Below C Level – An Excerpt

Some of you have asked me for information about Below C Level, my new book. Here’s a sample from one chapter, the one about what I call the ‘convenient lies’ we tell ourselves about public education. (I have removed the footnotes from this excerpt, but they’re in the book.)

At least three forces washed away the hard-won gains that “A Nation at Risk” produced, and they have created the perilous situation we now find ourselves in:

• An ambitious but misguided federal law.
• An MBA-like “bottom-line” mentality.
• Parsimonious behavior.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 began with bipartisan optimism. In language that resonates today, the new president from Texas decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and declared that unless all groups of students at a school made progress, the entire school would be found deficient.

Unfortunately, for the most part NCLB has not worked. I have spent hundreds of days in schools since the law’s passage and have witnessed principals and teachers focusing on getting as many students as possible over the NCLB “basic” bar: a laughably low standard in most states. The kids “on the bubble” get the attention, while brighter ones must fend for themselves.

Did NCLB produce genuinely high standards? From what I’ve seen and reported, NCLB has driven down standards, dumbed down the curriculum, suffocated programs for talented students, and driven away many of our best teachers. Moreover, it has actually led to an increase in school dropouts, as some educators “encourage” low-performing students to try their luck elsewhere.

The MBA mentality is also at fault here. Schools seem to have abandoned their mission of preparing skilled and competent individuals to face a complex world with confidence. Instead, many schools focus on bubble test scores. “Drill often” replaces teaching and learning. As the “challenge-based learning” project notes, “Students today have instant access to information through technology and the web, manage their own acquisition of knowledge through informal learning, and have progressed beyond consumers of content to become producers and publishers. As a result, traditional teaching and learning methods are becoming less effective at engaging students and motivating them to achieve.” That’s a polite way of saying that many of our brightest kids are bored to tears.

Money is the third cause of failure. The conventional wisdom, that education spending has been going up for years, is wrong. While the dollar amount increased from $100 billion in 1985 to about $500 billion in 2001, and is continuing to rise with President Obama’s latest additions to the education budget, our effort – as a portion of our Gross Domestic Product and overall government spending – has declined significantly. According to the Office of Management and Budget, in 1980 we devoted 9 percent of GDP to education; in 2001, it was less than 5 percent. And according to the OECD, after five years it was just 5.5 percent in 2006.

We are not trying harder!

I am not arguing that education dollars are well spent, because often they are not. And we clearly have to do more with what we have now, in these difficult times.

In case you are interested, teachers are actually worse off today.

In 1991, the average teacher made slightly more than the average college graduate; in 2008, the median annual wage for K-12 teachers was between $47,100 and $51,180, with the lowest 10 percent earning between $30,970 and $34,280, and the top 10 percent earning $75,190 to $80,970, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average starting salary for a 2010 graduate with a bachelor’s degree, estimated to be down this year due to the economy, is $48,351, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Compared with their international counterparts, U.S. teachers fare worse. A 2007 OECD study found that a primary school teacher in America with 15 years of experience earned a ratio of about 96 percent of the country’s GDP per capita; primary teachers with similar experience in other OECD countries typically earned 117 percent of their country’s GDP per capita, with teachers in Korea earning the highest (221 percent).

But nothing illustrates our parsimony as powerfully as our spending on testing. According to policy analysts at Education Sector, in 2006 we spent just 15 cents of every $100 on NCLB tests. Cheap tests, the tail wagging the dog, are the principal cause of education’s decline into rote tedium.

Those cheap tests actually mask the severity of the problem, because young children can be drilled to pass them. They are drilled, and they do pass. That is, fourth-grade scores generally seem to suggest improvements in competency in reading and, up through 2007, math, but those gains are illusory; they begin to disappear as early as fifth and sixth grades and are often gone by eighth grade. By their sophomore and junior years in high school, many of our students have actually regressed.

It’s my considered opinion that most of the early gains are not real but are actually a mirage, created by teaching a narrow curriculum and by teaching students how to pass the tests. In the name of getting enough passing test scores to meet NCLB’s requirements, many schools are stifling student creativity and curiosity and drowning children’s desire to learn.

The implications for our economy are frightening. “Over the past thirty years, the modern workplace has radically changed, and the demands on those making the transition from the classroom to the workforce continue to rise,” notes the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Students from Birmingham and Boston no longer compete against each other for jobs; instead, their rivals are well-educated students from Sydney and Singapore. But as globalization has progressed, American educational progress has stagnated. Today, the United States’ high school graduation rate ranks near the bottom among developed nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And on virtually every international assessment of academic proficiency, American secondary school students’ performance varies from mediocre to poor. Given that human capital is a prerequisite for success in the global economy, U.S. economic competitiveness is unsustainable with poorly prepared students feeding into the workforce.”

And we are failing those most in need. The gaps in opportunity, expectations and outcomes between rich and poor, and white and non-white, are increasing.

Strong measures are needed to save public education. NCLB (under a new name) will eventually be reauthorized by Congress, which, unfortunately, shows few signs of having learned that Washington cannot run public education.

The Congress and President Obama are attempting to enable excellence by providing money to allow consortia of states to develop common standards and tests. (And yes, I do agree that we need accountability and good tests.)

But I believe that Congress must also provide more funds and tax breaks to encourage our best and brightest to become teachers. It could provide additional tax breaks for those willing to teach math and science or in economically impacted areas. Economists suggest that, while these changes would not have strong effects, the symbolic significance – showing that the United States values teaching – would be powerful.

America needs a wake-up call – because right now, in terms of convenient lies, we’re telling ourselves some real whoppers.

The first truth we must face is that we are a ticking time bomb. Nearly one in four American high school students will leave school without a diploma. About 1.2 million students drop out each year (that’s between 6,000 and 7,000 American children every school day or one every 26 seconds), and close to 50 percent of Hispanic and African- American students do not finish high school on time.

These dropout rates significantly impact the health of our economy. Observing that our country’s “achievement gap” is similar to sustaining “a permanent national recession,” McKinsey & Company estimated that if academic performance by minorities had equaled that of white students in 1998, America’s 2009 GDP would have been between 2 to 4 percent higher (a difference of $310 billion to $525 billion, according to their calculations).

“In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity — it is a prerequisite,” said President Obama in February 2009, addressing the House and Senate. Citing the high dropout rate in our country and adding that only about half of American students have a college diploma, the president called this a “prescription for economic decline because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” He added: “And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself; it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

Just 20 years ago, the United States was home to the most college graduates on the planet; today we rank 15th out of 29 countries compared in “Measuring Up 2008,” which notes that “the U.S. adult population ages 35 and older still ranks among the world leaders in the percentage who have college degrees – reflecting the educational progress of earlier times. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, however, the U.S. population has slipped to 10th in the percentage who have an associate degree or higher.”

Compared with other countries, our students’ performance in math and science is falling behind; one study even showed American eighth-graders tied with students in third-world Zimbabwe in mathematics.

Our economy will lose billions over the life of our “dropout nation,” and as America moves from a manufacturing-based economy to a globalized service- and technology-based economy, our schools are not producing a well-enough educated work force to handle jobs that will keep the country clicking.

Educationally, we are the equivalent of a vinyl LP in an iPod world.

America has a history of surviving crises, of course. Think of the Morrill Act after the Civil War; the GI Bill after World War II; the National Defense Education Act after Sputnik; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency; and the waves of education reform that followed “A Nation at Risk” in 1983.

Today the stakes are higher, and our response has to be faster and stronger. If the $100-plus billion stimulus package (and any subsequent bailout packages that Congress might provide) turn out to have allowed schools to just keep on doing what they’ve been doing, then we will have merely postponed the day of reckoning.

The tone of the rest of the book is not like this, of course, because part of my goal is to identify solutions, which I endeavor to do, but it is important to face up to the fact that our system is prone to accept mediocrity—and that’s what must change!

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