Just 20 years ago, American students were among the best in the world, routinely coming in first in test results. Now, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, students in the richest country on earth are in 24th place in math. That's behind Canada, Germany, France, Korea...but also smaller, poorer countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.
With a net worth of about $51 billion, Microsoft founder and world's richest man, Bill Gates, and his wife, Melinda (two of Time magazine's "Persons of the Year" in 2005), are determined to use their fortune to change the crisis in American schools. Through their influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they are trying to revolutionize an education system that, if it were a business, Bill says, "would be bankrupt."
Melinda adds that this is not an isolated problem of poverty. "This is affecting all schools," she says. "Kids are falling through the cracks and nobody notices it. That to me is what's wrong with the school system."
Bill and Melinda point to an obsolete education—built for the industrial age, not the digital age—as a keystone to the problem. The Gates Foundation pointedly asks, "What good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?"
In this out-of-date structure, Bill says that some students do not value their own education. "Millions of kids are dropping out," Bill says. "Of minorities, half drop out. Overall it's about a third."
When a student drops out, they are apt to find themselves in serious trouble. "There won't be jobs for those kids," Bill says. "It's a bad thing for them. It's a bad thing for the country." Bill and Melinda say America's standing in the world will slip with an undereducated workforce.
The problem extends beyond students who drop out. Those who stay in school are losing ground, too. "Of kids who are going to college, more than 40 percent are doing remedial work," Melinda says. "All these kids are dropping out, [but] the ones making it through are not even prepared for college."
Located in a low-income community in Chicago, Harper High School graduates just 40 percent of its 1,500 students. Meanwhile, about 35 miles away in suburban Naperville, Illinois, Neuqua Valley High School—a $65 million facility—graduates 99 percent of its students.
In an experiment Oprah says was inspired by Rev. Jesse Jackson, students from these two Chicago-area high schools switched classrooms.
When the Harper students arrived at Neuqua Valley, they were stunned to see what the suburban school offered—an Olympic-size swimming pool, a gym and fitness center, an award-winning music department, a huge computer lab, and a rigorous course curriculum.
The difference between the two schools can also be seen in their scores on state exams. At Neuqua Valley, 78 percent of students meet Illinois' reading standards, 76 percent meet the science standards, and 77 percent meet the math standards. At Harper, 16 percent meet the reading standards, 1.5 percent meet the science standards and just .5 percent meet the math standards.
When they arrived at Harper, the students from Neuqua Valley were shocked immediately by the difference between Harper and their own school. For starters, students have to enter Harper through a metal detector. They have a pool at Neuqua Valley, but the Harper pool hasn't been filled with water in a decade. The Neuqua Valley students have an award-winning music department, while Harper doesn't have enough instruments for a music class and relies on improvised instruments—like banging on desks.
At Neuqua Valley, students can enroll in more than two dozen advanced placement courses, compared to the two offered at Harper.
"It's so mind-blowing to think that there's such a difference and we're both in the same state, an hour away from each other," one Neuqua Valley student says.
After sitting in on a math class at the suburban school, a Harper student was particularly worried about what her Harper education was actually teaching her. "I was looking at the math problems that they're doing [at Neuqua Valley], and I'm like, 'What language is that?'" she says. "As soon as I get to college, I'm going to be lost."
A Time magazine report highlights some disturbing facts. One million American students drop out of school every year—that's one every nine seconds!
To get to the heart of the "dropout nation," Oprah correspondent Lisa Ling went to Shelbyville, Indiana, located about 30 miles from Indianapolis. Though to most eyes this middle class town does not look like a place that would have a dropout problem, the truth is that one of three students in Shelbyville won't graduate. "I think [when] the average person thinks dropout, they think urban, they think minority. But that's just not the case," says Shelbyville schools superintendent David Adams. "If you think that you don't have a dropout problem in your community because you're a middle class community, you're kidding yourself."
On a tour of a high school in Shelbyville, Lisa spoke with several classrooms full of students. Almost all of them knew someone who had dropped out. "It becomes such a norm that nobody really thinks about it," one student says.
Principal Tom Zobel says his mission is to keep students invested in their education. "They don't want to go through the effort to get the high school diploma because they don't see a need for it," he says.
Scott was once one of those Shelbyville dropouts. "I dropped out of high school because it was boring," he says. "I had friends dropping out all the time."
After he left school, Scott earned just minimum wage working in a grocery store. "I couldn't do anything with that," he says. "You can't have any fun because you've got bills to pay." The reality, according to the American Youth Policy Forum, is that a high school dropout earns $10,000 less per year than a high school graduate. Over a lifetime, the graduate will earn a million dollars more than the dropout.
Though one-time dropout 24-year-old Grace has two daughters, a nice house and a car, her pending divorce has left her with the realization of what having no diploma will mean. "I'm probably going to have to let my house go because I'm just not going to be able to afford it," she says. "I haven't got the education now to get a good job."
Grace says she wishes her mother, also a dropout, had more forcefully explained how much of a struggle life can be without a diploma. Grace says she now feels trapped. "There's no right or left way to turn to get me out of it. It's just constant." she says.
Grace has enrolled in G.E.D. classes and Scott has earned his G.E.D. diploma and joined the Marines, saying he wants to earn a college degree.According to our Oprah Winfrey Show-Time magazine poll
, 62 percent of respondents said the government should forbid students who are under 18 from dropping out of school. In most states, 16-year-olds are legally permitted to drop out of school.
In Scott and Grace's home state of Indiana, a tough new law seeks to limit dropout rates. Children under 18 who drop out can be stripped of driver's licenses and work permits unless they have legitimate health, financial or legal reasons for leaving school.
One Shelbyville high school student says that many dropouts in his community quit school to work in a nearby factory. "I know a lot of kids that are making well over $500 a week," he says. "I mean, why stay in school?"
Russlynn Ali, director of the Education Trust West who has been fighting to improve schools for 16 years, warns that these factory jobs won't be around much longer. Many companies are moving their factories to foreign countries and outsourcing jobs because American workers are lacking basic job skills.
Poorly trained workers and high school dropouts are products of the "cycle of low expectations" in America's public schools, Russlynn says. "Students rise to expectations, and they fall to expectations."
Schools with leaky roofs, exposed steam pipes, crumbling ceilings and inoperable bathrooms might be something you'd expect to find in a Third World country. Anderson Cooper, a CNN correspondent, reports from a school where these deplorable conditions are commonplace...and this school is located just minutes from the White House.
Brandon Eatman, the school principal, takes Anderson on a tour of his school, which can be compared to an obstacle course. Buckets litter the halls on rainy days, and plaster sometimes falls from the ceiling.
Principal Eatman shows Anderson a stack of work orders for building repairs—one dates back to January 2002. Most repairs still haven't been completed. In a boys' bathroom near the gymnasium, Anderson discovers their quick fix for broken urinals. Instead of repairing the plumbing, work crews turned off the power in the bathroom and built a wooden box over the urinals.
"It is frustrating," Principal Eatman says. "You always want the best for your students."
The sign in front of this Washington, D.C., high school reads "The Pride of Capitol Hill." Once inside, Anderson finds that the school's stately exterior hides a dilapidated learning environment. Brandon and Robert, seniors at the school, are so fed up with the poor condition of their school that they've started photographing the exposed radiators, peeling paint and broken windows.
"I believe a lot of these students deserve better," Robert tells Anderson.
Since Anderson's visit, the Washington, D.C., City Council voted to spend a billion dollars over the next 10 years to modernize hundreds of schools. A coalition of community groups, teachers, parents and students joined together to pressure lawmakers and get the bill passed.
Beth was the best and the brightest at Hancock High, a small school in rural Hancock County, Tennessee. All her life, she dreamed about being at the top of her class and someday becoming a doctor.
Throughout high school, Beth took the most challenging courses offered and maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average. On graduation day, she walked across the stage as class valedictorian. Though she'd hoped to attend an Ivy League university, Beth accepted a scholarship at a more affordable state college.
Instead of excelling during her freshman year, Beth found herself struggling through pre-med classes. "I had never been taught how to use a microscope," she says. "When I came into pre-calculus, I was completely left behind. I had to go back and learn things that I should have already known from high school."
Now a college sophomore, Beth is a full year behind in science and math. "I did everything that I could to prepare myself for college, and it still wasn't enough," she says. "I don't feel smart at all in college...I feel like I'm stupid."
Jonathan Kozol, an author, educator and activist, is one of public education's most vocal critics. In his book, The Shame of the Nation, Kozol compares the current state of the American school system to South African apartheid.
"We are now operating a school system in America that's more segregated than at any time since the death of Martin Luther King," he says. "Racial segregation has come back to public education with a vengeance."
According to Kozol, the average African-American and Latino 12th grader currently reads at the same level as the average white seventh grader.
"I think it's the number one moral shame that this nation faces today," he says. "I believe we need a national amendment which will guarantee every child in America the promise of not just an equal education but a high-quality equal education."
Though there are many great schools in America, there are also enormous problems with the educational system that can't be ignored any longer, Oprah says. Bill and Melinda Gates are on a mission to change America's public schools and help people become more aware of the crisis this country is facing. The Gates family is asking all Americans to "stand up" and join them.
"I believe, just as I know all of you watching believe, that every American child deserves the best school," Oprah says. "If you've watched this show today, and you realize that your child is one of the children who is not getting the best that this nation has to offer or if you are concerned about what's happening to other kids in this country, go to StandUp.org
."Go inside the revolutionary schools that are changing American education.
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