But while plenty of wealthy businesspeople agree the education system needs their support, there is little consensus on what to do. Some people like the Waltons are big supporters of charter schools, which now represent 5% of all public schools, up from 2% a decade ago. Others like Michael Milken and Bill Gates think hiring and training better teachers is the best solution.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at K-12 education in particular and soliciting input from some of the nation’s most successful businesspeople and education experts as well as readers, asking for their single best ideas for reforming schools now.
Fifty million students will go to approximately 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During the year, an estimated $566 billion will be spent educating these students, 53% more than the amount spent just a decade ago, even when adjusted for inflation.
Yet despite the huge sum of money being spent, Americans don’t seem to be keeping up. According to 2007 data, fourth graders in 8 countries including China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Latvia, outperformed American fourth graders in math. On the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment of 15-year-olds performance in reading, math and science, Americans scored below the average of the 34 OECD member countries in Math and at the average in literacy.
“In 1960, America was an education powerhouse. Each decade from 1880 to 1960, on average we added one year of school to our children’s learning,” wrote American billionaire Michael Milken earlier this year in an article about America’s next great century, “By the time I was in elementary school, we led most of the world by at least two years of formal schooling. But since then, we’ve stalled while other nations have moved ahead and in some cases surpassed us.
Hollywood director George Lucas, who says his own experience in public schools was “quite frustrating,” calls education the foundation of our democracy and says that as a father, “I’ve felt the imperative to transform schooling even more urgently."
What do you think the problem is in America’s public schools? How can we keep up with other countries? What would you change first? Your thoughts will be included along with those of America’s wealthiest as part of a section to be published in the annual Forbes 400 issue coming out in just a few weeks.
In the meantime, read on about what a few Forbes 400 members are already doing.
The Hollywood director pushes innovation in the classroom. His Edutopia.org, documents, publicizes, and advocates for creative teaching methods. The foundation especially highlights interdisciplinary studies, collaborative learning, and digital interaction in the classroom.
Rather than test systems to improve teachers, The Milken Family Foundation launched an educator awards program to find and honor exceptional ones. The Milken Family Foundation has recognized more than 2,500 teachers and awarded each $25,000 and an opportunity to participate in annual professional development forums.
From 2000 to 2008, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made over $2 billion in grants to help high schools around the U.S. reorganize curriculum, teaching methods, and even their total student body size. However, Gates admitted in 2009 that despite donating all that money, they “fell short” of their ultimate goal of raising college-ready graduation rates. He grouped and refocused and now his foundation funds a much more specific subset of schools — mostly charter schools — and has donated hundreds of millions in the last three years to programs aimed at measuring and evaluating teachers.
Research (and the results from his first wave of grants) showed Gates that great teachers, not great schools, make the biggest difference in education. So now he’s investing in teacher assessment programs that are data-oriented, testing systems that extend the time before a teacher earns tenure and link both tenure and pay raises to student achievement.
In 2002, his foundation established an attention-catching $1 million prize awarded each year to the urban school district that demonstrated the greatest improvement in student achievement. At the same time it started The Broad Residency in Urban Education, a leadership development program that places individuals with advanced degrees into high-level managerial positions in urban education administration. While many other organizations encourage the nation’s brightest young people to enter the classroom, this may be the only one that engineers an infusion of professional talent into school offices.
Think of it as Teach For America — for MBAs. The Broad Residency now selects 45-50 residents each year for positions at school districts, charter management organizations, and government education departments. The residents, who must also have at least four years of prior full-time professional work experience, are tasked with shaking up conventional wisdom and outdated practices, leading educational transformations from the top down.