The following are Mike Bloomberg’s remarks as prepared from The New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum on Thursday, May 31, 2018
“Thank you, Frank – and good afternoon. Frank was the Times’ food critic during most of my years in City Hall. And I will just say he was not the only Times journalist who affected my appetite. (I won’t mention any names.) And since I’m always asked if I’m going to buy the Times, let me give you an answer: Yes. I buy it every day.
“Let me thank the Times for pulling together this conference. The topic couldn’t be more important. Education has always been a passion for me.
“One of the reasons I first ran for mayor was to turn around the city’s dysfunctional school system, which had been failing for decades. And education has become one of our foundation’s core areas of work.
“Today, I’m glad to announce a new five-year, $375 million commitment to improving education in America. And I’d like to tell you a brief overview of how we intend to spend it – by outlining our strategy and explaining the kind of changes that we’ll focus on.
“Our strategy is premised on three main ideas: First: Education is primarily a local issue – the federal government matters, but change is most likely to come from cities and states. So, we invest locally.
“Second: Education is a political issue, so investing in advocacy and electoral campaigns is critical to driving change. In my own giving outside of the foundation, I personally support candidates at the district, city, and state level who are standing up for these kinds of changes. Philanthropists have often hesitated to get involved in political campaigns. But democracy shouldn’t be a dirty word. The people we elect are the ones we have to hold responsible for accomplishing change!
“The third pillar of our strategy is the one I’d like to zero in on this afternoon, given our limited time. It’s the idea that we have to move past ideological arguments and false choices and focus on what works, based on what the data tells us.
“One of the biggest false choices in the debate over education is an ideological argument about college. One side thinks that every student should get an acceptance letter from a four-year college. The other side argues that college is over-rated and we should focus on preparing young people for well-paid careers that don’t require a four-year education.
“The truth is: This is not an either/or situation. We need to do both: Put more focus on college and careers, so that students have a real choice. Yet right now, we’re not doing either one very well.
“Today, about 40 percent teenagers do not enter college immediately after high school. Some of them graduate from high school. Others don’t make it that far. But whether or not they graduate, we haven’t given them the skills and training they need to begin a career – and they pay for that for the rest of their lives, in limited opportunities and lost earnings.
“At the same time, too many kids who do go to college aren’t prepared to succeed there. Partly as a result, the national graduation rate for four-year colleges is only 40 percent. Even after six years, only 60 percent of students who entered graduate.
“So on the one hand, as evidenced by the low college graduation rate, we are not preparing high school graduates for success in college, and on the other, we effectively treat non-college bound students as second-class citizens, giving them no preparation for their next steps in life.
“Both are outrages – and we owe our kids better than that.
“Bloomberg Philanthropies is working on both of these challenges – and our game plan begins with a simple idea: We believe that states, districts, and schools must deliver better results, and to do that, they need to start with specific, year-by-year, college and career readiness goals.
“Those goals should be set down in writing and made public, so that parents and elected officials can hold schools accountable for achieving them. Otherwise, schools will continue skating by on good intentions and lofty rhetoric. Of course, setting clear, short-term goals is the easy part. The hard part is actually doing the work necessary to meet them.
“Our foundation is supporting leaders who are willing to try new approaches to both tracks – college and career. I’ll just touch briefly on each – and then we can talk more about them in the Q&A.
“Let’s start with what it takes to prepare students for the choice between college or a career: improving achievement levels in the early grades.
“By now, there is plenty of evidence for what works:Raise standards for students; Raise salaries for teachers in exchange for greater accountability; Give principals the freedom to hire, manage, and train school staff; Ensure that every classroom is led by a skilled and effective teacher; Ensure that teachers who fail, even after getting mentoring and professional development, can be moved out of the classroom; And give students and parents more quality school options, including charters.
“Taking those steps isn’t easy, given the institutional forces aligned against them. But it is possible – and our experience here in New York City shows the difference it can make.
“We raised teacher salaries in exchange for greater accountability – and Randi Weingarten and I recently co-wrote an op-ed about that bargain. It’s evidence that elected officials and union officials really can come together to improve both teacher pay and student outcomes.
“Over the course of our time in City Hall, the percentage of students in the city’s public schools earning a Regents or Advanced Regents Diploma – which for a generation was a proxy for college readiness – doubled, from 30 to more than 60 percent.
“At the same time, graduation rates in New York City increased by 42 percent. In New York, we also closed down failing schools and opened 650 new public schools, charters and non-charters alike – including 46 schools focused on career and technical education. And in New York, those 650 new schools had graduation rates 10 points higher than their peers in larger schools, with black and Hispanic students leading the way.
“Today, our foundation is supporting cities and states that are taking similar approaches to the one we took here. In places like Tennessee and D.C., we’re seeing some encouraging results. Both are among the fastest improving places in student achievement, after being at the bottom not long ago. And as I said at the outset, we’re supporting candidates and elected officials who have the courage to stick their necks out for these kinds of changes in K-12 education.
“As important as college-readiness is, we have to make sure that students who are ready actually attend schools that match their abilities. Think about this: Less than half of one percent of students from the poorest 20 percent of families attends a selective college – even though many have the grades to get in. Or consider this: Only six percent of kids at top colleges come from the poorest families. And over 50 percent of qualified lower-income students don’t even apply.
“If we want to stop inter-generational poverty we have to start by helping more of those deserving kids go to good colleges. The better the college, the better the education students receive. And the better the education, the better the opportunities they will have.
“Our foundation has launched two initiatives designed to change that. One is called the American Talent Initiative. It’s a coalition of top colleges and universities that are committed to increasing the number of lower-income, high-achieving students that they accept and graduate. One hundred of the nation’s best colleges have signed up, and our goal is for another 50,000 lower-income students to enroll at these schools by 2025.
“The second initiative is called CollegePoint. It helps high-achieving, lower-income students – many of whom are not getting the kind of college guidance counseling they need. As a result, they often don’t realize they are qualified to attend top schools, or know how to apply to them, or just how much financial aid is available to them.
“Through counseling over the phone, texting, video chat and email, we help them through the application process and work to make sure that they apply to and enroll in the kinds of schools that they have earned the right to attend. Already 40,000 students have participated in CollegePoint. Our goal is for more than half of high-achieving, lower-income students nationally to enroll in top colleges by 2020.
“Through these two initiatives, we are working to increase the supply of top colleges for qualified lower-income students and to increase the demand for attending top colleges among these students.
“Now, let me turn to the other side of the equation: career and technical education. For too long, we as a country have been afraid to acknowledge that some high school students don’t want to remain in academia after they turn 18. But what other options are we giving them? Practically none.
“Around the country, vocational schools and programs have been eliminated, and many of those that survived are still trapped in the 1960s and 1970s, and they are often stigmatized as more of a dumping ground than a learning lab. As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising that many students drop out. After all: If you determine that college isn’t for you, what good is it to spend your days taking classes that are effectively college prep?
“Yes, a high school diploma has value in-and-of-itself. But trying to convince bored or struggling teenagers to stay in school based on data about lifetime earnings is about as effective as trying to get them to stop looking at their cell phones.
“In New York City, one of the reasons we were able to cut the drop-out rate in half was by finding new ways to keep students engaged – including by creating schools that offered education and skill-training in particular industries. One school, called P-Tech, we started in collaboration with IBM. We created Energy Tech High School in partnership with National Grid. And the Health, Education, and Research Occupations High School we opened in partnership with the City University of New York and a medical center in the Bronx.
“Not all the students at these and other schools ultimately go into those fields, but the schools keep them engaged – and expose them to a world a possibility beyond high school.
“But it’s not just the drop-out rate we have to consider. Nationally, plenty of students who do get a high school diploma, but don’t go to college, are also left with few career options. We have to do more to help both groups – those at risk of dropping out, and those that get a diploma but don’t go on to college – learn skills that they can put to use in the workforce, in jobs that won’t be automated out of existence like plumbing, automotive mechanics, and construction.
“Now, in many cases – though not at Bloomberg – employers require a college degree for jobs where the actual job responsibilities are very different from what students learn in college. I’ve never thought that made sense, and I’d encourage CEOs to re-think it – although our company benefits from their exclusionary policies.
“I understand why others do it: a college degree shows that someone had the discipline and maturity to complete a major undertaking. So we have to teach young people skills that employers will come to value in making hiring decisions – and learning those skills will also demonstrate their discipline and maturity.
“This is not only an issue of helping young people. It’s also a national economic issue. Almost one-third of new job openings require a skill of some sort – not a bachelor’s degree. And in many cases, employers are struggling to fill those jobs, which hurts economic growth.
“But states have defunded the kinds of schools and programs that teach these skills and few places are teaching skills that are required for newer jobs that are in demand, like lab technicians and help desk operators.
“These jobs are no less important than jobs that require bachelor’s degrees and we need states to start treating them that way, by investing in high quality career and technical education programs and schools.
“In some areas, school districts can improve skill training by tapping into support from the local business community. Some cities and states have begun doing this, and we’ve been working to support them. Programs like Career Wise in Denver, Youth Force in New Orleans, and Career Pathways in Delaware are all public-private partnerships based on the same principle: Employers provide education and skill development in a wide variety of fields – and in exchange, they get access to a pipeline of future workers.
“The students who go through these programs get four main benefits: They get real-world work experience; They get community college credit while they are in high school; They get options to continue on into an Associate or Bachelor degree program; Or additional job certification. And when they complete the program, they have the chance to interview for full-time positions.
“We believe other cities and states can learn from these programs. Hopefully, more political and business leaders will step up to create similar programs – and we’ll support those that do. Education is the key to truly fulfilling the promise of America as a land of opportunity for all.
“It’s an enormous challenge, but I’m going to keep doing my part – and I’m optimistic about the progress we can make in the years ahead.
These remarks also appear on Bloomberg Opinion