Yes We Can … Or Will We?

How committed are we, as a nation, to improving public education?  A decade or two ago, education ranked as a top issue in the minds of the American voter.  Yet this time around, education was an also-ran, a second-tier issue at best.  In survey after survey, we hear that America’s schools in general need improving, but not mine.  The common thought is that Rome might be burning, but my own neighborhood school is doing just fine, largely because I know the principal, I know some of the teachers, and my kid goes there.  And I wouldn’t send my child to a bad school, at least not intentionally.

We know from student performance data, though, that many of our schools are not doing just fine.  Students in all grades are still struggling to master basic reading and math skills.  A third or so of all ninth graders won’t complete high school four years later.  And only a third of those same original ninth graders will end up earning some sort of postsecondary degree.  We promise our children a world-class education, but we are still delivering as if it is class in a 19th century world.  This shouldn’t be a fight about status quo or not.  We all should agree there is room for improvement in our early childhood education and K-12 systems.
Over at USA Today this morning, the editorial writers riff off of will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” to spotlight the dire educational situation for African-American boys.  The graduation gap between black and white males is staggering.  Sixteen percent in Texas, 18 percent in Georgia, 21 percent in California, 22 percent in Florida, 26 percent in Pennsylvania, 30 percent in Ohio, 36 percent in New York, and a whopping 42 percent in Illinois.  In most of the states analyzed by USA Today, less than half of African-American males graduate from high school, and the number usually hovers in the 30-percents.
The full editorial can be found here: <a href="http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/index.html#entry-60921352
USA”>blogs.usatoday.com/oped/index.html#entry-60921352
USA Today uses the will.i.am song as its lead-in because it was a popular motivator in the 2008 elections, driving generations and demographics of voters to the polls (and to volunteerism) for the first time ever.  The video created for the song (and the Obama campaign) was viewed on YouTube nearly 15 million times, serving as a rallying cry for a significant portion of the American populace that felt their voice had been ignored in the past, and now was their time to stand up, speak clearly, and bring about real change in their community and their nation.
Step one was accomplished.  The “Yes We Can” president was elected.  Now comes the hard work.  Moving from “yes we can” to “yes we will.”  Current economic times make it difficult to say yes to a host of new education initiatives, programs, and efforts designed to make good on what millions of Americans committed to.  But it also provides a real opportunity for those committed to change to come together, set some common goals, and build community commitment to long-term improvement. 
Case in point, the Forum for Education & Democracy.  Until today, the Forum was known mostly as a convener, bringing together leading stakeholder voices to focus on “equitable access to quality schools for all American families.”  Today, though, the Forum launches down a new path of advocacy, looking to transform Obama’s mantra of “Yes We Can” into real school improvement.
Launching a national advocacy campaign, the Forum has begun a petition drive calling on the Obama administration to focus on four key commitments when it comes to school improvement:
* Every child deserves a 21st century education
* Every community deserves an equal chance
* Every child deserves a well-supported teacher
* Every child deserves high-quality health care
The national online petition is complemented by a new website — www.willwereally.com — and a new YouTube video featuring the ideas and, more importantly, some of the students, who can be affected by a new national commitment to public school improvement.  The video in particular (found on the home page) is worth checking out.
I’ll admit, there is a lot of wiggle room in the four key issues the Forum is putting out there through its Will We Really effort.  As a community, we still haven’t defined what a 21st century education is, nor have we come to consensus that 21st century skills should be the focus of our K-12 system.  We all agree that every community deserves an equal chance, until that means taking resources from my community to help another.  And we all believe every child deserves a well-supported teacher, until that discussion turns to boosting pay for good teachers and the new taxes that come along with it.  Like most in education reform, the real devil is in the details.  How do we capture these mission statements into actionable policy?
That is a question that will be left to EdSec in-waiting Arne Duncan and his presumably able team of leaders over at ED.  It is a question that will be left to our governors, state departments of education, mayors, and superintendents.  It is a question that will be left to the influencers — the Forum for Education & Democracy included — who are lining up to recommend new programs, new policies, and new ideas for a new administration.  And it is a question for the hopefully millions of parents, students, and Americans that will sign onto the Will We Really petition and remind decisionmakers of our national commitment to these fundamental principles.
For Eduflack, the answers are found in a few places.  First and foremost is the research.  How do we better collect, analyze, and apply data on our students and their achievement?  That data determines what is lacking in classroom instruction today and how to deliver a 21st century education.  That data helps us see what supports today’s teachers need, and how educators can learn from and lean on one another.
The second is ROI, or return on investment.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  We cannot change simply for change’s sake.  We must bring forward meaningful improvements that boost student achievement, get better teachers in the classroom (and keep them there), and convince every student that dropping out is never a viable alternative to earning that high school diploma.  We must start early, recognizing that high-quality early childhood ed programs ensure that disadvantaged youth have that equal chance to achieve.  And we must invest in instructional programs that get students performing at grade level and exceeding expectations.  Like it or not, we’re still talking about ensuring that no child is left behind.  Will We Really is just looking more at the whole child, and not just the quantitative performance measures of NCLB.
The achievement gap highlighted in USA Today should be a national embarrassment.  In 2009, graduation rates between African-American and white males should be nearing equity, not approaching 30 or 40 percent.  And we haven’t even looked at the gender gap issues.  Does anyone really want to see the numbers as to how black males measure up to white females?  Of course not.  
We’ve moved far beyond the issue of whether we can or not.  It is now an issue of whether we will.  Can we rediscover education as a national priority?  Can we clearly see the linkages between a high-quality K-12 education and economic opportunities?  Can we acknowledge we have no choice if we want to remain an educational and economic leader?

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