Lighting Candles Across America: The Back to School Bus Tour

Many people ask me what I like most about my job as Under Secretary of Education.  The answer is easy: it has reinforced my optimism about our shared American future and my confidence that we are rising to meet the challenges we face and harnessing opportunities ahead of us. I draw that faith from the thousands of people I have met over the past three and a half years in hundreds of communities throughout our nation who are using every talent and resource they can muster to improve our schools and systems of education at every level.

Under Secretary Kanter inspecting Navy Graduates during last year's bus tour.

Under Secretary Martha Kanter visited Navy Station Great Lakes during last year's back-to-school bus tour. This year she'll be leading the tour through several Western states. Photos courtesy of U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command

This national movement to reform and improve education is well underway and gaining momentum each day, encouraged by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. One of my responsibilities is to shine a spotlight on the innovators and entrepreneurs on the frontline of America “who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness,” as Eleanor Roosevelt famously urged the generation on whose shoulders we stand.

That’s why I am so excited to help kick off the U.S. Department of Education’s Back-to-School Bus Tour this week in Northern California. I’ll travel to Utah, Wyoming and other destinations, and the bus will continue through the U.S., making its final stop in Washington, D.C., on September 21.

We’ll be making stops to listen and to thank students, K-12 teachers, college and university professors, community leaders, business executives and others who have rolled up their sleeves to create and improve the educational opportunities whose quality and diversity will shape our nation’s future.  I’ll be blogging about our visits in the weeks ahead, but because I can’t wait to get started, I have scheduled a few visits to precede the formal kick-off of the tour on September 12.

Today, I’ll begin with a visit to the headquarters of Google, Inc. in Mountain View for an Education-Industry Roundtable with Bay Area community college leaders and business executives organized by Carl Guardino, President of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group that seeks to build deeper relationships between employers and education leaders, working together to provide world-class career and technical training in the high-demand fields that will best prepare students for the workforce.

We’ll be talking frankly and openly about the challenges and opportunities we face with dozens of individuals who are eager to create and fill thousands of new jobs in the months ahead.  The key word at this meeting is “collaboration” – which is central to achieving the education goals set by President Obama and Secretary Duncan, who have repeatedly said that when it comes to education and job-training, we need “all-hands on deck” to make our nation first in the world again in terms of educational achievement.

This afternoon, I’ll visit the College of San Mateo on the San Francisco peninsula to celebrate the launch of the first 10 pilot institutions participating in the Mentor Markerspace program, which creates physical settings where young people have an opportunity to explore their own interests, learn to use tools and materials, and develop creative projects that provide an introduction, and often advanced learning, in science, technology, engineering and math.  Scholars who study the learning sciences call these experiences “contextualized learning,” which is a sophisticated way of saying that students often do better, and learn more, if they have the opportunity to apply new knowledge in project-based activities that are intrinsically interesting and engaging.

By cultivating a love of learning, the maker movement is designed to change student perceptions about school and study and I am eager to learn more about how we can build on the strong foundation already built to bring even more students, and particularly girls, women and other underrepresented groups, into STEM fields.

Tomorrow begins at 8:00 a.m. with an early morning Presidents’ Round Table hosted by Dr. Judy Miner, President of Foothill College and convened by Dr. George Blumenthal, President of the University of California Santa Cruz. Then I’ll head to the Board of Directors meeting of the American Leadership Forum to support their P-20 Education Initiative!

These are just three examples of the learning opportunities and adventures I am anticipating in the coming week.  But I already know I will return from this bus tour with an even deeper appreciation for the capacity and desire of the American people to light candles that illuminate a better path forward for students, colleges, universities, K-12 schools and communities throughout our nation.  And I look forward to the honor of thanking and recognizing those in the lead.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education

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