In his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) on March 7, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates shared his thoughts on the future of American education, the development of the nation’s workforce, and the policies necessary to ensure America’s continued competitiveness in the global economy. During the hearing on “Strengthening American Competitiveness for the 21st Century,” Gates called for improved immigration policies for highly skilled workers and greater investment in scientific research, but he spent the majority of his time urging improvements to the nation’s education system—specifically high schools.
“America’s greatest educational shortcoming today is what for much of our history was its greatest pride: our public schools,” Gates said. “American schools have long been the cornerstone of this country’s fundamental belief that all people have equal value and deserve an equal opportunity to lead productive lives. Yet all of the evidence indicates that our high schools are no longer a path to opportunity and success, but a barrier to both. … Every student in America should graduate from high school ready for college, career, and life. Every child. No exceptions.”
In his opening statement, HELP Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) agreed that every student needed a “world-class education” in order for the country to remain globally competitive. He also thanked Gates for his work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve the nation’s high schools. “In large part to your work, we know how critical it is for our high schools to prepare students for success in college and the workplace,” he said. “We know that we can improve the results for our children by creating schools that serve all students with rigorous standards, challenging curriculums, up-to-date materials and technology, highly trained teachers, and supportive communities.”
Kennedy added that more work needed to be done. Specifically, he mentioned the need for better math and science instruction, good teachers for all students—especially those in high-poverty and high-minority schools—and increased access to college.
Gates agreed that America could not afford to rest on its laurels, but instead needed to make new investments to carry the country into the future. “Too often, we as a society are sacrificing the long-term good of our country in the interests of short-term gain,” he said. “Too often, we lack the political will to take the steps necessary to ensure that America remains a technology and innovation leader.” He added that the nation could no longer live off of past investments and instead needed to invest equal energy and resources to ensure that America’s future is “as bright and prosperous as its present.”
In his opening statement, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), the ranking member on the HELP Committee, painted a dismal picture of what could happen if the status quo remains unchanged. “Every day in the United States, 7,000 students drop out of school,” he said. “Unless high schools are able to graduate their students at higher rates than the 68 to 70 percent they currently do, more than 12 million students will drop out during the course of the next decade. The result long term will be a loss to the nation of $3 trillion, and as you can imagine, even more in terms of the quality of life for those dropouts.”
Among Gates’s specific suggestions for improving the nation’s education system, he said that reversing “dismal” high school graduation rates had to be a “top priority.” He proposed a target of doubling the number of young people who graduate from high school ready for college, career, and life. He also called on Congress to provide incentives for states to meet the goals of the National Governors Association’s Graduation Rate Compact, a compact originally signed by all fifty of the nation’s governors pledging to adopt accurate and consistent measurements for high school graduation.
In order to transform the American high school for the twenty-first century, Gates called for an equal focus on standards, measurements and data, and additional support for students and teachers. Noting that only about half of the states require students to take three or four years of math to graduate and that eight states do not set any math course requirements, Gates called on Congress to create incentives that would encourage states to adopt higher standards. He also pushed for incentives that would encourage students to pursue careers in math and science and called on Congress to focus more energy on upgrading the skills of Americans already in the workforce.
Among his other recommendations, Gates called for the creation of a Center for State Education Data, which would serve as a repository of state education data for policymakers and researchers and that could be used implement change, such as personalizing learning, to make it more relevant and engaging for students. He also praised the Teacher Incentive Fund, a relatively new program that rewards teachers and principals for raising student achievement and taking positions in high-need schools.
Gates concluded his testimony on high school reform by saying that the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is scheduled for this year, would provide Congress with the opportunity to address some of the solutions he mentioned. He acknowledged that enacting reforms would not be easy and would require a great deal of political will. However, he stressed that the benefit that the country could reap from making these changes would pay “rich dividends for our nation’s next generation. . . .We have had the amazing good fortune to live through one of the most prosperous and innovative periods in history,” he said. “We must not squander this opportunity to secure America’s continued competitiveness and prosperity.”
Complete video of the hearing, as well as the text of Gates’s testimony, is available athttp://help.senate.gov/Hearings/2007_03_07/2007_03_07.html.