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 Home > News & Policies > February 2005

For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
February 28, 2005

Mrs. Bush's Remarks at United States, UNESCO and Education for All Conference
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

9:39 A.M. EST

MRS. BUSH: Thank you very much, Director-General Matsuura. Thank you for your very warm introduction. I've enjoyed our meetings in Paris and New York. And now I'm very happy to welcome you to Washington, D.C.

President DeGioia, thank you for hosting this conference at Georgetown University and for inspiring your colleagues in higher education to make UNESCO's mission part of their own.

Laura Bush delivers remarks during the United States, UNESCO and Education for All Conference at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Monday, Feb. 28, 2005. "In all countries, no matter how prosperous, there are pockets of need, children who need attention and a caring person to show them the way to a better life," said Mrs. Bush in her remarks about literacy and education.  White House photo by Susan Sterner And I'm so pleased to share the stage with Secretary Margaret Spellings. Margaret and I are longtime friends who share a passion for making sure every child receives the very best education. And she's doing a great job as America's new Education Secretary.

And congratulations to Pravin Rajan, who can now be called "Mr. President" since his election to the leadership of the Georgetown University Student Assembly.

Ambassador Louise Oliver is also here. Thank you, Ambassador. Thank you for your leadership on your country's behalf at UNESCO. It might be a tough job, but for a mom who's raised five children, dealing with 189 countries is probably a piece of cake. (Laughter.)

Thank you also to Marguerite Sullivan, the new head of the U.N. -- U.S. National Commission to UNESCO. And special thanks to Dr. Phyllis McGrab for arranging all of this great conference for all of us. Thank you, Dr. McGrab.

Our topic today, Education for All, concerns political leaders and community leaders worldwide. Last week, when President Bush and I were in Europe, Doris Schrder, the wife of German Chancellor Schrder, hosted a roundtable discussion with authors, journalists, book publishers, to discuss how we can foster early reading habits and get children away from the TV screen and in front of a book. Mrs. Schrder is the honorary chairman of Germany Reads, which is designed to encourage everyone in a child's life -- parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles -- to read to children early and often.

Mrs. Schrder knew that I'm always eager to talk about books and learning, and as President DeGioia mentioned, I had the privilege of coming to Georgetown to discuss education issues before. This very hall was the site of a summit on early childhood cognitive development in 2001. We brought together researchers with expertise in child development to explore the best ways to help young children develop the skills they'll need to learn how to read. We'll continue to share the findings of that conference with people around our country, and, with UNESCO's help now, around the world.

In all countries, no matter how prosperous, there are pockets of need, children who need attention and a caring person to show them the way to a better life. Earlier this month, President Bush announced a nationwide effort called Helping America's Youth. We're reaching out to young people in our country, with a particular emphasis on boys -- because the statistics on boys are alarming. Boys begin to fall behind girls in elementary school. In fact, nearly 70 percent of children in special education classes are boys. In high school, boys fall even further behind. More girls than boys go on to college in the United States and earn degrees. Boys are more likely than girls to commit crimes or to be the victim of a violent crime. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that more than 90 percent of gang members in the U.S. are boys. And by age 18, boys are 17 times more likely than girls to be in jail or prison.

You can imagine, then, how much more dramatic the problem is in other parts of the world, where conflict has left thousands of former child soldiers with no schools to attend or productive ways to spend their time. Many others have been orphaned by war or disease. One observer from the field described these, and I quote, "masses and masses of youth roaming around" as "a ticking time bomb." It's a problem we must address. How can we help children turn toward a future of real possibility of success? We all know that the answer begins with education.

UNESCO members and partners are helping millions of children realize the advantages of education. UNESCO's goal of Education for All is to make universal primary education available to every child in every country by 2015. America is eager to contribute to this work. The United States rejoined UNESCO 17 months ago. And I am pleased to serve as the Honorary Ambassador for the United Nations Decade of Literacy.

UNESCO figures show, and you've already heard this from both of the previous speakers, that more than 800 million people worldwide cannot read a simple book or write a basic sentence. Two-thirds of these people are women, and, of course, many of these are mothers. Overcoming the problem requires research into the best way to teach reading, as well as great teachers who will help every child learn to read. And of course, it also requires support from governments and partners in civil society.

I've spent a lot of time in classrooms in America and around the world, and I've watched children's eyes light up as they read to me. An educated child is better equipped to handle all the challenges of life, from finding work to avoiding diseases like HIV/AIDS. Research tells us that a child's ability to thrive is closely linked with his mother's education level. That's why mother and child literacy should be at the heart of our efforts to increase literacy around the world. Our mothers are our first teachers. They introduce us to the joys of reading and learning. From them, we learn lessons that will influence us throughout our lives.

Research shows us that children who are read to from a very early age are more likely to begin reading themselves at an early age. They're more likely to excel in school. They're more likely to graduate secondary school and go to college. By reading to a young child, a mother helps that child develop language. She teaches him how to hold a book and follow words. And she also links books and reading with the safety and the comfort of a mother's arms and a mother's voice. Many of the brilliant and ambitious young people who come to you from higher education started their journey with parents who read to them and who taught them to love the written word.

The value of literacy goes beyond books. A mother who can read also knows how to follow the instructions on a bottle of medicine. She can read the label on a food container. She can read a newspaper and learn about the world around her. She can conduct basic business transactions and know whether she's getting a fair deal. And she has more options for helping to support her family. Literacy is a significant first step toward building a better life. And maternal literacy can be a significant step toward a better life for the whole family.

UNESCO is engaged in this work around the world, helping women like Pampay Usman. Pampay joined us in New York, at the launch of the Decade of Literacy. Growing up in the Philippines, Pampay didn't have the opportunity to go to school. And although she couldn't read or write, she managed a small market. So you can see how hard and frustrating her work was -- because she couldn't write down the name of her customers or the goods they brought, she had to remember their faces and every item they purchased. The day Pampay joined an adult literacy class in her village, her life changed forever. She learned how to write her name and address. She learned how to read prices on groceries, and her business grew. Pampay said, "Literacy brings trust and confidence in my life." Even the smallest gains can make a huge difference in the life of a person in the developing world. And governments around the world are heeding this call.

In Oman, national leaders have made education a top priority. Dr. Rawya bint Saud al-Busaidi is the Education Minister in Oman -- the first woman on the Arabian Peninsula to head a government ministry. A UNICEF report showed that literacy rates among Oman's women increased from 38 percent in 1990 to 62 percent in 2000. Over the same decade, the rate for men rose from 67 percent to 80 percent.

In Iraq, UNESCO has distributed nearly 9 million new math and science textbooks, free from Baathist propaganda, to Iraqi schoolchildren. The books were produced by Iraqi printing companies, providing jobs for the Iraqi people and helping the local economy.

Throughout the broader Middle East and North Africa, the United States is working with our G8 partners and regional ministers to broaden literacy, to expand education -- especially for women and girls -- and to promote skills training that meet the needs of local people. Ministers have set a goal of cutting the region's illiteracy rates in half by 2015, and they're committed to working together to achieve that goal.

In Madagascar, where one in three children are not in school and one in three adults cannot read or write, UNESCO and other U.N. organizations worked to open 260 learning centers in the poorest provinces. One report described "children, mothers with babies in their arms, teenage girls showing just how keen they are to learn." One of those eager children was a 12-year-old boy named Jocelyn, who showed off his reading skills to his parents and said, "I hope these courses won't stop. I want to continue to learn."

In America, we make schools a national priority. Our federal, state and local governments invest more than $500 billion a year to provide education to every child. And as we're meeting here today, the National Governor's Association is meeting. The state's governors, which I hope you saw in the newspaper today, have committed to improving high schools in their states. Yet around the world, school is a luxury, often unavailable to children. UNESCO reports that more than 100 million school-age children do not attend school. In some developing nations, schools have been devastated by war or ethnic violence. In many countries, particularly in Africa, the HIV/AIDS crisis has decimated the teaching profession. Children who have been orphaned by AIDS have also watched their teachers and other adults in their lives fall victim to the disease. UNESCO estimates that by the year 2015 we will need 30 million highly qualified new teachers around the world.

The scope of the problem of illiteracy and the magnitude of the worldwide teacher shortage may seem staggering. But we are already hard at work to overcome them, and as we search for the best methods of expanding literacy and training teachers, we must keep our minds open to new ideas. All of the ideas put into practice must also be put to the test. Resources, time and energy should be spent wisely and effectively. And when programs work, they can be highlighted and replicated.

Reach Out and Read is a national literacy program in America that puts literacy squarely in the center of child development. When babies and mothers see a doctor on a well-child visit, the doctor gives the child a book, a new picture book that's age-appropriate, which means that for babies, they might need to be chewable. The doctor talks to the mother about the importance of reading aloud. Mothers learn that reading with young children, starting as early as six months, is important to foster healthy growth and development.

More than 2,000 hospitals and clinics in the United States have Reach Out and Read. Adaptations of the program are also flourishing in Italy, in Great Britain and in Australia. Evidence shows that Reach Out and Read works, that parents who participate read to their children more often, that parents and children have more positive attitudes toward books and reading, and that the language skills of young children improve when their families get books and advice from their doctors.

In the developing world, the benefits could be even greater. Books designed to help children read could also help mothers who are striving to improve their own reading skills. When we work with mothers and children in literacy programs, we can help two generations at once.

Educational research has made great strides in the last two decades. We now have a better understanding of how people at different stages of life -- young children, teenagers, and adults -- respond to different methods of teaching. The United States is investing in educational research that is already improving our success in teaching people to read. We are eager to share the benefits of this research with UNESCO and with educators around the world, and to learn from research that's done in other countries.

With research and resources and decades of expertise, American universities are important partners in UNESCO's work, and I'm glad that many college and university leaders have joined us here today. Our higher education institutions are respected throughout the world, and attract some of the brightest minds in the world. With so much respect across the globe, American colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to help UNESCO meet its goals of advancing literacy, training teachers and using education and science to fight HIV/AIDS.

UNESCO's University Twinning, or UNITWIN, program gives American colleges the chance to partner with a college in the developing world. These partnerships could involve sending faculty abroad or setting up whole departments in another country. They could involve sharing world-class research in disease prevention with local scientists, or starting a program to let student teachers improve their skills in African classrooms, or working with a library in the Middle East. The UNESCO Chair program is another way to improve life in the developing world. In the past year, UNESCO awarded chairs to the University of Rhode Island and Rutgers University to preserve coastlines and to manage critical water supplies.

The University of Nebraska in Omaha brings women from Afghanistan to their campus to train as teachers. I've met with every class of students in the program, which is co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The women come to Omaha for five weeks of seminars, observation and training techniques that concentrate on needs specific to Afghan schools. Graduates of the program go back home to their classrooms and put the lessons they've learned into practice. They also pass on the lessons to other teachers, extending the benefits of the program far beyond the number of people who are able to come to the university here and learn directly.

Paula Nirschel, whose husband is the president of Roger Williams University, founded an initiative to educate Afghan women. Paula contacted colleges and universities throughout America and encouraged them to provide full scholarships -- including room and board -- to women from Afghanistan who want to come to the United States to study. In the third year of the program, there are 12 students at campuses across America. Paula hopes to have eight more students next year. Her goal is to provide an education for these women so that they can return home to serve as academic and personal role models to the people of their country. Last year, I invited Paula to the G8 summit in Georgia to speak to the spouses of world leaders. I wanted to share Paula's success with women who can use her ideas in their own countries.

Meanwhile, Paula's husband, Roy Nirschel, recently announced that Roger Williams is partnering with Basra University in Iraq. They're providing textbooks and equipment to the school and next year they'll host a professor from Basra University. One Iraqi professor who accompanied a group of students to Roger Williams and to Harvard this month was asked to compare classrooms in American universities with classrooms in Iraq. He said, "Our blackboards are missing. No TV, forget that. I can't recall any teacher having a desk at the front. And sometimes there aren't enough chairs for everybody."

These needs exist around the world, and American colleges and universities can help meet them. I've had the pleasure of talking with Director-General Matsuura many times and I know that he is always looking for new ideas to strengthen and enrich the organization he serves. Making connections with colleges in other countries will also provide unique opportunities for American students to become more connected to the global community and to develop skills and perspectives that will increase their chances in public service, in business, engineering and many other fields.

Georgetown has reached out to the world through its School of Foreign Service for 85 years. Now, as the United States is more engaged than ever before in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia and in South America, we look to schools like this one for graduates who have the training to work in developing nations and to bring needed help to people. Improved teacher education programs will ensure that highly qualified teachers are prepared to teach in schools that are in desperate need. Increased language instruction will allow students and graduates to be a vital link between indigenous cultures and the wider world, a voice for children and communities at risk of being left behind.

The United States is proud to join 189 other UNESCO members in the mission of making education a reality for all the world's people. And with your help, we can promote literacy and train teachers. We can help millions of boys and girls go from a life of hardship to a life of opportunity. And we'll make the world a more peaceful and hopeful place for every mother and every child.

Thank you all very, very much. (Applause.)

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