MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
But they'll do so in the cause of an issue, not a candidate. And not even a specific take on the issue. As Melinda Gates told us yesterday when she was visiting a Chicago high school, the object is to get Americans to appreciate how often American public schools fail American students.
MELINDA GATES: Americans don't talk about, commonly, the fact that a million students drop out of U.S. high schools every single year - and that when you look at the African-American and Latino population, those statistics go up to 50 percent of students dropping out. And I think that needs to be part of the national dialogue.
SIEGEL: Is the problem lack of awareness of the problem of school dropouts, or is it that people attribute that to the students and not to the schools?
GATES: I think it goes both ways. I think the Americans need to understand that a lot of times the children are bored in school, and that's why they're not staying in. But people don't realize that schools can do the right thing to support students - that if they have high expectations of students with great curriculum, if they're attracting and retaining the best teachers, if they're supporting the students in the schools, that there is a solution and it is fixable.
SIEGEL: From the material that I've seen, Strong American Schools has no official stand on vouchers, on charter schools, on No Child Left Behind, or on any other bill in Congress. It sounds like you're going to be taking a - well, making a great effort to put the question to the public and to provoke answers. Why not - with all of the experience that you have from educational grants that you've made already - get behind an answer or two?
GATES: Because I think that it's more important to get the American people demanding of the presidential candidates that they address these issues. The thing that we're talking about is bigger than any specific one piece of bill or one legislation. It's having Americans rise up and say, let's collectively do something about it. Let's debate the issues. Let's come up with the right solutions. We're not trying to dictate a solution. We don't think we have all the answers, but we think the American people should make sure that their candidates lead on this issue and come up with the right answers.
SIEGEL: Gallup polled Americans last month, and they were told that education ranked as priority number seven for people, and in that poll, people said that to improve public education we need more than anything else, more teachers and better teachers. Do you accept that as a given, that we need more teachers and better teachers?
GATES: Yes, we accept as a given that we need better teachers. There are absolutely lots of teachers who are trying to come into the profession, but they're not attracted enough to say I'm going to switch careers to do it, or they're often not retained in teaching because the salaries and the compensation aren't there to make it happen.
SIEGEL: What's your measure of success here, of this initiative? Is it getting a discussion going, seeing issue-position statements from the candidates in education, or actually seeing changes in schools?
GATES: Well, ultimately down the road, we want to see changes in schools. I mean that's what we are driving for. But we think this is the right time. That the next step to make changes in schools is to get this as part of the national discourse, and make sure the presidential candidates are talking about it. So that whoever is chosen really says education is my number one domestic priority for the United States.
SIEGEL: But you want to see it move up that list, off of number seven but...
GATES: Correct. Up to number one, domestically.
SIEGEL: If you can get people to focus on the problems of our schools failing lots of our kids, then comes the question of solution. We have a very - a bill now, the No Child Left Behind Act, on which the public is greatly divided, and people in education are very much divided about it. Doesn't getting education higher up in the debate simply mean that there might be more talk about conflicting ideas, about how to improve it?
GATES: But as a democracy, that's how we make change, right? We debate issues and then we move forward. And so it's an important debate, and one that Congress certainly needs to happen.
SIEGEL: I just want to ask you about a statement on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Web site that I read, which is that all students in the United States can and must graduate from high school, and they must leave with the skills necessary for college, work and citizenship. I think everyone would agree that they'd better leave with the skills for citizenship because everyone could vote at age 18, and we urge them to. College - can we reasonably expect 100 percent of high school students to become college students?
GATES: And it's because they started freshman year with teachers who believed in them and said these kids can do it. And maybe they're not coming in with the right reading or math skills, but we are going to bring them up, and we are going to have high expectations of them. And guess what? Those kids are succeeding, and those kids are getting into college.
SIEGEL: So that would be a dramatic increase of the share of high school students, if 100 percent went on to college. You'd be effecting an enormous social change if you could(ph)...
GATES: Correct. And that's the idea.
SIEGEL: How many years do you think it would take to achieve that particular?
GATES: I think it is going to take us quite a while. I think that this is a long-term effort and I think it's one that the foundation is going to be at for a very long time. But it ought to be our goal as a nation. We shouldn't let this number of students drop out. I think it's a moral crisis that we're failing students in this way.
SIEGEL: Well, Melinda Gates, thank you very much for talking with us about it.
GATES: Thank you very much for having me.
SIEGEL: That's Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She spoke to us yesterday from Chicago. And we should acknowledge the Gates Foundation - like its partner in this education venture, the Broad Foundation - is an underwriter of National Public Radio.
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