The Greening of the Department of Education: Secretary Duncan's Remarks at the Sustainability Summit

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The Greening of the Department of Education: Secretary Duncan's Remarks at the Sustainability Summit

September 21, 2010

Thank you for your leadership on this vital issue and for being part of our summit on sustainability. This event is a big deal for our team at the Department of Education.

Since I became the Secretary of Education in 2009, our goal has been to both save educators' jobs and to drive a strong reform agenda. We've provided emergency funding to avoid an education catastrophe—enough to support almost 325,000 education jobs that would have been eliminated over the past two years. The last thing our country needs is teachers on the unemployment lines and not in the classroom. We have been supporting states and districts in their courageous efforts to reform their schools.

Through the Race to the Top and other programs, we've unleashed an avalanche of pent-up reform activity across the states and literally thousands of districts. Later today, I will announce the winners of 21 planning grants for the Promise Neighborhoods program. These nonprofits, schools, and universities will be putting education at the center of their efforts to rebuild their distressed communities. They will offer a comprehensive set of services—health screenings, parenting classes, and early learning opportunities. These projects have the potential to address some vitally important issues such as providing environmentally safe schools and creating sustainable urban developments. But they all recognize that a great education is the one of the best antipoverty programs.

This announcement is the latest example of our work to support reform across states, districts and neighborhoods across America. We call it the "Quiet Revolution"—where elected officials, administrators, teachers, unions and parents are demanding better schools and working hard every day to create them.

For all of this activity, though, this sustainability summit marks a new milestone for the U.S. Department of Education. Until now, we've been mostly absent from the movement to educate our children to be stewards of our environment and prepare them to participate in a sustainable economy. That work is taking hold in corporations, in other agencies of the federal government, as well as colleges, universities, and schools across the country.

But this Education Department is just getting started in this important work. It's been clear for a decade or more that education plays a vital role in the sustainability movement. In 1996, President Clinton's task force on sustainable development issued its goals. One of them stated that all Americans should have access to lifelong learning opportunities so they will understand the concepts involved in sustainable development. I think it's obvious to everyone here today that we've fallen short of that goal.

In my experience as secretary I've seen the impact of climate change first hand. Last year, I travelled to Alaska with a delegation of Cabinet members. We visited the remote village of Hooper Bay. Scientists have documented that more and more carbon dioxide in Alaska's oceans is affecting fishing for crab and salmon. But we heard directly from the village elders that they had noticed for years the changing water temperature—and that the changes were affecting their livelihood of fishing for salmon. We need to address these issues head on—and education must be part of the solution.

This week's sustainability summit represents the first time that the Department is taking a taking a leadership role in the work of educating the next generation of green citizens and preparing them to contribute to the workforce through green jobs. President Obama has made clean, renewable energy a priority because, as he says, it's the best way to "truly transform our economy, to protect our security, and save our planet."

Educators have a central role in this. A well educated citizen knows that we must not act in this generation in ways that endanger the next. They teach students about how the climate is changing. They explain the science behind climate change and how we can change our daily practices to help save the planet. They have a role in preparing students for jobs in the green economy.

Historically, the Department of Education hasn't been doing enough in the sustainability movement. Today, I promise you that we will be a committed partner in the national effort to build a more environmentally literate and responsible society.

Several agencies across the federal government already have made important contributions linking education and sustainability. The National Science Foundation has created a network of projects that are advancing programs that teach about the impact of climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency makes grants to support environmental education. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration supports environmental literacy through its own grant program. The Department of Labor has awarded $490 million to support job training in skills needed in green jobs. All of this money comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Representatives from these agencies are our partners in this summit. I would like to thank them for their participation here today, and, more importantly, for all the leadership they have provided. And several of our partners have been financial supporters of this event. I want to thank my colleagues at EPA, NOAA, and the Department of Energy for their contributions to this week's summit.

We at the Education Department are energized about joining these leaders in their commitment to preparing today's students to participate in the green economy, and to be well-educated about the science of sustainability. We must advance the sustainability movement through education.

We need to support activities that provide a variety of educational and training opportunities for teachers and students. A lot of important work is happening at the local levels in states and districts. Maryland is close to adopting a requirement that high school graduates demonstrate environmental literacy before they earn their diploma.

The U.S. Green Building Council is working with school districts and universities to incorporate green technology into schools. These schools not only are good for the environment, they provide a better learning environment for students—and they are cost efficient. The council is bringing together the nation's strongest advocates for education—representing more than 10 million members across the country to build a national infrastructure of healthy, high-performance schools that are conducive to learning while saving energy, resources and money. I'm especially excited to hear that this fall the coalition will be reaching out to groups beyond education in the private and public sector. There's a federal role in supporting this work. We fund the National Clearinghouse on School Facilities, which is a national leader in helping K-12 leaders make school facilities green and sustainable.

But, as a Department, we can do so much more than that. I know that Martha Kanter spoke to you yesterday morning. As the under secretary, I've asked Martha to lead our "green team." There couldn't be a better person for that job. She brings a professional background and a personal passion to this task. As the chancellor of the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District, she led two colleges as they made major investments in green buildings and developing programs to prepare workers to install solar panels and for other green jobs.

Our work begins at our home, so to speak. Martha and her team are leading the department's response to the President's executive order to make our buildings more energy efficient.

But their work goes beyond our infrastructure. The team is working to create policies that support state efforts to prepare students for jobs in the green economy. At the initiative of the green team, the Department recently issued grants to five states to develop career pathways that will support the green economy. These career pathways will define the academic knowledge and vocational skills that students will need to prepare themselves for green jobs in architecture, agriculture, energy, transportation and waste management. The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education is working closely with these states and, where appropriate, with the business community to design the programs of study that will lead to success in the green industry.

This work is vital to support the growth of green jobs—and for the growth of the economy as a whole. In Oregon, the focus is on wind and solar energy. Although that industry is still emerging, its leaders say schools need to act now to prepare the workers who will harness those renewable sources of power.

But our commitment has to be about even more than career pathways. It also has to prepare all students with the knowledge they need to be green citizens. In our Blueprint for Reform, the Obama administration is making an unprecedented commitment to promote a well-rounded education for our children. And for the first time, we are proposing that environmental education be part of that well-rounded education.

The Blueprint is our proposal to reauthorize and fix the No Child Left Behind Act. As many of you know, NCLB held schools accountable for student achievement in reading and mathematics. That has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, and no one—teachers, parents, or students—is happy with the state of affairs. We want all students to have access to a well-rounded, world-class curriculum—and that curriculum should include environmental literacy. For the first time ever, the Department of Education will be supporting locally developed models that teach environmental science.

Under the Blueprint, we will create a competitive grant program that will support new, promising instructional practices that are capable of increasing student achievement and engagement. The President has proposed $265 million for this program in his fiscal 2011 budget. These grants will support subjects such as the arts, foreign languages, history, and civics—all of which receive funding under current Education Department programs. Because we recognize the importance education plays in the sustainability movement, these grants also will support environmental education.

Beyond that, the Blueprint is making a significant investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM fields. Success in the STEM fields is critical to help students build the knowledge and skills they need to succeed as consumers, workers, entrepreneurs and innovators in the green economy. The Blueprint includes a competitive program to support teaching of the STEM subjects—and the President has proposed $300 million for the program in his fiscal 2011 budget. That's a 66 percent increase over the funding for the current program. At a time of flat budgets, we are trying to put our money where our mouth is. These locally driven projects have the prospect to build the science of sustainability into the curriculum, starting in kindergarten and extending until the students graduate from high school.

This is a significant statement from the President that the success in STEM fields is a top priority for our country, and he signaled that again just last week. It will build the foundation for the long-term prosperity of our country and the sustainability for our world.

In closing, I want to reinforce to you how important it is for all of us in this room to show leadership and perseverance—to be among the people who are the pioneers in this field. Right now, in the second decade of the 21st century, preparing our students to be good environmental citizens is some of the most important work any of us can do. It is for our children, and our children's children, and generations yet to come.

The Department of Education's primary tasks are to support education reform and help students pay for college. Our work is a core investment in our country's economic prosperity—for in the short-term and long-term. We have to educate our way to a better economy. But our commitment to sustainability also is an investment in our economic future. In recent months, the President has visited new manufacturing plants in Iowa, Michigan, and Missouri. The facilities are producing electric vehicles, wind turbines that add renewable energy to the power grid, and batteries for electric cars. These plans, along with other investments in sustainable energy, will be creating 700,000 jobs over the next few years.

As the President says: "This is not just going to boost our economy in the short term; this is going to lay a platform for the future." Education and sustainability are the keys to our economic future—and our ecological future. Thank you for your commitment to ensuring a healthy, safe, sustainable future for our country and our planet. We are proud to be part of this team, proud to be joining you in this work, and hopeful about the impact we will make together.

Thank you.