Battle for America’s future will be won or lost in America’s public schools

October 15th, 2012

February 2, 2011
Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit

I am really grateful for the invitation to rejoin the Teach for America Board.  I felt as a Board member before, that I was part of one of the most important things going on in our country, and that I was supporting the work of one of our country’s great entrepreneurs in Wendy Kopp.  I am delighted to have the opportunity  to rejoin the Teach for America Board.  So I appreciate that very much.

What I thought that I would do this morning was talk for a few minutes about what I think are some of the really dramatic things happening in today’s world, and then relate them to the education reform movement.  And then relate them to what I think Teach for America is doing, and why I think its work is so important.

Start with this – from the time of Pericles until 1800 in London, 2300 years, standards of living on planet Earth increased by 50%, perhaps possibly 100%.1 At the time of the most rapid growth in our country’s history, around the turn of this 20th century, standards of living rose at a rate where they doubled in a single human lifetime,2 then about 45 years.3

Today in places where 40% of humanity lives, in China and India,4  standards of living double every eight or nine years.  That is a profound acceleration in the pace of change.  It is a demonstration  of the power of knowledge, of science, and markets, when they all work together.

Here’s another sign of our age:  if you look at the cover of this week’s Economist, it shows you a Stradivarius that was printed.  That is to say, that in the same way that you don’t  think about content,  but whatever the content is, a printing press can print any prose that there is, we are reaching the point where anything you can conceive and design can be printed in three dimensions, can be manufactured automatically.

In the United States the number of people who are engaged in actual production work in manufacturing  as a share of the population is now comparable to the number of people who are engaged  in farming a generation ago.6   Just as we traversed from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy,  we are traversing from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy.

That all carries with it potential on a staggering scale.  But at the same time that this is true, it is also true that in our nation the most powerful nation in the world, the nation to which others come, the nation that in so many ways is an example to others. Here are some other things that are true. The fraction of Americans who believe that their children will not live as good lives as they did is at a record high, and is now a majority of the population.7

The confidence that the American people have in their institutions is at an epic low.8   Whether it is big business, whether it is big universities, whether it is big school systems, and certainly whether it is big government, confidence in our institutions has fallen steadily.  More people right now believe in witchcraft than believe in Congress.9

And that is a commentary about our country’s capacity to manage and to traverse this changing world-  a world of unbelievable opportunity, but also a world in which our country’s role is so essential and confidence in its future is so essential.

What is at the very center of it? I would suggest that at the center of it is education. In a much more elitist age, the Duke of Wellington observed that the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton.10 I  would suggest to you that today the battle for America’s future will be won or will be lost in America’s public schools.

Why do I say that?  First I say it because of what the quality of education means for our prosperity, which in turn determines our ability to do everything  else.  If we could close the education  gaps in our country between poor and rich, black and white and so forth, we would add half a trillion dollars, $8,000 for the average family, to our annual gross domestic product.11

If we could bring all teaching up to the average quality of teaching now, estimates are that the present value of that is measured in the tens, if not the hundreds of trillions of dollars for our country.12  So in a world where what you can lift no longer has anything to do with how much you can earn, but what you know, what you can create, is at the center of earning power, education is at the center of our prosperity.

Education is also at the center of the legitimacy of our society.  There are all kinds of things you can worry about in terms of disturbing trends in our country.  Here’s the thing that actually worries me most.  In the 225 year history of the United States, the thing about the United States that Americans always tell themselves  is that we’re a land of equal opportunity,  that in Jefferson’s phrase we are an aristocracy of talent not of birth – that we are becoming a place with more and more equal opportunity.

And yet if you look over the last generation, for the first time in American history, the correlation  between the success of the mothers and daughters,  between the success of the fathers and sons has gone up.13 The differences in educational attainment and the chance to go college, between those in the top – children of those in the top quartile of the income distribution and those in the bottom quartile of the income distribution has gone up significantly over the last generation.14 That’s why the efforts in universities and colleges to promote and increase financial aid and recruitment are so important.

But the center of equal opportunity is equal education.  And as long as it is true, as Joel Klein said this morning, that the least advantaged kids receive the lowest quality education, we are going to become a more and more unequal and less and less legitimate society.  And so education is at the center of reclaiming the American dream.

But I would suggest to you that beyond what is concrete, what you can measure in terms of our capacity to create prosperity, in terms of the capacity of people to get jobs, beyond what it means for opportunity, that education is what will determine whether everyone is able to be a full member of a society in which we can be proud – we have to worry at a time when more than half of Americans do not believe in the theory of evolution.15 At a time when you can graduate, as some of the Teach for America materials here illustrate, you can very easily graduate from an American high school and not know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun.  At a time when part of what gives Twitter its appeal is that there are some people who can’t, or won’t, read anything that is more than 140 characters long. We were the society that produced all at once Washington, and Jefferson, and Franklin, and Adams, and Madison – and whether we’re the society that’s going to continue to be able to do things like that is going to depend on the quality of the education that we provide.

There are many things that are important for the economic development of our country – our infrastructure, our health care, our research and development.  But you know what?  If you track every one of them back they go back to the quality of the education that we are providing to our young people. Indeed, I would suggest to you that if and when every American child receives a quality education where they are ready for the opportunities of the 21st century, and where they are appreciated as strong and viable members of the community in which they live, when that day comes it is hard to imagine how we could fail, whatever else was going wrong.

And I would equally suggest to you that if it continues to be the case that nearly half our students do not graduate from high school,16 and that many of those who do graduate from high school, are not ready for the cognitive demands of a knowledge economy – if that situation stays as it is today, I would suggest to you that it is hard to imagine how we will succeed as a country, whatever arms we build, whatever foreign policies we follow, whatever R&D or infrastructure or anything else we invest in. If we do not get education right, it is hard to see how we will succeed as a country in the most competitive century there has ever been. And that is why the battle for America’s future hangs in the balance in what happens in our schools.

Now we have learned something else.  And it is something  that has gone with the changes that I have talked about, the changes towards globalization, the changes towards becoming a knowledge economy.  The fact that in a real sense if you look at some of the most successful nations, like China, and you look at some of the companies that have been most successful, there are similarities in what has happened.  There is much less command and control.  There is much less hierarchy. There is much less that comes from the top down.  And there is much more that comes from the bottom up.

There are many ways of talking about what the genius of capitalism is and why capitalism and markets have worked as a system.  Here’s what I think is actually most important.  Capitalism and markets force producers to do what consumers want rather than what they want.  You don’t  stay in the car business if you don’t produce the kinds of car people want to drive.  You don’t  stay producing clothing if you don’t respond with the fashions that people want to wear.  And I could go on and on with examples like that.

And if there’s one thing that the public sector has to understand, it is that it needs mechanisms that give not what producers want for their convenience. That causes provision not to take place for the convenience of the beneficiaries – in the case of education, for our children – but for those who are the providers.

And at the root, an education system that is for the benefit of the children, rather than for the benefit of those providing the services, is what education  reform is all about.  Now there are people here who know about every aspect of it, who know about the teacher recruitment side, who know about charter schools, who know about the proper allocation of resources towards those ends, who know about the establishment of incentive systems.   But I am here to tell you that the single most important part of that is drawing talent with attitude into the system.  And in that Teach for America has succeeded on a scale that could not have been imagined 20 years ago.

Just think about two things that I knew were true when I was on the Board two years ago, and they, I suspect, are still true today.  And perhaps you’ll  forgive me if I use Harvard as an example.  There are two things you might try to do if you were an employer.  You might try to be a large-scale employer who a large number of people wanted to come to.  You might also try to be an elite employer who when you tried to recruit somebody they always said yes, and they said no to the other people.

And if you think about it, it is actually rather hard to do both.  And it is a staggering achievement, if you think about it – if you think about how any of us would have thought 20 years ago, it is a staggering achievement and an implausible, if I might, achievement that an organization that asks people to come teach in schools for a salary that in many cases is closer to zero than it is to $100,000, has managed to be the employer that (A), is most sought after at institutions across this country, and (B), two years ago it was the case that there was only one employer who, if you were a Harvard undergraduate, and you had an offer from Goldman Sachs and you had an offer from this employer, more than half the time you chose this employer.17 And that employer was Teach for America.

And so if you think about this task of winning the battle for America’s future through change and education, and you think about the fact that you are now bringing 4,000 extraordinary young people with the world’s  best opportunities open to them, into that fight, and you are keeping the vast majority of them in the arena. That you are doing it in ways that are not dependent on anything that comes down from above, but on the results that you provide for the students. That is a remarkable achievement.   It starts with the 500,000 children who will be better taught this year than they would have been if they weren’t  taught by part of Teach for America.  But that is only the very beginning of the influence that is had.  So I look forward to sitting here 30 years from now at the 50th anniversary of this event.  I look forward to the moment where there will be several hundred thousand Americans who will be part – who will have been part of the Teach for America corps.  I look forward to the moment when there will be tens of millions of Americans whose lives were touched by being in the classroom of a TFA corps member.

I look forward to the moment when it will not be surprising, but will be a kind of normal expectation that students after they leave college will for some interval, give something back to their community and their nation and be changed by the experience.  I look forward to the moment when this impact will not just be felt in the United States, but as is increasingly the case, will be felt around the world.

I look forward to the moment when we will be celebrating the fact that our elite institutions, whether it is our leading universities, or our leading companies, or our leading hospitals, will be staffed by people who are as likely to come from families with good fortune as families with less fortune.

I look forward to the moment when the American dream of equal opportunity will have been redeemed.  And I look forward to the moment when we will no longer need to be measuring gaps between different groups, because those gaps will have been substantially closed, and we will be able to focus on every individual as an individual letting them maximize their potential.

That’s what I think we will have a chance to celebrate a generation from now when we win the battle for America’s future.  And we’re able to thank Teach for America in the extraordinary  contribution it makes towards that end.

Thank you very much.

1 John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion, New York: W.W.Norton & Co., (1963).

2 Richard H. Steckel, “A History ofthe Standard  of Living in the United States,” available at

3 Laura B. Shreshta,  Life Expectancy in the United States, CRS RL32792, August 16, 2006.

4 Central I ntelligence Agency, “Country  Comparison: Population,” The World Factbook, available at­ factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html?countryName=China&countryCode=ch&regionCode=eas&ra nk=I#ch.

5 Nin-Hai Tseng, “China  is richer, but most Chinese are still poor,”, February 17, 2011; Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, available at

6 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment  and Wages,” May 14, 20 I 0; United States Department of Agriculture, “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy,” June 2005, available at

7, “57% Think  Next Generation Will Be Worse Off”:  April 9, 2010, available at

8 Gallup, “Congress Ranks Last in Confidence in Institutions,” July 22, 2010, available at

9 /d.; David A. Graham, “America the Ignorant: Silly Things We Believe About Witches, Obama, and More,” Newsweek, August 24, 2010, available at

10 Charles Batchelor, “Character Building:Teamwork Helps Prepare for the University of Life,”,September 14, 2009, available at­OO144feabdcO.html#axzz1 FhGUz848.

11McKinsey & Company, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools,” April 2009, available at lights/Economic_impact.aspx.

12 Danny King, “The Impact of Better Teachers: $I 00 billion more in U.S. GOP,” DailyFinance, February 9, 20 II, available at OO­ trillion-to-us-economy/I9834126/.

13 Catherine  Rampell, “SAT Scores and Family Income,” New York Times, August 27, 2009, available at http:l/

14 Cecilia Elena Rouse and Lisa Barrow, “U.S. Elementary and Secondary Schools: Equalizing Opportunity or Replicating the Status Quo?,” The Future of Children, 2006, available at

15 Gallup, “On Darwin’s  Birthday, Only 4 in 10 Believe in Evolution,” February 11,2009, available at.

16 Sam Dillon, “Large Urban-Suburban Gap in Graduation Rates,” New York Times, April 22, 2009.

17 “Teach for (Some of) America,”Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2009.