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Teaching Our Kids in a 21st Century Economy

It's past time to transform an educational culture that's failing too many of our children.

| Mon Nov. 28, 2005 1:00 AM PST

Article created by the Center for American Progress

Remarks prepared for delivery
Center for American Progress
Washington, DC
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The other day, I was reading through Jonathan Kozol’s new book, Shame of a Nation. In it, he talks about his recent travels to schools across America, and how fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, we have an education system in this country that is still visibly separate and painfully unequal.

At one point, Kozol tells about his trip to Fremont High School in Los Angeles, where he meets some children who explain with heart-wrenching honesty what living in this system is like. One girl told him that she’d taken hairdressing twice, because there were actually two different levels offered by the high school. The first was in hairstyling; the other in braiding.

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Another girl, Mireya, listened as her friend told this story. And she began to cry. When asked what was wrong, she said, “I don't want to take hairdressing. I did not need sewing either. I knew how to sew. My mother is a seamstress in a factory. I'm trying to go to college. I don't need to sew to go to college. My mother sews. I hoped for something else."

I hoped for something else.

It’s a simple dream, but it speaks to us so powerfully because it is our dream – one that exists at the very center of the American experience. One that says if you’re willing to work hard and take responsibility, then you’ll have the chance to reach for something else; for something better.

The ideal of public education has always been at the heart of this bargain. From the moment the earliest Americans stepped out from the shadows of tyranny and built the first free schools in the towns of New England and across the Southern plains, it was the driving force behind Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “...talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth or other accidental condition.”

It’s a bargain our government kept as we moved from a nation of farms to a nation of factories, setting up a system of free public high schools to give every American the chance to participate in the new economy. It’s a bargain we expanded after World War II, when we sent over two million returning heroes to college on the GI Bill, creating the largest middle class in history.

And even when our government refused to hold up its end of this bargain; when America fell short of its promise and forced Linda Brown to walk miles to a dilapidated Topeka school because she wasn’t allowed in the well-off, white-only school near her house; even then, ordinary people marched and bled, they took to the streets and fought in the courts, they stood up and spoke out until the day when the arrival of nine little children at a school in Little Rock made real the decision that in America, separate could never be equal. Because in America, it’s the promise of a good education for all that makes it possible for any child to transcend the barriers of race or class or background and achieve their God-given potential.

In this country, it is education that allows our children to hope for something else.

And as the twenty-first century unfolds, we are called once again to make real this hope – to meet the new challenges of a global economy by carrying forth the ideals of progress and opportunity through public education in America.

We now live in a world where the most valuable skill you can sell is knowledge. Revolutions in technology and communication have created an entire economy of high-tech, high-wage jobs that can be located anywhere there’s an internet connection. And today, a child in Chicago is not only competing for jobs with one in Boston, but thousands more in Bangalore and Beijing who are being educated longer and better than ever before.

America is in danger of losing this competition. We now have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized country. By 12th grade, our children score lower on their math and science tests than most other kids in the world. And today, countries like China are graduating eight times as many engineers as we do.

And yet, as these fundamental changes are occurring all around this, we still hear about schools that are giving students the choice between hairstyling and braiding.

Let’s be clear – we are failing too many of our children. We’re sending them out into a 21st century economy by sending them through the doors of 20th century schools.

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