America needs a Center for State Education Data to aggregate student information and identify what works and what doesn’t in our schools, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told Congress on March 7.
The world’s richest man also reiterated his call for an overhaul of the nation’s schools and asked lawmakers to revamp immigration laws to keep jobs from going overseas and to maintain American competitiveness in the new global economy.
"The U.S. cannot maintain its economic leadership unless our work force consists of people who have the knowledge and skills needed to drive innovation," Gates told the Senate committee that oversees labor and education issues.
Gates, whose charitable foundation has given away more than $3 billion since 1999 for educational programs and scholarships, noted that about 30 percent of U.S. ninth-graders fail to graduate on time. "As a nation, we should start with this goal: Every child in the United States graduating from high school," he said.
Gates challenged lawmakers to push for higher educational standards and to make more challenging coursework available to students.
A federal study released last month showed about a third of high schoolers fail to take a standard-level curriculum, which is defined as including at least four credits of English and three credits each of social studies, math, and science.
Besides higher standards, school leaders also must understand how well their schools and students are performing relative to these standards, Gates said.
"Data collection systems must be transparent and accurate so that we can understand what is working and what isn’t and for whom," he said. "Therefore, we need data by race and income. I urge this committee to support the creation of a Center for State Education Data, which will serve as a national resource for state education data and will provide one-stop access for education research and policy makers, along with a public web site to streamline education data reporting."
But it’s not enough just to collect data. "We also need to use the data we collect to implement change, including by personalizing learning to make it more relevant and engaging for students–and thereby truly ensure that no child is left behind," Gates said.
He also called for an overhaul of the curriculum and pedagogy in America’s schools to better reflect the realities of today’s digital society.
"Our current expectations for what our students should learn in school were set fifty years ago to meet the needs of an economy based on manufacturing and agriculture. We now have an economy based on knowledge and technology," Gates told the panel.
"Despite the best efforts of many committed educators and administrators, our high schools have simply failed to adapt to this change. As any parent knows, however, our children have not [failed to adapt]–they are fully immersed in digital culture. As a result, while most students enter high school wanting to succeed, too many end up bored, unchallenged, and disengaged from the high school curriculum–"digital natives" caught up in an industrial-age learning model."
The nation’s schools must take steps to ensure that curricula are engaging and relevant to students’ current needs, he said. A model for this is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, of which Microsoft is a member.
"This unique partnership of education, government, and business leaders seeks to help schools adapt their curricula and classroom environments to align more closely with the skills that students need to succeed in the 21st-century economy, such as communication and problem-solving skills," Gates explained.
Gates also called on lawmakers to give more resources and attention to improving the teaching of math and science–knowledge essential to many of today’s jobs. Another recent federal study found 40 percent of high school seniors failed to perform at the basic level on a national math test. On a national science test, half of 12th-graders didn’t show basic skills.
"We simply cannot sustain an economy based on innovation unless our citizens are educated in math, science, and engineering," Gates said.
The economy’s need for workers trained in these fields is "massive–and growing," Gates said. He said the U.S. Department of Labor has projected that, from 2004 to 2014, there will be more than two million job openings in the United States in these fields. Yet in 2004, just 11 percent of all higher-education degrees awarded in the U.S. were in engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences–"a decline of about a third since 1960."
Recent declines are most pronounced in computer science, he said. The percentage of college freshmen planning to major in computer science reportedly dropped by 70 percent between 2000 and 2005.
"In an economy in which computing has become central to innovation in nearly every sector, this decline poses a serious threat to American competitiveness," Gates said. "Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that every significant technological innovation of the 21st century will require new software to make it happen."
The problem begins in high school, he said: Too many students enter college without the basics needed to major in science and engineering.
Legislation moving through the Senate, backed by Democratic and Republican leaders, seeks to get more people to become math and science teachers and would improve training for them. The bill also seeks to get more highly trained teachers in poor schools and would offer grants to states to better align their teaching with what kids should know to succeed at a job or in college.
"High schools are emerging around the country that focus on math and science, and they are successfully engaging students who have long been underrepresented in these fields," Gates said–"schools like the School of Science and Technology in Denver, Aviation High School in Seattle, and University High School in Hartford, Connecticut. These schools have augmented traditional teaching methods with new technologies and a rigorous, project-centered curriculum, and their students know they are expected to go on to college. This combination is working to draw more young people, especially more African-American and Hispanic young people, to study math and science."
Schools also are teaming up with the private sector to strengthen high school math and science education, Gates said, and he cited the Microsoft Math Partnership–a public-private initiative designed to focus new attention on improving middle-school math education for schools in Washington state–as a good example.
Gates also said the nation’s economy depends on keeping the country’s borders open to highly skilled workers, especially those with a science or engineering background. Federal law provides 65,000 H1-B visas for scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and other professionals every budget year. High-tech and other employers say that’s not enough.
"Even though it may not be realistic, I don’t think there should be any limit," Gates said, adding that Microsoft hasn’t been able to fill approximately 3,000 technical jobs in the United States because of a shortage of skilled workers.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said the issue would be addressed when Congress takes up broad immigration reform legislation this session.
President Bush has expressed support for raising the visa cap.
Gates–who is No. 1 on Forbes magazine’s list of richest Americans–also told the committee in response to a question that he opposes repeal of the federal estate tax. Current law will phase out the tax by 2010, but without further action by Congress it will be restored at a 55 percent rate in 2011.
Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Hearing: Strengthening American Competitiveness for the 21st Century
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Partnership for 21st Century Skills
eSN Archive–Gates, governors: Upgrade high school