Secretary Arne Duncan Speaks at the 91st Annual Meeting of the American Council on Education

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered remarks today at the American Council on Education's (ACE) 2009 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The ACE represents accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities and higher education in the U.S. Together, ACE member institutions represent almost 80 percent of today's college students.

Good afternoon and thank you.

It's hard to believe Barack Obama was sworn in less than three weeks ago. This city seems to pack three or four days into every 24-hour period—and the news changes so frequently that it's hard to stay abreast.

On the other hand, 91 years ago—when the American Council on Education was founded—we had an academic in the White House, we were a nation at war—and we were confronting a new global economic and political reality that required us to think differently and act boldly.

So in some ways things haven't changed. Today we're fighting a war that diverts us from other priorities. We face a new global reality that requires us to think differently and act boldly. And once again we have an academic for a president.

But this President is different from all of the others who came before him.

Unlike most of them, he did not grow up in privilege. Everything he and the First Lady have is because of their education and their hard work.

Unlike all of them, he and his wife are African-American—and the fact that they are minorities provides an extraordinary opportunity to inspire all Americans to learn.

I call it the Barack effect. It's the soft power that accompanies the symbolism of an African-American president who has made education cool and exciting and infinitely promising.

This is not insignificant. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago working and living with young children of color.

These kids were threatened every day. They lacked role models to protect them and guide them to a safe place where learning was valued and rewarded.

Barack and Michelle Obama can be those role models on a national scale—and that's just one reason I am hopeful.

I am also hopeful because the leadership in Congress is so committed to education. They are very passionate about the issue—and they recognize its importance to our future.

I am hopeful because of the incredible progress in school districts, colleges and universities all across the country—developing new learning models—new educational approaches—and bringing new energy and ideas to the field of education.

From Teach for America to the KIPP charter schools to instructional innovations at colleges and universities, we have proven strategies ready to go to scale.

We also have the greatest higher education system in the world for people who can access it.

And I am especially hopeful because the stimulus package on the Hill includes a historic level of one-time education funding that will not only save or create jobs but will also lay the groundwork for a generation of education reform and progress.

While the numbers are still fluid and the Senate bill is different from the House, it appears that there will be enough money to close the shortfall in Pell grant funding and boost grants by several hundred dollars.

There will also be an expanded tuition tax credit to make college more affordable.

There will be some money to help stabilize states—though not nearly as much as we need. The Senate version is only half of what the House approved.

During the conference process, we need to push for every dollar we can get because public universities and community colleges desperately need that money to avert cuts—and it is crucial that it pass quickly.

This is not just good education policy. It's good economic policy.

According to a University of Washington study that will be released later today, almost 600,000 education jobs are at risk of state budget cuts.

Without that state money, hundreds of thousands teachers and professors will be collecting unemployment instead of teaching children and young people.

Astonishingly, the Senate proposal has dropped the money for school modernization that was approved by the House—which makes no sense—since it would create new jobs quickly.

There are shovel-ready education projects in schools and universities all across America.

Later this week I will be traveling to a suburban community college with projects just waiting for funding—so I am hopeful that the construction money survives.

Finally, I am very excited about a $15 billion "Race to the Top" fund approved by the House. The Senate version is somewhat smaller but it is still significant.

The President is deeply committed to this program because it will enable us to spur reform on a national scale—driving school systems to adopt college and career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards.

It will incent them to put in place state of the art data collection systems, assessments and curricula to meet these higher standards.

And it will encourage states to recruit, train, mentor and support a great, new generation of teachers who can better prepare our students for college and work.

Taken together—the Barack effect—the leadership on the Hill—the proven strategies—and the money in the stimulus package—represent what I call—the perfect storm for reform—a historic alignment of interests and events that could lift American education to an entirely new level.

Given the state of our economy, the pace of technological change, and the scope of our collective challenges—no other issue is more pressing.

While we have a vital higher education system in America and a research arm that is the envy of the world—college is beyond the reach of most Americans—and high school is not nearly enough.

I don't need to tell you that America has lost its global leadership in education.

K-12 achievement levels leave millions of young people unprepared for work or for college.

This is a national crisis that is rapidly creating an entire class of Americans who are unable to share in the benefits of a modern, progressive and productive society.

There simply are no good jobs for people without an education.

As all of you know—the rubber meets the road when they show up at your school. Too many of them need remedial programs just to keep up.

Too many take too long to finish.

Two year programs stretch to three or four years. Four year degrees stretch to six.

Many students simply never get through—either for academic or financial reasons—or because they just don't get the support they need.

And the question is, what can we do about it? What can we do together—not only to make college more accessible—but to boost our overall success rate?

We have to start by recognizing that our system of education is not aligned. Every state has different high school standards.

If we accomplish one thing in the coming years—it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America.

I know that talking about standards can make people nervous—but the notion that we have fifty different goalposts is absolutely ridiculous.

A high school diploma needs to mean something—no matter where it's from.

We need standards that are college-ready and career-ready, and benchmarked against challenging international standards.

We also need to break the culture of blame in which colleges blame high schools and high schools blame grade schools and grade schools blame parents for our failures.

We are all part of one system of learning that begins at birth and never stops.

The President talked about responsibility in his inaugural speech.

He tells parents that raising children is a job that requires time, energy, resources, love and commitment.

He tells unions that with American education in crisis—we can't be limited by ideology.

We all must honestly acknowledge failed strategies of the past and explore new ones—from charter schools to performance pay—and if they're not working we must be honest about that also.

So—I'm here today to extend that message to the higher education community. We face a number of challenges—starting with graduation rates.

We must work together to ensure that young people are not overwhelmed by financial, social or academic pressures and choose to drop out.

We are all defined by their success.

We can make the financial aid process simpler and make college more affordable—both in good economic times and in bad ones.

We need to ensure that federal loans continue to be available to every student and parent that qualifies—and we must do more to keep college affordable.

We can work together to strengthen colleges of education that will produce the next generation of teachers.

We need to challenge ourselves at the Department of Education as well.

Instead of being a compliance-driven bureaucracy we must become an engine of innovation, reform and support. I know from my time as a superintendent that we are a long way from meeting that goal.

So today, I offer my hand in partnership to you. I pledge the full power and authority of this administration to help advance the educational interests of our students.

Our education system—at every level—can and should be the best.

We remain the world's melting pot—welcoming people of every culture and offering them an opportunity that no other country in the world provides.

We are still a beacon of hope to people throughout the world who live under tyranny, ignorance and poverty.

For the millions and millions of struggling Americans who wake up each day and worry about the uncertain future that awaits their children—we remain their only path to a meaningful and rewarding life.

Providing every child in America with a good education is both a moral imperative and an economic imperative.

It's also a matter of social justice. It is the civil rights issue of our generation—the one and only way to overcome the differences of wealth, background and race that divide us and deny us our future.

I came to Washington with one goal—to give every single child in America the very best education possible.

I know that you and so many others share that goal—and I am absolutely confident that with your help, the President's leadership, and the support of our Congress and the American people, that goal will be met.

Thank you.