Coming Together for School Improvement

Over the last month or so, a great deal has been written (and far more has been spoken and gossiped) about the wars between “education camps” and who is going to take the lead in the Obama Administration.  At Sunday’s National Urban Alliance gathering, the crowd heard from NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, AASA Chief Dan Domenech, and Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor and top Obama education advisor, on the need for coming together.  The message was a simple one, and it is one that all those seeking improvement in our public schools should take into account, particularly today when we swear in a new president.

What is that message?  Put simply:
* We are all committed to improving our public schools.
* In this process, nothing is more important than our children, ensuring all have access to high-quality education and high-quality teachers.
* Real improvement requires the participation of all parties.  Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines.
* Those committed to improving our public schools have far more in common than they realize.  Those commonalities are what will drive the agenda for the next four years.
Feeding from the energy, commitment, and passion demonstrated by the overpacked room at the NUA event, I would add a few additional messages for consideration in our quest toward school improvement:
* Lasting improvement begins with the teacher.  That means training qualified and effective teachers, supporting their ongoing development once they are in the classroom, and ensuring they have the materials and supports necessary to lead and inspire in their classroom.
* True success requires building on the promising practices of the past.  What can we do to improve and strengthen NCLB?  How do we preserve the good of the past eight years in moving us to the great of the next eight?
* We are learning, and teaching, across a continuum.  Our focus should not be limited to fourth through eighth grades, as NCLB’s accountability measures focus.  Learning begins in preK, and extends through secondary school and beyond.  We must invest and attend to the full continuum, particularly those who may have fallen through the cracks in recent years, entering the middle or secondary grades without the core skills or abilities they need to succeed.
* We must continue to challenge one another to get lasting improvement.  There is no magic bullet or quick path here.  It takes hard work.  That means challenging conventional wisdom and engaging with a wide range of perspectives to get to the best, most effective path possible.
* The achievement gap should be priority number one.  Education is a civil right, as so many have articulated, it also is a non-negotiable.  If we are to give every student access to the American dream — regardless of the state of the economy — we must first make sure that access to quality education (and the equitability of such programs, whether they be offered in urban, suburban, or rural communities) is universal and adequately funded.
* In 2009, improvement comes from a velvet glove approach, not from the carrot-stick version we’ve experiences for years now.
* There is a hunger to see real, tangible improvements soon.  Step number one will be ensuring that the economic stimulus money designated for public education is getting into our schools.  We must effectively capture those real-life stories of how such funding is making a difference and impacting the lives of real teachers and real students immediately.  We must show that economic stimulus in education is having an immediate impact in schools like ours, with kids like ours.
Yesterday, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,  Democrats for Education Reform held an education equality rally in Washington, DC.  DFER Chair Kevin Chavous’ remarks reflect much of what was said at NUA and much of what we should consider as we hopefully join together to close the achievement gap and improve public schools in every city and town across the United States:

At this historic time, in this city of our nation’s founders,  on the day designated to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy, it is fitting that we all stand before you to challenge America. Although this challenge is made out of love and respect, it is a challenge nonetheless. 

Quite simply, it is time for our country to stand up for our children.  As great as we are, we still are failing our kids.  Failing them miserably.  When half of the children of color drop out of high school, we are failing our kids; when we offer fewer and fewer AP courses, we are failing our kids; when our world education rankings continue to slide, we are failing our kids; and when we remain committed to a one size fits all model of education service delivery, we are failing our kids.  Yes, there are some very good schools in America that provide some children with an excellent education.  But that is not good enough and we are still failing our kids.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King directly chastises white clergy for their unwillingness to confront the status quo on the issue of segregation and social justice.  Dr. King alludes to the interconnectedness of us all by saying that ‘we are caught on an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’.  Indeed, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the inter-related structure of reality.

Like King, we need to be honest and forthright about what ails us in education.  If a child is failing in a school in southeast Washington, DC, it hurts the suburbanite living in Aurora, Colorado. And we all lose.  Until each and every American child receives equal access to a high quality education, our destiny will never be fulfilled, our promise never reached.  This is the last civil rights struggle in America and we need to employ the same sense of urgency and resolve that we did to end segregation during the time of King.

UPDATE — The MLK event where Kevin Chavous spoke was sponsored by Education Equality Project, not DFER.  But the power of the remarks remain the same.

3 thoughts on “Coming Together for School Improvement

  1. Is it crazy, that even though there is SO much to be done…I am actually hopeful at the moment that improving our public schools is a real priority, and that things might really start to change? At least being hopeful is a step in the right direction…it is a nice change from saddened resignation.

  2. I would like to hear suggestions for how the various “factions” might come together… especially those who continue the “Reading Wars” fight. How can this still be going on when we have 30 years of converging evidence on how children learn to read?

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