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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

Right now, six million middle and high school students are reading at levels significantly below their grade level. Half of all teenagers can’t understand basic fractions; half of all nine year olds can’t perform basic multiplication or division. For some students, the data is even worse: almost 60% of African-American fourth-graders can’t read at even the basic level, and by 8th grade, nearly nine in ten African-American and Latino students are not proficient in math. More students than ever are taking college entrance exams, but these tests are showing that only twenty percent are prepared to take college-level classes in English, math, and science. For African-American students, the figure dips to just ten percent.

What happens to these kids? What happens to the one in four eighth graders who never go on to finish high school in five years? What happens to the one in two high school graduates who never go on to college?

Thirty or forty years ago, they may have gone on to find a factory job that could pay the bills and support a family. But we no longer live in that world. Today, the average salary of a high school graduate is only $33,000 a year. For high school dropouts, it’s even closer to the poverty line – just $25,000.

If we do nothing about this, if we accept this kind of economy; this kind of society, we face a future where the ideal of American meritocracy could turn into an American myth. A future that’s not only morally unacceptable for our children; but economically untenable for a nation that finds itself in a globalized world, as countries who are out-educating us today out-compete our workers tomorrow.

Now, the American people understand that government alone can’t meet this challenge. They understand that we need to transform our educational culture, from one of complacency to one that constantly strives for excellence. And they understand that government cannot replace parents as the primary motivator for the hard work and commitment that excellence requires.

But they also know that government, through the public schools, plays a critical role. And what they’ve seen from government for close to two decades is not innovation or bold calls to action. Instead, what they’ve seen is inaction and tinkering around the edges of our education system – a paralysis that is fueled by ideological battles that are as outdated as they are predictable.

You know the arguments. On one side, you’ll here conservatives who will look at children without textbooks and classrooms without computers and say money doesn’t matter. On the other side, you’ll find liberals who will look at failing test scores and failing schools and not realize how much reform matters. One side will blame teachers, and the other side will never ask them to change. Some will say that no matter what you do, some children just can’t learn. Others will make excuses for them when they won’t learn.

Some will say that the same public school system that succeeded for generations must now be dismantled and privatized, no matter who it leaves behind. And others will defend the status quo in these schools even when they fail to teach our kids.

Like most ideological debates, this one assumes that there’s an “either-or” answer to our education problems. Either we need to pour more money into the system, or we need to reform it with more tests and standards.

But we don’t make much progress for our kids when we constrain ourselves like this. It appeared for a brief moment that the President, working with leaders like Senator Kennedy understood this, and many of us were initially encouraged by the passage of No Child Left Behind. It may not be popular to say in Democratic circles, but there were good elements to this bill – its emphasis on the achievement gap, raising standards, and accountability. Unfortunately, because of failures in implementation, particularly its failure to provide adequate funding and a failure to design better assessment tests that provide a clearer path for schools to raise achievement, the bill’s promise is not yet fulfilled.

The shortcomings of NCLB shouldn’t end the conversation, however. They should be the start of a conversation about how we can do better. Yes, it’s a moral outrage that this Administration hasn’t come through with the funding for what it claims has been its number one domestic priority. But to wage war against the entire law for that reason is not an education policy, and Democrats need to realize that.

If we truly believe in our public schools, then we have a moral responsibility to do better – to break the either-or mentality around school reform, and embrace a both-and mentality. Good schools will require both the structural reform and the resources necessary to prepare our kids for the future.

It’s not as if innovation isn’t taking place around the country. It’s taking place in wealthier schools, like Illinois’ Adlai Stephenson High School, which has one of the highest percentages of students taking AP exams in the country, and California’s New Tech High, which puts a computer in front of every child. But it’s also taking place in schools where large majorities of children find themselves below the poverty line yet above the national average in achievement -- places like Newark’s Branch Book Elementary and Chicago’s Carson Elementary School.

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