Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Policy Advice to President Obama

Last Saturday at Renaissance Weekend I was given two minutes to address all 350 people, and the topic was policy advice to President Obama.  Here's what I said:


I believe the most pressing domestic issue we face is fixing our K-12 public schools.  Our failure in this area is captured by the twin achievement gaps. 


Achievement gap #1 is the gap between us and our economic competitors.  In 1975, we spent $5,000/student in today's dollars and 40% of our students eventually received a two-year Associate's degree or higher vs. 15-20% for our economic competitors.  Today, 35 years later, we spend $10,000/student, yet we're still stuck at 40%.  We've flat-lined for the past 35 years, but our economic competitors haven't: they're now at 40-50%.  Our educational advantage over the rest of the world, which drove our incredible prosperity after WW II, has now disappeared.


Achievement gap #2 is the gap between low-income, minority children and their better-off peers.  The average black and Latino child enters kindergarten one year below grade level, and this entire gap can be explained by a handful of demographic factors.  Then, every year for the next 13 years, the gap widens until the average black and Latino 12th grader is reading and doing math at the same level as white 8th graders, a four-year achievement gap.  There are many reasons for this, but I believe the main reason is that the color of your skin and your zip code are entirely determinative of the quality of public school this nation provides.


There's good news from a policy perspective, however, because education reform is the only major issue where the Obama administration is largely in agreement with the Republicans.  President Obama is becoming to education reform what President Clinton was to welfare reform.  Specifically, there's a big opportunity to restart bipartisanship through the renewal of a deeply unpopular piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind, which needs to be fixed and strengthened, not watered down. 


There are a million details, but in general we need to reverse the current situation in which the states set the standards and the feds try to micromanage.  Organizations and systems, like children, will live up to – or live down to – whatever expectations are set for them, so the feds need to set the bar high, with national, internationally benchmarked standards, and then let the states innovate to achieve them.


Thank you.

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