Bill Gates was on "Morning Joe" Wednesday to talk about the role of innovation in humanitarian aid, but singled out education as the issue that could most determine America's future.
"Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski asked Gates to name one issue in the U.S. that "really plagues us and could really bring us down, semi-health-oriented."
"I'd pick education, if I was thinking broadly about America," Gates responded. "It's our tool of equality. It has not improved, it's fallen behind other countries in a very big way."
The statement came during a discussion with New York Times columnist Nick Kristof on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's work in humanitarian aid and education -- pegged to the release of Gates' annual letter on Wednesday.
Every year, the Microsoft founder's letter reflects on what he has learned through his travel and work for the foundation, and how that new knowledge and perspective will influence his work in the future. This year's letter concentrates on setting goals and creating effective progress measurements, including for teachers. The Gates Foundation released the third of its Measuring Effective Teachers project earlier this month, which advocates for teacher accountability through balanced evaluations of classroom observations, student test scores and student surveys.
"Our teachers get the least feedback of any, and we've got to change that," Gates said on Wednesday. "We've got to help them learn from each other."
Gates' belief that education is the greatest predictor of America's future is supported by a report released last March that declared education to be an issue of national security. "A Nation at Risk," penned by former New York City Schools chief Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, argues that a failure to provide quality education in areas like foreign languages, science and technology will create major future deficiencies of engineers, diplomats and soldiers, among others.
"As we're not able to train people for the jobs, you're going to hit a limit that, no matter how good the economy is, you're not providing the opportunity," Gates said Wednesday.
A 2009 report found that U.S. studentsranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science, trailing nations like China, Singapore, South Korea and Finland. And just 6 percent of U.S. students performed at the advanced level on a 2006 international exam administered across 56 countries. That percentage is lower than those attained by students in 30 other countries.
To be sure, the U.S. is not among the worst-performing developed nations, but is in a position researchers have called "middling." Analysts also point out that U.S. scores on the 2009 international exams did generally improve over 2006.