The Vision of Education Reform in the United States: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Paris, France

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The Vision of Education Reform in the United States: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Paris, France

November 4, 2010

It is an absolute honor to address UNESCO. During the last 65 years, UNESCO has done so much to advance the cause of education and gender equity, alleviate poverty, and promote peace. When UNESCO was founded in 1945, much of Europe, Russia, and Japan lay in ruin.

The promise of universal education was then a lonely beacon—a light to guide the way to peace and the rebuilding of nations across the globe. Today, the world is no longer recovering from a tragic global war. Yet the international community faces a crisis of a different sort, the global economic crisis. And education is still the beacon lighting the path forward—perhaps more so today than ever before.

Education is still the key to eliminating gender inequities, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, and to fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity.

I want to provide two overarching messages today about America's efforts to boost educational attainment and achievement.

First, the Obama administration has an ambitious and unified theory of action that propels our agenda. The challenge of transforming education in America cannot be met by quick-fix solutions or isolated reforms. It can only be accomplished with a clear, coherent, and coordinated vision of reform.

Second, while America must improve its stagnant educational and economic performance, President Obama and I reject the protectionist Cold War-era assumption that improving economic competitiveness is somehow a zero-sum game, with one nation's gain being another country's loss.

I want to make the case to you today that enhancing educational attainment and economic viability, both at home and abroad, is really more of a win-win game; it is an opportunity to grow the economic pie, instead of carve it up. As President Obama said in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last year, "Any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail."

There is so much that the United States has to learn from nations with high-performing education systems. And there is so much that America can share from its experience to the mutual benefit of nations confronting similar educational challenges.

I am convinced that the U.S. education system now has an unprecedented opportunity to get dramatically better. Nothing—nothing—is more important in the long-run to American prosperity than boosting the skills and attainment of the nation's students.

In the United States, we feel an economic and moral imperative to challenge the status quo. Closing the achievement gap and closing the opportunity gap is the civil rights issue of our generation. One quarter of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time. Almost one million students leave our schools for the streets each year. That is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable.

One of the more unusual and sobering press conferences I participated in last year was the release of a report by a group of top retired generals and admirals. Here was the stunning conclusion of their report: 75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.

Now, everyone here today knows that education is taking on more and more importance around the globe. In the last decade, international competition in higher education and the job market has grown dramatically. As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously pointed out, the world economy has indeed "flattened." Companies now digitize, automate, and outsource work to the most competitive individuals, companies, and countries.

In the knowledge economy, opportunities to land a good job are vanishing fast for young workers who drop out of school or fail to get college experience. That is why President Obama often says that the nation that "out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow."

Yet there is also a paradox at the heart of America's efforts to bolster international competitiveness.

To succeed in the global economy, the United States, just like other nations, will have to become both more economically competitive and more collaborative.

In the information age, more international competition has spawned more international collaboration. Today, education is a global public good unconstrained by national boundaries.

In the United States, for example, concerns are sometimes raised about the large number of foreign-born students earning masters and doctorates in science and engineering fields. Immigrants now constitute nearly half of America's PhD scientists and engineers, even though they constitute only 12 percent of the workforce overall.

These foreign-born students more often return to the country of origin than in the past. But their scientific skills and entrepreneurship strengthen not only their native economy but also stimulate innovation and new markets that can help boost the U.S. economy.

The same borderless nature of innovation and ideas is evident when foreign-born students remain in America. Immigrants to the U.S. started a quarter of all engineering and technology companies from 1995 and 2005, including half of the start-ups in Silicon Valley, our high-tech capital. Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder, was born in Moscow but educated in the United States. Google is now used throughout the globe to gather information and advance knowledge. The brain drain, in short, has become the brain gain.

It is no surprise that economic interdependence brings new global challenges and educational demands.

The United States cannot, acting by itself, dramatically reduce poverty and disease or develop sustainable sources of energy. America alone cannot combat terrorism or curb climate change. To succeed, we must collaborate with other countries.

Those new partnerships require American students to develop better critical thinking abilities, cross-cultural understanding, and facility in multiple languages. They also will require U.S. students to strengthen their skills in science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM fields that anchor much of our innovation in the global economy.

These new partnerships must also inspire students to take a bigger and deeper view of their civic obligations—not only to their countries of origin but to the betterment of the global community. A just and socially responsible society must also be anchored in civic engagement for the public good.

In our view, the United States will be better off, in comparative terms, if we lead the world in educational attainment, rather than lagging behind. A generation ago, America did in fact lead the world in college attainment. But today among young adults, the U.S. is tied for ninth. That is why President Obama has set a goal that America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, a decade from now.

Yet even as the United States works to strengthen its educational system, it is important to remember that advancing educational attainment and achievement everywhere brings benefits not just to the U.S. but around the globe. In the knowledge economy, education is the new game-changer driving economic growth. Education, as Nelson Mandela says, "is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

From Indonesia to Pakistan to Kenya, education has immeasurable power to promote growth and stability. It is absolutely imperative that the United States seize the opportunity to help Haiti build a stronger school system from the ruins of its old, broken one—just as America coalesced to build a fast-improving, vibrant school system in New Orleans after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

From devastation, beautiful flowers can grow—crisis can seed opportunities for transformational change. In 2001, Afghanistan had barely 900,000 boys in school. They now have almost seven million children in schools, almost 40 percent of whom are girls. Dramatic change can happen in a short period of time. It just requires the commitment to succeed.

Educating girls and integrating them into the labor force is especially critical to breaking the cycle of poverty. It is hard to imagine a better world without a global commitment to providing better education for women and youth—including the 72 million children who do not attend primary school today.

And don't forget that a better-educated world would be a safer world, too. Low educational attainment is one of the few statistically significant predictors of violence.

My department has been pleased to partner with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help ensure that our best domestic practices are shared world-wide. The United States provides over a billion dollars annually to partner countries working on educational reform.

Our goal for the coming year will be to work closely with global partners, including UNESCO, to promote qualitative improvements and system-strengthening. With such a shared commitment, we believe that we can greatly reduce the number of children out of school and ensure that the children who are in class are actually learning.

Ultimately, education is the great equalizer. It is the one force that can consistently overcome differences in background, culture, and privilege. As the author Ben Wildavsky writes in his new book, The Great Brain Race, in the global economy "more and more people will have the chance... to advance based on what they know rather than who they are."

Now, it is true that not all will share equally in the benefits of the knowledge economy. College-educated workers will benefit the most. That makes President Obama's 2020 goal, the goal of once again having the highest proportion of college graduates, all the more central to building U.S. competitiveness.

I want to caution you that several misconceptions often crop up in the coverage of the Obama administration's agenda. Media coverage of our reform agenda understandably tends to concentrate on the unexpected, such as the fact that President Obama, a progressive president, has supported the expansion of high-performing charter schools. Or that he favors incorporating student achievement growth as one of a number of factors in evaluations of teachers and school performance.

In fact, these elements are only a modest part of our overall agenda. The President's aims are far more ambitious. He wants to improve teacher evaluation in order to dramatically elevate the status of the teaching profession; nothing is more important to accelerating student learning than getting a great teacher into every classroom. He wants to expand school choice to encourage innovation—and spread the effective practices of high-performing schools to all schools.

The President and I both recognize that improving educational outcomes for students is hard work with no easy answers. And transformational reform especially takes time in the United States. We have more than two million children enrolled in preschool programs, 100,000 public schools, 49 million K-12 students, more than three million teachers, and 13,800 school districts—all of it largely administered and funded by local governments.

The North Star guiding the alignment of our cradle-to-career education agenda is President Obama's goal that, by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That goal can only be achieved by creating a strong cradle-to-career continuum that starts with early childhood learning and extends all the way to college and careers.

In the U.S., early learning has come into its own. It is now recognized as the first and most critical stage in human development. We have a special opportunity today to build a bigger and better coordinated system of early care and education that prepares children for success in school and life—in place of a system with uneven quality and access.

I admit that President Obama's 2020 college attainment goal is ambitious. To meet it, roughly 60 percent of young adults will need to have an earned an associate's or bachelors' degree by the end of the decade, up from 42 percent today.

We made a great start in expanding college access this year with the passage of health care reform, which also freed up $40 billion for Pell Grant scholarships for low-income undergraduates. That is the biggest increase in student aid in the U.S. since the 1944 GI bill. And the new law also granted $2 billion to community colleges to help them produce millions more graduates.

On K-12 education, our theory of action starts with the four assurances incorporated in last year's economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The four assurances got their name from the requirement that each governor in the 50 states had to provide an "assurance" they would pursue reforms in these four areas—in exchange for their share of funds from a Recovery Act program designed to largely stem job loss among teachers and principals.

The first assurance was that states would work toward developing academic standards that truly show if a student is ready for college and a career when they graduate from high school. Under the existing system, many states had dummied down academic standards to make students look proficient. While that helps politicians look good, it was bad for children, bad for education, and bad for states' long-term economic prosperity. Many states were in effect lying to students and parents, telling them that students were ready for careers and college when they were nowhere near ready.

The second assurance governors provided was in the area of data systems. More robust data systems and a new generation of assessments can assist teachers and principals to improve their practices and tailor their instruction in ways that were largely unthinkable in the past.

The third assurance asked states to commit to improving the preparation, professional development, and evaluation of teachers and school leaders—especially in high-need schools and subject areas like STEM and special education.

Great teachers are the unsung heroes of our education system. They have the single biggest in-school impact on academic achievement. And when it comes to teaching, commitment, love for the work, and talent matter tremendously.

Tragically, low-income and minority students do not have equitable access to effective teachers in the United States. Too often, the children who need the most help get the least. Too often, we perpetuate poverty and social failure—and that has got to stop.

The fourth and final assurance propelled states, for the first time ever, to commit to dramatic change in persistently low-achieving schools. The United States cannot substantially boost graduation rates and promise a world-class education to every child without ending the cycle of failure in the lowest-performing five percent of our schools. Year after year, and in some cases for decades, these schools cheated children out of the opportunity for an excellent education. As adults, as educators, as leaders, America passively observed this educational failure with a complacency that is deeply disturbing.

Fewer than 2,000 high schools in the United States—a manageable number—produce half of all its dropouts. These "dropout factories" produce almost 75 percent—three-fourths—of our dropouts from the minority community, our African-American and Latino boys and girls.

State and school district officials have largely tinkered in these schools, instead of treating them as educational emergencies. But children only get one chance at an education. We are not content with the status quo. And we are not content to continue tinkering.

Districts now have to engage in interventions to foster dramatic change in these schools. This will be some of the hardest, most controversial, and most important work you will see coming from the United States this school year, and in the years ahead.

Our vision of reform takes account of the fact that, in several respects, the governance of education in the United States is unusual. Traditionally, the federal government in the U.S. has had a limited role in education policy.

Before the 1960s, almost all policymaking and education funding was a state and local responsibility. In the mid-1960s, the federal role expanded to include enforcing civil rights laws to ensure that poor, minority, and disabled students, as well as English language learners, had access to a high-quality education.

As the federal role in education grew, so did the bureaucracy. All too often, the U.S. Department of Education operated more like a compliance machine, instead of an engine of innovation. The department typically focused on ensuring that formula funds reached their intended recipients in the proper fashion. It focused on inputs—not educational outcomes or equity.

The Obama administration has sought to fundamentally shift the federal role, so that the Department is doing much more to support reform and innovation in states, districts, and local communities. While the vast majority of department funding is still formula funding, the Recovery Act created additional competitive funding like the high-visibility $4.35 billion Race to the Top program and the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, which we call i3.

I've said that America is now in the midst of a "quiet revolution" in school reform. And this is very much a revolution driven by leaders in statehouses, state school superintendents, local lawmakers, district leaders, union heads, school boards, parents, principals, and teachers.

To cite just one example, the department's Race to the Top Program challenged states to craft concrete, comprehensive plans for reforming their education systems. The response was nothing less than extraordinary. Forty-six states submitted applications—and the competition drove a national conversation about education reform. Thirty-two states changed specific laws that posed barriers to innovation. And even states that did not win awards now have a state roadmap for reform hammered out.

The i3 program also had a phenomenal response. The $650 million i3 fund offered support to school districts, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education to scale-up promising practices.

The department awarded 49 grants in the competition. But nearly 1,700 applicants applied—by far the largest number of applicants in a single competition in the Department's history. Our aim is not just to fund grantees each year, but to build a new culture of evidence-based decision-making for expanding successful reforms.

I said earlier that the United States now has a unique opportunity to transform our education system in ways that will resonate for decades to come. Last year and this year, the federal government provided unprecedented funds to support education and reform.

But the special window that America has had to drive reform is not because of the dollars, it's because of the courageous state and local leaders who have taken the lead in collaborating on problems that the experts said were too divisive to resolve. At the end of the day, I believe it is that courage, and not our resources, that will transform educational opportunity in our country.

In March of 2009, President Obama called on the nation's governors and state school chiefs to "develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity." Virtually everyone thought the president was dreaming.

But today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have already chosen to adopt the new state-crafted Common Core standards in math and English. Not studying it, not thinking about it, not issuing a white paper—they have actually done it. Over three-fourths of all U.S. public school students now reside in states that have voluntarily adopted higher, common college-ready standards that are internationally benchmarked. That is an absolute game-changer in a system which until now set 50 different goalposts for success.

The second game-changer is that states have banded together in large consortia to develop a new generation of assessments aligned with the states' Common Core standards. In September, I announced the results of the department's $350 million Race to the Top assessment completion to design this next generation of assessments.

Two state consortiums, which together cover 44 states and the District of Columbia, won awards. These new assessments will have much in common with the first-rate assessments now used in many high-performing countries outside the U.S. When these new assessments are in use in the 2014-15 school year, millions of U.S. schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know, for the first time, if students truly are on-track for colleges and careers.

For the first time, many teachers will have the assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex learning tasks that are not just multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills.

So, in the end, transforming education is not just about raising expectations. It has to be about creating greater capacity at all levels of the system to implement reform. It has to be about results.

Sir Michael Barber's book, Instruction to Deliver, reminds us that the unglamorous work of reform matters enormously. He urges us to ask five questions that are almost the opposite of the compliance-driven process of technical assistance that has prevailed at the U.S. Department of Education.

His five, disarmingly simple questions are:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How are you trying to do it?
  • How do you know you are succeeding?
  • If you're not succeeding, how will you change things?
  • And last yet not least, how can we help you?

Unfortunately, our department has historically asked a very different set of questions: Are program rules being followed? Are monies being spent as promised?

We can never abandon our fiscal and compliance responsibilities. But we are committed to establishing a different relationship with the 50 states—one more focused on providing tailored support to improve student outcomes. We are trying to talk less—and listen more.

I want to close by talking briefly—I promise to begin my listening shortly—about what the United States can learn from other nations and how cross-country collaboration can be of mutual benefit to the U.S. and other nations.

The simple truth is that America has a great deal to learn from the educational practices of other countries. One of the most encouraging lessons of the PISA assessment is that high-achieving nations can significantly narrow achievement gaps and advance achievement nationwide—two important goals that the United States has so far failed to accomplish. Nations like Singapore, South Korea, and Finland are showing the way to building a topnotch teaching workforce, and ensuring that outstanding teachers instruct the most challenging students.

At the same time, the U.S. has much to teach other nations. Our system of higher education is in many respects still without parallel. We have advanced data systems that we are constantly improving. And we have more high-performing schools that are showing how to close achievement gaps than ever before.

I welcome this international dialogue, which is only beginning. In December, in Washington, I will join the OECD Secretary General for the global announcement of the 2009 PISA results. In March, we will be sponsoring an International Summit on the Teaching Profession. This event, in New York, will include education Ministers and leaders of national teachers' organizations from high-performing and rapidly-advancing countries, with a goal of sharing practices for developing a high-quality teaching profession.

Ultimately, I believe the economic future of the United States rests not only on its ability to strengthen its education system but also on citizens in other nations raising their living standards.

Thinking of the future as a contest among nations vying for larger pieces of a finite economic pie is a recipe for protectionism and global strife. Expanding educational attainment everywhere is the best way to grow the pie for all.

In the United States, we know we do not have all the answers to our educational challenges. Yet not having all the answers cannot become an excuse for inaction. The urgent need to provide an excellent education for every child is a right that cannot be denied. We can't wait because our children can't wait. The time for change is now.