Bill Gates, one of the most successful men in history, has weighed in on a problem that will prevent others from achieving success like his. American students now languish near the bottom on international rankings.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” Bill Gates told Oprah Winfrey on an August 7, 2008, Special Report. The problem is worse than Mr. Gates and Oprah Winfrey imagine.
In grade four, U.S. students out-perform their international peers in 65 percent of participating countries in math and science. In grade eight that figure drops to 46 percent. When U.S. students reach grade 12, they do about as well as students from Lithuania and surpass only students from Cyprus and South Africa. Educrats are fond of blaming low achievement on poor students, but that is not the case.
“This is affecting all schools,” said Melinda Gates. She is right, and California is one example.
At more than one in 10 affluent, middle-class public schools statewide, nearly 300 in all, less than half of the students in at least one grade level are proficient in English or math on the California Standards Test (CST). Less than one-third of those schools’ students are poor, few students are English language learners or have disabilities, parents are well educated, and most, if not all, of their teachers are certified. Those schools are in neighborhoods where median home prices approach, and even exceed, $1 million. But California’s not alone.
By eighth grade around one in five American students who are not poor score below basic in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Close to two-thirds of non-poor 8th graders are not proficient in these core subjects.
Twenty-five years ago the landmark report A Nation at Risk warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity.” To be sure, no single achievement test is a perfect measure of student learning; however, when multiple assessments show similarly poor performance, the evidence becomes too compelling to ignore that the American schooling system has a quality problem, and it’s time to re-think the way we deliver education.
If this rising tide were truly just a trickle afflicting mostly poor, inner-city public schools, then more money flowing in or moving vans heading out would have stopped the flood. But, as education scholar and former Microsoft engineer Andrew Coulsen has observed, one of the last great innovations in American education happened around 1801 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson: the invention of the chalkboard. Therein lies the problem.
In much of America children are still assigned to one-size-fits-all schools based on where their parents can afford to live. Such rationing results in winners and losers: Schoolchildren whose parents can afford to move in search of good schools, and students whose parents are stuck. Over time, all schools stagnate because they have a captive audience – a lose-lose situation for students of every socio-economic background.
For former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson, founder of the independent charter school district St. Hope Public Schools in Sacramento, reform is a moral issue. “Education is supposed to be the great equalizer for us all.” Options such as charter schools and publicly-funded scholarships help ensure students can attend the schools that best meet their needs. Such schools have more freedom to innovate and powerful incentives to spend education dollars wisely. Most important, letting parents pick the schools they believe are best for their children works. Consider Florida.
Florida schools ranked near the bottom of most surveys ten year ago. Then in 1998 the state enacted a comprehensive set of education reforms, including, instructional reform, standards and accountability, curtailing of social promotion, alternative teacher certification, and parental choice so no students would be trapped in schools that weren’t working for them. The results speak for themselves.
In just a few years low-income, inner-city Florida 4th graders turned an 11-point NAEP reading deficit into a two-point advantage over all California 4th graders. The average Florida Hispanic 4th grade reading score – conducted in English – is now higher than the overall scores of all 4th graders in 15 states, including California. African-American 4th graders in Florida score higher in reading than all Louisiana and Mississippi 4th graders, and a single scale-score point now separates them from the average California 4th grader.
Oprah Winfrey believes that “education is freedom” but worries that “we are literally imprisoning America’s future.” For Bill Gates, such overall poor performance wasn’t supposed to happen. It will change for the better when parents of all socio-economic backgrounds are free to choose the schools they think are best for their children.
Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D. is Education Senior Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California. Evelyn Stacey is a PRI Education Studies Summer Fellow.