If you were asked to advise today's leaders, what do you think is the greatest single problem facing the United States today?
I don't have any doubt: The greatest problem facing our country is the breaking down into two classes, those who have and those who have not. The growing differences between the incomes of the skilled and the less skilled, the educated and the uneducated pose a very real danger. If that widening rift continues, we're going to be in terrible trouble. The idea of having a class of people who never communicate with their neighbors--those very neighbors who assume the responsibility for providing their basic needs--is extremely unpleasant and discouraging. And it cannot last. We'll have a civil war. We really cannot remain a democratic, open society that is divided into two classes. In the long run, that's the greatest single danger. And the only way I see to resolve that problem is to improve the quality of education. (1)
Over the fifteen years following the 1983 publication of the landmark study, A Nation at Risk, (2) more than six million Americans dropped out of high school. Of those who remained in school, ten million students reached the twelfth grade unable to read at a basic level, more than twenty million were unable to do basic math, and nearly twenty-five million were unfamiliar with the essentials of American history. (3) In the most recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which compared half a million students in over forty-one countries at three grade levels, American twelfth graders were so inadequate on their math and science exams, that only students from Cyprus and South Africa scored lower. (4) In short, many American high school graduates are barely able to communicate, orally or in writing, they are deficient in mathematics, ill-informed about United States history, and lack good work habits.
The numbers are even more astonishing in urban areas where minority students drop out or slip through the cracks of an educational system on the brink of its demise. As America's inner cities deteriorate, the parents of children living in poor neighborhoods are further disadvantaged in the kind of education their offspring receive. Inner city public schools are shamefully deficient and are marked by low academic performance, increased violence, high dropout rates, and demoralized students and teachers. (5) Poor physical conditions, inadequate supplies, non-existent technology, transient students, poorly qualified teachers who quickly burn out, and highly qualified instructors who move on, (6) also characterize many urban schools in low income areas. We have re-created a dual school system, separate and unequal. A widening chasm exists between good and bad schools, between those students who receive an adequate education and those who emerge from school barely able to read and write. (7) Low income, minority children go to worse schools, have less expected of them, and are taught by less motivated and less knowledgeable teachers. As a result, an enormous achievement gap exists between white and Asian-Americans on one hand, and African-Americans and Latinos on the other. These gaps are reflective of those that have developed between high performing schools and low achieving schools; between those people who are educated and those who are not; and between those students who complete high school and those who drop out.
This crisis in American K-12 public education, marked by dissatisfaction with student outcomes and perennially underperforming schools, led, in part, to increased focus on accountability and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. (8) This Act, the most extensive reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, increases federal K-12 funding, mandates student testing in math and reading every year in grades three through eight, and allows parents to transfer children from …