This past Monday, a full audience packed Griffin 3 for education reformer Whitney Tilson’s presentation titled “How Reformers are Turning Around Public Education.” The lecture was sponsored by Students for Education Reform and made possible by Carrie Chu ’15, who invited Tilson, her former English teacher, to speak at the College.
Tilson works full-time as a hedge fund manager, but is also involved in several educational reform efforts. He proudly serves as a board member of KIPP Academy and founded the organization Democrats for Education Reform. Inspired by Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Tilson produced a documentary of his own that he, like Gore, hoped would educate a broader audience on something he cares about.
Tilson began his lecture by demonstrating through a series of graphs the importance for workers to have at least a college degree in order to secure reliable job and wage prospects. Efforts to increase the number of students getting a college degree has meant that “every year, we spend more and more per pupil,” Tilson said. However, Tilson then showed that even though money spent on education has doubled since 1976, average education attainment has not changed. “Education has stagnated,” he said.
According to Tilson, there are three main causes for the stagnation of education in the U.S., a pattern that is not found in any other developed nation. First, “teacher quality has been declining,” even as the number of teachers has tripled over the past 50 years. Second, school systems have become more dysfunctional, bureaucratic and unaccountable. “If you were to create a system to drive out good teachers, this is it,” Tilson said.
The third and most alarming cause is that “young people are spending more time doing anything but studying.” Tilson cited a study showing that American children watch twice as much TV as children in any other country in the world, and that over the past 50 years students in four-year colleges have gone from studying 24 hours a week to only 14 hours a week.
The current state of education in America has led to a phenomenon that Tilson has named “the twin achievement gap.” One achievement gap is that American students are falling behind students from nations who are also direct economic competitors of the U.S. Tilson showed several sobering statistics that all confirmed that American students are falling behind the rest of the developed world in educational achievement. Tilson was quick to point out that “we do not have a self-esteem problem,” and demonstrated this through a recent survey where American students ranked first in the world in self-rated mathematics abilities but near the bottom in actual standardized math test scores.
The other achievement gap Tilson noticed was between low-income minority students and their peers. Low-income students “come in [to elementary school] one grade level behind and only advance three-fourths of a grade level per year.” This means that by the time they enter fourth grade, students are already two grade levels behind. Another study highlighted that 62 percent of minority fourth-grade students in America are unable to read, compared with only 22 percent of white fourth grade students. Tilson then brought the audience’s attention to a graph that appeared to show that minority and white students were at an equal educational level, but elicited shock from the audience when it was revealed that the graph compared twelfth grade minority students to eighth grade white students.
These reasons are why Tilson is a staunch supporter of the KIPP charter schools, which focus on helping minority and lower-income families. “I’ve seen with my own eyes through hundreds of schools and thousands of students that prove that demography is not destiny,” Tilson said. Outside of these schools, Tilson has been encouraging reforms that will either improve or replace the current system.
One avenue through which Tilson believes we can improve the current system is to simply set the bar high for education. Tilson used the Massachusetts school system, which recently started to use international standards to rate its students, as an example. In just a few years, Massachusetts’ schools were ranked highest based on nation-wide test scores.
Another essential change that must occur, Tilson maintained, involves the evaluation and allocation of teachers. “90 percent of teachers get no evaluation whatsoever,” Tilson said. From what can be determined from the limited evaluation data, it appears that there is a huge difference between teachers. Tilson argued that the best teachers move students ahead at a rate of 1.5 grade levels per year, while the worst teachers move students 0.5 grade levels per year. As it turns out, studies have shown that “poor minority kids get the bottom third of teachers.”
In other locations there are competing factors for students that compel students away from schools. As one KIPP leader told Tilson, “I need to make school more fun than gangs.” Tilson used this final example to stress an important observation from his experience with education reform: “Every city, every state is a little different and you have to come up with a different plan.”