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Insights: Martha Kanter on Educating a Nation

By John Walda

*When she took her first higher education job in California's Silicon Valley in the late 1970s, notes Martha Kanter, “it was a time of tremendous demographic change.” Thousands of returning Vietnam War veterans needed career training, while waves of Vietnamese immigrants and an ever-expanding Hispanic population were reshaping the state's educational needs.

Kanter worked on behalf of the evolving multicultural state in a variety of positions in the 100-plus-campus community college system, most recently as chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. Becoming under secretary in the U.S. Department of Education—the first community college leader to serve in this position—builds on her life's work of putting education in reach of a nation with increasingly diverse learning needs. In this interview with Business Officer, Kanter discusses the Obama administration's education strategy.

The higher education sector is trying to work more closely with K–12 leaders to ensure students are better prepared for college. What is the department's plan to make this transition easier?

The first thing President Obama did, with Secretary Duncan's leadership, was to set a three-part agenda for early learning, K–12, and higher education. Within that constellation, we have a large percentage of children—upwards of 25 percent—who are not ready to learn when they enter kindergarten. That's why you've heard the president talk repeatedly about early learning as central to our efforts so that we can start the pipeline with kids who are healthy, inquisitive, and able to participate. One exciting direction is the support the president has given us to work with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control, and other agencies to craft an agenda for improving the health of all children.

For K–12, Secretary Duncan has been traveling across the country talking about our Race to the Top competition for states to lead the way in school reform. Currently 27 percent of high school students—one every 26 seconds—are dropping out. We have to get those teens back. We think the best way to do so is to challenge communities directly, so that mayors, school superintendents, college and university presidents, and business leaders work together to address the dropout problem as well as to improve K–12 standards. Currently, states follow different sets of standards, and two thirds of the students who graduate from high school are not prepared for college-level work in English and math. That has to change. With the president's call to arms, 48 states have agreed to work on a common set of academic standards for high school graduation so that students will be college and career ready.

And the focus for higher education?

The president has set a priority for the United States to be the most competitive, best-educated workforce in the world by 2020. For a generation our college graduation rates have remained stagnant. Today 40 percent of Americans have baccalaureate degrees. The president wants to increase that by 50 percent so that by 2020, 60 percent of Americans will have bachelor's degrees. The reality is that 30 of the fastest-growing fields—including health care, information technology, bioscience, and medicine—are rapidly changing and require a four-year degree as a minimum to get a good job. Two-year degrees will likewise become necessary for hundreds of new workforce opportunities that employers need to fill going forward.

Some positive changes you've noted—particularly cooperation among states to agree on college-readiness standards—seem to be occurring because incentives are involved. Is this a strategy the department will continue to employ?

Absolutely. Everyone in the department is talking about how we can leverage innovation, incentives, research, evidence, and best practices to make schools better so that more students succeed. This isn't a cookie-cutter environment. We have a diverse student population to serve that requires innovative thinking.

Can you expand on that?

I recently heard Joel Klein, chancellor of New York's public schools, talk about the [state's] “School of One” project. No matter how many students a teacher has, what you want is to provide the perfect education for any individual student. Historically we've created a somewhat mechanized system. We need to individualize the system to build on the particular skills of students, some of whom learn better with technology, and some [better] in a group, while others learn best in a traditional lecture environment. So we have to become more flexible in the classroom to customize the curriculum for students. In fact, flexibility is a strategic imperative for all of us as we wind our way out of the recession and rebalance our institutions to serve a community of students that keeps growing and changing.

What specific challenges do you see ahead for serving a broader education agenda for the nation as a whole?

One huge challenge is access. Our agenda is centered on opening doors to the wealth of diversity in America. Overlaying this focus is a strong commitment to quality education. We have to balance letting more students come into higher education—which is our commitment as educators—with making sure the quality of our education remains top-notch.

We've also heard Secretary Duncan talk about the need to modernize how we do business, with an emphasis on continuous improvement, greater use of evidence in decision making, and a commitment to improve not only access, but also completion. Students come to college because they want to get a good job, they want a particular quality of life, and they want to give back to their communities. We need to help them achieve those goals in as short a time as possible while not sacrificing the quality of education they receive.

Of course a key challenge in degree and certificate completion is student demographics. Most of the growth we'll likely see in the college-ready population is among groups that have been less successful in the past in terms of attainment. Will this require refocusing federal resources to achieve this goal?

Yes. We want a wide diversity of students from rural to urban America—including those from economically disadvantaged families—to have the opportunity not only to attend college, but also to attain degrees. In certain cities and regions of the country, up to 50 percent of students aren't completing the programs they begin. And so, one centerpiece of the Obama education agenda is to reform federal student aid.

Specifically, what are your plans for reform?

One opportunity for real innovation is through work-study [initiatives]. Many people don't realize that two thirds of American undergraduates work while they attend college. Many also might not realize that revenues for federal student aid are equivalent to the seventh-largest bank in the country.

One key question is: How can we use student aid to marry work and education in a much more sophisticated way going forward? In other words, how might we build partnerships with the business community to fully leverage opportunities for students to work in jobs relevant to a student's career goals? For example, I'd like nothing more than to use work-study aid to place business majors in a high-tech company, or an accounting firm, or a small business, so they get that experience on their resumes. In the process, they may become the perfect employees for those companies once they graduate.

How can higher education associations be effective partners in supporting the department's goals?

Strengthening institutions and the student experience are fundamental values we all need to keep talking about as we look at accountability, efficiency, transparency, and student attainment and achievement. And we must look at these things together on behalf of the American public.

The president's education agenda was set with an expectation for broad partnerships and alliances with business, philanthropic, and community organizations. Building relationships with the leadership associations of higher education is critical to our effectiveness at the federal level.

Finally, I have to ask you what it's like to work for Secretary Duncan.

I can't imagine a greater privilege than coming to serve in this department, and it's a thrill to work with Secretary Duncan. He is an amazing leader with the energy of 20 people and a keen focus on student achievement. And he is crystal clear about finding and filling the gaps of underserved and underrepresented students who are falling through the cracks at any point along the pipeline—from early learning through higher education. He is committed to reaching out to both the public and private sectors to enhance the work that we do so that we are not working at cross-purposes. His agenda is ambitious and complex, but we all are inspired by his leadership to get the job done.

JOHN WALDA is president and chief executive officer of NACUBO.