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Can America Win the Education Race?

Students in a fourth-grade class last year at the Salmon Bay School in Seattle
Students in a fourth-grade class last year at the Salmon Bay School in Seattle

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This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

President Obama talked a lot about education in his State of the Union speech last week.

BARACK OBAMA: "We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world. [Applause]"

"This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said.

BARACK OBAMA: "Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs."

If Americans want to "win the future," he said, then they also have to win the race to educate their children.

BARACK OBAMA: "Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree."

Two years ago, Mr. Obama set a goal to regain the world's highest rate of college graduates by twenty-twenty. He says the responsibility to give every child a chance to succeed begins not in classrooms, but in homes and communities.

BARACK OBAMA: "Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair. [Applause]"

President Obama talked about his Race to the Top competition. It offered states money to develop plans to improve teacher quality and student performance. He urged Congress to follow this idea for the next version of the main federal law on elementary and secondary education.

Also, he called for preparing one hundred thousand new teachers in science, technology, engineering and math over the next ten years. He noted that many teachers now are old enough to retire.

In his message, Mr. Obama offered to begin debate with Congress on immigration reform, and he linked that issue to education.

BARACK OBAMA: "Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us."

The speech came the same day the Education Department released the latest results on student progress in science.

The goal is for all students to perform at the proficient or advanced level. But only about one-third of students in grades four and eight and one-fifth of twelfth-graders did that in two thousand nine. Just one to two percent of students performed at the advanced level.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report. I'm Steve Ember.


Contributing: Avi Arditti