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April 2005
Are CMS High Schools Obsolete?
By John Paul Galles

In the midst of controversy about Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), Charlotte’s business community, led by Bank of America and Wachovia, have contributed $500,000 for an expert study of how CMS can be redesigned to better serve a growing and changing community. This study will review how CMS and other metropolitan school districts are managed. The report is due to be released by the end of July.

Mecklenburg County Chairman Parks Helms and CMS School Board Chairman Joe White launched the plan as activists were advocating splitting up CMS into parts or abandoning public education altogether. Already having over 118,600 students and 140 schools in the CMS system, CMS expects to add another 53,000 students within the next decade.

The adequacy of our public school system in preparing our nation’s youth to be globally competitive is of national concern, especially at the secondary level. Microsoft’s Bill Gates recently delivered a blistering attack on the adequacy of American high schools in his remarks to the National Education Summit on High Schools. “America’s high schools are obsolete,” Gates says. “By obsolete, I mean our high schools, even when they’re working as designed, cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.” Gates points out that our schools were designed fifty years ago and that we need a new design to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Today, only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship. The other two-thirds, generally low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won’t get them ready for college or prepare them for a family-wage job; and nearly one-half of those drop out and do not graduate. Gates maintains that this is not an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system that we have constructed and accepted and come to expect.

Comparing U.S. schools to schools in other countries, Gates is alarmed. While 4th graders rank among the top students in the world, 8th graders have fallen to the middle of the pack, and by the 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations.

According to Manhattan Institute statistics on graduation, North Carolina had a high school graduation rate of 67% in 2002 (37 out of 50 states). At the same time, South Carolina had a graduation rate of 53% (50 out of 50 states). In terms of college readiness, North Carolina has a 37% readiness rate compared to a 29% rate in South Carolina. The national average was 34% in 2002. These rates are intolerable and an outrage.

Gates points out that India graduated almost a million more students from college than the U.S. and China graduates twice as many students with bachelor’s degrees as the U.S., and they both have six times as many graduates majoring in engineering. In the competition for the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind.

A selection of Gates’ remarks presented to that summit is included in this issue on page 44. They are important and appropriate and ought to be considered seriously as our own CMS study is being conducted.

In our economy, most jobs providing an income sufficient to support a family require some postsecondary education. Unfortunately only half of all students who enter high school ever enroll in a postsecondary school. The other half of students are unlikely to get a job that allows them to support a family; those who graduate from high school earn an average of $25,000 per year; those who drop out of school have it even worse.

What Gates is pointing out is that we are only getting what we have created. We created these schools; we need to redesign them. They must work regardless of zip code, ethnic origin, race or gender.

Bill Gates remarks should encourage Charlotte area leaders to pursue an even broader agenda than recommending systemic reforms that put Charlotte ahead of similar school districts – one that expects all students to graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship as a fundamental principle.


John Paul Galles is the publisher of Greater Charlotte Biz.
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