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."
In this out-of-date structure, Bill says that some students do not value their own education.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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
"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.
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."
"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."
"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.