Philanthropist: Education Is The New Civil Rights Issue

The White House says it wants to give public schools around the country a chance to boost their performance through innovation. So President Obama dedicated more than 3 billion dollars to the 'Race to the Top' competition. This week the White House announced that 18 states and the District of Columbia are in the running for a portion of the cash. But is it the right prescription? Host Michel Martin asks Allan Golston, president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's US Program, which is funding numerous efforts to uplift American public schools. Mr. Golston calls education the civil rights issue of our time.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The Obama administration announced Tuesday that 18 states in the District of Columbia are all in the running for a cut of more than $3 billion in the federal Race to the Top competition.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the effort has stimulated public school innovation and unleashed an avalanche his words of pent-up educational reforms. Is it the reform needed to advance the prospects of students just entering kindergarten in 2010? That's the question Allan Golston is asking in Washington this week.

Mr. Golston is president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's U.S. program. And he's talking education at the National Urban League's annual conference this week. He stopped by to give us a preview of his remarks that he's expected to deliver tomorrow. Mr. Golston calls education the civil rights issue of our time. And he joins us here in our Washington, D.C., studios to tell us more. Thank you so much for coming.

Mr. ALLAN GOLSTON (President, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, U.S. Program): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, let me just start with that phrase, that education is the civil rights issue of our time. Everybody from John Payton of the NAACP legal defense fund to John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, have used that phrase. I'm not sure they mean the same thing by that. So I'd like to ask, what do you mean by that?

Mr. GOLSTON: Education is the civil rights of our time. And when you look at what's happening in our country, the statistics are pretty jarring. We're in a situation where a third of children drop out of high school every year. Two-thirds of our children are not prepared for college and career when they graduate from high school. Fifty percent of our low-income minority kids drop out of high school.

And as you know, in order to have access to economic opportunity in our country, education is a central point to doing that. So we believe that until all kids across this country have access to a high-quality education, then we have a civil rights issue that needs to be addressed quickly.

MARTIN: You talked about that in your prepared remarks - that on average, a black student is two to three years of learning behind his white peer.

Mr. GOLSTON: Yes.

MARTIN: And you say that because students fall behind, they drop out. And nearly half of low-income students of color - I assume you mean by that, black and Latino kids primarily - drop out.

Mr. GOLSTON: Absolutely, yes.

MARTIN: And you say that if we close the black-white achievement gap, America's GDP would be billions of dollars higher. And you say, actually, this gap is a permanent recession, that in fact, you're saying that African-Americans are -experience a permanent recession, in part because of this achievement gap.

Mr. GOLSTON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. GOLSTON: Well, it's important that African-Americans and communities of color are part of a thriving economic society. And until our kids and our families are part of that American dream, we are experiencing a permanent recession. And until we're educating our young people so that they can get the type of educational attainment and achievement that allows them to get the jobs that will allow them to earn a livable wage, then we are part of a permanent recession.

MARTIN: I mean, obviously, groups civil rights groups like the NAACP, for example, or the Urban League, have tended to look at systemic issues, and they've tended to use the courts as a means to address this. And that's not -the Gates Foundation is not in that business. But what is your sense of why, why does this gap persist?

Mr. GOLSTON: Well, we believe that our public education system is central to this core challenge and actually, central to the opportunity to change the trajectory. So when you look at what our education system has been built on for the past years, it's been built on years of decisions that are actually based on myths.

For example, it is a myth that class-size reduction alone gets big gains in student achievement. Yet as a country over the years, we have invested billions and billions of dollars on class-size reduction. The truth is that after the third grade, class-size reduction doesn't make a big difference at all in student outcomes.

What really matters, and we have not yet focused on this enough to really to solve the problem, is effective teaching: making sure there is a great teacher in every classroom, in every city, in every state in this country. And we haven't focused enough on although there's great momentum - on what teachers teach in the classroom. And that's why we're excited that governors and the chief state school officers have come together to develop clear, consistent standards that teachers and students and parents can understand.

MARTIN: And so do you have any clues about what makes an effective teacher? Is it personality? Are there are any through-lines so far?

Mr. GOLSTON: Well, we definitely believe that a teacher's ability to get value-added progress in student outcomes is one important measure. But we are very clear that you can't just use test scores and testing to evaluate an effective teacher.

MARTIN: How come?

Mr. GOLSTON: Because there are other elements of teaching. There are things such as, how does the teacher engage with their students? Do they know their subject matter well? There are other variables, such as student perception. So when you get to the more mature grades, student perceptions of their teacher actually do correlate to teacher effectiveness. So the question...

MARTIN: Wait a minute. Wait. Help me understand. You're saying - 'cause we know a lot about teacher perceptions of students, and we know that that plays a big role. You're saying it works the other way as well?

Mr. GOLSTON: It does. And I think most of us in our educational journey have had an experience where we had a teacher that was hard and tough, and we may have thought mean, but if we were asked objectively to rate that teacher and we were learning, we would've identified them as one of the effective teachers. And the data suggests that there are some correlations that can be statistically significant.

So the question is, what is the composite measure of effective teaching? It can't just be test scores. It can't just be observations. But what is a composite measure that teachers, researchers and policy makers can all respect?

MARTIN: Who was the most important teacher in your life?

Mr. GOLSTON: The most important teacher in my life, honestly, have been my parents. You know, when you think about great teaching, my parents have been a constant source of learning in my life. If you said, who is one of your most influential teachers in your school system? I remember very fondly my second-grade teacher, and she was one of those teachers that believed that I could achieve anything that I set my mind to. You know, at the end of the day in its simplest form, I think that's what great teaching is ultimately about.

MARTIN: I did want to ask you - if you don't mind my pointing out the fact that you're not only one of the most prominent people in philanthropy in this country, you're certainly one of the most prominent African-Americans in philanthropy in this country. And I did want to ask, when you look at statistics like this, when you talk about black students being on average two or three years of learning behind their white peers; when you talk about on average, nearly half of low-income students of color are dropping out; I'd just like to ask how that sits with you - if you don't mind my asking.

Mr. GOLSTON: Absolutely. It sits with me, actually, very poorly. And frankly, Michel, that's why I'm here. That's why we do this work. There are too few people like us that are part of this great opportunity to reach our full potential. I was fortunate. I had access to great education and high-quality education. And I'm determined to do my part, working with others, to ensure that that happens.

But it makes me angry. It makes me angry that we have systems that are denying that same opportunity for generations to come. And I believe it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

MARTIN: Allan Golston is president of the Gates Foundation U.S. Program. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studio. If you'd like to hear more of our conversation, please go to NPR.org, click on the TELL ME MORE program page. Allan Golston, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. GOLSTON: Thank you for having me here.

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