Last week, I participated in the 92nd Arizona Town Hall. For those of you who may not be familiar with this organization, Arizona Town Hall is a private, nonprofit civic organization created 46 years ago, which brings together civic and business leaders from around the state and country twice a year for the purpose of analyzing and addressing the state’s economic, cultural and social issues.
This most recent Town Hall focused on the current and future problems with Arizona’s education system. The provocative title for the conclave was "Who Will Teach Our Children?" The 190 attendees were made up heavily of public school teachers and administrators, public school board members, university faculty and administrators, union representatives, a few civic leaders and business leaders and one lone Arizona Republican Party official, yours truly.
While the majority of those in attendance were on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum from me, this did not stop us from having a quality and in-depth conversation about the challenges facing our children, parents, teachers, our state and country. Almost everyone in attendance agreed that our state and national public education systems are not adequately preparing our children to compete in the global economy.
Twenty-six years ago, a blue ribbon committee on education appointed by President Reagan delivered the seminal report “A Nation at Risk”. This report in part stated, "Our Nation is at risk. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." This was a clear call to arms. Our education system was underperforming when compared to many other industrialized countries around the world. We risked falling behind if we did not act immediately to reverse this trend. Of course, anyone familiar with the political process in our country understood where this would lead.
Over the next quarter of a century, unprecedented amounts of money were thrown at the problem. Spending on education in terms of inflation adjusted dollars more than doubled in the time period. In the same time frame, national test scores and high school drop out rates did not improve. Policy makers from around the country suddenly realized that our efforts over the years had yielded precious little in comparison to the amount of wealth and brain power that had been poured into solving this national crisis.
The apparent failure to improve our educational system has been well documented by several recent publications including, Educational Myths by Jay P, Greene, 2005; Tough Choices Tough Times, by The National Center on Education and the Economy, 2006; and How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come out on Top, by McKinsey and Company, 2007.
The graph (found on slide 14 here) from the Tough Choices Tough Times power point summarizing their report says it all.
The gains students have made in the U.S. on NAEP Scale Scores are insignificant when compared to the increase in total expenditures per pupil. For example, in 1971 the average per pupil expenditure was $3,400 and the average 4th-Grade reading score on the NAEP test was 208. In 1990 the average per pupil expenditure was $6,800 and the test score average was 209. In 2002, it was $8,997 and 217, respectively. This represents an increase in expenditures of almost 300 percent with a corresponding improvement in test scores of just over 4 percent. Not the kind of return on investments that would make Wall Street analysts enthusiastic and glowing in support of our educational system. Dismal performance of this scale in the private sector would result in immediate action by shareholders long before this time. But it gets worse. P Trends in Academic
Not only are other countries around the world spending less per pupil to educate their students, but over the course of the past 40 years they have made large gains in the percentage students graduating from high school as well as test scores when compared to students in the United States. During the 1960’s in the U.S., roughly 85% of working-age adults had completed high school. Compare this number to Korea, which in the 1960’s only had about 35% of its working-age adults with high school educations. Now, spring forward forty years and the United States is at roughly 90% and has been stuck there for thirty years, while Korea and many other nations made significant progress over the past 40 years and have surpassed us.
This picture is painted (found on slide 12 here) in even grimmer detail by the following numbers. For every 100 9th graders: 68 will graduate on time; of those 68, 40 will enroll directly in college; of those 40, 27 are still enrolled the following year; and of those 27, 18 earn Associates Degree within 3 years or a B.A. within 6 years. The simple fact of the matter is the United States has made little gains in education over the past 40 years, and many of the world’s countries with which we compete are not only catching us, but passing us.
With these sobering facts along with many others so elegantly and powerfully presented by Mark Tucker, author of Tough Choices Tough Times, to the Town Hall participants assembled for dinner on the opening day, we got down to business. Next time, I will focus on some of the paradigm shifting conclusions and solutions reached in the Town Hall by its participants regarding how to fundamentally restructure public schools in Arizona and our nation in order to make our children competitive in a global economy. There is little time left to waste as we have squandered much of our competitive advantage.