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Time to Face Our Education Crisis

School is out for the summer, but as a grandfather and former college professor, the education of our children is never far from my mind. My own grandchildren are young — ages 6 and 4 — and have their entire educational experience ahead of them. I saw a report recently that makes me worry about the education system they will inherit. It makes me worry what kind of country they will inherit. And it makes me ask this question: When it comes to educating our children, at what point are we willing to face the truth and declare that the education system created for the industrial era is failing to prepare our children for the demands of today’s information age?

If a 21.7% Graduation Rate Isn’t Failure, What Is?

The education bureaucracy likes to play a game with statistics. They usually publish data on educational successes or failures only on a statewide basis, so parents and teachers have no way to hold the education bureaucracy accountable where it counts — on the district level. But a new study sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation took a different approach, and the results it reported are deeply troubling to those of us with a concern for the future of American children.

The study looked at graduation rates on a district-by-district level and found that they are shockingly lower than previously reported by the education bureaucracy. In big-city public school districts like Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas and Denver, fewer than 50 percent of high school students graduate on time. In three districts, the public schools graduate fewer than 40 percent of their students: In New York City, the graduation rate is 38.9 percent; in Baltimore, it’s 38.5 percent; and in Detroit, incredibly, only 21.7 percent of students who enter public high schools will graduate.

Failing Four Out of Five Students

Consider this finding for a moment. If only 21.7 percent of students graduate from Detroit schools on time, that means that 78.3 percent of students fail to graduate. Almost 80 percent of students — four out of five — are failed by our educational system. Why do we tolerate this level of failure? The fact is, in most aspects of life, we don’t. If a private company took the money from its customers and then failed 80 percent of them, it would be closed in a day.

I am a firm believer in establishing measurable standards of success (or failure) and constantly assessing the wisdom and workability of policies against these standards. One of the most basic measures of the success of our school system is high school graduation. A high school diploma is the minimum requirement for successful participation in American life. The failure of our schools to graduate their students isn’t limited to Detroit or to our big cities. Nationwide, it is estimated that three of every 10 students who start high school won’t graduate on time. For minorities, these numbers are far worse. One of every two African-American and Latino students won’t graduate on time or graduate at all. So dramatic is the failure that today there are more African American males in prison than there are in college — a fact that is a national disgrace.

First, Save the Children

We’ve all heard the rallying cries of “Save the Whales” and “Save the Rainforest.” My view is that reports on our public schools like this latest one should have us all shouting “Save the Children.” Every time we allow policies that favor the education bureaucracy over our children, we not only hurt our children, we hurt our country and our prospects for future safety and prosperity.

Here’s a case in point. One of the favorite talking points of the left-liberals is that more money will cure what is wrong with our education system. But here is just one of the facts that exposes this for the lie that it is. Nationally, our education bureaucracy is receiving more than $440 billion a year of our tax dollars to fund our schools, but only about 61 percent of this is actually spent in classrooms. In a state like Michigan, that number is even lower — only 57 percent of education funds are actually spent on teachers and teaching. The rest goes to the bureaucracy for undefined, unaccountable “overhead.” It cannot be overstated, that unless and until we make it a priority to put the welfare of our children over the welfare of the education bureaucracy, our education bureaucracy will continue to consign our children to future poverty and our nation to future failure.

The Valedictorian Who Flunked Out

America has many great public schools and many, many dedicated teachers. And we have more than our share of education success stories. The problem is that too often these successes are achieved in spite of our current education system, not because of it.

I am reminded of a tragic story I heard about the valedictorian at a high school in New Orleans who couldn’t graduate because she had failed the math portion of her graduate exit exam five times. She had a near-perfect grade point average — and had even received an A in an advanced math class her senior year. But when she took the test required of all Louisiana students before graduation, everything her school system had supposedly done for her was exposed as a lie. She hadn’t been educated — she had merely been processed, passed up the line from grade to grade in order to avoid exposing the failure of the very institutions and officials that were entrusted with her future.

Had this story ended here, it would have been just one more tragic tale of how our education system is cheating kids and lying to their parents. But thankfully, the story of this young woman didn’t end in failure. Even though she had been humiliated in front of her peers and the nation when the press picked up the story, she didn’t give up. She persevered and, on her seventh try, passed the state graduation exam and received her diploma.

America abounds with more energy, resourcefulness and innovation than any nation in the history of mankind. We deserve an education system that nurtures and develops these qualities. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We owe our children and grandchildren an America at least as prosperous and secure as the one our parents and grandparents fought and worked to give us. “Save the children” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a call to win the future for all Americans, starting with our children. Let’s not wait to get started.

Your friend,

Newt Gingrich

P.S. – Last week, in the Independence Day issue of Winning the Future, I told you about the 43-foot cross that is part of a memorial honoring veterans of all wars on Mount Soledad near San Diego. The cross is at the center of a 17-year legal battle in which an atheist charged that the 52-year-old cross is a violation of the so-called “wall” between church and state. Since 1991, when a federal judge first declared the cross unconstitutional, various groups have tried to save the Cross of Mount Soledad, but each time a liberal, activist judiciary has stood in the way. The final straw came when a federal judge ruled recently that the City of San Diego had until August 1 to remove the cross or face a daily $5,000 fine.

Well there’s good news. Last week the Supreme Court put on hold the lower court’s order to remove the cross. Supporters of the cross who had worked hard for this legal victory said the ruling “borders on divine intervention.” Whatever the nature of the Supreme Court’s intervention, it is a clear interim victory for democracy.

You see, last year, the people of San Diego held a referendum on the future of the Cross of Mount Soledad. More than 75 percent voted to save the cross, but only one federal judge ordered the cross removed, a decision that was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That means that 197,125 San Diegans voted to save the cross, and one (the federal judge) voted to remove it — and the one vote prevailed. That is, until last week. The Supreme Court has now put a hold on this judicial tyranny. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend.

Ask Newt

Each week, this newsletter features questions from its readers. Have a question? Send an email to Newt at asknewt@newt.org.

Q: With the recent Buffett-Gates announcement, what role can philanthropy have in “Winning the Future” for America?

David O.
Orlando, Fla.

A: That’s an interesting question, David. I assume that you are referring to Warren Buffet’s $40-billion gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

I recently spoke to the Council on Foundations in Pittsburg. My central message to them was that philanthropic groups are in a uniquely powerful position to affect transformational change. Unlike government, which is encumbered by bureaucracy and regulation, charities and other non-profit philanthropic organizations can initiate much more nimble, effective, creative and even experimental programs that are completely outside the current political imagination.

Since my focus this week is education, I’ll mention one initiative that I believe could produce a needed cultural transformation in America’s poorest neighborhoods while at the same time providing an innovative and fundamental reform to education. Not only would it be relatively easy to implement, the results could be dramatic.

As I have written before, the decline of math and science learning in America is a serious economic and national security threat. Without profound improvement, America will not be able to protect its national security interests nor will we be able to generate the number of high-value jobs required to sustain a growing economy.

To do so, it is essential that we increase the number of students studying math and science. So what kind of incentives can we as a country provide?

How about, beginning in America’s poorest school districts, paying students from 7th to 12th grade, the equivalent of working at McDonald’s to take advanced math and science courses and maintain a B or better? That would provide both an economic incentive for students to study math and science, and send a clear signal to young people about what we as a nation believe is important. A charity or foundation could set up a pilot program in a city where these kinds of incentives are most needed and would have the strongest potential of saving the children from a life of poverty.

Students are sent all sorts of positive messages about football, basketball and music stars. Tragically, in poor neighborhoods, the same can be said about drug dealers and other criminals, because they are the ones with money. Why not start sending our children positive messages about the value of math and science as a realistic, honorable and attainable path to a better life?

This is just one example of what I call “Patriotic Stewardship.” But the model holds true for countless needed innovations for a better America. Foundations might, as some are already doing, consider a series of prizes for advances in space flight, cures for diseases and other medical advances, or for developing practical, usable hydrogen or bio-based energy technologies. We have no shortage of ideas — we just need to apply the right incentives to turn a dream into a reality.

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Mr. Gingrich is the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and author of To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, Real Change: From the World That Fails to the World That Works and Winning the Future (published by Regnery, a HUMAN EVENTS sister company).

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