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EDTalks: Connecting Education, Jobs, and Our Future

 

Prepared Remarks
May 20, 2014

In the early 1970s, a little girl in Clarksburg was growing up in a house so crowded that she had to sleep at the bottom of her parents’ bed.

Diane was the youngest of seven children and an average student at Adamston Elementary School.

Her father, who worked at Union Carbide, had been bright enough to skip second grade, but he dropped out of school soon after to help support his younger siblings. Diane started working at a young age, too.

By 8, she was picking up garbage at the Dairy King restaurant in exchange for hot dogs and Cokes. She would continue to work hard all her life. But it was a third-grade teacher named Mrs. Bonner who convinced her to dream bigger than menial jobs.

Diane said: “She really changed my life. She sort of took me under her wing. She started with my handwriting and told me I had nice handwriting. She believed in me, and she told me, ‘Diane, you can do whatever you want to do’ and I said, ‘Really?’”

From that point on, Diane decided to do her best. She excelled in school and worked at McDonald’s to put herself through Fairmont State.

Today, Diane Lewis is one of West Virginia’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Action Facilities Management, a company she started in her basement, with her teenage son acting as her secretary, now serves many government agencies.

Diane is on the board of Teaming to Win, which works to improve small business prospects in West Virginia. She runs a non-profit organization called Members of Diversity that helps put minority youth on a path to success. And, I am pleased to say, she serves on the West Virginia University Board of Governors.

Each of Diane’s successes flowed from one moment — the moment a teacher helped her believe in her own potential.

Since its origins in the early years of our republic, public education has nurtured the human spirit, one child at a time. Our country was born in the Age of Enlightenment, a time of rapid advancement in scientific, political, and philosophical thought.

And into the fabric of our country’s history, education has always been inextricably woven.

In the farewell address ending his first presidential term, George Washington called upon his fellow Americans to establish “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.”

Our founding fathers knew that our radical experiment in self-government would only succeed if its citizens had the knowledge to reason and debate, to think and to act.

Public education has been a keystone of self-governance from the nation’s earliest days. In America’s darkest moments, in the turmoil of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln expanded the promise of public education to higher education, extending opportunity beyond the wealthy and well connected.

It is important to recall the times in which President Lincoln had the vision and wisdom to sign the Morrill Act, creating land-grant education: 1862 was the year of the Battle of Shiloh, the Second Bull Run, and Antietam. The losses were nearly beyond comprehension. Uncertainty was high and hope was scarce.

But Lincoln — the son of illiterate parents from the country’s vast frontier — recognized that the story of human progress is inextricably bound to education.

In the beginning, our nation’s shameful history of racism and sexism made it hard for some citizens to benefit from public education. But, over time, our schools evolved to provide opportunity for every child in this diverse and complicated nation.

Public education remains a beacon of hopes, dreams, and progress.

Sometimes, it is easier to see the importance of a familiar institution through the perspective of an outsider.

I had a conversation in China several years ago that underscored for me our strengths and our opportunity. I have been to China many times over the years to meet with academic, business, and government officials.

On one visit, I was scheduled to have a fifteen minute chat with their minister of education. After three hours, he said to me, “How do you Americans teach creativity?”

Innovation has always been a vivid strand in the American mosaic. Another outsider looking in, 19th century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, identified creativity as one of the unique “habits of the heart” that distinguished Americans.

And our world is crying out for innovation as never before.

In the early 20th century, America’s wealthiest people — the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers — made their fortunes from manufacturing and the hard work people did in their steel mills and coal mines and oil fields.

Now, in the 21st century, a person like Bill Gates owes his fortune to ideas — ideas and technology developed at our nation’s universities.

Imagination today is what steel was 120 years ago — the very building block of progress.

We live in an era when ideas will be the catalysts of virtually all future economic progress. And that means that education has never been more vital.

As educators, we have a covenant with our children and our children’s children: A covenant to extend this country’s founding principle of education in a democracy.

Education expands individual opportunity, stimulates the economy, and creates jobs.

But it does more than that: It makes every one of us in this room free.

The fact that a small-town guy from Utah can become president of some of the leading universities in this country is a testament to the American dream.

Public education opens the American dream to every one of us, forever.

Future generations need us to keep the American dream within reach.

Improving education is the signal issue of our nation’s future — economically, socially, intellectually, artistically.

In a time of social and economic disruption, Americans looking to public education for solutions — and they should.

We are being asked to provide answers because of the uniquely powerful role that education has played in America — to fulfill our country’s founding ideal of a meritocracy based on ability and action, to sustain our democracy through an informed citizenry, and to right the wrongs of bigotry and oppression.

In recent years, education at all levels has endured the skeptical glare of the national spotlight. People tell us we are doing too little. Doing too much. Doing the wrong thing. Doing the right thing the wrong way.

People in government offices lob ever-changing solutions toward our classrooms. No child left behind. Common core. Standardized testing. The race to the top.

And our students too often come to us with challenges that impede their progress: Troubled families. A lack of role models. Hunger.

More than 1 in 4 West Virginia children live in poverty. More than half of our children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. That is absolutely staggering.

Economic disparities beget educational disparities. Recent studies have shown that children born to wealthier parents are nearly five times more likely to become college graduates than those born in more modest circumstances. Meanwhile, primary and secondary school budgets shrink.

Truly, these are challenging times for all levels of education.

But, in the words of a cynical but apt saying, a crisis is terrible thing to waste. A crisis forces us to clarify priorities, and it brings what is important in to sharper relief.

The sense of urgency grows each day. And this moment presents us with the greatest of opportunities.

For far too long, we have acted in isolation from one another, hoarding our marbles and imagining the broad framework of education as a zero-sum game.

Colleges and universities cannot solve our nation’s problems alone, and neither can primary and secondary schools. A new sustainable system of education requires our unrelenting pursuit of deeper partnerships — with one another, with business and industry, with government, and with our communities.

In academia, we used to say, “Publish or perish.” Today, our mandate is “Partner or perish.”

If we welcome all good ideas and develop new partnerships, if we cast our gaze around the world and expand our imaginations, then there is no question that we will succeed. We have not a moment to waste.

Ladies and gentlemen, during the Civil War, General George McClellan became famous — infamous actually — for dithering. He refused to take action, he refused to implement changes, he refused to seize the opportunities presented his army because he wondered if waiting just another moment longer might bring forth slightly more advantageous conditions.

Within his inaction lies a great lesson. The journey to oblivion starts by waiting just a single moment more.

Indeed, war historians contend that McClellan’s unyielding hesitancy undermined the value of the strategies he was attempting to support. One of his contemporaries, General Henry Halleck, said of McClellan, “There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.”

For American education, it is time to move.

We must move boldly and seek first-order change.

The truth is, we can do better. You only have to look at recent newspaper headlines to see our shortcomings.

A recent assessment of students in 14 states found that West Virginia students rank last in reading. Our high school seniors tied for the worst scores in math. For two years in a row, Kids Count has ranked our state 47th in education. Students First gave us an F on its educational report card; we were one of only 7 states to receive that failing grade.

If we want to build a prosperous future for West Virginia, failing is not an option. Our history has shown that we can succeed in improving education when we focus on shared goals. West Virginia made pre-K education available to all four-year-olds. We have increased our high school graduation rate, though at a slower rate than many other states.

As we tell our students, we can achieve anything if we work hard enough. That is why, today, I would like to issue a call to action to educators at all levels, as well as community and business leaders: Let us work together wholly reinvigorate and reshape our schools, to create a fully rounded ecosystem of education that is truly lifelong, one in which our interdependencies are our greatest strengths.

First, let us make sure children start school with the skills they need to thrive. Pre-K is a great start, but the critical period for brain development occurs even earlier, in life’s first three years.

Recently, the percentage of infants and toddlers living in low-income families has risen.

These children face many disadvantages that can impede their success in school. For example, children in high income families hear 33 million more words by age 3 than those in low income families.

Just as children are learning to play, the playing field is already skewed against some of them. As someone with toddler granddaughters, I find that tragic.

High-quality early childcare can help to level the playing field. A recent Kids Count report showed that our state has dire shortage of high-quality childcare programs for its youngest children.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman found that investing in our youngest children produces greater returns than investments in any other age group.

Let us advocate for those investments.

Second, let us continue working to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education in West Virginia. STEM is the future, for our children, and our state.

According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, STEM job opportunities are growing at nearly twice the rate of other fields. Improving STEM education is critical to maintaining America’s traditional world leadership in innovation.

In order to meet its workforce needs, the United States will need approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than are projected to graduate over the next decade.

At West Virginia University, working with our public school partners to improve STEM education is a major priority — it is one of five Mountains of Excellence we have targeted for strategic investment.

At the same time, we must resist the temptation to bolster STEM by gutting education in the arts and humanities.The arts make our lives richer, more compassionate, more fulfilled. They are, in fact, what make us uniquely human.

Third, we must encourage high school students to take more rigorous courses. A 2012 ACT survey found that only about one-fourth of the college instructors said their incoming students are well or very well prepared for first-year courses.

Fourth, we must help students develop a global perspective. We can out-think the rest of the world, but not by closing in on ourselves. It is time to provide all our young people with the benefits of a global curriculum and global thinking.

Fifth, we must try to keep college affordable for our students. In West Virginia, the PROMISE Scholarship is a wonderful tool for increasing educational access. We must fight against any further erosion to the program.

Sixth, we must make sure that more students who enter college leave with a degree. I often say that we have deans of admission, but not what we really need — deans of completion. Improving retention, especially in the critical sophomore year — is a major priority for me at West Virginia University.

Finally, we must tell our stories. It is incumbent upon us to communicate the value of education, to individuals and to society. We need to describe in concrete terms how education changes lives, improves communities, feeds the world, sustains art and culture, and cures diseases.

At Ohio State, we had a program called the Education Access Initiative that involved hundreds of faculty members, students, and alumni—people who had been first-generation college students — acting as role models, tutors, counselors, and friends to school children.

They did for these children what Diane Lewis’ teacher did for her — opened their eyes to what they can achieve in college and beyond.

That is something each of us must commit to doing for West Virginia’s children — in our families, schools, communities, churches, and synagogues.

Although we face many challenges, we have many reasons for hope.

At West Virginia University, I see 33,000 reasons for hope around me every day.

These are young people that many of you have raised or taught.

They are diverse, collaborative, fearless, globally aware, and entrepreneurial. They are absolutely determined to make a difference.

West Virginia’s young people have tremendous potential. Employers love our graduates. I think it is because of the independent spirit of the people and the fundamental moral fiber that runs through this state that you do not find in other places.

When our students reach their full potential, their trajectory is unlimited.

Last week, presiding at Commencement, I talked to many beaming graduates and family members.

I met students who have come to our university from every possible background and life experience.

Many of them started their journey, as I did, in a small town. Now, thanks to the education they received here, they are ready to conquer the world.

Adam Carte, for example, came from tiny Hico in Fayette County. His family did not have much money, and scholarships made it possible for him to attend our University.

Our McNair Scholars program — which helps first-generation and disadvantaged students — changed his life. Working with his faculty mentor, he realized that research was his true passion.

With his diploma now in hand, Adam is heading off to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in systems biology at Harvard University.

Our young people can match up with anyone if we give them the tools to do so.

At this moment of truth, we cannot shrug and walk away. That is not what Mountaineers do.

Let us all go forward and serve our students and our communities with a renewed commitment to education. Let us act with common purpose and common sense to claim this time for West Virginia, by claiming for our students an imagination as big as the world itself.