LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. When I was growing up in Indiana, a national commission put out a report on education. Even kids in school heard about it. "A Nation at Risk," in the 1980s, sparked a generation of efforts to raise American education standards. Now, a new commission urges a different focus.
CHRIS EDLEY: From "A Nation at Risk," most of the focus on education reform has been on standards and on test-based accountability. We've made some progress, but not fast enough and not far enough.
INSKEEP: Chris Edley, of the University of California-Berkeley, says some students - including racial minorities and students in poor school districts - still do worse than others. Edley was part of the Federal Equity and Excellence Commission, as was Rick Hanushek of the Hoover Institution.
ERIC HANUSHEK: If we could bring our black students and our Hispanic students up to the level of our white students, we would move forward in the international rankings considerably - up to the middle of the developed countries.
INSKEEP: Would you note carefully what he says there? Such is the state of American education that he is hoping to get us up to average. Another commission member, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, says some schools still have more money, more resources and better teachers than others.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: We have some states that spend as much as $18,000, and some as little as $6,000 per pupil. And within states - for example, take California, two districts down in Los Angeles: Baldwin Park, pretty much 100 percent African-American population of students; and Beverly Hills, which we all know to be a much more affluent community. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Darling-Hammond refers to one school district by the wrong name. It is the Baldwin Hills - not Baldwin Park - school district.] Baldwin Park is spending 50 percent less than Beverly Hills - five miles apart - and in Beverly Hills, parents can raise $1 million in a week to add to the school budget, which they did recently.
EDLEY: This is Chris Edley. It's also true that the schools with high concentrations of poverty also tend to be the schools that have higher costs because of special-needs students, because of English language learners. But they, as well, tend to be the schools that have a disproportionate number of weakly trained teachers. The bottom line, though, is that only about one in five American students is performing at the average level of the handful of leading countries.
INSKEEP: It sounds like you guys are making two comparisons here. One is between different school districts, and you find disturbing differences between school districts. But then when you compare America, as a whole, to other countries, you're disturbed all over again.
DARLING-HAMMOND: When you have school districts that are inequitably funded, then the salary systems are also disparate, which is not the case in these high-achieving countries. They fund all of the schools equitably. They pay teachers competitive wages comparable to professionals like engineers. They pay them equitably across schools, also.
In this, country a teacher who goes to teach in Oakland will earn $10,000 a year less than a teacher who goes to teach in Palo Alto - right here, around Stanford - and will teach a larger class size, with many more needy students; will often have to pay for supplies and materials out of her own paycheck. So we're not creating the context in which we can provide high-quality teaching and teachers in all communities, to all children.
INSKEEP: It's really interesting to hear all of you talk because you're not talking about equality - funding every school district the same, or whatever that might mean. You are talking about equity. I take it that you mean making sure that any school district has the resources and the teachers that it needs for its particular situation, even if it's not exactly equal to others.
HANUSHEK: It's not only equity, but it's going deeper and making sure that every kid in this country gets high-quality education that they deserve and that they need. Performance of our students has been roughly flat for 40 years, and that has huge consequences. To put it in terms of what Linda was talking about, the comparison of Oakland and Palo Alto schools, the people in Palo Alto - where I live - are very proud of their schools because they're doing quite well. Except that if you put the students in Palo Alto on an international scale, the average Palo Alto student is at the 67th percentile in the international distribution. The top school in California, or one of the top school districts in California, is only two-thirds up the scale compared to what's being seen in international comparisons of our competitors.
INSKEEP: Name some of the countries that are doing better than the United States, in your view.
HANUSHEK: There are 27 that are doing better than us in mathematics. They start out with the East Asian - Singapore, Korea - they get to Finland, Germany; they get to Canada. You can name all of the developed countries, and we're below average among the developed countries of the world.
EDLEY: The fact is that what we tend to think of as good enough, ain't good enough. And money matters, but it's not only about money. It's about how it's spent, what we do with the resources. Everything else, including who the teachers are and how they're distributed, whether there's technology, how rich is the curriculum - all of that is instrumental, and Rick is absolutely right. America can really catapult forward if we make equity and narrowing these achievement disparities and these resource disparities, if we really make that a guiding principle.
INSKEEP: Chris Edley, of U.C. Berkeley; Linda Darling-Hammond, of Stanford; and Rick Hanushek, of the Hoover Institution; thanks to all of you.
HANUSHEK: Thank you.
EDLEY: Thank you.
DARLING-HAMMOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.