Opportunity for all

president barack obamaEditor’s note: President Barack Obama addresses students, staff and community leaders today at Bladensburg High School in Bladensburg, Maryland.

Young people today are working on cooler stuff than they were when I was in high school. In classrooms across the country, students just like the students here, they’re working hard, they’re setting their sights high. And we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that all of you have a chance to succeed.

And that’s why I’m here today. Because last year, we launched a national competition to redesign America’s high schools for the 21st century — the 21st century economy.

Now, let me tell you why this is so important. Many of the young people here, you’ve grown up in the midst of one of the worst economic crises of our lifetimes. And it’s been hard and it’s been painful. There are a lot of families that lost their homes, lost jobs; a lot of families that are still hurting out there. But the work that we’ve done, the groundwork that we’ve laid, has created a situation where we’re moving in the right direction. Our businesses have created almost 9 million new jobs over the last four years. Our high school graduation rate is the highest on record. Dropout rates are going down; among Latinos, the dropout rate has been cut in half since 2000. More young people are earning college degrees than ever before. We’ve been bringing troops home from two wars. More than 7 million Americans have now signed up for health coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

So we’ve been making progress, but we’ve got more work to do to make sure that every one of these young people, that everybody who is willing to work hard has the chance to get ahead. We’ve got to make sure that our economy works for everybody, not just a few. We’ve got to make sure opportunity exists for all people. No matter who you are, no matter where you started out, you’ve got to have confidence that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can make it.

And that’s the chance that this country gave me. It’s the chance that this country gave Michelle. And that’s why we’re working so hard for what we call an opportunity agenda — one that gives everybody a shot. And there are four simple goals: We want to create new jobs. We want to make sure that people have the skills to fill those jobs. We want to make sure every young person has a world-class education. And we want to make sure that we reward hard work with things like health care you can count on and wages you can live on.

But the main focus here is guaranteeing every young person has access to a world-class education. Every single student. Now, that starts before high school. We’ve got to start at the youngest ages by making sure we’ve got high-quality preschool and other early learning programs for every young child in America. It makes a difference.

We’ve got to make sure that every student has access to the world’s information and the world’s best technology, and that’s why we’re moving forward with an initiative we call ConnectED to finally connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed Internet in the next few years. It means that we’ve got to rein in college costs — because I want to make sure that Leah, when she goes to school, she’s not burdened with too much debt. And we’ve got to make it easier to repay student loans — because none of the young people here should be denied a higher education just because your family has trouble affording it. And a world-class education means preparing every young person with the skills they need for college, for a career, and for a lifetime of citizenship.

So what we did was we launched a new competition, backed by America’s Departments of Education and Labor, to start redesigning some of our high schools. We call it Youth CareerConnect. And we’re offering $100 million in new grants to help schools and local partners develop and test new curricula and models for success. We want to invest in your future.

You guys are all coming up in an age where you’re not going to be able to compete with people across town for good jobs — you’re going to be competing with the rest of the world. Young people in India and China, they’re all interested in trying to figure out how they get a foothold in this world economy. That’s who you’re competing against. Now, I’m confident you can match or exceed anything they do, but we don’t do it by just resting on what we’ve done before. We’ve got to out-work and out-innovate and out-hustle everybody else. We’ve got to think about new ways of doing things.

And part of our concern has been our high schools, a lot of them were designed with curriculums based on the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, and haven’t been updated. So the idea behind this competition is how do we start making high school, in particular, more interesting, more exciting, more relevant to young people.

Last year, for example, I visited a school called P-TECH — this is in Brooklyn — a high school that partnered with IBM and the City University of New York to offer its students not only a high school diploma, but also an associate’s degree in computer systems or electromechanical engineering. IBM said that P-TECH graduates would be the first in line for jobs.

Then I visited a high school in Nashville that offers “academies” where students focus on a specific subject area — but they’re also getting hands-on experience running their own credit union, working in their own TV studios, learning 3D printing, tinkering with their own airplane — which was pretty cool. I never got to do that. I did get my own airplane later in life. Although I’ve got to give it back. I don’t get to keep it.

But this is stuff I didn’t get to do when I was in high school — and I wish I had. But it’s stuff you have to know how to do today, in today’s economy. Things are moving faster, they’re more sophisticated.

So we challenged America’s high schools to look at what’s happening in a place like P-TECH, look at what’s happening in cities like Nashville, and then say what can you do to make sure your students learn the skills that businesses are looking for in high-demand fields. And we asked high schools to develop partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on real-life applications for the fields of the future — fields like science and technology and engineering and math. And part of the reason we have to do this now is because other countries, they’ve got a little bit of a lead on us on some of these areas.

A country like Germany right now focuses on graduating their high school students with a technical degree equivalent that give them a head start. So we’re asking schools to look into what places like Germany are doing.

Now, not every school that enters into this competition for the $100 million is going to win — because we don’t have enough money for everybody, and we want to force schools to think hard and redesign, and we want to reward the schools that are being most innovative and are actually proving some of the concepts that they’re trying out. But the great thing is that through this competition, schools across the country that entered have changed the way they prepare their students, and have already made enormous improvements, even before they get the grant. And, ultimately, we had to choose the top Youth CareerConnect initiatives. Today, I’m proud to say that schools across America are putting up some pretty impressive proposals.

The winners across the board are doing the kinds of stuff that will allow other schools to start duplicating what they’re doing. The winners in Indianapolis are expanding their career prep programs to encourage more young women and kids from diverse backgrounds to join our science and technology workforce. New York City likes that Brooklyn high school model, P-TECH, so much that they’re using their grant to fund two more just like it, so that students can gain two degrees at once and get the edge they need in today’s high-tech, high-speed economy.

I know our brilliant scientists at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, they’d be proud of you. They like looking at bacteria. And I got a little worried when I went into the classroom — everybody was wearing goggles and vests, and I didn’t have my goggles. But they assured me it was safe.

If you’re focused, if you’re working hard, you now have a platform so that by the time you get out of high school you’re already ahead of the game; you’re already in a position where you’ve got some skills that make you employable. And then you can just take it further, whether it’s a two-year college or a four-year college, or graduate school. Or there are a couple of young ladies in there who said they want to be neurosurgeons, psychiatrists. So you can build on these careers, but the point is you have a baseline where you know if you’re focused here at this school, doing your work, you’re going to be able to find a job.

We’ve got a collective responsibility to make sure that you’re getting those opportunities. And there are resources out there that we’ve got to pull into the school setting. Businesses, foundations around the country, they want to fund more CareerConnect programs — because it’s in their interest. They want good employees. They’re looking for folks with skills.

When you can say, hey, the math that I’m doing here could change the way the business operates; or, I see how this biology experiment could help develop a drug that cures a disease — that’s a door opening in your imagination. It’s also good for our economy. It’s good for our businesses. That’s a new career path you’re thinking about that allows you to pursue higher education in that field, or the very training you need to get a good job, or create a new business that changes the world. That’s good for our economy, it’s good for business, it’s good for you, it’s good for America.

As a country, we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that every single young person here can have that “aha” moment, that light bulb goes off and suddenly you’re not just studying because your parents tell you to or your teacher tells you to, you’re studying because you know you’ve got something to offer.

And I want to make sure every student in America has a chance to get that moment — that realization that your education can not just unlock your future and take you places you never imagined, but you’re also going to be leading this country. That’s the chance that this country gave to me and Michelle. And that’s the chance I want for every single one of you. From preschool for every four-year-old in America, to higher education for everybody who wants to go, every young person deserves a fair shot. And I’m going to keep on doing everything I can to make sure you get that shot and to keep America a place where you can make it if you try.

April 7, 2014
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