Rural America Learning Opportunities and Technology: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the National Rural Education Summit

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Rural America Learning Opportunities and Technology: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the National Rural Education Summit

July 21, 2010

Good morning. Welcome to our rural education summit. We've invited you here today because we are committed to helping you celebrate the unique strengths of rural schools and solve the unique challenges facing rural schools.

In the last 18 months, I have travelled to nearly every state in America. I've seen the strengths and unmet needs of rural areas first-hand. Rural towns and areas represent so much of what's best about America. The people work hard. They are committed to their communities, their schools, and their families.

But I also have seen the struggles rural areas face. I have been to a tiny fishing community in western Alaska that lacked running water or electricity. I visited an Indian reservation in Montana where the unemployment rate was 70 percent and the teachers could remember only one student who had gone on to graduate from college in the past six years. I have seen the hardships that educators are facing throughout the country, including in our remote and rural areas.

I know that many of you face similar challenges in your communities. Your communities may not be as remote as the Alaskan fishing village or the Montana Indian reservation. And you may not face the same problems with poverty as those places. But you face unique obstacles in providing students with the world-class education they desperately need and deserve. The urgency of that task is one I feel every day.

Almost one-third of American students attend schools in rural areas. Almost half of our school districts are rural. The success of our children in those areas is critical in our work to educate our way to a better economy.

I want to assure you that there are many leaders in Washington who understands your challenges. I'm honored to be joined here by some of my colleagues across the administration who each have a role to play in addressing the needs of rural schools.

FCC Chairman Genachowski is here to tell you about how the National Broadband Plan will link your schools to educational resources that none of us could have imagined would be available 20—or even 10—years ago.

Wayne Clough is the secretary of the Smithsonian. In addition to being our host in this fabulous facility, he's going to tell us about the educational content the Smithsonian has available to you.

Also Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan from the Department of Agriculture will update us on how USDA is working to use and availability of technology in rural areas. These are committed partners, and I them for being here today.

I want to let you know that in everything we're doing at the U.S. Department of Education, we're considering the unique needs of rural schools. I have heard that everywhere I've travelled. We understand that you have a difficult time recruiting and retaining effective teachers. We know that you face the challenge of educating students who live in poverty and that those challenges are different than they are in cities and suburbia. We know that you—like other schools—are facing tough financial challenges right now. Never can I remember a time when schools were asked to do so much with so little. In our policies, we're looking to address these obstacles and others you face every day.

Later today, two of my senior staff members are going to tell you about our policies that will address your needs in rural schools. Carmel Martin will explain how our Blueprint to Reform ESEA will address the unique needs of rural areas and support rural communities in using technology. Karen Cator will give you a thorough overview of the draft of the National Education Technology Plan. We welcome your feedback and input on both important plans.

Everything we're doing is aligned with meeting President Obama's ambitious goal for the nation. He wants America to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. That goal is the North Star for all of our education efforts. To reach it, our nation's college degree attainment rate must rise from 40 percent to 60 percent of the population. President Obama and I are convinced we have to educate our way to a better economy.

We will not attain the 2020 goal by doing what we are doing now-only just a little bit better. Our educational system needs transformational change so that all of our students are prepared for success in college and careers. That change has to happen in every area of our country—urban, suburban, and rural. We won't be successful until we offer a world-class education to every child, regardless of his or her skin color, nationality, ethnicity, or zip code.

But too often, our schools are throw-backs to the state of education fifty, twenty, or even ten years ago. The instructional content we provide, the learning experiences we offer, the teaching methods we employ, and the assessments we use, aren't keeping pace with the technology changes that are happening in other facets of American life.

If we are to offer a world-class education for all students and overcome barriers of distance, that will have to change.

Technology will play an important role in this work. Just as technology is transforming the way we do business and relate with others—so too technology can dramatically change the way teachers teach and children learn.

With technology, we can increase access to high-quality teaching and expand the courses we offer to all students, even in rural areas. With technology, we can provide personalized instruction and give educators the ability to set aside a one-size-fits-all curriculum that all too often doesn't seem to fit any child well.

Technology offers unprecedented chances to engage, motivate and inspire students in learning by using satellite images of the earth and digital videos of places they may never visit. It provides the opportunity for students to put their own communities on the map with local photos, videos and publish the local history and stories of elders.

Knowledge should have no boundaries. For our students today, information is at their fingertips—all they need is a computer with an Internet connection or a smart phone. But, it is the job of education professionals and parents to help students make sense of the information and help develop a sense of digital citizenship. After all, the students in our schools today do not remember a time without the Internet. And a world-class education includes ensuring they know how to use the Internet for lifelong learning.

With technology, your schools can become more efficient and more productive. We know that technology isn't the solution to all of the problems in our rural schools or in schools anywhere else. But it can help us overcome many of the obstacles we face in preparing students for success in college and careers if we plan for its use carefully and thoughtfully.

I'm pleased to report that we're beginning to see that transformation happening. This is not hope in the unseen. We have amazing proof points across the country.

For example, the Open High School in Utah is offering students the chance to be learners anywhere and at anytime. Through the school, students are learning online using next-generation learning technology and strategic one-on-one tutoring. Learning opportunities are accessible all day, every day, 24/7. They study as their schedules allow. They advance as quickly as they want to and are able to. Teachers give extra time to students who need it, and they challenge those who are ready to move ahead. This is the type of individual attention and personalized instruction that are not always available in the regular classrooms. But for many students this type of learning environment is essential for their success.

States, districts, traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools are offering similar online learning opportunities to students. Many are looking to expand them. The challenge we face is to ensure that these learning opportunities prepare students for success in college and careers.

And, these online learning opportunities are for more than just students. Teachers and school leaders are experiencing them as well.

In Iowa, the Heartland Area Education Agency serves 54 public school districts and 29 accredited private schools. Across its large geographic area, Heartland is providing professional development to teachers and principals. Using free software, these teachers and leaders communicate in real time in video conference. They don't need to be in the same room, let alone in the same country. These online courses give them opportunities for collaboration that they've had difficulty accessing before.

Technology offers access to learning like never before. It also gives unprecedented access to content. Not long ago, you had to physically walk through a Smithsonian museum to capture the extraordinary knowledge available in the art and treasures here.

Today, the Smithsonian is creating content that links students to the treasure trove of art, artifacts and historic objects in its collection. And the Smithsonian isn't the only federal institution making learning content available. Just about every federal agency has learning resources available for students and teachers.

On the NASA site, for example, students can find information about the Mercury and Apollo space program.

On the Smithsonian's Web site, the museum has information about the rockets that propelled these missions into space.

At the National Archives, students can listen to a historic phone conversation between President Nixon and astronaut Neil Armstrong while he was on the moon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site has a history of the weather program that supported the rocket launches and landings.

All of these resources are available for teachers to use and students to learn from. But right now they're not organized in a way that makes it easy to access all of the material available about historic subjects.

So, today we are announcing a new federal initiative to design a Learning Registry that will improve the ability to search for and find educational resources from across the federal government. This registry will make it easy for teachers and students to find all of the learning resources available in a variety of ways and with more powerful search capabilities assisting learners with connecting content from across several sites.

As the world advances from print to digital media, better organization of these resources will also help stimulate a new marketplace for building digital learning solutions, potentially reducing costs and increasing the opportunity for learning.

By making learning opportunities available at all times and by improving access to content—we are taking two small steps toward transforming the way we teach our students. We have a lot more work to do.

But it should be clear to all of us that technology is a vital ingredient in our work to build a public education system that helps all students set goals, stay in school, earn a high school diploma, and secure college and career success. And it's clear that technology can and will overcome the challenges of providing a world-class education in rural America.

I look forward to our conversation today. But I also want to compel you to do more than talk. We have a moral and economic imperative that requires us to act. Our children deserve a world-class education that prepares them for success in college and careers. Technology can help us get there. Let's work together to make it happen.

Thank you.