Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An Urgent Call

By Walter Isaacson, President & CEO, The Aspen Institute

In an increasingly competitive world, what are the long-term implications of an entire generation being less educated than their predecessors? For the first time in our nation’s history, 25 – 34 year-olds have fewer college degrees than 55 – 64 years-olds. Despite spending more money per child than nearly every other developed country, U.S. students are falling farther behind their international peers. American students recently scored 25th in math and 21st in science (out of 30 OECD countries) on international assessments. Additionally, more than 1.2 million students annually drop out of school and just half of all African-American and Hispanic students graduate from high school in four years.

Though the consequences of poor educational performance may seem remote to many, with little recognizable impact on their daily lives, our national health and prosperity depends on a skilled workforce, vigorous civic institutions and engaged citizens. We believe it is time for a broader mobilization of local, state and national leaders to raise public awareness of the educational challenges we face and how failure to meet them will likely affect our standard of living in the future. We must take seriously our shared responsibility to ensure that all students – regardless of race, income level or zip code – have access to an excellent education.

The Aspen Institute will convene national leaders for a series of frank conversations about the state of American education to underscore the implications of poor to mediocre performance on other areas of our national life cited by voters as most important including: the economy, jobs, security and healthcare. Our National Education Summit will also highlight the importance of working across party lines, and with all sectors of our society, to develop a superior educational system that serves all children well and prepares them for lives of opportunity and productive citizenship.

Throughout the day, Summit participants will be challenged to work together to mobilize the growing national consensus important principles of effective education reform. These principles are:

High expectations and challenging standards for all students. The standards-based reform movement started nearly twenty years ago, and states and school districts have worked hard over the past several years to set standards and raise expectations for all students. However, there is considerable evidence that standards are not high enough. In many states, for example, the number of students at the proficient level on state tests is far higher than those who are proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, suggesting that states are not expecting enough from their students. And there is in many cases a mismatch between what students are expected to know and be able to do to graduate from high school and the expectations for college and the workplace. Only by setting challenging, meaningful standards in core academic subjects can we ensure that all will be fully prepared for life after high school.

Measure progress annually and report results in an understandable way. States have expanded their testing programs in recent years and now all states test all students in grades three through eight, and once in high school, in reading and mathematics. Few states, however, have the capability of measuring student progress from year to year. And reports of test results are often overwhelming and incomprehensible for parents and the public. By developing better measures of student progress and reporting, states can ensure that parents, teachers, and the public have the information they need to improve student learning.

Ensure that every classroom has an effective teacher. As we raise expectations and standards for all students, we must ensure that all students are taught by effective teachers. Research shows that an effective teacher makes all the difference; in fact, three years with an effective teacher can improve student performance by three grade levels, compared with an ineffective teacher. By using achievement data, states can determine whether teachers are improving student learning and better target support to teachers and school leaders such as the high quality professional development that they need to become more effective. Few states, though, currently have data systems or tools that enable them to make those determinations. Developing and implementing such systems and tools could substantially enhance instruction and learning.

Reinforce the fundamental role of parents in their children’s education and give them a meaningful voice. Parents are children’s first teachers, and the role they play in children’s education remains paramount. To become better engaged and informed advocates for their children, parents need access to accurate, timely information about their child’s school and reliable research. The most important decision parents make is where to send their children to school. Fortunately, over the past two decades the number of options parents have has increased dramatically. By making available better information and more options, including charter schools, after-school tutoring, and high-quality schools, states and communities can more effectively engage parents in ensuring a quality education for their children.

Insist that schools and districts implement proven solutions for struggling schools. One of the most vexing problems in education is the large number of schools that persistently struggle to educate all of their students to high levels. Some schools have managed to turn themselves around and succeed, but these schools remain islands of excellence in a troubled sea. By identifying proven solutions that could be applied at scale, we can ensure that all schools can succeed with all students, and that all districts can provide the support schools need to maintain their excellence.

Target educational research and evaluation to increase student achievement and improve teacher effectiveness. In contrast to many other fields, such as healthcare and business, the amount spent on educational research and development remains woefully small. And much of the research is diffuse. As a result, some fundamental questions that are vital to improving student achievement remain unanswered. By targeting research on critical issues and funding programs that are known to improve student achievement and enhance teacher effectiveness, the nation can address its most important challenges and drive excellence in every classroom.

I encourage you to join the live web cast ( of the National Education Summit and add your voice and perspective to this important and timely conversation through the blog (

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