Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates opened a two-day education summit here yesterday by telling the nation's governors and leaders of the educational community that the nation's high schools are obsolete and need radical restructuring to raise graduation rates, prepare students for college and train a workforce that faces growing competition in the global economy.
"Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age," said Gates, whose philanthropic foundation has committed nearly a billion dollars to the challenge of improving high schools. "Until we design them to meet the needs of this century, we will keep limiting, even ruining, the lives of millions of Americans every year."
Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates addresses the National Education Summit on High Schools.
(Evan Vucci -- AP)
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The technology leader provided the keynote for a weekend devoted both to highlighting the problem of dropout rates among high school students and the schools' failure to give students adequate preparation for college, and to developing an agenda for action in the states.
The National Education Summit on High Schools is co-sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Achieve Inc., a partnership created by the governors and the business community aimed at increasing standards and accountability in education.
It marks the fifth education summit hosted by the governors, including their 1989 session that helped generate support for higher standards and greater accountability, particularly in elementary education. That movement ultimately gave rise to President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, which has given the federal government a larger voice in setting standards for local schools, and which has proved to be a controversial law in many states because of the federal requirements it imposes.
Bush has targeted high schools for reform as part of his second-term initiative. Although there is not unanimous support for his proposal among the governors, the attention that he and the state chief executives are focusing on the problem could spur action across the country to reverse trends that government and business leaders say threaten the United States as the preeminent economic power in the world.
Gates and other speakers enumerated a list of alarming statistics to back up their argument that high schools are failing students, particularly low-income or minority children. The United States ranks 16th among 20 developed nations in the percentage of students who complete high school and 14th among the top 20 in college graduation rates.
Just 18 of 100 students entering high school go on to compete their college degree within six years of starting college, and the nation has slipped from first to fifth internationally in the percentage of young people who hold a college degree. Math and science education poses a particular challenge, with American students gradually slipping behind the rest of the world between the fourth and 12th grades, starting among the top ranks and finishing near the bottom of industrialized nations.
"We are united in our conviction that high schools must be targeted for comprehensive reform and sustained change, and we believe that work begins today," said Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), the NGA's chairman, who spearheaded the weekend summit.
Warner said the failure to reverse the high school dropout rate would have "devastating" consequences for the nation and said the governors are determined to do more than identify a problem already well known. "We're not here to produce another report that sits on the shelf that talks about the problem, that doesn't outline specific actionable agenda items that governors and policymakers in respective states can act on," he said.
Speakers yesterday painted a gloomy picture of the consequences of inaction. Kerry Killinger, chairman and chief executive officer of Washington Mutual and a vice chairman of Achieve, said the nation must respond to growing competition from China and India as well as from more developed nations. "If we don't, we're positioning the United States to gradually become a less developed nation."
The summit's leaders said high schools need to reshape their curricula and make high school more rigorous. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), the NGA vice chairman, cited a study that found that the key predictor of whether a student would finish college was neither race nor income but whether he or she had been exposed to a rigorous curriculum in high school. "This is about the starting line, not the finish line," he said.
Gates characterized the problem in moral terms, noting that the best educated young people in the United States are still among the best educated in the world, but he said millions of students in disadvantaged school districts, whether urban or rural, are falling behind because of failed schools. "If we keep the system as it is, millions of children will never get a chance to fulfill their promise," he said. "That is offensive to our values, and it's an insult to who we are."
Much of the work during the weekend will take place in smaller discussion groups and today Education Secretary Margaret Spellings will address the summit, with Warner and other leaders hoping to conclude the session with other governors willing to carry the battle into their own states.
Asked what realistically might emerge from the weekend, Gates said the summit should give the issue of improving high schools more national visibility and higher status on the political agenda. But he said the real proof will come later. "In 90 days, we'll know how many states have signed up for the challenge," he said. "A year from now, we'll see how many states have actually moved on the issue."