Prepared Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to SXSW EDU

Prepared Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to SXSW EDU

March 6, 2018

Thank you, Ron, for that kind introduction and for all you've done to gather us here. It's great to be in Austin and exciting to be at South by SouthwestEDU.

I must admit, after spending most of my life in the private sector, I still feel more at home at events like this -- with entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, and doers - than in the stuffier, acronym-laced halls of Washington, D.C.

Of course, this community has a lot to offer in shaping public policy. That's why we're here together with talented people who enjoy looking for new and different ways to approach problems.

And we all benefit from your ingenuity in ways we might sometimes take for granted or not immediately recognize.

We've seen tremendous breakthroughs in nearly every sector of our society - telecommunications, medicine, transportation...you name it. With a device about the size of my hand, for instance, I can video chat with my six darling grandchildren from anywhere in the world.

With a few swipes and taps on the same device, I can access more - and more current - information than what's contained in any brick and mortar library.

The kind of folks who gather here look at everything with fresh eyes and forward thinking. That's inspiring... and it's especially necessary in education.

Because through all those changes in our homes, our communities, our country and our world... education in America has largely remained the same.

Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words. Here's one operating room from the 1800s. Here's what today's looks like. This was yesterday's general store, and here is today's. Here's yesterday's classroom, and today's.

The vast majority of learning environments have remained the same since the industrial revolution, because they were made in its image.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? Students lined up in rows. A teacher in front of a blackboard. Sit down; don't talk; eyes up front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. And... repeat. Students were trained for the assembly line then, and they still are today.

Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely has not. We can see its effects in the data.

The most recent Program for International Student Assessment report has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. That's middle of the pack. Average. A flat line.

Just last month, the United States finished fourth at the Winter Olympics. Americans left PyeongChang with the fewest medals won at the Winter games in 20 years.

In response, the U.S. Olympic Committee pledged to take a "hard look" at what happened in South Korea because they don't want America to settle for mediocrity. Good - no one should.

But if finishing fourth at the Olympics demands a "hard look," what does finishing 23rd? 25th? What does finishing fortieth require of us?

A "hard look" won't cut it. There have been many "hard looks" at changing the status quo in education. We've seen valiant efforts to improve education from Republicans and Democrats, liberals, conservatives and everyone in between.

And yet, America's students are still unprepared.

Today, across states and industries, there are 6 million job openings, as the "blue collar" jobs of yesterday become the "blue tech" jobs of today. Here in Austin and in communities across the country, coding is a more common and high demand skill than riveting or stamping was a few decades back.

But too many employers report that they cannot find enough qualified people to fill those openings. Those jobs require specific skill sets and customized certification.

Earned credentials send important signals to employers but we need to reconsider whether those credentials match what employers need - and what employers think those signals mean.

Students seek out a credential - a bachelor's degree, an associate's degree - because they think it will send a signal to the job market that they are employable. But too often what they learn earning that credential is a mismatch with what employers need.

This mismatch persists, yet there are too many higher education institutions graduating students with skills employers don't need. Someone recently asked me: "Why hasn't America's higher ed bubble burst?" This individual was baffled as to why American businesses haven't yet created their own education programs to equip individuals with the necessary skills, instead of relying on others to get it right for them.

And it's a very good question. Because there is a fundamental disconnect between education and the economy.

That's why students need better. They need learning environments that are agile, relevant and exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journey.

But when you picture education today, does the word "agile" leap to mind? What about "relevant"?

Does this 500-person lecture hall look "customized" to you?

Would you be surprised to learn that a lender with one of the largest consumer loan portfolios in the country doesn't have a mobile app? I was, too, when I learned Federal Student Aid didn't offer one for students. It had been considered, but the app was determined in Washington to be "too hard" to develop. Imagine that!

Well, I believe that the services we deliver for students should be on par with world-class financial firms. That includes developing an app, one that we will soon launch. I challenged our team at FSA to bring federal financial services into today's reality - and to look ahead to the next generation. FSA will look and function like a customer-centric financial institution, not a government maze.

America must do better to prepare students for success in the 21st century and beyond.

So, why don't we consider trying something different?

Why don't we embrace a paradigm shift, a fundamental reorientation... a rethink?

"Rethink" means we question everything to ensure nothing limits a student from pursuing his or her passion, and achieving his or her potential. So that each student is prepared at every turn for what comes next.

Learning should be life long, not magically begin at age five nor arbitrarily end at age 22. The reality is that most Americans will have a dozen or more jobs over the course of their lifetimes, often very different from one another. We all know that most graduates don't go to work in the field in which they studied anyway.

Careers are like highways, not one-way or dead-end streets. Highways have many off-ramps and on-ramps. Students should be able to exit easily for a time to learn a new skill, re-enter the highway at an on-ramp of their choosing and change lanes as needed.

We must expand our thinking on what higher education actually looks like, and resist the urge to elevate one particular path at the expense of the others. There should be many variations, because there are many types of students and there are many needs in our economy. Americans need a wider menu of higher education options.

We've already seen some institutions of higher learning start to rethink education.

I visited Salt Lake City's Granite Technical Institute last May. The Utah Aerospace Pathways program opens doors for high school students thanks to strong local business-education partnerships.

Among many options tailored to regional business demands, Miami Dade College offers a video game design degree with courses specifically for students who want a career in game development. Its fascinating Animation and Gaming International Complex prepares students for relevant careers today.

Arizona State University's Entrepreneurship Innovation program, for example, allows students to pitch concrete ideas on how to solve complex challenges, with the winner receiving $20,000 in seed funding. One of those was the G3Box, which converts old shipping containers into low-cost, fully-functioning medical clinics that can be efficiently shipped around the world to provide health services to high-need areas.

Indiana's Purdue University is looking at its 19th century land-grant mission through a 21st century lens. Purdue opened satellite campuses and purchased the online school Kaplan to make a quality higher education available to many who would not have previously had the opportunity.

The San Francisco-based Minerva Project goes even farther. Their goal is less about transmitting information to students, and more focused on teaching students how to think. Minerva prioritizes critical thinking, collaboration and communication - versatile skills that students can use in almost every sector to be prepared for jobs that don't yet exist. Minerva doesn't have a physical campus and its students attend classes in major cities throughout the world. These examples are promising, but we need many, many more of them.

I can't help but think of this city's unofficial motto: "Keep Austin weird." Let's apply that same unique spirit to doing what's best for students. Be different. Be bold. Try something unexpected. Do something new.

Because what students really need won't originate in Washington. It will come from people in this room. It will come from entrepreneurs, philanthropists, teachers and parents - those closest to students. And it may well come from students themselves.

As leaders and innovators, my challenge to you is this: do not let this opportunity to rethink education pass you by.

Thank you and now, let's continue the conversation.