Nation Deserves Candidate Debates on Failing Public Schools

Posted April 2, 2008 at 3:04pm

How many wake-up calls does America need before we make our failing public schools fit for the competitive challenges of the 21st century?

[IMGCAP(1)]This month marks the 25th anniversary of the first loud gong — the 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” which famously warned that “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

That was Cold War talk, but the same report anticipated the world we live in today. “Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competition throughout the world. … What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur — others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”

Are they ever. In the latest Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 28th out of 41 countries in mathematics literacy, 16th in reading, 22nd in science and 29th in problem-solving, far behind not only Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong and most of Western Europe, but behind even Poland and the Slovak Republic.

As Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told a House committee last month, “The United States today has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the industrialized world. Three out of every 10 ninth-graders — and nearly half of all African-American and Hispanic ninth-graders — do not graduate on time.

“Of those who do graduate and continue on to college, over a quarter must take remedial courses on material they should have learned in high school.”

Gates anticipated one of the most dismal reports yet — issued this week by the America’s Promise Alliance (disclosure: my wife is its president) showing that only 52 percent of students in the nation’s 50 biggest cities graduate from high school, compared with 75 percent in their suburbs.

In the worst cases, Baltimore city schools graduated less than 35 percent of their students, compared with 81 percent in the suburbs; Columbus, Ohio, graduated 41 percent in the city, 83 percent in the suburbs; Cleveland graduated 42 percent in the city, 78 percent in its suburbs; and New York graduated 47 percent in the city, 83 percent in the suburbs.

At a press conference unveiling the new findings on Tuesday, the alliance’s founder, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, pronounced them “a catastrophe,” especially in view of the emergence of new international competitors like China, India and former Soviet satellites.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) declared that, “If this were a health crisis — a disease — we’d call it an epidemic and would throw whatever resources we could at it. But nobody seems as outraged by it as they ought to be.”

Burr and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) are co-sponsors of the Graduation Promise Act, which would authorize $2 billion over five years to surround the country’s 2,000 most dropout-prone schools with tutoring, health and parent-mentoring resources to reduce the problem, a plan America’s Promise is promoting on its own with 100 “dropout summits” around the country over the next two years.

Bingaman acknowledged to me in an interview that the bill had little chance of passing this year because it will need to be folded into reauthorization of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law — a measure that is going nowhere this election year.

NCLB was a pioneering, bipartisan step on the road to improving American education — requiring states to adopt measurable performance standards, test children regularly, report results based on race and income groups and take remedial action when schools fall short.

Yet, NCLB is regularly denounced on the campaign trail by Democratic candidates Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in a nod to teachers unions, which object to accountability requirements, and it’s also opposed by right-wing Republicans as a federal “takeover” of state primacy over education.

To his credit, Obama occasionally has hinted he supports “merit pay” for teachers based on their performance in improving student outcomes, but he was hissed for it at last year’s National Education Association convention and has retreated to recommending higher “battle pay” for teachers taking on difficult assignments in science, math and poverty-area schools.

In a speech Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) eloquently backed NCLB and pay-for-performance, but he has yet to make education a top-tier issue in the campaign.

As a measure of how low education stands as campaign priority, only 27 of about 500 questions asked during presidential debates this year have concerned the schools, according to former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, now head of Ed in ’08, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to raise education’s profile.

In the audience at the alliance event was Dr. Milt Goldberg, executive director of the 1983 commission that produced the “Nation At Risk” report. I asked him how far we’ve come since then. “We’ve made some incremental gains,” he said, “but on the basics, not much.”

Before the alliance event, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told me she plans to issue a report later this month commemorating the 25th anniversary of “A Nation At Risk.” The gist of it? “We continue to be at risk,” she said. That’s an understatement.