"[T]his is not a well-funded district," Duncan said. "They made the courageous choice in about 2007 to stop buying textbooks, and they used all the money that they put in for textbooks to put in to technology. So they have sort of paved the way on this move from print to digital. And it's been amazing to see not just increase in test scores, but significant increases in high school graduate rates.
Duncan called technology a "game-changer" that can "empower students to be engaged in their own learning."
"Young people should have access to AP classes, to foreign language classes, to online tutoring. It's a fantastic way to help teachers do their job better and engage them in really important ways. Teachers can collaborate across the country with their peers. They can individualize instruction in ways that just hasn't been able to happen historically."
Duncan was traveling to Mooresville, N.C., with President Obama, who announced a multi-billion-dollar plan to bring high-speed Internet connections to 99 percent of America’s students. Obama is giving the Federal Communications Commission five years to make it happen.
"This is not connectivity for connectivity’s sake," the White House website says. "It is laying the foundation for a vision of classrooms where students are engaged in individualized digital learning and where teachers can assess progress, lesson by lesson and day by day. It’s about creating learning environments where students can both succeed and struggle without embarrassment, where barriers for children with disabilities are removed, and where we can bring the most modern, innovative, and up-to-date content into the classroom."
Duncan could not tell reporters how much the president's plan to bring high-speed Internet to all schools would cost, but the White House said the ConnectED initiative will require "a major capital investment." The Associated Press said it will cost "several billion dollars."
"I think it's really important that the FCC do that analysis, figure out what we could do with existing resources," Duncan said. If there's a need on a temporary basis for some additional resources, we need to look at that." Duncan specifically mentioned a "temporary slight increase in fees for the short term to get this done." A surcharge, in other words.
"And none of this requires any congressional approval?" a reporter asked Duncan:
"Which is the fantastic part of this," Duncan replied, prompting laughter. "We can get this done. And our kids can't wait and our teachers can't wait. We're trying to get better, faster educationally in tough economic times.
"We want to partner with Congress in everything we do," Duncan added. "And, as you know, we try to work in an absolutely bipartisan, nonpartisan way in everything we're doing. But we have to educate our way to a better economy. And the path to the middle class goes right through our nation's public schools.
And we're either going to see children in South Korea and India and China and Singapore have competitive advantages, or not. And I just think that's not fair to our kids. Our children are as smart, as talented, as committed, as entrepreneurial as children anywhere in the globe. We just have to give them a chance to compete on a level playing field. And today, quite frankly, we're not doing that."
Giving all students access to high-speed broadband is a "no-brainer," Duncan said. "We open up a new world of educational opportunity."
Working together on videos, movies
In his remarks, President Obama noted that in the Mooresville district, every student -- starting in third grade -- gets a laptop and high-speed, wireless Internet in the classroom.
"And I just saw the ways that it’s changing how you learn. You don’t just write papers and take tests. You're working together on videos and presentations and movies and poetry. Your high school Spanish class might Skype with students in Barcelona or Buenos Aires."
Obama said his plan will help people in rural areas take advanced placement courses, even if their own schools are too small to offer such classes. And it will help disabled students take part in classroom learning via Skype or FaceTime.
"In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools? Right? (Applause.) Why wouldn’t we have it available for our children’s education?"
He said his plan will allow teachers to "spend fewer hours teaching to a test, more time helping kids learn in new and innovative ways."
And he predicted that businesses will flock to North Carolina -- "because they know for a fact that we’ve committed ourselves to equipping all of our kids with better skills and education than any place else on Earth. That’s what we need."