Education Policy Speech Common Core Curriculum Conference Hotel Mostar

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you so much for hosting me here in Mostar at this conference organized by the Agency for Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Education to present Common Core Curriculum outcomes for civic education, and to discuss next steps.  In my seven months here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I have concluded that education is one of the most important issues for this country.  Raising a well-educated, integrated next generation with all the skills to succeed in the 21st century is the key to the success of BiH.

Throughout the world, the beginning of the school year brings a sense of excitement and anticipation.  Parents anxiously await the return to routines, teachers prepare lesson plans, and children sharpen their pencils and prepare to learn new things.  As a mother of three children, as the daughter of two teachers, and as a diplomat who is passionate about my work, I am very glad to have this opportunity today to talk about this issue that is of utmost importance and is near and dear to my heart—education and the need for educational reform.

Since arriving here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I have been constantly impressed by the young people I meet; they are truly the future of this magnificent country and it is the duty of BiH, as it is the duty of every nation to its children, to provide them with the education and skills to become engaged citizens and successful adults.Ambassador Cormack Speaks at the Common Core Curriculum Conference in Mostar, September 3Ambassador Cormack Speaks at the Common Core Curriculum Conference in Mostar, September 3

Sadly, the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina is leaving the country by the thousands every year.

As so, the shared priority of every one of us who cares about the future of BiH must first be to create an inclusive and modern educational system that is capable of giving students the skills they need to compete in the global 21st century workforce, and then to help Bosnia and Herzegovina develop an economy that offers these students fulfilling job opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential in a stable and prosperous democratic country.  The EU Stabilization and Association Agreement that entered into force on June 1st is a good first step in this direction, and a milestone on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU path.  It provides the opportunity for decisive action and a real, coordinated effort by institutions at all levels to develop and implement the full reform agenda, including education reform.

American philosopher and education reformer Jonathan Dewey said that “what the best and wisest parents want for their children, the community must wish for all its children.”   So let’s look at what that means here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Goals

The first step in providing the best for all children in BiH is to develop education strategies for 2015 through 2020 that create an inclusive and modern educational system that serves its students.  These strategies have to be based on the highest international standards of equal access and non-discrimination in every education institution in the country.

Secondly, the practice of segregation, as well as forced assimilation, has to give way to more open and inclusive schools.  I can tell you from our own long history with this issue in the United States, that any policy that ethnically segregates individuals is wrong.  Segregated schools undermine the foundations of equality and democracy. By learning together, we learn how to live together and work together, which is one of the most important skills needed to succeed in the modern, intermingled and interconnected world.

In the United States, students attend class with people from a multitude of backgrounds starting as early as kindergarten.  They spend every day learning with their peers, who may be Caucasian, African American, Asian, Hispanic, or other, and they see each other as students in a single system of learning.  The education system in Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to change in a way that allows children of all ethnic groups to learn and study together, without imposing forced assimilation.    To be clear, this does not mean that students abandon their cultural backgrounds. Education in Brcko District, although not perfect, provides a transitional model where students from all ethnic groups have been successfully integrated into a single education system.

We also must not forget about other groups that are often left in the margins.  Roma students should have the same education as their peers and equal opportunities to be successful.  Schools must provide students with disabilities with the necessary services to allow them to learn in an equal and dignified manner; only by doing so can a society benefit from the talents of all its citizens.

Thirdly, with full respect for the competency of each authority, the time is now — for them, and for you, to develop and launch strategic plans to implement Common Core Curricula and move away from the current content-oriented methodology.  I mentioned this idea in my first blog post when I arrived in BiH, and created a small storm of controversy.  But sometimes, that is what is needed to move a good idea forward.  Today, education has become politicized in BiH, but quality Common Core Curricula based on student outcomes would, in the future, allow students to receive an integrated and cohesive education that ensures they are prepared to enter university or begin their careers.  Let me be clear: developing common core curricula and sets of standards does not undermine anyone’s identity.   It ensures that all children are meeting the targets set in each of these fields, using critical thinking and problem solving skills.  It also provides students with an understanding of the skills needed in today’s modern workplace:  technology, languages, innovation and international understanding.  I know that the Agency has already worked with all of you to develop outcomes for the Common Core Curricula in math, language, science, and history, and I want to encourage you to work together in other fields, as well.  BiH as a country has an obligation to adopt these standards in order to provide mobility for its students and recognition of their diplomas in the EU and around the world.

Teacher Professional Development

As we talk about developing students, it is important to also support their teachers.  The Common Core Curricula will raise standards and increase expectations of educators.  Schools need teachers who are passionate about working with youth and who are dedicated to creating a safe and engaging learning environment.  To fully implement the common core curricula, rather than rote memorization, students should be encouraged at every opportunity to think critically and learn the importance of asking “why.”   I know teachers in BiH are passionate about their jobs, and these methods will excite students and encourage learning.  The teachers themselves should benefit from a system of continuous professional development, making sure that they have the up-to-date skills they need to provide the best possible learning experience for their students.

Civic Education

In addition to preparing students for the workforce, education – even more importantly – prepares them to be responsible citizens.  I firmly believe that schools everywhere must also work to strengthen their civic education programs.  One of the things BiH needs most is a population that is willing to engage directly in the future of this country and hold politicians and other leaders accountable for their promises and actions.  Democracy and civic education courses should be introduced and strengthened in all schools and at all grade levels so that students internalize and appreciate important values such as human rights, tolerance of diversity, and social justice.  But civic education does not end in the classroom.  Schools should promote volunteerism and community engagement, and allow students to participate in student councils to play a greater role in their own education.

The education system here in BiH must continue to cultivate and foster a philosophy of activism and civic engagement that empowers youth to be the change they want to see, encouraging youth to be proactive and not fatalistic.  That is why the U.S. Embassy decided to assist the Agency for Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Education in the development of the Common Core Curriculum for civic education, and we hope to be able to assist in the next steps to see that these outcomes are implemented in all classrooms around the country.

Higher Education

While the Common Core Curriculum addresses the challenges to education in BiH throughout the early years of development, the reform of higher education is also long overdue.  Bosnia signed on to the Bologna Declaration in 2003, and full implementation of the principles and development of common standards of degree and diploma recognition is taking far too long.   While higher education is not the topic of today’s conference, it is vital for the future of BiH and I hope you will urge your colleagues to address this critical issue.  I have heard professors here say that a university education should not be about getting a job.  For those students who have the luxury of immersing themselves in education for education’s sake, that is a valid ideal.  But most students face the reality that they will need to move from university to employment to survive in an inter-connected, challenging world.  .  I want to see the bright, talented young people of BiH prepared for the challenges that lay ahead of them,  The same applies to adult education; in this ever-changing world people change professions and need to be able to acquire new training according to the current needs of the market.

Corruption

What makes all of this so hard?  Across all sectors of BiH, the cancer of corruption impedes progress and frustrates the many good people who try to make headway.  For your part, it is imperative that you work towards stamping out academic corruption.  All forms of cheating and dishonesty are detrimental to the academic community and undermine society as a whole.  Schools should have a transparent, merit-based hiring process for all faculty and staff that is free of corruption. Students who cheat should not be able to get away without sanctions. Schools and universities should create an honor code for all students, faculty, and administrators to abide by, which explicitly states the consequences of academic dishonesty and corruption.

Conclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, it may seem that the road ahead is difficult, but it is easy to say that we cannot change something because it is too hard.  The Chinese have a number of wonderful proverbs that address this situation — “the man who moved a mountain is the one who started taking away the small stones” – or my favorite, “Those who say it cannot be done should not get in the way of the one who is doing it.” This can be done, and must be done, to keep the next generation of BiH citizens here to build the future of this wonderful country.

We at the U.S. Embassy will continue to support all efforts of education reform that prepare the youth of BiH to live and work together effectively in a multi-ethnic society.  Over the last 20 years, we have organized international exchanges and scholarships, sponsored teacher training programs for more than 30,000 teachers, donated more than 1 million textbooks, and partnered with the NGO Civitas to host summer camps, home stays, school-exchange programs, and the annual “Project Citizen Competitions,” which involve over 40,000 students per year.  I met this year’s winners at the BiH Parliament, and they were absolutely inspiring.  We will continue to take an active role in education reform through our Economic Support funds and we will also continue to work with political leaders, and stand by those who have the political will to introduce education and other reform to create sustainable change.  We will fully support you in your efforts, but we need you to own and drive the reform process.

John Dewey also said: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”   Education will prepare the youth to be future leaders of BiH, and it can be the driver that promotes a tolerant and diverse society, and gives the youth of this country the skills to be successful and engaged citizens.  Young citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are counting on you, on all of us.  We can’t let them down.

Therefore, supported by the International Community, education agencies and elected ministers of education should make every effort to cooperate and take prompt action.  You have a unique opportunity here; you can be the change that makes a better future for the next generation.  Will you be the champions for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s youth?  If so, we at the U.S. Embassy are prepared to support you every step of the way.

Thank you.