts in real time or let them take a course in Urdu or linear calculus. And to help her continue to learn as a professional and break through the isolation of being a teacher, she can share ideas and lesson plans with other teachers anywhere in the country.

But that reality and that sense of empowerment that's so strong is sadly not the norm today. The simple problem is most teachers can't do any of that because most schools have about as much Internet bandwidth as your house. (Actually, probably less than many of your homes, because you guys know this business.)

Let's talk megabits per second. It takes about 1.5 for one student to do what she needs to do with broadband. A classroom would require maybe 45. And for a whole tech-enabled school? About 120. We recommend a school should have about 100, with a clear path to get to 1,000 (which fiber optics provide).

Today, the honest truth, the brutal truth, is that the typical school is nowhere near that.

And our competitors are far ahead of us. In South Korea, for example, 100 percent of schools have high-speed Internet. Here, it's only about 20 percent. We are denying our teachers and students the tools they need to be successful. That is educationally unsound and it is morally unacceptable.

And it's a problem because as a country, we are not keeping up.

America used to have the highest proportion of college graduates of anywhere in the world; and now we're 14th. In a knowledge-based, globally-competitive economy, that's a job killer.

The status quo is bad for children, it's bad for families, it's bad for communities, and ultimately, it's bad for our nation's economy.

So what are we going to do about it?

Simply put, we must innovate, and we must invest. We need to make the pockets of excellence the norm not the exception.

So, at the federal level, we're pushing for fundamental, dramatic change in the education system from cradle all the way through to career.

It starts with making high-quality preschool available to every family. And President Obama has outlined a plan to do just that. It's expensive, and it's totally paid for with a cigarette tax. It needs to happen because investing in high-quality, early childhood education is the best investment we can make, with a return on investment of at least seven-to-one.

At the K-12 level, we are supporting the historic, state-led fight to raise academic standards. This is a game changer. And the voluntary development of shared standards for college and career readiness—a meaningful, high bar for our students—opens the door to innovations that can work in almost every state.

We're investing $350 million in two state-led consortia that are creating online assessments tied to these new, higher, more rigorous standards.

Those assessments will replace the traditional fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests that everyone knows, but no one loves. But to give assessments that really measure critical thinking and 21st century skills, most schools will require bandwidth that they don't have right now.

At the college level, we're pushing for new ideas that will make college more affordable because our students and families can't keep up with the cost. And innovations like MOOCs, we think, can be very, very helpful to moving forward.

At every stage along the education continuum, we need new ideas. So we've created competitive funds aimed at spurring innovation—including a fund for school districts that want to become leaders in "personalized learning"—learning tailored to each student's needs.

We have to get better, faster, even during a tough economy, and technology is critical to raise the bar for all students and close what I call the "opportunity gap."

But so much of this depends on good access to the Internet. Broadband Internet has become the interstate highway system for communication and ideas—and today, it simply doesn't reach most schools. And it's time that, together, we build some on-ramps.

And that's why President Obama and I traveled to Mooresville, North Carolina last week to announce ConnectED.

ConnectED challenges the FCC to wire pretty much every school in the country with fiber-optic connections over the next five years. It challenges states to train teachers for the tech revolution. And it challenges the private sector to make digital devices as affordable as textbooks for our nation's children. We have to move from print to digital absolutely as fast as we can.

In that same spirit, I would ask for your help and ask all of you to come together with us.

There may never have been such a powerful combination of content and ways of getting to it, as exists in this room today. That's absolutely amazing—but it's also a huge responsibility. And I have three challenges, three requests, for you. First, we need you to get behind President Obama's goal of connecting our schools. We think we can do that with a fee that literally amounts to the price of a postage stamp on your monthly bill.

You can help us connect schools in the most cost-effective manner possible—you're the experts on connecting our communities in a cost-effective way. Please help us do the same for America's hundred thousand schools.

And to build on what you've already done through Connect to Compete—which is off to a good start, bringing Internet to low-income homes and families—we need you to help make sure our children, when they leave school, are not living in a different century than more affluent kids.

I firmly believe that history will look back on this moment and either say that the cable industry did the right thing for our children and helped to close the digital divide, or that it didn't do enough to make a real difference.

And David [Cohen], I want to thank you and your colleagues at Comcast for your vision, and leadership, and commitment, and the hard work that you've already done.

Second, we need your content. One of the most significant opportunities is to bring the excitement and engagement you generate through your programming to classrooms around the nation.

But it needs to be easier for teachers to find it and match it to their children's needs. We have created a platform, called the Learning Registry, to help teachers find great digital learning content. Please be part of that effort.

And finally, I want to make a personal plea for your leadership on our children's safety both online and on our streets. Online, our children need to be safe from predators, from inappropriate content, and from the risk of making mistakes that can haunt them forever.

Some of that is about teaching them, and their teachers, and their parents; but some of it is also about the controls that you can provide.

And the finally, we need your leadership on the culture of gun violence. When I led the Chicago Public Schools, we buried at least one child due to gun violence on average every two weeks. It was a staggering, staggering loss of life, and unfortunately, it's not unique to Chicago. Parents should not have to bury their children.

What kids see on TV and in video games matters. And the decisions you make have consequences. Please help us to be a part of the solution.

Thank you so much, and I look forward to the panel that comes after this. Thank you for the opportunity.