Michael Bloomberg: Politicians Should Pay for Ignoring America’s Education Crisis

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Michael R. Bloomberg headlined “Politicians Should Pay for Ignoring America’s Education Crisis”:

The U.S. is in the midst of an unprecedented decline in learning, with students falling far behind over the past few years. So why are the millions of children performing below grade level not in summer school? America is missing a critical opportunity and, sadly, tragic consequences will result.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card, reveals a dire situation. Reading scores for eighth graders have fallen to their lowest level in two decades, and math scores are at a three-decade low. Reading scores for fourth graders fell furthest for black, Latino, and Native American students, exacerbating the racial and ethnic achievement gaps that have long plagued the country.

Other measures show similar declines. Scores on ACT tests hit a 30-year low in 2022. Just 60% of eighth graders are meeting basic levels of knowledge of U.S. history, compared with 71% a decade ago. Test scores in civics have also declined for the first time since 1998, with only 22% of students showing proficiency. And the share of 13-year-olds who don’t read in their free time increased from 22% in 2012 to 31% in 2023.

Some of these trends began before the pandemic, but remote instruction turbocharged them—and left millions of students far below grade level, with black and Latino children furthest behind. If unaddressed, this crisis will be devastating. Millions of children will be consigned to limited career choices and unable to fulfill their potential, slowing the nation’s progress toward racial and ethnic equality. The U.S. will miss out on the success young people might otherwise achieve as engineers and scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators, teachers and public servants. America’s ability to continue leading the global economy—and reaping the rewards—will suffer.

This is a five-alarm fire, but most elected officials aren’t responding or even discussing it. There is no plan from Washington, no joint session of Congress, no Oval Office address. What’s a presidential bully pulpit for, if not this?

The collective shrug from both parties is a disgrace. Instead of focusing on overcoming the crisis—with tutoring, summer school for students who have fallen behind, and accountability measures for schools—both parties are focused on winning votes.

Republicans are spending their time trying to remove books from school libraries—in the middle of a literacy crisis. You can’t make this up. If only our biggest problem was kids reading too much. Republican attacks on school libraries are part of a larger effort to use schools as a battleground for the culture war that has unfortunately become the party’s animating force. They are more focused on Critical Race Theory than the three Rs. Kids are the collateral damage.

Democrats have been just as derelict. For three years, they have thrown money at the problem with no plan for actually solving it—and no oversight, accountability, and rigorous standards to ensure they do. They are now spending down the last of the federal stimulus money with little to show for it but lower test scores and emptier classrooms. As parents abandon traditional public schools for home-schooling, charter or private schools, and other alternatives, the party is standing by as teachers unions block efforts to add hours and days of instruction. New York City alone has lost more than 100,000 K-12 students since the start of the pandemic.

The superintendent of schools in Richmond, Va., for instance, led a valiant effort to move to a year-round calendar that would have allowed 40 days of extra instruction during the breaks for 5,000 students who had fallen far below grade level. The plan won the support of the city’s mayor, Levar Stoney, but few rallied to his side. Where were state and national Democratic leaders? Amid opposition from the unions, the plan collapsed, and the students—85% of whom are black or Latino—remain far behind.

Richmond isn’t the only place where school boards have taken a business-as-usual approach. At least one city, Spokane, Wash., reduced classroom hours to give teachers more time for professional development. Some rural areas have moved to four-day weeks. Instead of more instructional time to make up lost ground, many kids are getting less.

In the absence of federal leadership, Bloomberg Philanthropies is funding summer school in eight cities, after last year’s program in New York City proved highly effective. Of the 16,000 struggling students who participated last summer, the percentage who met grade-level standards in math by summer’s end nearly doubled. In English, it more than doubled, getting them back on track for success.

Congress should have taken the program national. Instead, another summer vacation will pass without giving millions of students a chance to catch up.

We can’t let federal and state officials keep ignoring the situation. Here’s a suggestion for parents and everyone who cares about children and teenagers: When incumbents come seeking votes, take them to school—and if they don’t confront the crisis, vote them out.

Mr. Bloomberg is founder of Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies. He served as mayor of New York, 2002-13.

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