Preparing Our Kids for the 21st Century Economy

Throughout our history, public schools have empowered America to fulfill its promise to the next generation. Yet today more than 1.2 million children drop out of high school every year. We now rank 20th among industrialized nations for high school graduation rates, but 40 years ago, we were first. Of our 8th graders, 70 percent can't read at grade level. Only nine out of 100 kids living in poverty will graduate from college.

Our economy is at risk. These outcomes are unsustainable in an economy in which a college degree has become a necessary, though not always sufficient, passport to the middle class.  Between 1992 and 2002, we created 6 million new jobs that require a college degree, and lost about half a million jobs that require a less than a high school diploma. Of the 30 fastest growing occupations, 22 will require a college degree between now and 2016.

The zip code you are born in should no longer dictate the quality of education you receive.

While our economy has changed, our schools have remained stuck in models designed deep in the last century or earlier. Our kids are attending schools originally designed to prepare their grandparents for an economy that no longer exists.  Every signal in our economy points to the fact that we need to invest in education and produce college graduates. However, the response of our schools, especially for low-income students, is utterly inadequate to meet the demands of the economy.

Our country's competitiveness and our ability to pull ourselves out of this economic crisis depend on fundamental transformation of the public education in this country. We have a unique opportunity to push our schools into the 21st century. Now is not the time for timid reform. We need transformative reforms.

Working together, we can ensure that every child is prepared to succeed in college and in the 21st century economy.

Bennet, a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is a former superintendent of Denver Public Schools and is a member of the extended negotiation table that crafted a bill to fix No Child Left Behind. He has led a group of moderate Senators in pushing for a set of principles to fix No Child Left Behind. Michael is working to increase flexibility for those closest to the classroom, recruit and train effective teachers and school leaders, teach more and test less, end inequality, fix low-performing schools, spur competition and innovation, empower parents and teachers and lead the world in the percentage of college graduates.

Read an op-ed, “Four Keys for Improving No Child Left Behind,” penned by Michael in The Washington Post.

K12 Education Priorities

As Michael fights to fundamentally change our education system, he will prioritize the following areas:

Attract, Train and Retain Great Teachers and Leaders in the Classroom

Attract, Train and Retain Great Teachers and Leaders in the ClassroomThe key to a great education is great educators. We need to update the way we recruit, train, support, retain and pay teachers and leaders in our high-need schools because our current system was designed deep in the last century and is woefully inadequate for the labor market demands of the 21st Century.

Bennet is working to help attract people to the teaching profession, ensure they have proper training to be effective teachers, and focus teacher preparation programs based on outcomes, not inputs. He wants to establish incentives for states to establish selective "Teacher Preparation Charter Academies" and ensure licensing is based on demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom. He has also proposed a Presidential Teacher Corps to recruit and train 100,000 effective teachers to work in high-need schools over the next five years, a version of which was included in the President's budget, as well as the Department of Education's plan to improve teacher preparation programs. Also included in the Department's plan are parts of Bennet's GREAT Act, which supports the growth of new kinds of teacher and principal training academies that have rigorous admissions selection processes, emphasize clinical instruction and tie graduation to improving student academic achievement.

Read an op-ed Bennet penned for the Huffington Post on the Presidential Teacher Corps.

There is no harder – or more important – job than teaching in a high-need school.

Without redesigning our system to attract, support and retain key leaders in our schools that need them most, other public education investments will not lead to the dramatic results we need for short-term economic recovery and long-term economic prosperity. Michael supports the Teacher Incentive Fund and other efforts to provide districts opportunities to reform their systems for recruiting, placing, developing, compensating and retaining great teachers and leaders in high-need schools.

Michael has worked on two bills to recruit and train leaders in high-need schools. He was an original cosponsor of the bipartisan School Principal Recruitment and Training Act, which would have created a new, competitive grant program for high-quality training programs that prepare principals to improve student academic achievement in high-need schools. He has also introduced the Lead Act, which would create opportunities, including a School Leadership Academy and local School Leadership Centers of Excellence, for the best principals in Colorado and across the country to get the training and support they need to successfully lead the transformation of the lowest performing schools.

Bennet penned an op-ed for The Boston Globe on the need to provide more competitive salaries for teachers to attract more people to the profession.

Increase Flexibility to Make Decisions Closest to Kids

Too often, people are focused on meeting the needs of programs instead of meeting the needs of students. One of the problems with No Child Left Behind is that it required one-size-fits all solutions to very individual problems. We need to reduce the red tape and make sure people at the local level have the flexibility they need to make decisions about what is best for them.

Bennet joined Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to introduce a bipartisan bill to establish a national task force to examine federal, state and local regulations, as well as testing and assessment systems, governing public schools. The task force would analyze the findings to make recommendations for policymakers to remove red tape, reduce regulatory compliance while ensuring important regulations remain in place, and improve the quality of assessment systems.

In addition to the long-term, nationwide task force authorized in the bill, Bennet and Alexander already have established a working group to study the regulations and assessment systems in Colorado and Tennessee schools and determine their effectiveness.

Read an op-ed Bennet penned for The Hill on the need to cut red tape and increase flexibility in education.

Click here to share your experiences with red tape in education or your ideas to remove unnecessary barriers to improve our schools.

End Inequality

We can no longer allow children's Zip codes to determine the quality of their education. We are one of only three developed countries to invest more money into the most advantaged schools than the low-income schools. We need to build a school system in this country that addresses the profound inequality that exists and provides equal opportunity for all our children to succeed in the classroom and after graduation.

Bennet joined with Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) to introduce a bipartisan bill to ensure that our sparse federal dollars go to the disadvantaged children they were intended to serve, while also encouraging more equitable spending locally among schools. Title I is designed to provide low-income schools with additional resources to meet high needs. To receive Title I assistance, districts must demonstrate they are allocating their state and local resources equally among their high- and low-poverty schools.

Due to a loophole, however, school districts can comply with this requirement without accounting for actual dollars going into each school, but rather by using the average teacher salary across the district within their school budgets. But lower-income schools often do not attract more experienced, higher salaried teachers, so districts often inadvertently end up providing more local funding to schools in affluent areas because they attract higher salaried teachers.

As a result, even with Title I assistance, low-income schools end up with less funding than higher-income schools. In effect, low-income schools end up subsidizing their higher income counterparts. The Fiscal Fairness Act would close this long-standing loophole. For a simple video explaining the comparability loophole, click here.

Another significant challenge to bridging the achievement gap is improving programs for English language learners, the fastest growing student population within the United States, having grown by 60 percent since the late 1990s. The fastest growth has taken place in regions of the country with relatively limited experience serving English learners, creating a major challenge for schools struggling to close the achievement gap with limited resources.

That's why Bennet has introduced a bill to help ensure that English learners have access to high-quality instruction that enables them to acquire English and prepare for college and beyond. The English Learning and Innovation Act would create two competitive grant programs to promote new solutions. This new focus will help test and drive new approaches to educating English learners, which will prepare them for success in the 21st century job market and to contribute to the economy. He also successfully pushed to have English language learning programs be considered in evaluating applications for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge.

Update Standards and Assessments for the 21st Century to Teach More, Test Less

We need fewer, higher, and clearer standards, and an accountability system that measures student growth year to year, such as the Colorado growth model, and assessments that accurately measure school performance. We need high quality tests that measure critical thinking skills and provide teachers with real-time information about students' performance. But we also need to incentivize more streamlined testing, effective use of technology, and coordination to reduce duplicative and unnecessary testing.

Bennet joined Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to introduce a bipartisan bill to establish a national task force to examine testing and assessment systems governing public schools. The task force would analyze the findings to make recommendations for policymakers improve the quality of assessment systems. In addition to the long-term, nationwide task force authorized in the bill, Bennet and Alexander established a working group that will begin immediately to study the assessment systems in Colorado and Tennessee schools and determine their effectiveness.

Michael, along with Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), introduced the Growth to Excellence Act, which is base on the growth model developed in Colorado and would allow states to consider individual students' academic growth year-to-year in evaluating schools, instead of comparing this year's 4th graders to last year's 4th graders.


We need strong accountability for teachers, schools and school districts, especially with large achievement gaps. Schools should adopt college and career ready standards, and we should incentivize common core standards, so there are consistent, clear and high standards across the country.

In addition to common core standards, we should support states making meaningful progress toward high goals and ensure that parents and education officials have accurate information about the progress individual students and schools are making. But we need to ensure our system of accountability is fair and is measuring growth. We should not evaluate a teacher based on how last year's 5th graders did compared to this year's 5th graders, but comparing how one 5th grade did this year compared to how she did last year.

And Colorado is already leading the way with this type of accountability with the Colorado Growth Model. This system of accountability actually shows us how much progress students and schools are making toward our goals. Michael, along with Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), introduced the Growth to Excellence Act, which is based on the Colorado growth model and would allow states to consider individual students' academic growth year-to-year, among other factors, in evaluating schools.

For schools that consistently fail to meet these standards, we should take aggressive action to turn them around. Turning around the lowest performance schools is incredibly difficult work.  We need to provide local schools and leaders with the flexibility to do something rather than allowing them the flexibility to do nothing.

Spur Competition and Innovation

We know that in order to improve our education system, states and school districts will have to take bold new approaches to delivering a quality education. The federal government can play a critical role in promoting opportunities for innovation at the local level and high-quality research and development to replicate effective strategies and bring them to scale across the country.

We can encourage states and districts to try new approaches to teaching and engaging students that drive results and empower schools to reach the cutting edge of using new technology for teaching and learning. We can also help local school districts and states use technology to disseminate effective practices, share great lesson plans and connect students to one another.

Programs, such as Race to the Top, incentivize states and local school districts to innovate, raise their standards and commit to fixing schools that have persistently failed students by creating a competition among states for additional federal resources. Michael cosponsored a bill to make the Race to the Top program permanent. While he was disappointed that Colorado deserved to but did not win funding during the first two rounds of the competition and that the scoring system needs updates, he continues to support Race to the Top because it spurred innovation in education from coast to coast. He is hopeful that innovations will expand and Colorado will receive resources if it continues. In just 18 months, Race to the Top led to more meaningful education reforms across the country than we've seen over the last eight years.

Michael pushed for the Secondary School Innovation Fund Act to award grants to implement innovative strategies to improve student achievement and prepare at-risk students for postsecondary workforce-driven education. He also helped secure resources for the Investing in Innovation Fund, which provides competitive grants to applicants with a record of improving student achievement and attainment in order to expand the implementation of, and investment in, innovative practices that are demonstrated to have an impact on improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates.

Achievement Through Prevention

When we create a safe and positive learning environment and identify and resolve problems early, we can improve academic achievement for all students. Bennet led a bipartisan group of Senators to introduce a bill to improve student academic achievement, reduce over-identification of children with disabilities and reduce disciplinary problems in schools by intervening early. The Achievement Through Prevention Act makes it easier to implement school-wide programs that create a positive learning environment, as well as a system to provide early interventions tailored to the needs of each child.


By increasing implementation of school-wide positive behavioral intervention and supports and early intervening services, we can help prevent school bullying and create a safer learning environment for all students. We need to support and expand proven programs that raise achievement through prevention in education. To learn more about bullying, how to recognize the warning signs and what to do to prevent it, go to

Nutrients to Learn

Attract, Train and Retain Great Teachers and Leaders in the ClassroomAt a time when childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing and child poverty is increasing, it is more important than ever to ensure our kids are getting three meals a day and that those meals are healthy and full of the nutrients growing kids need. In 2010, nearly one in five kids in Colorado lacked access to enough food to meet their basic needs, and that is unacceptable. For kids to be successful in the classroom, they must be well nourished – kids who eat right, learn better.

Michael has successfully fought for monumental investments that will tackle childhood obesity and childhood hunger, improve child nutrition and reduce red-tape to make sure all kids receive the nutritious school meals they deserve.

With Michael's support the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act was signed into law. This bill will create a path to end childhood hunger, promote health and reduce obesity, and improve program management and integrity.

Staggering Statistics

General Statistics

  • Only 2,000 high schools – less than 15 percent of all high schools – produce more than half of the country's dropouts.
  • If we closed the achievement gap between the United States and higher-performing countries, our GDP could increase by $2.3 trillion – 16 percent more than it is now.
  • Although the United States spends 40 percent more money per pupil on K12 education than the average for developed countries, in 2009 15-year-olds in the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math compared to their peers in other developed nations.

Income-Level Achievement Gap

  • By the time children in poverty get to 4th grade, they are already three grade levels behind their high-income peers.
  • A child in poverty stands a one in two chance of graduating from high school and a one in 10 chance of graduating from college.
  • Of Colorado students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, only 40 percent are proficient in math, compared to 67 percent among other students.

Achievement Gap by Race and Ethnicity

  • When Michael took over as Superintendent of Denver schools, in a school district of 75,000 children and a city of 550,000 people, 33 African-American students and 61 Latino students were proficient on the 10th grade math test. Fewer than four classrooms-worth of kids in that 75,000-child school district proficient on a test that measures a junior high school standard of mathematical proficiency in Europe.
  • In 2009, 82 percent of Latino and 73 percent of African American 4th graders in Colorado could not read at grade level, compared to 49 percent of White 4th graders.
  • Minority students dropout at a much higher rate than their White peers. In Colorado in 2009, the dropout rates were 5 percent among Black students, 6.2 percent among Hispanic students and 6.8 percent among Native American students, compared to 2.3 percent among White students.

Future for High School Dropouts

  • High school dropouts are 47 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates. A third of African-American high school dropouts were in prison in 2009.
  • Nearly half of high school dropouts are not in the labor force. In Colorado, dropouts from the class of 2008 will cost the state almost $4.3 billion in lost wages over their lifetimes.
  • People with a college degree can expect to make about $800,000 more over their lifetimes on average than high school dropouts.

College Affordability and Access

  • From 1992 to 2002, we created more than 6 million jobs that required a four-year degree. We lost jobs for people who do not have high school diplomas.
  • At public two-year colleges, more than one in four first-year students have to take remedial courses to be ready for college, and nearly one in five freshmen at public four-year colleges must take remedial courses.
  • Pell Grant awards have not kept up with rising tuition. In 1987-88, the maximum Pell Grant award covered 50 percent of tuition, fees and room and board at a public four-year college, now it only covers about 30 percent.
  • Total student loan debt in the United States is projected to reach $1 trillion by the end of 2011, and Americans already have more debt from student loans than credit card debt.

Global Competitiveness

  • Forty years ago, the United States was first among industrialized nations in college graduates, but now we're 20th.
  • Schools in other countries are not only out-educating us but also improving their education systems more quickly than the United States is.

Encouraging Examples

We can do better, and we must do better. We have seen large gains in schools that have made aggressive reforms to improve the odds for our kids. The Denver Public School (DPS) school system led by Michael made progress. From 2005 to 2008, Denver kids improved in reading, math, writing and science.

What did DPS do?

  • DPS closed failing schools and opened new ones.
  • DPS implemented a groundbreaking teacher pay system that rewards teachers who improve their students' performance and provides incentives for teachers to go the neediest schools. This accomplished came by working with the union.
  • With the leadership of the Mayor and city council, voters expanded early childhood education. As a result, this year there are 1500 more 4-year-olds in full-day programs, a 300% increase. For the first time, more than 90% of our 5-year-olds get a full day of school. Research shows there is no smarter investment.
  • In 2008, DPS launched a School Performance Framework that measures student progress year to year throughout their career- rather than the meaningless measurement of one year's class against the next year's class. According to this ranking in 2010, the number of lowest-performing schools decreased to 14 from 31 in 2008.

Encouraging Results from Around the Country

  • George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, is 99 percent African American and 99 percent low-income, and 99 percent of their students are meeting or exceeding grade level reading expectations.
  • Griegos Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is 76 percent Latino and 60 percent low-income, and from 2006 to 2010, the 5th grade science scores of low-income students improved by 44 percent.
  • The achievement gap between white and minority students is narrowing, between 1971 and 2008 the reading achievement gap of 9 year old students decreased from 44, for white and African American and 34 for white and Latino students to, 24 and 21 respectively.

Denver and other school districts and schools have made progress, but we still have work to do. In President Obama's 2011 State of the Union Address, he highlighted Bruce Randolph School in Denver for its turnaround. It went from one of the lowest performing schools in 2007 to having a 97 percent graduation rate among its 2010 senior class. Other districts will see similar success if we support proven reform efforts.

Read an op-ed that Bennet wrote for the Dallas Morning News on his experience running an urban school district and steps we can take to improve our schools.

We won't fix schools by spending more money on programs that haven't worked. We must commit resources to what works. We will know we have succeeded when we see not only more students graduating high school, but more of those graduates going on to complete college. The achievement gap will shrink, and the United States once again will lead in academic achievement. 

Higher Education

Most 21st century jobs are going to require a college degree, but with tuition costs on the rise, we need to expand access to higher education by making it more affordable. We can't rest until higher education is within reach for all students who want to go to college – regardless of their position on the economic ladder – but can't afford to take on a mountain of debt.

A college degree has become a necessary, though not always sufficient passport to the middle class.

America is falling behind the rest of the world in the percentage of our population with a college diploma. Currently, America ranks 16th in the percentage of 25-34-year-olds with post-secondary degrees, but in 1995, we ranked 2nd.

Today, a child in poverty in this country stands a roughly one in ten chance of graduating from college. But the jobs being created in our economy overwhelmingly require some post-secondary education. Between 1992 and 2002, we created 6 million new jobs that require a college degree and lost about half a million jobs that require less than a high school diploma. Between now and 2016, 22 of the 30 fastest growing occupations will require a college degree. But at the same time, college tuition is increasing each year.

Our country cannot expect to compete in the global economy unless we provide every student the opportunity to obtain a college degree. We need to ensure that every child has access to a world class education and does not accumulate astronomical debt in the process.

College Affordability

The 111th Congress made the largest investment in higher education in our country since the GI Bill. Congress ended subsidies for private lenders and invested the savings to help ensure that students are prepared for – and can afford – college while also reducing the deficit.

How has Congress made college more affordable for Coloradans and all Americans?

  • Investments in additional resources for PELL Grants – 8,978 additional Colorado students, and 573,000 additional students around the nation are eligible for PELL Grants each year because of the expansion of this program.
  • Increases in the maximum Pell awards to $5,550 in 2010 and to $5,975 by 2017. Starting in 2013, the scholarship will be linked to match rising costs-of-living.
  • Replenishment of College Access Challenge Grants – Colorado receives $8,258,580 in additional resources for these grants that work to foster partnerships on the federal, state and local level to increase the number of low-income and first-generation students who are prepared for and complete secondary education.
  • Increased commitment to Minority Serving Institutions – these institutions in Colorado will receive $29,695,750 in additional resources.
  • Additional help for students paying for their education with Income-Based Repayment. Beginning in 2014, new borrowers who are eligible for Income-Based Repayment will be able to cap their monthly loan payments at just 10 percent of their discretionary income, helping students who choose low-paid public service jobs. That cap is currently at 15 percent for eligible borrowers. Additionally, borrowers who responsibly make their monthly payments will see their remaining balance forgiven after 20 years of repayment, reduced from 25 years in current law.
  • Simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to make the process of applying for federal student aid easier.

Congress also provided additional resources to Colorado to avoid massive budget cuts to higher education, increased the tuition tax credit for working families and expanded the work study program, so more students could take advantage of it. To ensure universities could continue critical research and campus technological infrastructure investments and energy efficiency projects, Congress provided additional resources for such programs. For students who find themselves struggling in college, Michael supported additional resources to bolster college access and completion support efforts.

A college degree is more important than ever, and we need to continue to break down barriers that prevent some students from successfully completing college without amounting astronomical debt.

Your Path to College Opportunity

college opportunityWith today's rising tuitions, it is important for students and parents to understand the range of options available to them when paying for college. The financial aid landscape can be confusing, and too often, resources are difficult to find. Below is information that can help you understand and navigate the financial aid process to make college as affordable as possible.

Getting Started


  • Start gathering information early
  • Free information is available from high school counselors, financial aid offices at the colleges to which you apply, local and college libraries and Student Aid on the Web
  • Keep copies of all forms and correspondence
  • Remember you are required to reapply for aid each year
  • Beware of scams: You should never pay for financial aid information

For Parents:

Helpful Overviews:

College in Colorado For information on how to plan for and apply to college in Colorado, visit You can also compare post-secondary schools in Colorado by clicking here.

FAFSA The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is used to determine how much a family or student is expected to contribute to the cost of attending post-secondary schooling. It is also used to determine eligibility for federal Stafford loans and Pell Grants, as well as work study and other financial aid. Be sure to complete this application completely and on time. For more information or to fill out the application, click here.

Federal Student Aid

Helpful Links: Student Aid on the Web and Financial Aid Resource Publications

Loans, the most common federal aid, must be repaid when you graduate or leave college.

Scholarships/grants are mostly need-based and require no repayment:

Other grants, scholarships, and fellowships, mostly graduate level: search the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) by Beneficiary, such as "Student or Trainee" or "Graduate Student"

"Congressional" scholarships:

  • Merit-based and highly competitive

Work study programs allow you to earn money while in school:

For questions, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-433-3243.

Other Financial Aid Opportunities

Colorado College Opportunity Fund

  • College Opportunity Fund The College Opportunity Fund provides a stipend for in-state, undergraduate applicants.
  • To receive the stipend, a student must apply for and authorize the use of the stipend at their respective institution.

Privately Funded Grants and Scholarships

Targeted Aid

Repaying Your Loans

After college, the federal government has ways to help you repay your loans.

Loan Consolidation: combine your federal loans into a single loan with one monthly payment.

Income-based repayment: cap your federal loan monthly repayments at a manageable percentage of your income

Sometimes loans may be canceled in exchange for public service.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Student Debt Repayment Assistant also can help provide more information about repayment options based on the types of loans.

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