- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Fresh evidence emerged yesterday that the income gap is widening between wage-earners and executives and professionals, which economists attribute to differing levels of education and skill.

A Commerce Department report showed that incomes rose a strong 0.5 percent in June and were $23 billion more than estimated last year.

But most of the gains were not in wages. Growth in business income, dividends and interest — which goes primarily to top-income households — accounted for most of the gains, while wages continued to stagnate.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and business leaders warn that the public educational system has failed to provide most workers with the math, science and technology skills needed to secure high-wage jobs.

Some top business leaders are taking things into their own hands.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, whose charitable foundation has $26 billion in assets, has designated improvement in the educational system — particularly high schools — as his top goal in the United States.

“The economy increasingly depends on skilled workers,” said Melinda Gates, Mr. Gates’ wife and co-chairman of the fund. “But in 12th grade, our students in science and math are near the bottom” in international comparisons.

“The most intractable problem” in the United States is education, she said in a recent speech to the National Economists Club.

“We have a crisis in the American high school system,” she said. “They’re failing to prepare people for college. … They cannot teach students what they need to know to hold a job.”

Mrs. Gates is scornful of the “consumer math” some high schools teach to disadvantaged and minority students, saying such methods may produce good consumers, but students “will struggle to make a living wage in the United States.”

The Gateses are funding pilot projects in high schools across the country — including three in Washington — to show how the system can be improved. They stress a rigorous curriculum, smaller class sizes, and mentor relationships between students and adults.

An eight-year study released last month by Stanford University found that high schools are not sufficiently rigorous, and even community colleges are not preparing students for the challenges of college.

“At root is the fact that students who are not in the top 15 percent of their high school class do not receive clear or adequate information from teachers and counselors about what they need to know and do to succeed in college,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford education professor and co-author of the study.

And the 85 percent of students who are disadvantaged or just average receive no urging to take challenging courses to prepare them for college, and are content to take easy courses, he said.

The disconnect “poses a real threat to the future qualifications of the U.S. labor force,” he said.

Former General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jack Welch maintains the school system must be transformed, starting with the unions that focus only on increasing teachers’ wages and benefits while doing little to stem the rapid decline of educational standards and preparedness.

“If I were CEO of America’s public school system, I’d fight … to get rid of public school unions. They’re the bane of our children’s existence,” he said in remarks to the Potomac Officers Club. “I’d take them to the mat. … It has put us behind the eight ball long-term. Until that is dealt with, we’re spinning our wheels.”

Leading business organizations also are trumpeting the need for urgent change.

A coalition including the Business Roundtable, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and TechNet, a network of technology CEOs from leading firms, has set the goal of doubling the number of U.S. bachelor’s degrees awarded in science, technology, engineering and math by 2015.

Their agenda seeks to improve the public schools through increased support for teachers and incentives for students to develop math and science skills. The coalition also is pushing for faster security clearances for foreign students seeking to attend U.S. universities.



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