Bennet: To Meet the Needs of the Economy, We Need to Close the Achievement Gap Now and Ensure All Kids Can Go to College

Highlighting the Importance of Education to Improve Our Economy, Bennet Calls for a Fundamental Change to Our Public Education System

Washington, DC - Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator for Colorado and former Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, today made a push for transformational change in our public schools that will help close the achievement gap, allow more students to obtain a college degree, and prepare our kids with the skills they need to compete and succeed in the 21st century.

Bennet's push for reform came during a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) hearing about the importance of a world class education for our economic success. Improving our public education system is the single best way to promote America's economic competitiveness.

"I think we as a country are going to rue the day unless we think about the children who are living in poverty in the United States, no matter who we are, as our own children. This is the next generation of Americans, and we are not going to be able to compete in the 21st century if we don't address these issues. The path to doing that runs right through the urban school districts of the United States," Bennet said during the hearing.

When Bennet took over as Superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, only 33 African American students and 61 Latino students scored proficient on the 10th grade math test. This kind of inequity has caused the United States to fall further behind other industrialized countries in student achievement and has devastating effects for the economy. America ranks 20th among industrialized nations for high school graduation rates. Forty years ago the United States was first. More than 1.2 million kids will drop out of high school this year. Of the students who fail to get a high school degree, more than half are not even in the labor force.

Improvements and enhancements to legislation like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) must be made in order to turn around the failing education system.

"A fourth grader today as we're sitting here today, in a low income neighborhood or low income ZIP code, is already two or three years behind her peers. She has a one in two chance of graduating from high school and a one in 10 chance of graduating from college. I don't think anybody in the Senate would accept those odds for any of our kids or grandkids," Bennet said.

Bennet also asked panelists, who included experts in education, what they thought were the biggest impediments to preventing educational successes from scaling across America's school districts. One panelist said that the establishment and elected officials were removed from the needs of public education, parents and grandparents lose interest and a commitment to public education when their children graduate, and that general apathy and over confidence is the problem.

Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of HEB Grocery Co., said, "We had a big crowd for the Academy Awards on Sunday night - teacher events, education events gets a big yawn. It's not sexy."

Two other panelists said that models that have been successful in business, including incentives, collaboration and continuous improvement methods, have not been applied to education for a number of reasons.

"You can put this in the ‘whatever it's worth' category, but I do think there is enormous reform fatigue that goes on in these school districts, and part of it is because we haven't applied the approach of continuous improvement that you would think of in the business world, and I think that's important for us to keep that in mind because there's a lot that our school districts could gain from a continuous improvement approach," Bennet said.

Bennet also highlighted some particularly staggering statistics about the achievement gap in Colorado. A student's family income is still more predictive of achievement than any other factor. In Colorado, a kid growing up in the zip code 80211 has a 20 percent chance of being proficient on the state test in math. In contrast, if the same kid had been born up the street in zip code 80235, her chances of being below proficient on the state test would rise to 98.4 percent.

Applauding Bennet's commitment to education reform, one panelist commented that Bennet's question was the final question of the hearing noting, "It's a very difficult question, and I have to say I feel a little like Ebenezer Scrooge. You are the one I fear the most - the last."