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Spellings: U.S. Universities Should Help Solve Illiteracy

More U.S. universities should apply their research toward solving the enormous problem of illiteracy worldwide, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings (search) said Monday.

"The more people behind this effort, the more people in need we can help," Spellings said at a conference of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (search) at Georgetown University.

"In the end," she said, "we're not looking to fill a press release or a fact sheet. ... We measure success by the gleam in a young girl's eyes as she learns to spell, or the intensity of a young boy so lost in his studies that he momentarily forgets his troubles."

First lady Laura Bush (search), known for championing early education, called for greater efforts to help mothers become literate, too. "When we work with mothers and children in literacy programs," she said, "we can help two generations at once."

More than 800 million people cannot read and write, and roughly 103 million children are not in school, according to UNESCO, which the United States rejoined in 2003 after a 19-year absence. The organization's goal is to ensure that primary education and lifelong learning opportunities are available to every person through international cooperation.

"The enormity of the challenge must not be allowed to daunt us," said UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura at the one-day conference on higher education involvement.