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Congress and the Education Deficit

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.) discuss the causes of the United States' education deficit and factors Congress should watch in the future.

Date & Time

Jan. 24, 2011
2:00pm – 4:00pm

Congress and the Education Deficit

Congressman Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) a senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, observed that, "we have been hearing for some time now about how the United States is falling behind other countries educationally. Before it was Japan that was 10-feet tall, now it's China. It has led me to wonder whether people are crying ‘wolf' or whether there is really something to it. I've concluded it's probably half true." Petri was referring to a recently published survey of 15-year-old students in the 34 wealthiest nations in the world showing the U.S. ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. Petri said the results are questionable because "we're not comparing apples to apples;" the U.S. has a very diverse educational system compared to other countries. In talking to foreign diplomats whose children go to school in the Washington suburbs, he said, they consistently say their children are getting a much better education here because their experiences are more rounded than in their home countries.

"A lot of children do fall by the wayside in our system for a variety of reasons," Petri said, "and we're redefining education to address that—from when you get up in the morning to when you go bed at night. But we have to ask ourselves how much public schools can realistically be responsible for." Petri said one of the biggest mismatches he has noticed is between the demands of industry for technically skilled workers and the inability of our educational system to provide students who are properly trained. Petri said he thought the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with its centerpiece No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), will be reauthorized in this Congress, but that it will probably be broken into several bills to make it more manageable. He said some legitimate criticisms have been leveled against NCLB, such as it being too inflexible and forcing teachers to "teach for the test," and these concerns must be addressed by this Congress.

William T. Gormley, Jr., a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, said it does concern him that the U.S. is falling behind other wealthy nations in the quality of education we provide our children. "Today's education is tomorrow's economy," he said, and "we must be prepared to compete in the new global economy." What is especially troubling is the achievement gap between white students on the one hand, and both blacks and Latinos on the other. No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001 with strong bipartisan support, he said, but "today Members of both parties agree the law is flawed and in need of revision. We've created some unintended negative consequences that have allowed some states to lower their standards, and even encouraged some to do so." It is especially disconcerting, he said, that only 18 percent of students are taking advantage of the free tutoring afforded by the law. Nevertheless, Gormley said NCLB has produced some positive results in students' test scores. "It has placed an important emphasis on results-based accountability." The Obama administration has surprised many by supporting charter schools, performance pay, and state standards, as well as placing a new emphasis on competitive grants rather than on set formula grants.

Congress should keep five criteria in mind, Gormley suggested, in reauthorizing the law: (1) accountability should be results-based, with emphasis on outputs rather than inputs; (2) states should be given hortatory "nudges" by Congress through the use of more incentives rather than mandates; (3) policies and practices should be adopted that are based on evidence of what works; (4) educational improvement is a key to productivity—all programs are not equal, and this should be kept in mind when it comes to cutting budgets; and (5) social justice should be a central goal—the need to help the most disadvantaged among us. "Fairness" was a core principle in the enactment of the original ESEA in 1965, Gormley concluded.

Laura Moore, project and policy manager at Civic Enterprises, is a coauthor of a series of three reports on high school dropouts that her firm has produced in conjunction with Colin and Alma Powell's America's Promise Alliance and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. The latest report, issued in November 2010, "Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic," highlights progress that has been made in various parts of the country in increasing high school graduation rates, but provides a sobering assessment of what remains to be done to prepare young people for college and success in the new century. Moore noted that over the last decade, the high school graduation rate nationally has increased from 72% to 75%. Nevertheless, 14% of the nation's schools are still considered "drop-out factories," responsible for half of all high school dropouts. The latest report calls for a "Civic Marshall Plan" with a goal of increasing the graduation rate fivefold, from 75% today to 90% by 2020.

In looking at school systems in four different areas—Tennessee, Alabama, Richmond, Indiana, and New York City, the study was able to identify several factors that contributed to success in lowering drop-out rates. "Strong state leadership with clear goals," Moore said, is the central factor, usually meaning a governor who is willing to take the lead on education reform. Other important influences include multi-sector collaboration, data-driven innovation, continuously improved technical assistance for evidence-based solutions, raising standards, and increased student support. Moore said the campaign to reach the 90% graduation rate has begun in all states with strong backing from the National Governors' Association which has entered a "compact" to uniformly measure and report graduation rates beginning this year.

By Don Wolfensberger, Director, Congress Project


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