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April 1, 2011

Public Education

[Page: S2007]  GPO's PDF 

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Mr. BENNET. Mr. President, I wanted to come to the floor today to talk a little about the state of public education in this country, especially when it comes to the condition of poor children in the United States, in part because I think it is urgent that we fix No Child Left Behind--a law that is not working well for kids and for teachers, and for moms and dads all across the United States, and certainly in my home State of Colorado.

Sometimes people who aren't engaged in the work of teaching our kids--which I think is the hardest work anybody can do, short of going to war--don't realize how horrific the outcomes are for children in this great country of ours, especially children living in poverty. When I am on this floor, where there are 100 desks--there are 100 Senators--I sometimes think a little about what the condition of the people here would be if they were not Senators, but if these 100 people were poor children living in the United States in the 21st century.

First of all, it is important to recognize that of the 100 Senators--or the 100 kids in this great country--42 of the 100 would be living in poverty. Forty-two out of the 100 would be poor. Of those Senators--now poor children living in this country--as this chart shows, by the age of 4 they would have heard only one-third of the words heard by their more affluent peers. They are living in poverty, and they have heard 13 million words. A child in a professional family has heard 45 million words. There isn't a kindergarten teacher in this country who wouldn't tell you that makes an enormous difference right out of the chute.

Also by age 4, only 39 of the 100 children can recognize the letters of the alphabet--just 39 of 100 by age 4. In contrast, 85 percent of the children coming from middle-class families can recognize the letters of the alphabet. Again, there is not a kindergarten teacher or a high school teacher who wouldn't tell you that makes an enormous difference to kids when they come to school in terms of their readiness to learn.

But what happens when they are actually in our schools? By the fourth grade, only 17 out of 100 children in poverty can read at grade level--17. That is fewer kids than there are desks in this section of the Senate floor. The entire rest of the floor would be kids who cannot read at grade level by the fourth grade. These kids are reading at grade level. Everyone else all across this beautiful Chamber would not be able to read at grade level in America in the 21st century.

Only this section can read proficiently by the fourth grade.

What happens as they stay in school? It gets worse. By the eighth grade, only 16 of our kids can read at grade level. I could wander around the entire rest of this Chamber looking for somebody who can read proficiently, and I would not be able to find them. I have been in classrooms all across my State, all across the great city of Denver, and all across this country. In my view, there is nothing more at war with who we are as Americans or who we are as Coloradoans than a fifth grade child reading at the first grade level. There is a lot of discussion on this floor about your moral right to this and your moral right to that. I cannot think of anything less American than a child in the fifth grade doing first grade math.

Speaking of math, in a world where technology and engineering and invention are going to dominate the 21st

[Page: S2008]  GPO's PDF
century economy, how are we doing in math? Seventeen of our kids in the eighth grade are proficient mathematicians.

When I took the job as superintendent of schools in Denver, a district of 75,000 children, one of the greatest cities in the greatest country in the world, on the 10th grade math test that the State administers, in that district of 75,000 children, there were 33 African-American students proficient on that test and 61 Latino students proficient on the test; fewer than four classrooms of kids proficient on a test which measures--if we are honest with ourselves, which we are not--a junior high school standard of mathematical proficiency in Europe. That is what we are doing to our kids.

By the end of high school, if this Senate were a classroom of poor children in this country, only 57 of us would be around to graduate and only 25 are actually ready for college or ready for a career. That is one-quarter of this room; 75, we can just write them off, 75 of these desks.

It gets even worse after that because, of our 100 children, only 9 will graduate from college. These two rows of desks represent children coming from ZIP Codes where they are living in poverty and who ultimately make it through to graduate from college. That is it--two rows in one section of the Senate. No one in these rows will graduate from college, and no one in any of these desks from here to the other side of this floor will graduate from college. That has been true for a generation.

If we do not do things differently, it is going to be true for this generation of kindergartners, if we do not change what we do.

Sometimes people think this is someone else's problem, that it is not a question of national interest. I cannot imagine why anybody would think that, but some people do. McKinsey, the consulting group, has done a study which shows the effect of this dropout rate we have creates a permanent recession in our economy as great as the one we have been through. In other words, if we were graduating these kids from college, our economic growth would be far greater than it is right now. We can see the effect in this recession we just came out of. For people with less than a high school diploma, the unemployment rate was 15.3 percent. We can see the numbers here. But if you had a bachelor's degree or higher, your unemployment rate was 4 percent; 15 percent versus 4 percent in this recession we just went through.

But the point is also that it creates a chronic recession, a drag on our economy, not to mention the fact that if we go to the prisons of this country and we ask people did you graduate from high school, the answer is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 percent of the people in our prisons are high school dropouts. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how we might start solving that problem by actually graduating kids from high school and getting them ready for college.

Again, this is not about we are kind of sort of doing OK. Nine kids from poverty, on average, are making it through to a college degree; 91 are not. It is not as though those odds are somehow fairly distributed across the population in the United States of America.

There are huge international implications for all this as well. We can see, these are our students compared to our international peers on the eighth grade math test. We can see our Anglo kids are scoring up here--Korea, Singapore, Japan, Anglo kids in the United States of America. The U.S. average is here, so we have to go Hungary, England, Russian Federation, U.S. average. I don't know why we would not want to be first, but we are not first.

But look at how our Latino kids are doing and our African Americans kids are doing. Armenia, Australia, Sweden, Malta, Scotland, Serbia, Italy--our Latino kids, way down here. Keep going, Malaysia, Norway, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Israel, Ukraine, Romania, our U.S. African-American students--right above Bosnia, two steps above Lebanon. Think of it through the eyes of one of our African-American students living in a neighborhood in poverty in Chicago or Denver or Los Angeles or Boston. What are the odds that they are actually going to be able to graduate, that they are going to be able to contribute to the democracy, contribute meaningfully to our economy, compete in this global economy? They are long. They are long and they know they are long.

We cannot fix this problem from Washington. But we can call attention to the question. We can create policies and suggestions about how people ought to do the work differently. Having served as a superintendent in an urban school district for almost 4 years and having spent time with our kids, spent time with our teachers, I know we can succeed. The kids have the intellectual capacity to do the work. There is no doubt they do. But they are in a system that was designed deep in the last century. In fact, if we are honest about it, a lot of the way the system was designed was in colonial America.

In my judgment, it is time for the burden to shift from the people who want to change the system to the people who want to keep it the same. There were nights sometimes in the school board meetings when people would come and they would say: Michael, how do you sleep at night doing this and doing that and trying to change this and worrying about that?

I would say to them: The reason I can sleep at night is that I do not think we could do any worse than we are doing. We ought to think about stopping what we are doing and figure out how to change the way we think about recruiting, retaining, and inspiring teachers in the 21 century. We ought to elevate standards so we are not kidding ourselves across the country about whether we are competing with our international rivals and stop cheating our kids by telling them they are succeeding, when they are not, compared to the kids across the globe. We have to get out of the business of measuring things that do not make any sense to anybody right now who is working in the schools. Who cares how this year's fourth graders did compared to last year's fourth graders? What we need to know is how this group of fifth graders did compared to how they did as fourth graders, compared to how they did as third graders. That is common sense, but it is not the way the law works today.

I see my colleague from Georgia, but I wish to say this first. We cannot keep No Child Left Behind the way it is. It is contributing to the problem that is out there. It is making the work harder to do, not easier to do, for our teachers, for our principals, and for our kids. Our moms and dads are right to point out it is measuring the wrong thing and thinking about data in the wrong way. We ought to take this opportunity in a bipartisan way to fix No Child Left Behind, to lift some of that burden from our kids and from our teachers and our principals.

What we have to do as we are doing that is, we have to point to the places where it is actually working to demonstrate that the fact that you are born into a ZIP Code defined by poverty doesn't mean your life is going to be defined by poverty. We need to point to examples of people who have managed to struggle through, our schools that have managed to struggle through and beat the odds and are sending 95 and 98 percent of their poor children on to get a college degree. We need to be asking ourselves why we are not achieving that at scale.

I am the proud father of three little girls. I can tell you that if anyone in this body faced the same odds for their children or for their grandchildren that poor children in America face, there is no way we would not be talking about this issue night and day. In fact, people might give up. I might give up and rush home and say: I am going to take my kids out of that place they are in and I am going to put them in a place with the finest teachers and I am going to give up this Senate floor to make sure, as a parent, that I am involved in their education.

There is no way we would accept these odds for our own children. What I would argue is, the children I am talking about are our children. Remember, 42 out of 100 are living in poverty in this country. What is our answer for them?

I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of this aisle to not make excuses, to not find a reason why we cannot lead, to not find a reason why we cannot fix No Child Left Behind but, instead, to create some hope for children all across our country

[Page: S2009]  GPO's PDF
living in urban and rural areas who are suffering this horrible plight.

I yield the floor.

(Senate - March 31, 2011)

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