Sunday, November 22, 2009

‘Staggering’ Crisis in U.S. Education Found in Study

By Molly Peterson

Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) -- More than two-thirds of U.S. teachers disapprove of how their public schools are run and 90 percent say “routine duties and paperwork” interfere with their teaching, a report found.

The U.S. is facing a “staggering” education crisis, said John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, which released the study today along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Enterprise Institute.

The report shows the urgent need for a nationwide education overhaul, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is using $100 billion in stimulus funds to try to improve public schools and expand access to college. The U.S. Chamber, while fighting President Barack Obama’s initiatives on health care, energy and financial regulation, has applauded the administration’s use of stimulus dollars to spur states to improve education systems.

The study found “only a faint pulse of innovation and reform in our nation’s schools,” Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber, said today at a conference in Washington. “We must turn that into a strong heartbeat.”

U.S. schools “just do not have the ability to respond to challenges in effective and efficient ways,” said the Center for American Progress’s Podesta, who was former President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

The center is a Washington research group with close ties to the White House. The American Enterprise Institute is a Washington organization that promotes free-market policies. The Chamber is the largest U.S. business association.

Grading the States

About 72 percent of principals surveyed said tenure policies make it difficult to fire ineffective teachers, according to the report.

The report graded each state’s performance on eight educational indicators including school management, finance, staffing and the use of data. Less than half the states scored an “A” grade in any of the eight areas, and most received a “C” or a “D” on several indicators.

The report’s recommendations included giving principals more flexibility to fire ineffective teachers. Schools should also reward teachers for student-achievement gains and increase classroom time, the report said.

Duncan, who has pushed for such changes, urged U.S. businesses to play a “more active” role in efforts to improve the nation’s schools.

‘Return on Investment’

“You can invest in education, because it’s the best return on investment you will ever make,” Duncan said in a speech today at the U.S. Chamber in Washington. “You can help train administrators to run schools efficiently. You can give young people work experience -- both paid and unpaid.”

About 38 percent of school-board members have a business background, Duncan said, citing a survey by the National School Boards Association. While that’s a “great start,” business leaders can do more, he said.

Businesses support the Obama administration’s efforts to improve public schools, in part because U.S. companies will need to hire educated workers for 20 million new jobs in the next 10 years, Donohue said.

“We all need employees and we’re really worried about that,” Donohue said at the conference. “Not to get involved in this is stupid.”

A $4.35 billion competitive stimulus grant program, known as Race to the Top, “will be a tremendous catalyst for greater innovation, accountability, and higher standards in American schools,” Donohue said. While the stimulus law directs most of the $100 billion in education funds to states under a noncompetitive formula, it also provides more than $5 billion in competitive grants including Race to the Top.

Rewarding States

Obama and Duncan have said the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program will reward states that make the most progress in raising academic standards, boosting teacher quality, tracking student gains and improving failing schools.

The administration wants to incorporate those “four areas of reform” into federal education law, said Duncan, who is working to overhaul No Child Left Behind. The 2002 law, enacted under President George W. Bush, requires states to measure student achievement through standardized tests.

While states can set their own standards to determine what constitutes an adequate education, they can lose some federal funds under No Child Left Behind if they don’t show yearly progress toward those goals.

“The one-size-fits-all sanctions dictated by NCLB are not practical for many districts, and the results are mixed at best,” Duncan said. “In the worst schools, it leads teachers to devote valuable class time to test preparation, which is not a skill we should teach.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Molly Peterson in Washington at;

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