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Gates' education action plan needs momentum

By Nancy Salvato
web posted March 7, 2005

Bill Gates addresses the National Governors Association/Achieve SummitBill Gates, a keynote speaker at the National Governors Association/Achieve Summit, recently remarked that our high schools are obsolete because the system only prepares one-third of our students for college, work, and citizenship. So aside from the cost barrier, there is a barrier called lack of preparedness that is preventing two-thirds of our students from being able to succeed in school or make a living.

He went on to say that the best educated kids in the United States are the best educated kids in the world and of that we should be proud of that. But I beg to differ with him. According to Education World:

"The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that 'on average, 10 percent of 15-year-olds in [the 30 member] OECD countries have top-level literacy skills, with which they are able to understand complex texts, to evaluate information and build hypotheses, and to draw on specialized knowledge. In the United States, 12 percent of students are among those top performers; only six countries -- New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland -- have a larger percentage of top performers. At the other end of the scale…an average of 18 percent of 15-year-olds in OECD countries (including the United States) show serious weaknesses in the literacy skills needed for further learning. With a relatively high percentage of its students doing well, but a relatively high percentage also doing poorly, the United States, on average, is only average."'

Furthermore, in a voluntary benchmarking study included in the 1999 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), U.S. 8th graders ranked 19th in math and 18th in science among 38 participating countries.

According to Youth at the Crossroads: Facing High School and Beyond, a 2000 Education Trust report, however, 'although only one country does better than we do in grade 4 science, by the 12th grade, we outperform only Cyprus and South Africa. Our 12th graders end up in the same position in mathematics.'"

It was known that our schools were in trouble twenty years ago, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

Perhaps it is premature for Mr. Gates to applaud the dedicated teachers and principals around the country for producing the best educated kids in the world. A fraction score well, but as can be gleaned from the above statistics, only in literacy do they perform on top of the world.

It is not surprising that the United States has, according to Gates, "one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world” and that many who graduate do not go onto college.” Finally, those "who do go on to college are not well-prepared – and end up dropping out.”

On the surface, I find nothing wrong with Bill Gates' suggestion about how to help fix this problem. He has seen evidence that setting high academic standards, reducing student teacher ratios, and providing additional resources while making teachers and administrators responsible for improving performance can work to improve things.

But I disagree that by redesigning the existing public education system, these problems will be resolved. All schools need to provide a relevant while challenging curriculum, and caring adults who look out for their students. There is also mounting evidence that smaller school size positively affects motivation, attendance rates, and a feeling of safety.

What Bill Gates did not touch on nearly enough is that only by inserting competition into the public school monopoly, will there be sufficient motivation to make these ideas more than a pipedream. Schools have known that they needed to change for over twenty years. Yet things have gotten progressively worse. Why should they change? They won't go belly up as long as they have a monopoly on the public money.

Bill Gates understands that "you have to be able to make systems of schools work for all students. We need equitable school choice.” But only by making school choice available by giving tuition tax credits or vouchers to those who cannot afford alternative methods of education, will we equalize opportunity and preparedness across social and economic lines. By forcing the public schools to compete for students, they will have to improve or lose their students to better educational institutions.

It would be a crime to lose another generation of students to poor education. If Bill Gates truly wants to see schools graduate a prepared workforce, one that is able to make a living above the poverty line, then the best way is to provide money to low income families to be used for tuition scholarships at alternative sources of education. Many of these already have high standards, small school atmospheres, teachers who go the distance and a proven track record of success.

Nancy Salvato is the Director of Research & Education at Americans For Limited Government. She is an experienced educator and an independent contractor with Prism Educational Consulting. She serves as Educational Liaison for Illinois' 23rd Senatorial District. She works nationally and locally furthering the cause of Civic Education. Her writing is widely published on the internet and occasionally in print venues such as the Washington Times. Her opinions have been heard on select radio programs across the nation. Additionally, her writing has been recognized by the US Secretary of Education. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2005


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