By MICHAEL R. BLOOMBERG
December 14, 2006;
Today a bipartisan commission of high-profile academic,
government, business and labor leaders selected by
the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE)
will release a report that provides a sobering assessment
of our nation's education system: Only 18 out of 100
high-school freshmen will graduate on time, enroll
directly in college and earn a two-year degree in
three years or a four-year degree in six. Just 18!
It used to be that those without college degrees could
count on well-paying jobs in manual labor; those days
are long gone. Now, not only are we losing low-skilled
jobs to nations with lower wages, but more and more
of these nations are developing education systems
to compete with us for high-skilled jobs. And as technology
and communications make the world a smaller place,
they are growing ever more competitive.
For much of the 20th century, the education level
of America 's work force was second-to-none. But others
have caught up, and even moved past us. Now, unless
we take bold action, we risk losing our competitive
edge. The problem is not that America doesn't spend
enough money on education -- we spend enormous amounts,
far more than any other nation. But we're not getting
a sufficient return on our investment. The
fact is, our education system looks a lot like the
U.S. auto industry in the 1970s -- stuck in a flabby,
inefficient, outdated production model driven by the
needs of employees rather than consumers.
For instance, we have built too many bureaucracies
that lack clear lines of accountability, which means
that mediocrity and failure are tolerated, and excellence
goes unrewarded. We recruit a disproportionate share
of teachers from among the bottom third of their college
classes. Then we give them lifetime tenure after three
years, and we reward them based on longevity, not
performance. We fail to help struggling students in
the early years, when costs are lower, and then, in
the upper grades, we pay for expensive remediation
programs which have very limited success. And we allow
vast funding inequalities to exist between school
districts, with poor students, who are disproportionately
black and Hispanic, paying the price.
We can continue to invest enormous sums of money in
this failing system -- and remain like Detroit in
the 1970s, slipping further and further behind our
international competitors. Or, we can put our famous
American ingenuity to work and build a better system
-- and become like Silicon Valley today, which is
leading the world in innovation and technology.
The choice is clear, but the challenge will not be
easy. It will require a top-to-bottom rethinking of
our school system, one that insists on a performance-based
culture of accountability that is oriented around
children, not bureaucracies. It will require us to
offer higher teacher salaries to attract more of the
best and brightest, and to offer financial rewards
to the most successful teachers. It will require us
to set and uphold high standards, encourage innovation
and competition, and end social promotion -- the harmful
practice of advancing students to the next grade despite
their poor academic performance. And it will require
us to invest in early childhood development and distribute
funding more equitably.
These are exactly the goals we have been working toward
in New York City , and even though we still have a
long way to go, the early results are encouraging.
These goals are also at the heart of the new NCEE
report. Deciding how to achieve them will require
tough choices, and not everyone -- myself included
-- will agree with all of the commission's recommendations.
But beyond the specifics of this report, achieving
real progress requires all of us to think anew and
to challenge conventional ways of doing things.
This means that politicians must show a willingness
to stand up to special interests, including unions.
School administrators must lead from the front in
exploring more innovative, performance-driven ideas.
Teachers must be given the tools and support they
need to succeed -- and be held accountable for results
in their classrooms. And parents must recognize that
the schools can't do it by themselves; values and
ethics begin in the home.
Nothing less is required to keep the American Dream
flourishing in the 21st century. It won't be easy,
but we can do it. And to keep America at the head
of the class, we must.
Mr. Bloomberg is the mayor of New York City .