Under Secretary Martha Kanter’s Remarks to the New England Board of Education

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I am thrilled to be here to speak to the New England Board of Higher Education. Most of you here today share my priorities and I believe that together we will be able to meet the many challenges we face in today’s economy.

First, I would like to start with the story of how I got my present job at the U.S. Department of Education.

Before coming here, I wasn’t looking for a new job. I had been working in education my entire career. Some of you may remember or know Mel King, Boston’s infamous community organizer. He believes now and he believed then that the city’s children are our children. When I was in the 9th grade, he changed my life when he gave me the opportunity to tutor third graders at the Sound End House in Roxbury, Massachusetts. From there, I entered the profession of education and here I am, more than 40 years later. I knew teachers and staff could change lives then, as I know it now. For the past 16 years, I was a college president and most recently chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California, one of the largest community college districts in the nation, educating 45,000 students a year.

From an early age, I had been taught that when the call comes, you go, but make sure you know who is calling. So a few months ago, when I got the call from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I went to Washington.

We talked candidly about the impact of higher education on our students and families, and I shared my deep concerns about the gathering storms coming at us: the thousands who are getting shut out of higher education, whether our democratic society in the larger sense would survive the threats, and how urgent it is for our families to understand the fundamental purpose and value of higher education.

Secretary Duncan told me about President Obama’s robust vision for education, his plans to increase student access and achievement in our K-12 schools, his belief in the importance of higher education and workforce training, his perspective about lifelong education starting with early learning through adulthood, his commitment to ensure that college readiness and high school graduation mean the same thing, his commitment to high academic standards and quality assessments, and his significant accomplishments as superintendent of the Chicago public schools.

On the way home, I thought about the fact that getting a few big things done in a senior position in government would often seem impossible, but that if asked, I had to say ‘yes without question’—yes because education is a priority for President Obama, Secretary Duncan and our entire administration. And—simply—because we owe it to our students and to future generations.

We all know that the majority of our students enter higher education with enormous challenges, often having overcome great adversity in their lives. That is why I came to this position: to open doors and focus on ways to increase academic achievement and success for our students, to increase by 50% the number of graduates from our institutions.

I have now been in Washington for three months, and I still ask myself the same question at the end of every day. What have I done to make a significant difference in the lives of our students? It is the question that drives everything we do in higher education.

Fifty years ago President Kennedy quoted a Chinese proverb in one of his speeches. The proverb goes like this: The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.

I think that sums up where higher education is right now. We are in danger, but we have an extraordinary opportunity.

We have more than 9 million students enrolled in community colleges and that is not far behind the ten-and-a-half million students enrolled in our 4-year institutions. Due to the tough economic challenges, teachers have faced layoffs, and thousands of students are getting shut out, even if they want to enroll.

But by 2016, just seven years from now, four out of every 10 new jobs will require some advanced education or training. Many of these jobs will have an emphasis on technology and green and sustainable practices in the STEM fields. If we stay on this path, our students will not be able to compete.

This April McKinsey reported on “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.” They said that the U.S. lags significantly behind other advanced nations in educational performance and is slipping further behind in math, science and literacy. In 2006, we ranked 25th of 30 nations in math and 24th of 30 in science. The academic performance of our 15 year-old students lags behind that of students in countries like Canada, the Netherlands, Korea and Austria with whom we compete for service-sector and high-value jobs.

Regarding high school graduation rates, we rank 18 out of 24 industrialized nations. You’ve also read about the implications of America’s racial achievement gap where, given our changing demographics, Hispanic and black students lag as many as 3 years behind white students of the same age in achievement and graduation rates.

McKinsey ends their report with some startling information about the economic impact of the achievement gap. They say that if we had been able to close the international achievement gap over the last 25 years the US GDP in 2008 would have been $1-2 trillion dollars higher. That’s 9 to 16 percent of our GDP. They go on to profile disparities in income and achievement and conclude that if we don’t have the “game-changing national strategy” that the report emphasizes, we will have a tsunami that will devastate American productivity and competitiveness for generations to come.

Other reports have similar findings. Last summer, we released a special supplement to this year’s Condition of Education comparing kids in the U.S. to students around the world. This analysis looked at information gathered from recent international studies that U.S. students have participated in. Compared to their peers in other countries, our students are stagnating. In science, our eighth graders are behind their peers in eight countries that also participated in the original international assessment. In math, although scores have improved somewhat since 1995, our 15 year-olds' scores now lag behind those of 31 countries. Four countries—Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland—outperform U.S. students on math, science and all other subjects.

And just last week, the math NAEP scores were released, and did not show the progress in math skills our students need. The 4th grade scores were flat. Although the 8th grade scores increased, they aren’t improving fast enough.

These are the facts. They point to the perils we face and the crisis at hand. But before we let young people inherit a world of rising costs, unprepared workers, inequities in teacher quality, lack of access to educational opportunity for low-income and minority students and the poor quality and use of student information to improve educational achievement, we need to realize the opportunity we have.

We have some reasons to be optimistic. We can change these facts.

President Obama has said wants to see America have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. By 2020, he wants us to have “the best educated most competitive workforce in the world.” He’ll measure success based on whether the United States once again has the highest proportion college graduates of any country in the world.

It is an ambitious goal, and as you must know, we have a long way to go. But America’s future demands a significant increase in college graduates at all levels, from those who complete one year of advanced training and certification after high school to others who finish their Ph.D.s to become innovative leaders in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the arts.

Only about 40 percent of Americans hold a 2-year or 4-year degree. That’s the same proportion as a generation ago.

Twenty-seven percent of high school freshmen dropout by the time their class graduates. That’s 1.2 million students on the streets instead of in school. We lose most of them in the first two years of high school.

Finally, of students who do graduate high school and go to college, only 40 percent graduate within six years from the first institution they enroll in.

Here is what these statistics tell us:

  • Not enough of our students are graduating from high school.

  • Not enough of them are enrolling in college.

  • And not enough of them are staying in college until they graduate.

Our democratic society depends on every American entering an open door to advance his or her education after high school. More highly educated students will not only stimulate the recovery of our national economy, but also usher in a new era of more widely shared growth and prosperity.

The President, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and I are committed to giving all students this chance. We are committed to a cradle to career agenda, one that will increase the number of high-quality early learning opportunities, especially for low-income families, to improve child outcomes; and we are committed to making higher education more affordable and accessible. The department’s budget, together with the Recovery Act, provides the largest commitment to higher education funding since the GI Bill.

We are applauding the efforts of forty eight states who have signed on to a state-led process to develop a common core of K-12 state standards in English language arts and math, with other subjects to follow.

We will do everything we can to create more opportunities for students of all ages to reach their potential. We will do everything we can to repair the cracks in the road to college access. We aim to increase college readiness, decrease dropout rates, and help students most at risk of falling behind.

Next year, under our budget, the department will be administering nearly $130 billion in new grants, loans, and work-study assistance to help more than 14 million students and their families pay for college.

The Obama administration also has unveiled a simplified FAFSA application and will be making further changes so it is easier to apply for student aid.

As of July 1, we have reduced recent graduates’ student loan payments through an income-contingent repayment plan. These lower payments will help recent graduates in the tough job market. Graduates working in public service will have their student loans forgiven after 10 years of income-contingent payments. These repayment plans will encourage graduates to pursue careers as teachers, doctors and nurses in public hospitals, public safety, and other professions vital to our nation’s security and prosperity.

Over the next decade, the higher education plan will also increase Pell Grants to $5,550 next year and will index future increases to inflation plus 1 percent. We will provide low-interest loans to 2.7 million students through the Perkins Loan program and change the program to reward colleges that control tuition increases.

Additionally, we will support community colleges to increase access, quality, and student achievement, using best practices and evidence-based innovations. Part of this effort means expanding access to higher education for students, especially for poor and minority students.

One innovative area I want to tell you about is the creation of world-class online courses for students to take and college professors to use as supplements to their courses. The courses will be available for free, 24/7/365. These robust, modern courses will take advantage of the latest breakthroughs in cognitive sciences to ensure both self-paced and accelerated learning. They will help students prepare for college and provide adults in the workforce the opportunity to improve their skills on their own time. They will help colleges control costs and equalize access to a high-quality education by giving free access to courses commonly offered across the country. The program will be built with $500 million over the next 10 years.

All of this will be paid for through savings in the student loan program. Right now, we are scheduled to pay banks $87 billion to subsidize loans over the next decade. Our plan will cut out the middle-man. We will loan money to students directly. We will use the savings for what is actually important – helping students afford and succeed in college. The House version of the higher education bill will include $10 billion for the president’s Early Learning Challenge Fund, too. These efforts are fiscally responsible— reducing the deficit by $10 billion over the next decade.

Our plans are ambitious and our goals are global. Indeed, we are facing the interplay of danger and opportunity, but if we can ride the wind of that opportunity, we can be successful.

The President, the Secretary and I take our work seriously. We need your help. It will take all of us to turn things around. It will take facing an uncertain future. But we cannot do anything less than to reach this goal—for our students and for our country.

Thank you for the privilege of speaking with you today. I will take your questions.