Many of this nation’s movers and shakers in education gathered this last week of September in New York City for two days of discussion at a unique event convened and broadcast by NBC News. The purpose of calling upon these thought leaders—including the President, the Secretary of Education, select members of Congress, mayors, superintendents of schools, union leaders, academics, reformers, teachers, parents, and students—was to profile the problems in education and spotlight what works.
In many ways, this gathering was more coherent than I expected. I came to think of it as a song with many verses, but one recurring refrain. That refrain was that the U.S. has dropped to number 25 in educational achievement in the world. Yes, the U.S. is now Number 25! And despite increasing per pupil expenditure, and despite the No Child Left Behind Act, achievement scores in the United States have remained flat.
Many different metaphors were used to describe this crisis. It is an economic and workforce development crisis. It is a national security crisis. Geoffrey Canada, the C.E.O. of the Harlem Children’s Zone described the achievement gap between the rich and the poor as the “civil rights movement of our generation.” But perhaps the stickiest analogy was the one used by Congressman George Miller of California when he said, “This is our Sputnik moment; this is the moment when we as a nation have realized (as we did when Russia launched Sputnik in the 1950s) that we have to change. And we have to change NOW.”
Among the participants there was a unifying hope that change could happen and that change must happen. One participant I spoke with at the close of the meeting said that he remained inspired by the Berlin Wall. Although the Berlin Wall had seemed impenetrable, seemed that it would never fall—it did fall.
In almost every session, the speakers were asked what caused us to fall behind and there was amazing consensus about this. It was a complacency that we were a superpower, that we were best, a malaise. Beneath this was the view that the adults had put adult issues first. We didn’t put children first.
And there were the adult controversies that flared up during the two days: the “us versus them” fights: charter schools versus public schools, unions versus reformers, good teachers versus bad teachers, firing the lowest performing teachers versus helping teachers succeed, etc. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for a stop to this kind of blame game, when he said that we are all at fault—the bureaucracies of the unions, of the school boards, of schools, and of the Department of Education. “We all have to change,” he said.
And in fact, when the blame game began to mount during sessions, others would defuse it. Geoffrey Canada called charter schools laboratories for innovation—but said that the solutions must take place in the public schools. And Duncan and Canada agreed that although teacher unions were portrayed as the “villain” in the just-released and much talked about Waiting for Superman documentary by Davis Guggenheim, in a number of districts across the country, teacher unions had signed contracts that opened the doors to reform.
If the meeting was like a song, its concluding verse was that we all must work together for change. We all must put children first. If we don’t put children first, then we will slip below number 25. But if we really put children first, then adults may be second. “And some of us won’t like that,” Becca Bracy Knight of the Broad Center said.
The reason for the optimism rests on the now known fact that there are pockets of innovation across the country where the achievement scores of the children have risen—where, more importantly, the gap between the more and the less advantaged students has disappeared. All children can succeed, if we put children first.
There was also near consensus about what it takes to help all children succeed. It takes talented teachers and principals, engaged parents, high expectations of children and teachers, more time in school if necessary, sharing best practices, and holding everyone accountable.
But in my view, there were three verses that were largely missing from the new theme song that is uniting us to become an “education nation.”
First, there was an almost singular focus on student achievement as measured by standardized tests. What was missing was a focus on student engagement. It was said again and again that students must strive to be their own personal best, to get great scores on tests, to succeed. These are extrinsic reasons for learning, but the 21st century is calling for an intrinsic focus on learning too. In the convening, it was repeatedly argued that our model of education, our school calendar, and even our classroom architecture were based in the needs of the agricultural age and the industrial age—not on today’s i-generation with the Internet (and iTunes, iPhones, iPods, and iPads) where information is a Google away.
Children are born with a quest to learn, their eyes are bright as they strive to understand and master their world. We need to keep those fires burning brightly; we need to keep children engaged in learning. Importantly, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia raised the issue fostering children’s motivation to learn. I have seen far too many children, even in high performing classrooms, who have lost their engagement in learning. There is a reason that the business community increasingly measures its success by “engagement.” This is a measure we need to use in education too.
Second, although there was one session on early education—on ensuring that less advantaged children don’t enter pre-kindergarten or kindergarten programs already behind (and I was honored to be a speaker in that session), the conversation in that breakout group almost never entered the mainstream. In fact, I could count on my fingers the number of times that early childhood education was raised in other sessions. If we are to be an education nation, we must include families and early childhood teachers as a part of the solution, from children’s earliest days.
And finally, although there was talk about skills for the 21st century, the focus remained largely on literacy, math, and science. Just like other “we/they” adult controversies, this can’t be an either/or. My years of studying the best research on early learning makes it clear that we will not be able to reverse the downslide we are facing without intentionally promoting such life skills as “taking on challenges,” “focus and self control,” and “perspective taking” from children’s earliest days.
NBC’s Steve Capus closed Education Nation with a commitment that NBC News will continue to cover education on a regular basis. Everyone in the audience around me was heartened by this commitment. Now, I hope that we can widen the focus so that next year, when we convene we will be closer to really putting children first.