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Obama, Duncan Need to Succeed on School Reform

Obama, Duncan Need to Succeed on School Reform

By Mort Kondracke - April 24, 2009

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are dedicated school reformers, and two new reports show how urgent it is that they succeed.

The reports, by McKinsey & Co. and the America's Promise Alliance, show anew that the failure of American schools is hugely costly to children, the nation and local communities - both morally and economically.

McKinsey matched education scores to economic data and declared that the underperformance of U.S. schools "imposes the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession."

If U.S. children had matched the top nations in the world on math and science tests over the past 20 years - instead of ranking 24th or 25th - McKinsey figured that U.S. gross domestic product would be $1 trillion to $2 trillion higher than it is.

The cost of America's chronic under-achievement "is substantially larger than the deep recession the United States is currently experiencing," the report said.

It added that the cost of disparities based on race, income and school district performance "is larger than the U.S. recession of 1981-82."

If the United States had closed the gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students and school districts, McKinsey figured, GDP would be 3 percent to 5 percent larger than it is.

America's Promise Alliance, the coalition founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, issued its second annual "Cities in Crisis" report showing that the national high school graduation rate remains at just 71 percent, while the rate in the 50 largest cities is 53 percent. Full disclosure: My wife is president and CEO of the organization.

That report also linked high dropout rates - nearly 70 percent in Indianapolis and close to or above 60 percent in Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Nashville, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio - to lagging economic performance in those cities.

The median national income for a non-high-school graduate is $13,200, compared with $23,400 for a graduate and $45,000 for a college graduate, but in high-dropout cities such as Columbus, Cleveland and Baltimore, the income disparities are greater - as are unemployment and poverty rates.

And the disparity in dropout rates between such cities and their suburbs remains shockingly wide. In Cleveland's suburbs, for instance, 80 percent of children graduate versus 38 percent in the city.

Both Obama and Duncan have made clear that they are determined to bring U.S. education up to international standards not only by spending more money, but improving teacher quality, encouraging states to adopt common standards for student performance and pushing states to lengthen the school day and year.

At the McKinsey report's unveiling, Duncan said America's education system needs "radical and fundamental change, with a huge sense of urgency."

To improve teacher quality, Obama and Duncan have even touched what's been an educational "third rail" for Democrats, proposing extra pay for good teachers and the firing of chronically bad ones.

Merit pay is anathema to teachers' unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which wield mighty power over Democrats - to the point where Obama was once booed at an NEA convention for mentioning it.

In a demonstration of obeisance to union power, however, Congressional Democrats refused to re-fund a private school voucher program in the District of Columbia and the administration swallowed the decision.

Obama and Duncan say they have hopes to "work with" the unions rather than openly confront them and capitulation on D.C. vouchers may have been a goodwill offering.

Whether appeasement will buy cooperation remains to be seen.

In a striking moment at the McKinsey report's unveiling, the Rev. Al Sharpton, once a demagogue but now a school reformer, likened sustained disparities in school quality to pre-civil-rights-era racism.

But, he said, "the people standing in the schoolhouse doorway now are people we thought were our friends, liberals wearing suits not bibb overalls, principals and teachers who want to uphold the status quo - condescending bigots who perpetuate a system we know is profoundly unequal."

When I asked him if he was talking about the teachers' unions - the NEA's president was on the stage with him - he demurred. "Instead of Jim Crow," he said, "we have professor James Crow."

Meantime, America's Promise is promoting not only school reform as a means of closing education performance gaps, but surrounding poor children with other supports, including mentors, after-school programs, health services and service opportunities.

Obama and Duncan say they will fund those, too, and try to "scale up" model education experiments that work - such as the Harlem Children's Zone - on a national basis.

Obviously, education is more a state responsibility than a federal one, and America's Promise is sponsoring 101 "dropout summits" to promote coordination of local services to increase the graduation rate.

Education reform ought to be one goal Republicans and Democrats can agree on. In fact, every recent president, regardless of party, has tried to be an "education president." If Obama succeeds, we all do.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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