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Secretary Margaret Spellings

In the last 50 years, American ingenuity has put a man on the moon, a rover on Mars, and computers in our businesses, our homes, and even our pockets. The last half-century has reminded us how American innovation can spread democracy, freedom, and hope. Those who founded and those who have led our nation through the centuries understood that education is the essential foundation for a thriving, inventive democracy. Before founding the University of Virginia in 1819, Thomas Jefferson noted that “nothing [has advanced] the prosperity, the power, and the happiness of a nation” more than education, and he was right.

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. In response, former Columbia University President Dwight Eisenhower launched a historic national investment in math and science. He understood that education was the best weapon he had.

American universities reacted to Sputnik with an extraordinary display of ingenuity. Within a decade, our country tripled the number of science and engineering PhDs awarded every year. More importantly, we turned the threat of Soviet competition into proof of our ability to improve the quality of life for our citizens and countless others worldwide.

Today, we have no symbol as obvious as a Russian satellite streaking through the sky to remind us of our global competitors, but there are many smaller signs fast approaching on the horizon. The world is changing at a rapid pace, and many of our students lack the skills to succeed in the global knowledge economy.

We face a severe shortage of Americans who speak languages that are critical to our national security. While only 44 percent of our high school students are studying any foreign language, learning a second or even a third foreign language is compulsory for students in the European Union, China, Thailand, and many other countries, including those you might not expect, like Kazakhstan. Many begin learning before they’re even 10 years old. And as fluent, accent-less adults, they will have a strong advantage over monolingual Americans in developing new relationships and businesses in countries other than their own.

As President Bush said yesterday, “Learning somebody else’s language is a kind gesture, and a gesture of interest. It is a fundamental way to reach out to somebody and say, ‘I care about you.’ I want you to know that I’m interested in not only how you talk but how you live.”

This is not just an education issue; it’s an economic issue, a civic issue, a social issue, a national security issue, and it’s everybody’s issue.

To prepare American students for the future, we must follow the example that school districts are beginning to set. Chicago public schools are teaching Chinese to nearly 3,000 K-12 students. In Portland, students can begin learning Chinese in kindergarten and continue all the way through college at the University of Oregon.

Under the proposal President Bush announced, the Department of Education would support more partnerships between universities and local school districts. We will help more K-12 schools adopt effective programs to teach Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, and other critical languages. We will offer Americans who already speak these languages the opportunity to teach in elementary or secondary schools. And we will provide teachers with intensive, research-based training.

We will also develop an online clearinghouse for foreign language study. We’re already supporting projects like OutreachWorld.org, which collects research from 120 federally funded National Resource Centers. The new clearinghouse would serve as a one-stop shop, combining knowledge from the public, private, and higher education sectors to provide an inventory of foreign language programs that have been proven to work.

But languages are only one part of preparing students for our ever-changing world. Growing up in the shadow of Sputnik, who would have imagined that people in Bangalore would be tutoring our children online or solving our computer problems by phone?

As Tom Friedman says in his bestseller The World Is Flat, U.S. high-tech companies are seeking employees abroad, not just because they can be paid less, but because they are often more skilled and more motivated. These companies are not just following the money. They’re also following the brains. Our students are facing an education and ambition gap, and they’re on the wrong side.

And as Norm Augustine, head of the National Academies Gathering Storm committee and former chairman of Lockheed Martin, recently told the Congress, “Americans find themselves in competition for their jobs not just with their neighbors but with individuals around the world.” The committee’s number-one recommendation for improving the situation is to strengthen the K-12 pipeline, especially in math and science.

Less than half of high school students graduate ready for college-level math and science. And a recent adult literacy study showed that 11 million Americans—that’s 5 percent of our adult population—are unable to read.

A college degree is more important than ever. And too few Americans have one. To start a national discussion on how we can meet rising enrollment numbers and new economic demands, in September I launched the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

I’m pleased to be working with the Congress to create new SMART grants for college students who major in math, science, or critical foreign languages. By providing up to $8,000 during their junior and senior years—for a total of more than two billion dollars over the next five years—these grants will encourage more students to go into fields that increase America’s security and continue our fine tradition of innovation.#



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