International Engagement Through Education: Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Council on Foreign Relations Meeting

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Thank you for inviting me to join you today. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with this distinguished group.

I'd like to open our conversation by discussing two important trends that inform our drive to transform education in America. The first is increased international competition. The second is increased international collaboration. I'll also highlight an issue that affects our ability to compete and collaborate on the world stage—the need to increase the foreign language fluency and cultural awareness of all our students.

The President and I believe that every child in this country deserves a world-class education. We are investing unprecedented resources in education reform. It's our generation's "moonshot." It's a work of national significance, to be pursued in the 21st century with the same passion and focus as the 20th century's space race. And, like the space race, it involves a healthy rivalry with other advanced nations. I believe we can reform U.S. education and regain our lead as the world's most competitive workforce—just as decades ago we succeeded in putting a man on the moon.

We need to pursue this moonshot not only here in the United States, but across the globe. In an interconnected, competitive global economy, the only way to secure our common future is through education. It is the one true path out of poverty—the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture and privilege. In the 21st century, a quality education system is the centerpiece of a country's economic development, and it can be the one thing that unites us as a world.

In this global economy, the line between domestic and international issues is increasingly blurred, with the world's economies, societies and people interconnected as never before. Thomas Friedman has observed that in today's "flat" world, new technologies and instant communications make "Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda next-door neighbors."

The United States is a country made up of many cultures—and we often celebrate that diversity. But just as often, we rely on the predominance of English as the language of global business and higher education when looking toward the world.

This reliance can put us at a disadvantage. We haven't been compelled to meet our global neighbors on their own terms, and learn about their histories, values and viewpoints. I am worried that in this interconnected world, our country risks being disconnected from the contributions of other countries and cultures. Through education and exchange, we can become better collaborators and competitors in the global economy.

Last summer, the President spoke in Cairo, Egypt about the sweeping changes brought by modernity and globalization, and how we need to promote co-operation among people all over the world. The President said that "education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century."

His call is what is driving our work—both here at home and in partnerships across the globe.

In the United States, we speak frequently about competition. It's the spirit of competition that drives us as a country to do better. Americans understand that the future of our country's long-term economic prospects depends on the education of our people. They know we have to educate our way to a better economy.

Today, we are not providing our students with the world-class education they deserve, and need to be successful. Roughly 27% of our students drop out of high school, and fail to graduate with their class. That's more than 7,000 every day.

Just 40% of our 25-34 year olds earn a two-year or four-year college degree—the same rate as a generation ago. Our country now ranks 10th in the rate of college completion for students in this age group.

And, on recent international tests of math literacy, our 15-year-olds scored 24th out of 29 developed nations, and 21st out of 30 nations in science. The U.S. is now 18th out of 24 industrialized nations in high school graduation rates.

Americans must work together to turn the tide and lay the foundation for a new era of innovation, growth and prosperity.

To focus our efforts, the President has set an ambitious goal. By 2020, we will once again have the world's highest proportion of college graduates. This goal appeals to the American sense of competition, and affirms the continued need for U.S. leadership in this new century. At the same time, as Dr. Jill Biden pointed out in her remarks at the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, "this is a competition that, if [all nations enter], we will all win."

This Administration has a cradle-to-career vision for education reform. Our plan begins with stronger early childhood programs, transitions to a world-class K-12 system, and culminates with more accessible and affordable college options, in order to prepare all Americans for fulfilling careers and engaged citizenship.

To meet the President's goal, we need to raise our national college graduation rate to roughly 60%—that's about 8 million more degrees from two-year and four-year colleges. Our education system needs revolutionary change, not evolutionary tinkering.

With $5 billion available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we are driving reform through competition. The Race to the Top program will be rewarding states that are leading the way in education reform. So far, we have awarded grants to Tennessee and Delaware. Both states have bold plans to reform their schools with statewide buy-in from districts, union leaders, and community leaders.

We have about $3.4 billion available for the second round of grants, which we'll make later this year. We expect that states will respond to this competition with bold plans to reform their schools.

So far, the Race to the Top has been an extraordinary success. In the year since its creation, it has been a catalyst for education reform across this country, prompting states to think deeply about how to improve the way we prepare our students for success in a competitive, 21st century economy and workplace.

Likewise, the competition for our Investing in Innovation fund has driven local districts and nonprofits to present their best ideas to develop new reform efforts and expand successful ones. Earlier this month, more than 1,700 applicants submitted their proposals. Through this program, we have the potential to spread reforms across states and across the country.

The spirit of our competitive programs is driving new reforms and innovation across the country—and we know that our future rests in our ability to create powerful innovations and collaborate on behalf of all of our students.

In her remarks to this Council last July, Secretary of State Clinton noted that President Obama has challenged this nation to launch a new era of international engagement based on common interests, shared values, and mutual respect. This Administration is committed to a new paradigm of smart power for the United States, building on this country's unique strengths and the power of our example to promote universal values.

In this way, Secretary Clinton said, "We will exercise American leadership to build partnerships and solve problems that no nation can solve on its own." This view of smart power and U.S. leadership applies to the work of improving educational attainment and partnerships around the globe.

To this end, my senior staff and I work regularly with education officials in other nations. We have recently welcomed delegations from Colombia, Chile, China, India, and the Netherlands.

International collaboration cuts across nearly every office in our agency. Already this year our Undersecretary of Education led a delegation of university presidents to India, and our Deputy Secretary and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights just traveled to Brazil to share strategies to promote excellence and equity for all students.

As we speak, Deputy Secretary Tony Miller is in Japan on a week-long visit—building on a recent trip to the U.S. by Japanese experts and educators in the science professions. His itinerary includes meetings with policymakers, governors, mayors, and foundation leaders, as well as the U.S. and Japanese Ambassadors; a town hall meeting with students from several universities; site visits to high-tech high schools; and a speech at the Ministry of Education on education for sustainable development—a key UNESCO priority connecting the energy, environmental, cultural and educational sectors.

Last year, our partnerships with other nations yielded a wide range of bilateral education conferences, alliances, and other joint efforts. For example, we are implementing the first-ever U.S.-China Joint Workplan in Education. Activities thus far include convening science education experts in Beijing, working with the higher education community to promote exchanges for study abroad, and launching sister-school partnerships among U.S. and Chinese schools. We are also moving forward on a joint U.S.-China e-language project.

We are also reaching out to the Muslim world, as the President charged us to do in his Cairo speech. Two weeks ago, during President Karzai's visit to Washington, I met with the Afghan Ministers of Education and Labor. I have held bilateral meetings with the Ambassador and Education Minister of Pakistan. I joined in a video conference with Jordan's Minister of Education.

Last month, I participated in a White House-sponsored Summit on Entrepreneurship, designed to deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and entrepreneurs in the U.S. and in Muslim nations. Participants represented more than fifty countries on five continents. I led a wide-ranging session on youth entrepreneurship, with panelists from Pakistan, Indonesia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

U.S. representatives shared lessons learned, from the need for coordination among federal agencies with related missions, to the value of community colleges in promoting pre-baccalaureate education, workforce development, adult basic education, and lifelong learning.

There's been great progress on that last point. Last June, my agency joined the State Department and U.S. AID in hosting a conference on community and technical colleges in Amman, Jordan. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, and Jordan are among the countries working with U.S. institutions to connect education and workforce development in high-tech, high-demand fields.

I am committed to strengthening these efforts and pursuing other relationships in the Muslim world as we move forward.

All these examples suggest the great diversity of our current efforts, and the equally great potential for expansion. Such collaboration can inform and strengthen our reform efforts nationally, even as it helps improve standards of teaching and learning—and fosters understanding—internationally.

Our ultimate goal is to ensure that our children receive the world-class education they deserve. We are dedicated to providing a complete education to our students—one that covers reading, writing, mathematics and science, and one that is well-rounded with the arts, history, civics, and financial literacy. One place where American schools and the rest of American society fall short is in foreign languages.

The great Nelson Mandela has said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart."

Right now, we aren't teaching our students how to speak to the hearts of our neighbors around the globe.

In most countries, the expectation that students will master several languages is built into the K-12 system, and beyond. Studies project that China will soon have the world's largest English-speaking population. Some researchers argue that India has already claimed this title from us.

Great U.S. leaders like Senator J. William Fulbright have long seen the benefits of foreign language acquisition and student exchange as the gateway to cross-cultural engagement, and taken steps to promote them. Years ago, he warned, "Our linguistic and cultural myopia is losing us friends, business and respect in the world."

We must improve language learning and international education at all levels if our nation is to continue to lead in the global economy; to help bring security and stability to the world; and to build stronger and more productive ties with our neighbors.

At the K-12 level, despite the outreach activities of our programs and priorities, studies show that language programs at the elementary and middle school levels are decreasing. And while we've seen some increases in Chinese and Arabic language programs, we've seen a decline in French, German, Russian and Japanese studies at the elementary and secondary school levels.

In our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we are proposing a new competitive fund for a well-rounded education. This $265 million fund will support subjects our students will need to master in the interconnected global economy, including foreign language instruction. We will fund the best proposals so they will inform efforts across the country.

At the postsecondary level, we must make sure that our deans, provosts, chancellors and board members understand that international education and advanced foreign language proficiency is vital to our nation's capacity to compete, collaborate, and exert smart power. With many of our higher education institutions under financial pressure, area studies and foreign language degree programs are under threat at a time when our nation cannot afford to scale them back. We must also continue to encourage our students to study abroad.

In my department, we are taking several steps to expand the language acquisition of students of all ages. My senior staff and I have visited elementary schools, high schools; colleges and universities in California, Texas, Illinois, and the greater DC area to learn about foreign language and area studies programs and to promote the idea that we must do more.

We have a strong start in programs like our Title VI and Fulbright Hays programs, as well as other international education programs at the Departments of State and Defense. These programs support foreign language, area and international studies and infrastructure building at U.S. colleges and universities. And they ensure a steady supply of graduates with expertise in less commonly taught languages, world areas, global issues, and transnational trends.

For example, we are encouraging our National Resource Centers to strengthen ties with partner institutions in areas of the world with substantial Muslim populations. We will support and help build on innovative education efforts like the University of Hawaii's Muslim Societies in Asia and the Pacific program. And, through four-year grants awarded under our Group Projects Abroad Program, we have supported advanced intensive language study in Indonesian, through Ohio University; Turkish through Princeton University; Arabic in Egypt and Syria through the University of Texas at Austin; and Kiswahili in Tanzania through Michigan State University.

We also support innovative approaches to language learning and proficiency assessment through our network of Language Resource Centers. Just one example is the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. They sponsored their first international conference on heritage and community languages last February. The millions of heritage language speakers at varying levels of language proficiency in the U.S. represent a tremendous reserve of students and potential teachers who can put their skills to work improving our cultural understanding as well as our ability to compete, collaborate, preserve national security, and advance international peacekeeping efforts.

In short, we have never been more aware of the value of a multi-literate, multi-lingual society: a society that can appreciate all that makes other cultures and nations distinctive, even as it embraces all that they have in common.

Today, our country is engaged in a far-reaching endeavor: to uphold the values enshrined in our Constitution, and secure our place in the world, by transforming the way we teach our students.

America's success depends on the success of its individual citizens, just as the progress of humanity ultimately depends on the shared progress of nations. I believe that education has immeasurable power to promote growth and stability in the 21st century. As we work to lift America's children out of poverty and to liberate their true potential through the power of excellent teaching and learning, we will join with other nations to achieve this end for all the world's children.

Thank you, and I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts and taking your questions later in this session.