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Rigorous Coursework Leads to Better Results
Prepared by Assistant Deputy Secretary Nina S. Rees
2005 North American Annual Conference of the International Baccalaureate Organization

Archived Information

July 9, 2005
Speaker frequently
deviates from prepared text
Contact: Cynthia Dorfman
(202) 205-5560

Thank you for that kind introduction. It is a great honor for me to be here with you today to talk about the importance of education in today's world, and in particular President Bush's reform initiatives from the No Child Left Behind Act to reforming American high schools.

Speaking from Experience

Normally when I get the opportunity to speak about the President's education agenda, I don't have the luxury of speaking in front of an international audience, so this is a real treat for me, especially given my own background.

I am, as some of you know, a first generation Iranian-American who left Iran in 1983 at the age of 14. While in Iran, before the revolution, I attended a French language K-12 school.

So proud were my parents and those of all the other students in this school that in the few years after the revolution that we stayed in Iran, many of us still gathered at the home of one of the teachers from the school to continue learning all of our subjects in French. So while most of our peers went home after school, we would go to a teacher's basement to learn everything we had just learned in Farsi in French!

At the time, I thought nothing of it, but when I came to the U.S. and became accustomed to the American high school system and all the social components of it, I quickly began to resent my parents for making me work so hard back in Iran!

But in all seriousness, my high school experience in the U.S. is not as unique as I thought is was. A few years ago, I saw a great presentation by the Education Trust, which conveyed the results of a survey on high schools. When asked why inner-city American high schools are failing, most adults surveyed cited the fact that students at these schools are often economically disadvantaged, that their parents just don't care, or that the schools lack proper resources.

But when they asked the students in those schools, however, their take was completely different! They claimed they can and want to learn, but that expectations are too low and the curriculum is not challenging. This is what President Bush refers to as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

And while we all come from different places, today, some of the challenges we face in the United States cross international borders and the successes we have seen and the lessons we have learned apply in one way or another to everyone here today.

Education and the Knowledge Economy

Just a few decades ago, no one—except maybe Canada's own Marshall McLuhan—would have thought it possible to have 24/7 access to up-to-the-minute news from around the world, to be able to conduct a meeting with colleagues on a different continent without ever leaving your office, or have access to email from virtually anywhere in the world, courtesy of one of my favorite tools, the Blackberry!

Today, however, those aren't just possibilities. They are every day occurrences. And employers who were once restricted by physical barriers have been freed from those hurdles. Employers today don't care if their offices are in New York or Paris or London and their employees live in Hong Kong or Stockholm or New Delhi. So long as they have access to an educated workforce equipped with the skills and abilities they require, the world is their marketplace. And in order to survive, our education systems must produce the product the market demands, namely a well-educated workforce.

An example, interestingly enough, from the education field was highlighted in the Wall Street Journal just this week. The Journal profiled Tanu Basu, a sixteen-year-old from Boston. Tanu is taking calculus classes at her school, and not surprisingly, she needs a little extra help with this challenging subject. Because of convenience, Tanu signed up for tutoring services offered on line. "It's great. I can log in on my free time, whenever I want," Tanu reported. When she does log on, she is connected to a tutor who can walk her through her calculus questions—a tutor in New Delhi, India. And Tanu's situation is not unique. Over 800 students have signed up for similar services within the last 10 months, and that is with one Indian company alone. There are several others, and many more that already have plans to expand services to the U.S.

North America's global competitors understand this evolving dynamic and they understand the importance of education in the new "knowledge economy." To cite India again as an example, the number of students enrolled in college there has increased by 92 percent.

Not that long ago, countries like the United States could survive with a small percentage of their workforce being highly educated. In the largely industrial and agricultural economy of a few decades ago, an individual with a high school diploma—and often times with even less than that—was almost guaranteed a stable, steady job with a salary that would comfortably support his family.

But in today's global marketplace, that has all changed. Even jobs that traditionally required little education have changed due to advances in technology, and the competition for these positions is more often than not quite fierce. As the global economy continues to evolve and increase its dependence on specialized, high tech systems, this competition will only increase. Eighty percent of the fastest growing jobs require some education after high school.

American Reforms

Many in the United States, including President Bush, have recognized this new reality, and we have begun to institute a series of sweeping education reforms, most notably the No Child Left Behind Act. I'm sure most of you are familiar with these reforms, but in order to get the full picture of where we have come since No Child Left Behind was enacted, I want to take you back 40 years when President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. At that time, many believed that simply investing more money in our poor schools would close the achievement gap. It took a while for us to figure out that more money alone was not the answer. NCLB was designed to change the tone in Washington and focus our federal investments on results. The law is based on four simple principles:

  • Ensuring schools are held accountable for results.
  • Providing more flexibility for states and communities.
  • Focusing on proven educational methods.
  • Giving parents more choices for their children's education.

Having passed both the House and Senate with overwhelmingly large bi-partisan majorities, the President signed NCLB into law in 2002. This ended the free-flow of dollars from the U.S. Department of Education, and now states and local school districts are held accountable for how they use those funds.

Preliminary Results

Next fall, we will start the fourth school year under NCLB, and already in this short time, we have seen significant improvements.

First, all 50 states now have accountability plans in place that lay the foundation for continuous school improvement and real student achievement. These state plans may not sound like a big deal, but they are. They are each state's contractual promise with the U.S. Department of Education to close the achievement gap. Each plan is unique because each state is unique. And each contract can be amended—as many have been—because we recognize the importance of flexibility while focusing our attention on the end goal, which is to raise student achievement for all of our students.

Data from initial studies have shown that NCLB is working to narrow the achievement gap and increase academic performance.

  • A 2005 study by the Center on Education Policy found that 73 percent of school districts report that student achievement is improving and that achievement gaps are narrowing. (Year Three of the No Child Left Behind Act, Center on Education Policy, March 2005.)
  • The Northwest Evaluation Association noted in its recent study that state-level assessment tests, like those required by NCLB, tend to improve observed achievement by students.

We've also seen real-life results from a number of states. This is the time of year that initial test results begin to become available, and the early data is very promising.

  • In Maryland, for example, they are making great strides toward eliminating the achievement gap between minority and low-income students and their peers. State data indicate that less than 16 percent of elementary and middle schools will be classified as "in need of improvement" for the upcoming school year. Additionally, 22 schools with a long history of academic struggles have met AYP, and improvement gains were noted among all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • In Florida, the number of schools making Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP has doubled since 2003.
  • The stories are similar in districts in Indiana and Arkansas where initial data for this year is available.

But we still have much to do.

NCLB Goes to High School - The Presidents' New Initiative

None of the progress that we are making in our early grades will matter much if we do not see more students graduating from our high schools with the skills necessary to succeed in college or the workforce.

Let me share a few statistics with you:

  • Today in the United States, out of a class of 100 ninth-grade public school students, only 68 will graduate from high school on time.
  • One recent study found that only 32 percent of students leave high school with the skills to succeed in college.
  • As a result, out of those 100 original ninth-grade students, only 27 are still enrolled in college their sophomore year.

Given these facts, it is not surprising that the picture from international achievement surveys is thus far troubling for the United States. The 2003 International Mathematics Literacy Study conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, found that American fifteen-year-olds scored below the international average and below 23 other countries participating in the study, including Canada.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that American companies and universities must spend billions of dollars each year on remedial education. Too many of our students who do graduate from high school are simply unprepared to succeed in higher education and the workforce.

This is why we must restore the meaning of a high school diploma. It can't be a simple piece of paper a student receives as a result of sitting in a classroom for 12 years. It must represent a ticket to success in the 21st century.

That is why the President has proposed a new High School Initiative to close this skills gap. This initiative will allow high schools to develop timely intervention programs to help save students at risk of falling behind or dropping out.

As part of this initiative, we also will ask states to expand testing in high schools, and we will provide the funds to do it, just as we have with the assessments in grades 3-8. Without assessment, there is no way of measuring the progress students are making, and without testing, there can be no accountability for results.

Governors around the U.S., from both political parties, as well as entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Craig Barrett, as well as President Bush and Secretary Spellings, all agree on the need for high school reform.

To help achieve this goal, the President has made a commitment to increasing the rigor of the high school curriculum. One key component of this plan is the Striving Readers Program. This program was established last year to help States and local school districts implement research-based interventions to improve the skills of secondary students who are reading below grade level, many of whom are at the greatest risk of dropping out of school. The President's 2006 Budget Request seeks $200 million in funding to expand this program, representing an increase of $175 million over the last fiscal year.

Rigorous Coursework Leads to Better Results

Data have demonstrated time and time again that rigorous coursework is a predictor of later success. Studies have demonstrated that students who take rigorous high school courses, such as the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs, achieve higher academic results in college.

A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school graduates who took either IB or AP courses in math and science earned a mean grade point average of 3.61, while those students who did not take IB or AP courses earned a mean GPA of 2.85. Additionally, the National Center for Educational Accountability found that students who enrolled in these courses were more prepared for college, earned higher first-year GPAs and had a higher college graduation rate. And most importantly, this study found the results to hold true for all ethnic groups and for all socioeconomic levels.

This is why programs such as International Baccalaureate are so vitally important. And it should come as no surprise that a recent Newsweek listing of the top 500 high schools in America included 7 IB Diploma Programme schools in the top 10.

IB has a long and proven track record of providing a well-defined, rigorous curriculum. The Diploma Programme in particular is known around the world for its strong reputation for utilizing a rigorous assessment and for producing quality results.

Take for example Richard Montgomery High School in suburban Washington, DC. An IB Diploma Programme school, Richard Montgomery students are receiving a world-class education. These students are achieving at levels that would be the envy of almost any other school in the state. The school exceeds the state average in the comprehensive high school achievement test, the vast majority of Richard Montgomery students go on to pursue higher education, and the school has met Maryland's rigorous Adequate Yearly Progress Standards. And being named the 11th best high school in the United States isn't bad either!

Unfortunately, though, too many students across America and across the globe, for that matter, don't have access to quality programs like Richard Montgomery's IB program. A soon-to-be-released report from the U.S. Department of Education's Program and Policy Study Service found that students in economically disadvantaged areas and students in rural areas have limited access to IB and AP programs compared to their peers in more populated and affluent areas. The study also noted that low-income and minority students participate in these programs less frequently than other students.

President Bush believes more students could—and should—benefit from the IB program. That is why he requested a record $51.5 million in his recent 2006 Budget Request to the U.S. Congress to make the benefits of an IB diploma available to more students across our country. This represents a 73 percent increase over the current fiscal year funding.

This funding will help to ensure that teachers are well trained to teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, help make these courses available to more low-income students, and provide funding to states to pay AP and IB test fees for low-income students.

The Challenge

This investment is important, not just in the United States, but around the globe. Seven days ago, the likes of U2's Bono, Madonna, Elton John, and P-Diddy brought the plight of poverty to the forefront of international discussion with the Live 8 Concerts, watched by an estimated 3 billion people around the world. The leaders of the world's eight wealthiest nations have just concluded meetings in Scotland to discuss, among other things, the issue of poverty in Africa and how to combat it. And just two days ago, we witnessed yet another terrorist attack, this time in the streets and subways of London.

This isn't a conference about terrorism, it isn't a conference about poverty, and it isn't a conference about pop music, for that matter. So why, you might wonder, am I mentioning this to you here today? Because there is a place for each of us to contribute to the solution of these problems, and that is the challenge I want to leave with you today. Without a doubt, each of these issues is complex, and there are no magic bullets or miracle cures that will solve all the problems overnight.

But it is a well-accepted fact that a lack of access to high quality educational opportunities results in higher poverty rates. This is true in Washington, DC; in Ottawa; in Nassau; and in my home country of Iran. Leaders around the world recognize these facts as well, and education reform is at the center of nearly every proposal to eradicate African poverty. Recently, President Bush announced the Africa Education Initiative, a component of the United States' contribution to assist in global African aid efforts. In announcing the initiative, the President stated "Africa's progress also depends on the education of Africa's children...If Africa is to meet its full potential, these children must have the chance to study and learn."

As recent world events have demonstrated, the plague of terrorism is also woven in the fabric of poverty and lack of educational opportunities. Earlier this week, before the devastating attacks in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair drew attention to this very topic in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. The Prime Minister noted that poverty, a lack of economic infrastructure, and a lack of hope and future among citizens create fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.

Fortunately, we're already beginning to see signs of success. Take for example the progress that has been made in Afghanistan, the former breeding ground of Al Qaida. Recently, First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary Margaret Spellings visited Afghanistan to see firsthand the progress made by the pioneering educators in that country. It's hard to believe that just a few short months ago, these individuals were repressed under the grip of the Taliban, with little or no educational opportunities and no voice on how they were governed. Since then, free elections have been held, schools have either been built or reopened, and the U.S. Department of Education has even partnered with the Afghan government to open the Women's Teacher Training Institute in Kabul to help increase the number of qualified Afghani teachers. This success is truly remarkable. The job is not finished, however, and the road ahead is long and most likely treacherous. And millions of others are waiting for the same opportunity.

You are in a unique position to be part of the solution that brings opportunity to those millions while helping eliminate poverty and terror. The success of the IB program cannot be disputed. Your hard work, emphasis on doing what works, and insistence on results have garnered worldwide respect and admiration for your program. But as we've seen, just in the case of the United States, we do not have a perfect educational system, and there are tens of thousands of children who simply do not have access to high quality education programs such as the IB. Doubtless, there are many more around the globe, and I know that the IB program can affect even more lives if students are just given the opportunity to benefit from it.

I challenge each of you to continue your work and to stand up and speak out for expanded quality educational options, not only for children in our own backyards here in North America, but also for children in Africa, in the Middle East, and around the world.

Again, it has been my honor to be here with you today. I believe we have some time left, and I would be happy to answer a few of your questions.

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Last Modified: 05/10/2007