“Global Education First Initiative: From Access to Learning in the Post 2015 Dialogue”

Remarks of Dr. Martha J. Kanter, Undersecretary of Education

U.S. Department of Education

United Nations Headquarters, Trusteeship Council Chamber

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I am very pleased to be here today with UNESCO Director General Bokova, UN Deputy Secretary General Eliasson, the Secretary General’s Special Advisor Mohammed, Minister  Soumanou and the many other distinguished panelists and attendees gathered here today.  I am especially grateful to Ambassador Staur and the Permanent Mission of Denmark to the United Nations in partnership with UNESCO for your leadership in organizing this significant meeting that will move us “from access to learning in the post-2015 dialogue.”

The dynamic involvement in the Global Education First Initiative by so many high level decision-makers is powerful evidence of the importance of today’s conversation and, in particular, our focus on learning and shared responsibility.  At the U.S. Department of Education, we are working vigorously on the issues of access AND learning.   

Let me strongly agree, from the outset, with the basic thesis statement that guides this meeting. Years ago, many of us focused a majority of our efforts on providing access to education. That made sense in a world that was largely divided between the “educational haves,” those who had access to potentially transformative educational opportunities, and the larger numbers of people who had little or, often, no such access.

Yet, today we live in a far more complicated world. We know, for example, that simply being in school does not guarantee learning.  And we better understand that learning, even deep learning, is happening beyond the classroom, in non-traditional settings.

We also know that learning remains the key to personal growth, development, and economic prosperity. Educational gains in one area, region or nation should not be losses to someone, somewhere else. This should not be a race with winners and losers. Instead, increased rates of educational attainment are a key to restoring sustainable, healthier levels of social and economic growth for a more vibrant and prosperous global society.

But to bring these gains within reach, we also need to better understand and measure learning – both qualitatively and quantitatively – to know whether the investments of time, effort, and funding we make are properly targeted and work as intended.

Unfortunately, uneven learning outcomes are a fact that characterizes education in the U.S. as well as other parts of the world. We must continue to work together to close those achievement gaps.

Education certainly goes beyond the goals of employment and a productive economy.  The purpose of a quality education also helps individuals become full participants in society and culture. That is why President Obama and Secretary Duncan have proposed a “cradle to career” approach that is centered in lifelong learning. Let me review our progress and plans.

During President Obama’s first term, we launched major new programs that focused attention on measuring and improving learning. We redesigned federal grant programs to focus them more directly on generating improved learning outcomes in our lowest performing schools, and we dramatically expanded the Pell Grant scholarship program for low-income postsecondary students. In just a few years, we increased the higher education enrollment of students from our nation’s low-income families by more than 50% from six million to more than nine million students from these families in college today! When we looked more closely at our data, we found that students from families earning $10,000 or less a year increased by 100%.

As many of you know, here in the United States, the responsibility to provide high-quality education is shared between federal, state and local authorities. I’m delighted to note that we see a variety of learning-focused efforts at the state, regional and local level that complement President Obama’s approach. 

For example, 46 states, plus the District of Columbia came together to design and adopt Common Core state standards for K-12 instruction. These standards define what students should know and be able to do at each level and were carefully developed by experts across our states from our professional societies, universities and schools to make sure students graduate college-and career-ready, with a high bar for performance, higher standards and increased expectations of our students.

In higher education, we are seeing substantial increases in college enrollment.  Between 2000 and 2010, enrollment surged by 37 percent, from over 15 million to 21 million students in college today with nearly half from America’s low-income families. Put simply, learning has become the chosen path of more Americans than ever.

To support these students, we have also focused on finding new ways to strengthen the teaching profession through improved teacher evaluations, better professional development and by generating support for higher pay and greater recognition of our teachers. In addition, through our International and Foreign Language Education programs, we are helping to provide opportunities for students and teachers in our colleges and universities to acquire expertise and competency in world languages, especially the less-commonly taught languages.  And we are encouraging and supporting our higher education institutions to work with our K-12 schools so that students of all ages and backgrounds have the chance to learn other languages and the rest of the world.

As we move into President Obama’s second term, the President also wants to intervene when it matters most by extending early learning opportunities to our youngest children.   The President’s “Preschool for All” proposal would create a new Federal-State partnership to enable States to provide universal high-quality preschool for four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families.

On average, children from low-income families start kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their peers in language development and pre-reading skills. Without early intervention those deficits often persist for a long time.

The data on this are clear. In the near-term, high-quality preschool helps children start school ready to learn. It reduces placements in special education. It reduces grade retention or grade repetition and boosts graduation rates. In the long-term, high-quality preschool both increases the odds of holding a job and decreases crime and teen pregnancy.

The President’s proposed budget would also provide additional funds to States and Local Education Agencies that are working to improve their teacher and principal evaluation systems. In particular, we want to ensure that low-income and minority students have equitable access to teachers and principals who are effective at raising student achievement.  

We are also working to strengthen education through increased funding for our “Investing in Innovation” program we call i3 to test new ideas, validate what works and scale up the most effective reforms.

And we are working to strengthen the links in our education system to better support lifelong learning, career training, and skills development, especially by working with business and industry to create better employability outcomes for our students.

Our new High School Redesign program will support partnerships that ensure that that all students graduate from high school with college credit.  These credits can be earned through dual enrollment, Advanced Placement courses, or other postsecondary learning opportunities, as well as career-related experiences or competencies obtained through organized internships and mentorships, structured work-based learning, apprenticeships and similar experiences.

Finally, we have also proposed a new First in the World Fund, which will support efforts to validate learning gain claims related to new technologies and educational practices.

Investing in the development of new tools and resources that measure and promote learning, and in making sure that every student has access to broadband Internet connections, have been and will continue to be key goals during President Obama’s second term in office.

Let me briefly highlight one major signature initiative that illustrates this priority: the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training grants, or as we call it, the TAACCCT program.  We have modernized TAAACCT to ensure that all of the new intellectual property produced will be released with an open intellectual property license that permits free use and improvement by others.

The first of these free, federally-funded open educational resources are now coming online. They are being used by community colleges and their job training partners here in the United States and are also available to students, teachers, and schools around the world, where they can be translated, customized, improved, and linked to meet local and state labor market needs.   

You can read more about the plans and ideas we have developed to accelerate progress in the U.S. Department of Education’s technology plan which, fittingly, is NOT called our technology plan.  Instead, the report is entitled “Learning Powered by Technology” because the goal is not technology itself but rather the promotion of learning.

Before I conclude my remarks, I want to thank the UN Secretary General Ban, UNESCO Director General Bokova, and the Special Envoy for Global Education Brown for their collective vision and leadership, and also recognize USAID for their work in helping to improve the lives of the most vulnerable populations around the world.

Let me also applaud the UNESCO Secretariat for its support of the Global Education First Initiative. UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics has been the official source of data for the monitoring of both Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals. The Institute has also co-convened the Learning Metrics Task Force with the Brookings Institution to catalyze a shift in the global conversation from “access” to “access plus learning.”  This is an initiative that the U.S. government strongly supports.

We have an opportunity in the years ahead to build on the accomplishments in the years that have passed since the millennium. As we think about our next set of goals and objectives, we would do well to heed the advice of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Permit me to draw your attention to those recommendations, which focus on several areas that are ripe for our shared efforts. Improved governance, promotion of the rule of law, sustainable development and inclusion of the world’s most distressed populations in our efforts are topics that have rightfully earned their place on our shared list of concerns to address. What’s more, the illustrative education goals include a clear focus on quality education and lifelong learning. 

Making sure these goals are realized, though, will require not only sustained commitment and investment from each member, but also even deeper international engagement and cooperation – through efforts such as Global Education First. We must identify the opportunities to help one another. We must develop these opportunities with sensitivity to issues of culture and gender inclusivity. And, we must be prepared to engage in this work in an ongoing, sustained manner. 

Continued progress will also help us develop new capacities to meet shared challenges, such as climate change and healthcare and move us toward our long sought shared goal to alleviate poverty throughout the world.

There is no more important work. I want you to know that President Obama, Secretary Duncan, Secretary Kerry and I are eager to continue these conversations and the hard work it will take to make our goals a reality that everyone can see, touch, and feel.  We have our work cut out for us.  But working together, with all of us who have dedicated our hands, hearts and minds to the task, I know we can further accelerate our progress.

Thank you again for inviting me to participate in today’s important discussion.