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What's wrong with America's schools? Why can't we fix them? How did we wind up with dropout rates of 25 percent and graduates who can barely read and write? Why does the United States spend twice as much on education as the international average and wind up near the bottom of the barrel in global comparisons of student achievement? Why do we lag behind nations such as South Korea, Hungary, and Singapore? And how should we go about improving the situation?
Answers to these questions lie at the heart of this volume. David T. Kearns and James Harvey contend we are fine-tuning failure. We have yet to break with the past in order to face a different and challenging future. Despite worshiping at the altar of "local control" we have managed to create cookie-cutter schools across the country. We have been sidestepping the transparent need for common expectations about what students should know and be able to do. Standards, the authors say, are not clear enough or high enough. Above all, we have met the enemy and it is us: all of us support "change" as long as someone else is changing.
This book is a fascinating and provocative analysis of where we went wrong and what we need to do to get American education back on track. It defines the kind of education our kids deserve. It calls for a new definition of "public education" in which choice is taken for granted. And it outlines an action agenda to help parents and citizens make first-class schools truly their own.
In the future, the authors argue, we should think of a public school as any other non-profit entity —capable of operating in the public interest free of the red tape now strangling public education. It should be paid for by the public and accountable to the public, with its charter or contract routinely revoked when it stops serving public purposes or fails to meet its performance goals.
Copyright © 1999 The Brookings Institution.
All rights reserved.
What is wrong with the American education system? Why can't we fix our schools? How did the United States wind up with high school dropout rates of 25 percent and graduates who can barely read and write? Who is responsible for the fiasco that sees up to 60 percent of new teachers failing basic tests of reading and writing? In the face of shockingly poor performance by American students on nationwide and international tests, what explains the "Lake Wobegon" effect, the phenomenon of state and local educators reporting that America's children are all above average? Why does the United States spend twice as much on education as the international average and end up at the bottom of the barrel in global comparisons of student achievement? What happened to cause American preeminence in high school completion rates to slip so that the United States now trails twenty-two other industrialized nations? What can be done about all this?1
Those are the issues I set out to examine in this book. After a three-year investigation, I am not at all convinced that conventional educators have the answers. Often they are not even asking the right questions. For the most part their reform prescriptions simply fine-tune failure. Interest group politics define what is possible because public schools are no longer "the public's schools" but creatures of the professionals who manage them. Despite worshiping at the altar of "local control," communities all across the United States have managed to create cookie-cutter schools while sidestepping the transparent need for common expectations and standards about what students should know and be able to do. Above all, we Americans have met the enemy and it is us: All of us support change as long as someone else changes.
Effective school reform is not rocket science. Educators and policy-makers should not act as if most Americans cannot follow this discussion or understand what is required. Education reform needs to get back on track. Our children deserve a world-class education. Citizens across the nation need to demand an end to public school systems that provide a one-size-fits-all education and assign children to schools depending on where they live. The nation needs a new definition of what a public school is, as well as a much more open and democratic schooling system that provides real choices to meet the diverse interests of American students. Society needs public schools that truly belong to the public because citizens know them, understand them, and support them.
Above all, we Americans need to leave behind a legacy of learning for our children. It should take the form of high standards and expectations for student performance. It should include new kinds of public schools that are capable of continual self-renewal and confident enough of their value to offer abundant options to American students and families.
To me nothing is more important to the American future than the quality of the schools. Educational performance is the fundamental issue lying at the core of every problem our society faces—economic performance, domestic tranquillity, international competitiveness, racial harmony, and the growing gap between rich and poor in America. No matter how you circle around these issues, all of them sooner or later come back to the schools.
This country cannot work unless its schools do. That is my fundamental conviction. It cannot work economically, it will not work socially, and it will not be able to function as a democracy. The issue is at once that simple, that straightforward, that direct—and that important.
Education and Competitiveness:The Economic Equation
A strong nation depends on a strong education system. Education and economic competitiveness are two sides of the same coin. It is really that simple.
I first came to the education issue in the 1970s. And I came to it not as a starry-eyed idealist, but as a businessman. I had become convinced that the competitive success of corporations (and nations) depended increasingly on the quality of their human resources. My initial interest was really nothing more than that. Manufacturers were continually trying to improve processes and the quality of the raw materials that go into their products. It had become clear to me that the human element in the design and production process could be improved too.
Our competitors in the Pacific Rim understand that. The Japanese, for example, seemed to me to view universal education as key to international competitiveness, influence on the world stage, national unity, cultural cohesion, and personal development. Here in the United States, parental interest in schools, when it exists at all, is often much more pedestrian: Are my children popular? Do they have friends? Do they seem to be happy and doing well? How good is the football team? Small wonder that Japanese students run circles around American students on international achievement tests.
According to American scholars who have studied these matters in depth, the success of Japanese schools (and for that matter Chinese schools, on the mainland or on Taiwan) is rooted deep in Asian culture. For example, Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan and James Stigler of the University of California, Los Angeles, both social scientists, report distinct differences in the cultural contexts in which American, Japanese, and Chinese schools find themselves.2 Japanese and Chinese schools are able to insist on higher achievement because the home and the community support high standards, hard work, and respect for teachers.
Struggling to understand the competitive pressures toppling one American industrial giant after another, I went to Japan perhaps twenty-five times or more during my time at Xerox. The company had a joint venture in Japan, Fuji Xerox. In my conversations with Tony Kobayashi, chief executive officer of Fuji Xerox, and Jeff Kennard, a Xerox representative who helped manage relations with our Japanese business ally, I learned a lot about Japanese society and Japanese schools. These lessons confirmed expert opinion.
According to Tony and Jeff, Japanese education continues to be influenced by Confucian ethics of respect for learning, discipline, diligence, and responsibility. Above all, they told me, the Japanese have a respect for teachers that borders on reverence. Jeff, in fact, believed that the challenge to the United States "comes primarily from the Japanese classroom, not the factory."3 In his view, the literate, competent, and diligent workers with whom American workers are competing were produced first and foremost by Japanese schools. Education equals competitiveness; that is the basic equation.
Despite the disastrous performance of the Japanese economy in the last half of the 1990s, the basic equation still holds. Japan rose from the ashes of World War II by taking American statements about education standards and student performance seriously and harnessing them to Confucian principles. Like a phoenix, Japan will emerge intact again from today's economic ashes. We Americans should take our own educational ideals as seriously as do our friends in the Land of the Rising Sun.
I think Tony and Jeff had it just about right. The Japanese culture, the entire society, is almost obsessively committed to children and education. There is even a sort of national consensus on what the ideal Japanese child should look like. No such consensus exists in the United States, and most people, including myself, would not want such a thing. Americans value individual differences too much for that. But partly because American society values individuality, there is no clear consensus about what young people should know and be able to do when they complete high school.
Most parents are like my wife Shirley and me: they want schools to help prepare their children for life. At its most obvious, that means preparing them for the world of work. For most people, work is part of the rhythm of life. But life encompasses much more than earning a living. Parents, and indeed the larger society, also want their children to become good parents. They want their children to understand what it means to be part of a neighborhood and to contribute to their communities, often in leadership positions. They want their children to grow up to be citizens with an active interest in the great events of the day. And they want people who know how to use, enjoy, and profit from the leisure that is the fruit of their work.
In many ways what society wants is quite simple. Schools should help produce adults who can discharge all of the obligations that go with earning a living, being a parent, living in a community, and being a member of a democratic society. Pretty simple—and simultaneously pretty complex. The difficulty is that our schools are not producing these kinds of graduates.
These tasks are much more formidable today than they were just a generation ago. Every careful observer of contemporary life believes that American society has under gone dramatic social and economic transformations in recent decades. However good or bad today's schools are judged relative to those of the past, they are unlikely to be good enough to meet societal and individual expectations for the future.
The Jobs Connection
Ed Bales, who retired in 1997 after ten years with the Motorola Company's training arm, Motorola University, likes to point out that as the United States moved from an agrarian society in the nineteenth century to an industrial one in the twentieth, everything about the economy changed. Not only did the nation move from agriculture to manufacturing, but the tools, resources, and ways of organizing people for work were transformed as well. A similar upheaval is taking place in workers' lives today as the nation moves into the information age, he says.4
The dominant technology of the agricultural era was the plow, notes Bales. The product was food, developed with strategic resources of land and animal energy. As industrial needs came to predominate, heavy equipment and machinery became the major technologies, manufactured goods became the product, and strategic resources of capital and fossil fuels displaced land and the brute power of men and animals. As the world moves into the information age, the computer is becoming the essential tool, information is the critical product, and human knowledge and the human mind are the major strategic resources as well as the greatest source of economic energy.
How have American schools responded to all of this? Not terribly well. Everyone can point to an exception here and there, but by and large the schools today are the same ones that were created in the agrarian past. Even the school calendar in use today was designed originally with farm needs in mind and has been expanded only grudgingly ever since.5 Everything else has changed dramatically, but schools have hardly changed at all.
The big changes in the larger society are accompanied by significant dislocations, often painful and traumatic. Although service employment has partially compensated for the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States (and absorbed huge numbers of women into the labor force), it seldom pays as well as manufacturing. Middle-class American households have had to rely on two incomes to sustain their living standards. The importance of child care and of schools as places for socializing the young have begun to become more apparent.
Standards everywhere today are higher. It is hard to find a type-writer in an office; they have been replaced by computers. Today's mechanics do not guess at what is wrong with an engine, they diagnose it with on board electronic systems. Technology in industries from printing to automaking turns around every two to three years. The half-life of today's engineering graduates is said to be about five years; then they have to retool themselves. Roy Romer, who was governor of Colorado when I spoke with him and is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told me he likes to use a pole-vaulting analogy to get the message across. "Americans are still trying to vault a fifteen-foot bar with bamboo poles out of the 1950s while the rest of the world is clearing nineteen feet easily with fiberglass," Romer says.6
In his writings throughout the 1990s, Peter Drucker makes several vital points about the future of the U.S. and world economy and education. He asserts that the era of stable and highly paid blue-collar jobs necessitating only minimal levels of education is over, that stable industrial firms are almost a thing of the past, and that people will be forced to choose between lower-paid service jobs and relatively better-paying "knowledge worker jobs."7 As Drucker points out, knowledge workers, by definition, have to master specialized skills. They also have to be extremely adaptable. They seldom work in assembly lines, and the organizations that employ them are themselves lean and adaptable. Thus, the new generation of knowledge workers will have to shape their own skills and work to the current needs of an unpredictable economy. They will also have to manage their own careers, understanding the environment in which they work well enough to know when to develop new skills, when to leave one job for another, and when to start something new on their own.
I find Drucker's analysis compelling. Its education implications are sobering. Obviously, all Americans will need very high levels of skills. But they will also have to develop the capacity to analyze their own situations and to understand how they fit into larger systems. They must have the breadth of knowledge and skills, including adaptable mathematical, verbal, and foreign language skills, that our society currently strives to inculcate only in our most able liberal arts graduates.
I can already hear the naysayers. Some of them are probably thinking right now: "So what? If education and economic competitiveness are two sides of the same coin and the schools are as bad as Kearns says they are, how come the U.S. economy is roaring ahead and Japan is suffering through its worst recession since World War II? So what if the Japanese and Koreans and the French and the Germans beat us on international comparisons? They have all got double-digit inflation and lots of their people can't find work. Get a life." Others are likely to be saying. "Right. American companies have already made miraculous competitive recoveries with the very work force produced by the schools he is criticizing. If the schools are so bad, how did these companies pull off that feat?"
Fair enough. Good observations all, but they miss the point: education and competitiveness are two sides of the same coin. America's economic success is made possible not only by the public schools, but also by the American system of higher education. The United States leads the world in the proportion of adults with a bachelor's degree.8 The work force on which the economy and companies depend is made up increasingly of the college educated. In many ways, the nation's competitive rebound has been driven by American higher education, a system that in international circles is almost universally described as the "envy of the world."
A 1996 report from the BusinessHigher education Forum(BHEF) nicely demonstrated the extent to which major corporations rely on college-educated personnel. Under the leadership of Harold "Red" Poling, newly retired from his position as chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Company, BHEF set out to examine the work readiness of college graduates. One part of that investigation involved examining nine large American companies, ranging from McDonald's and Federal Express in the services area, to Chase Manhattan in banking, and Xerox and Ford Motor Company in manufacturing and high technology. Poling wanted to know several things, including how much money companies spent on training new hires from the college ranks. He also wanted to know how many people were hired each year at each company and what proportion of them were college graduates. The findings, for the eight companies providing complete data, are displayed in table 1-1.
What becomes immediately apparent from the table is that most of these companies are hiring large numbers and proportions of college graduates. The exception is McDonald's, which provides low-technology services, where college graduates make up less than 4 percent of new hires. Federal Express, more high-tech than McDonald's but still service-oriented, and Ford Motor Company, one of the great manufacturing enterprises in the world, both report that about one-fourth of their new hires are college grads. With the exception of AT&T (where college graduates make up 35 percent of new hires), everyone else—whether in banking (Chase Manhattan), publishing (Hallmark Cards), professional services (Arthur Andersen), or manufacturing and high technology (Xerox)—reports that about half or more of new workers had college degrees. And I would guess that many of the new hires that did not have college degrees had one or more years of college work under their belt.
So my basic position is intact. Yet this happy state of affairs comes at considerable economic cost. According to the most recent evidence, 78 percent of higher education institutions offer remedial courses in reading, writing, and mathematics.9 Sound surprising? How about this: 29 percent of all first-time freshmen enroll in at least one of these courses each fall.10 When one considers that this 29 percent of first-year students is from that half of high school graduates who go on to college, the implications are truly staggering.
Source: Business-Higher Education Forum, Higher Education and Work Readiness: The View from the Corporation (Washington, D.C.: 1995).
We Americans have created a two-step system to provide the work force we need. Society is paying twice to develop fundamental skills, first in public schools and, when that does not work, in institutions of higher education. The schools should get it right the first time.
But this issue is about more than jobs. Buried in table 1-1 is a very troubling set of numbers for people who care about economic equity. McDonald's appears to be hiring many more people than other major companies. It is also hiring many more high school graduates and dropouts than most other major corporations. In fact, McDonald's appears to be hiring more people on an annual basis than its total domestic employment base. To the extent that McDonald's represents the fast-food industry, these statistics indicate the development of a two-track economy in the United States. On one track are relatively stable, high-paying jobs with a future available to the well-educated at places such as Xerox and Ford Motor Company. On the other track are low-paying jobs in the low-tech service sector with very little future and extremely high turnover. The United States as a functioning democracy cannot stand by and consign one segment of its young people to that kind of future.
A Functioning Democracy
The education issue is about much more than jobs. It runs to the very core of society. Commentaries in recent years from sources as diverse as the conservative analyst Kevin Phillips and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) underscore a steady and startling growth in income inequality in the United States.11 According to the CBO, for example, the top fifth of households earns 50 percent of national earnings, while the bottom two-fifths account for only 14 percent. In actual dollars the average income of the top 20 percent of American households was $89,000 in 1990, and the bottom 20 percent had to get by on less than one-tenth of that amount, $8,202 annually.
The social implications of growing poverty are formidable. The dramatic reduction in the share of annual earnings for the bottom fifth undoubtedly increases social anger and helps elevate crime rates. Meanwhile, at the very time that low-income households find the wolf at the door and middle-income households often find themselves with less to spend even with two wage-earners hard at work, the wealthy worry about crime and complain about the costs of supporting community services.
I witnessed the effects of much of this first-hand in the spring of 1992, when President Bush asked me to coordinate the federal response to the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the policemen involved in the filmed beating of Rodney King. I asked community leaders how local residents and gang members justified torching property and businesses in their own neighborhoods. The question provoked an outpouring of anger and frustration describing young men and women with no hope for the future. Their families had been on welfare for generations. They had no sense of ownership in society; indeed, they gave off an overpowering sense of the tragic futility of their lives.
Yet, even the gang members I spoke with understood that schools were important to the neighborhood. Amidst the carnage of these riots, schools lay relatively untouched. Even the most disenchanted citizens of south central Los Angeles understood the importance of fixing schools. Simply put, schools are a fundamental solution to many of the problems in this society.
Although the social consequences of poverty may be debated, there is little controversy about the connection to education. To be poorly educated is to run a substantial and growing risk of being poor throughout life. At the same time, to be well educated is to have the world by the tail. High school graduates enjoy incomes 50 percent higher than dropouts; college graduates are even further ahead, with incomes at least 75 percent higher, on average, than high school graduates.
Meanwhile, the face of America is changing. Although most American families with children continue in the Norman Rockwell image (about seven out of ten American children live with two parents), demographers say that reality is changing:
—Many children are now born out of wedlock; although most are white children, the number includes about two-thirds of all African American children, nearly half of whom live inpoverty.12
—Hispanic and Asian Americans will account for 61 percent of the growth in American population between 1995 and 2025.
—Once so-called "minority" youngsters now constitute growing proportions of school populations and in the nation's largest state, California, already constitute a majority.13
—By the year 2005 the majority of students in American public schools will be nonwhite.14
—By the year 2015 the number of Hispanic Americans will equal the number of African Americans.15
—Half of all children and youth will be members of minority groups by 2025, and half of the entire population will be minority by 2050.16
—About 75 percent of American women between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five, the women formerly engaged in child rearing and child care, are today employed outside the home.17
—Huge absolute numbers of immigrant students do not speak English as a first language, and many of their parents do not speak English at all.
The United States has become such an ethnic stew that Americans hardly know if they are fish or fowl anymore. As Gerald Seib described the United States recently in the Wall Street Journal:
Today, Muslims outnumber Episcopalians. Three out of four Americans, some 192.5 million, are whites, but the population also includes 32.5 million African Americans, almost 26 million Hispanics, and nine million Asian Americans. The idea of all those Americans identifying themselves as members of some subset, rather than parts of the whole, is frightening. Americans will need unifying institutions that work.18
Schools are one of the few unifying institutions in our communities. Part of being a good citizen is participating in our democracy. That requires making decisions about often complex issues, frequently on very short notice. Good citizens have to be able to interpret what they see on television news; they have to be able to read and understand a newspaper. Without a solid education, it is hard to contribute fully in a vibrant democracy.
Our Schools Are Not Working
In short, for the country to function, its schools must work well. They must work better than they have ever worked before. Yet, these vital institutions are not now working well enough. As this book documents:
—The longer today 's American students go to school, the more poorly they perform compared with American students of a generation ago.
—Equally distressing, the longer children stay in school, the poorer their performance is compared with that of their peers abroad.
—Functional illiteracy among recent graduates is startlingly high, running up to about 40 percent in minority communities.
—Dropout rates from American secondary schools are scandalously high, averaging about 25 percent overall.
—We have accomplished a remarkable double: not only do about one-quarter of our young people drop out of secondary school, but 25 percent or more of those who graduate cannot meet today 's demands for reading and writing.
The news, thank God, is not all unalloyed pessimism. The good news is that in some areas the system seems to be doing reasonably well. Pockets of excellence can be found in promising new models such as those being underwritten by New American Schools, the venture I helped establish during the Bush presidency and which Secretary of Education Richard Riley of the Clinton administration continues to support.
Student achievement in the elementary grades is also excellent. According to the latest 1996 and 1997 reports, American fourth graders rank second in the world in reading; stand either second or third in science, depending on how one reads the results; and are well above average in mathematics.19 These successes should be celebrated—not simply because fairness requires it, but because these results are genuinely encouraging. We should be able to build on them.
At the secondary level, however, U.S. students are just about last in the world in mathematics and science achievement. And the most recent domestic analysis from the National Assessment of educational Progress (NAEP) indicates that only two-thirds of high school graduates appear to have mastered the essentials they need in areas such as mathematics and science.
Can the Country Succeed?
The question is whether we Americans will continue to accept this kind of performance. Can our country succeed if the longer its students remain in school the more their performance deteriorates? Can we stand by and watch a system transform demonstrably superior performance in literacy and science in the early years into demonstrable failure by twelfth grade? Can this society prosper if it continues to miseducate at least one-third of its graduates?
The questions answer themselves. We Americans cannot succeed, we should not stand by, and society cannot prosper if things go on as they are. Nor will our young people succeed as they mature into adulthood. If citizens, parents, and community leaders do not take action, today's children are going to find tough sledding in their future.
In 1989 the Business Roundtable, of which I was a member, began work on a nationwide campaign to support high and demanding standards for all students. The Roundtable thought the business community should push for raising the education bar. It wanted to improve standards. It wanted graduates who were better fitted for adult life and a society that worked because its citizens were committed to it. Nobody wanted those things more than I did. And I still want them.
That Roundtable agenda persists to this day in statewide efforts to advance reform and in a public awareness campaign known as "Keep the Promise." The television ads in that public awareness campaign relate school standards to everyday adult success. The ads are good-humored and good-natured; audiences invariably smile and laugh when they first see them. One of these ads shows a small Anglo boy struggling to keep the engine from falling off his model airplane; another shows a little African American girl with a stethoscope trying to figure out how to stuff the heart back into the plastic doll on her "operating table." The voice over provides the message to the viewer: Let's hope the engineers designing your airplanes and the surgeons you rely on know what they are doing.
My favorite shows a young boy on the straightaway of a running track preparing to tackle a flight of tiny hurdles. Maybe seven or eight years old, he dances and skips gracefully across the little hurdles, literally doing a pirouette over one, arms akimbo. He is having such a great time that he is fun to watch. But then he encounters a regulation-size high hurdle up to his chin. In front of this imposing obstacle, the boy comes to a perplexed halt. The bar has been raised too high and he cannot clear it. The message is self-evident: Students who have not been challenged in school will come up short when they come across the "real deal," the challenges of daily life in the adult world.
All of this means that it is time to answer the question posed in the 1930s by a great educator, Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. "Perhaps the greatest idea America has given to the world," said Hutchins, "is the idea of education for all. The world is entitled to know whether this idea means that everybody can be educated, or that everybody must go to school." I believe that everybody can be educated. Children cannot all learn the same thing, but they can all learn to high and demanding standards. By everybody, I mean the range of typical students found everywhere—every young person in America who is not so disabled by severe handicapping conditions that his or her capacity to learn is flawed.
Everybody can learn. That's the talk we talk, but it is not the walk we walk. Our education system simply requires everyone to go to school. And because most of today's reforms accept that system and the outlook underlying it as a given, they represent little more than well-intentioned efforts to fine-tune failure. The time has come to start walking the talk. education is fundamental to jobs and to American democracy. We cannot continue to operate a system that turns some children into winners and consigns the rest to the scrap heap. That is simply not acceptable in our economy. And it is not acceptable in this democracy.
We should act in support of our beliefs. The first act is to straighten out the system so that it can do what it is supposed to do. To my amazement, people in the United States do not even agree on what a high school graduate (or a fourth or eighth grader) should know and be able to do.
The next task is to redefine the "public school." I think it should be any nonprofit entity willing to be accountable for educating children. They are acting in the public interest. With that definition in place, education innovation should be hardwired into the system, and as much choice injected as the system can stand.
Finally, we Americans need to face up to how most of us have contributed to the situation. We are in denial about our own role. Like an alcoholic or gambling addict blaming his family for his behavior, many of us like to pretend we would not behave this way if only somebody else did not behave that way. So some citizens turn thumbs down on bond issues to fund schools because they do not like the behavior of today's children, and others fight standards in the name of some misguided commitment to equity or the need to maintain sports eligibility. As citizens—parents, nonparents, business leaders, university officials, and public servants—we do not always support learning either. It is time we changed our ways.
Hard work and difficult decisions lie ahead. Public education needs to be redesigned to save it for the public. It needs to be reshaped to save it from itself. But think of the benefits: a legacy of learning for our children.
Excerpted from A Legacy of Learning by David T. Kearns and James Harvey. Copyright © 1999 by The Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.