Opinion
Federal Commentary

Remember America’s Education Problem?

By Brian Crosby — November 03, 2008 3 min read

Who could have predicted that this year’s presidential election would have been overshadowed by the E-word: economy. Not too long ago, the domestic issue on most people’s minds was the other E-word: education. What a difference eight years make.

Back in 2000, both Vice President Al Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush made education one of the top issues in the presidential campaign. The spotlight on improving schools was so intense that, less than two years later, the No Child Left Behind Act, with its tough accountability measures, was signed into law with great fanfare.

And ever since the federal law’s enactment, the country’s focus on education has waned. When President Bush ran for re-election against Sen. John Kerry in 2004, terrorism and war consumed the nation’s attention.

Hardly a question of substance about education surfaced in this year’s presidential debates.

Oh sure, Sen. John McCain has two pages on his Web site on the topic, and Sen. Barack Obama a more impressive 15 pages on his, but besides a routine stump speech here and there, no one is talking anymore about improving public schools.

With financial disaster all around, it’s understandable that education is no longer at the top of the list of domestic concerns. But why has it disappeared almost completely from the public’s radar?

Is it because schools are much better today, or that more students are achieving at higher levels, or that better teachers are in the classrooms? No, no, no.

The high school graduation rate of close to 70 percent has not changed in more than 30 years, despite all of the so-called school reforms.

There is still an incredible achievement gap between whites and minorities, with half of African-American and Latino students not graduating.

The No Child Left Behind law has given people a false sense of security that Washington has done its job. We want to feel good that the problem has been taken care of. NCLB provides a happy ending, sort of like the massive financial bailout Congress passed so that people don’t have to fret over an economy that still needs an extreme makeover. And the rest of us can go about our business consumed with Miley Cyrus’ sweet-16 birthday and which couple got voted off “Dancing with the Stars.”

With financial disaster all around, it’s understandable that education is no longer at the top of the list of domestic concerns. But why has it disappeared almost completely from the public’s radar?

Most economists agree that the real work of fixing the U.S. economy will begin after the bailout is completed. Most educators agree that the real work of transforming schools has yet to begin, with NCLB actually stalling reforms by, as of now, six years and counting.

The No Child Left Behind Act should have been the opening salvo in an ambitious effort to reform the public schools. Unfortunately, the law became the reform itself.

Right now, the American people are mad as hell about how Wall Street has collapsed. But shouldn’t there be a similar outrage about the millions of students who aren’t getting high school diplomas, dropping out at the rate of 3,000 a day? Certainly education reform deserves the same level of urgency that Congress paid to debating the fate of Terri Schiavo in 2005, when several politicians dropped everything they were doing in order to cast a vote regarding the fate of a single individual. For goodness’ sake, Detroit’s schools have a failure rate climbing toward 50 percent. People need to wake up, and rise up and say, “Enough is enough.”

If America intends to remain an economic force in the world, fixing our public schools must not be placed on the back burner. When a decade or two has passed and people look at the latest test results, will they scratch their heads and wonder why nothing has changed? Something has to change now. Otherwise, we’ll be going from a “nation at risk” to a “save America now” telethon.

The next president must put America’s schools back into their rightful place at the top of the public’s “to do” list. For the sake of a better future, the next bailout should be aimed at failing students.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Remember America’s Education Problem?

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