By Noreen O'Donnell
A good education is the lifeblood of the American dream. For millions of young Americans, that dream is now in jeopardy because the education system is failing them.
A group of leading educators and reformers gathered at The Daily recently to talk about what needs to be done to save our schools. In a special five-part series, we report on the staggering dimensions of the problem, the institutions so resistant to change and the remarkable people determined to rejuvenate the system.
America’s education crisis goes far beyond our biggest cities and poorest children — even the brightest spots aren’t as bright as they once were.
"When I travel around the country talking about these issues, I inevitably come up against, you know, wealthy folks in the suburbs who say, 'Well, but my kids are fine,'" Michelle Rhee, a former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, said during a recent gathering at The Daily.
"I say, 'Did you know that the top 5 percent of kids in America, the top five — the ones that are going to Choate and Andover and all these great places, they are 25th out of 30 nations, compared to their global counterparts?''
American schools, rich and poor, big and small, are losing ground. Nearly 30 years after a national education report warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity," a third of American fourth-graders cannot subtract 75 from 301. Sixty-five percent don’t know how to tell if two cups hold the same amount of water.
Spending has doubled, but the failure to fix what’s broken threatens the country’s economic recovery.
President Obama in his State of the Union address warned that over the next decade nearly half of all new jobs would require more than a high school degree. But because a quarter of all teenagers don’t graduate, millions of Americans won’t qualify for them.
On the day he spoke, new test results showed that a third or less of the country's fourth-, eighth- or 12th-grade students were proficient in science.
“We are throwing away literally a generation of young Americans who are not going to be able to compete in this global economy,” said Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone and a longtime education reformer in New York City.
Rhee, Canada, musician John Legend and Davis Guggenheim, the director of "Waiting for 'Superman,' " were invited to The Daily to talk about Guggenheim's movie about the trouble with American schools. Former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, now a News Corp. executive vice president, moderated.
Horror stories of bad schools, bad teachers and bad results abound. An Ohio mother was jailed after she was convicted of lying about her residency to get her daughters into a better school district. New York City fired three teachers who were flirting with their students on Facebook. In Los Angeles, seniority rules forced principals to fire teachers who had been brought in to turn around schools — and left them relying on a succession of substitutes.
Vanessa Assoko, 13, attended a public school in New York City for a year before switching to a charter school called Harlem Village Academies, a free, publicly funded but independently managed school.
"The teachers tried their best to teach but they couldn’t really do a good job because the students were not paying attention," she said. "They would just shout and scream."
Millions of American children do get an excellent education. Towns and cities across the country — Alexandria, Va., or Palo Alto, Calif. — have top-ranked schools, but even the best students are not keeping pace with their international counterparts.
"Right now they are being out-educated because other countries are investing more, they're investing smarter, they're getting better results," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
Dire warnings aren’t new. The 1983 study “A Nation at Risk” hoped to spur a complacent country to act with this opening: “If an unfriendly 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.”
Now, signs of change are emerging.
Teach for America spurred young teachers to bring new energy into the field. Philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad are targeting charitable donations to bring about key shifts — merit pay for teachers, for example, and more accountability. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg gave a startling $100 million to fix the morass in Newark, N.J.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is closing schools that are failing. Rhee shook up Washington’s system before resigning and starting StudentsFirst, a new advocacy group.
Charter schools have taken root, from Geoffrey Canada’s Promise Academy to the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of schools that began in Houston and now totals 99 in 20 states and D.C.
“The whole point of charter schools is that they’re trying something out,” said Christina Cotter, who teaches at Harlem Success Academy. “My school I think really works. I feel confident that it’s going to be working for a long time.”