Improving K-12 Education Key to Reaching U.S. College Completion Goal, Education Secretary Says

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday that America is still the envy of the world in higher education but cannot rest while other countries improve their competitiveness.

“Our higher education institutions are world class, but I think we have a long way to go in our K-12 system, and I worry about our competitiveness there,” Duncan said at an event at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. “There is good international competition, but we can’t rest on our laurels.”

The Obama administration’s push to increase college completion is not unlike goals set in other countries, but their approach, Duncan said, aims to improve education at all levels starting in preschool to reach the 2020 goal.

“America’s success depends on the success of its individual citizens just as the progress of humanity depends ultimately on these shared progress of nations,” Duncan said while taking questions from the audience.

Despite garnering global admiration, the U.S. higher education system has to overcome deep social gaps in educational attainment that continue to erode American progress, according to Duncan. He cited statistics that find nearly one in every three U.S. high school students drops out of school amounting to about 2.1 million students a year.

Estimates, he said, show that about 90 million American adults are below basic education levels. To rapidly increase degree production, the Department of Education estimates that states will have to raise graduation rates by 4.2 percent a year, something Duncan said is difficult but doable.

Investment followed by commitment from both private, public, nonprofit, vocational and for-profit institutions will make the difference in transitioning nontraditional students and those of low socioeconomic means to finish degree and certificate programs, Duncan noted.

Affordability is a premier issue for the Obama administration, which has already invested billions of dollars in Pell Grants and other student financial aid, but Duncan said it’s time for higher education to shift from ensuring access to promoting attainment.

“Poverty is not destiny,” he said. “The only way to fix poverty is education.”

Touching on a myriad of educational topics, Duncan restated his support for congressional legislation that would provide emergency funding to states and avoid massive teacher layoffs.

Democratic legislators have introduced bills in both Houses that would provide additional funds to the original appropriations of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that are expected to run out by 2011.

In a letter to majority leaders in the House and Senate, Duncan last week threw his support behind funding bills that will help school districts save 100,000 to 300,000 threatened education jobs.

Each bill—S.3206 “Keep Our Educators Working Act,” H.R. 2847 “The Jobs for Main Street Act,” and H.R. 4812 “Local Jobs for America Act”—calls for $23 billion in emergency money, the letter said. Democratic leaders hope to attach the education funding to a military spending bill scheduled for debate.

“This funding would keep teachers in the classroom while helping to sustain meaningful and necessary reform in public education across the country,” the letter said.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has said the fund will sustain current employees but also provide for hiring and training new ones.

In opposition, Republican leaders characterized the measures as tantamount to a bail-out for state governments.