On Monday, local residents packed a room at the Levine Museum of the New South to discuss “Where we stand on globalization and education in the 21st century.” Parents, educators, activists, even a state lawmaker sat around tables venting and brainstorming about the lagging global competitiveness of U.S. students and what communities and states like ours can do to change course.
The meeting, set up by a new nonpartisan advocacy group called Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education, was heartening in a way. A good cross-section of Mecklenburg residents cared enough about the issue to show up and dialogue about it. A husband and wife at my table, already volunteers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, vowed to increase their involvement and to push for changes to get CMS students where they need to be. “You'll be seeing a lot more of me,” she said.
The room buzzed with a “yes we can” attitude – to borrow Barack Obama's campaign catchphrase. That's welcome. As CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman told the group: “This is too big for schools to do alone.”
It's good to see people energized – and I'm hoping this will be the year locally, and across the state and the nation when we aim a laser at what we know works, put more action behind our rhetoric and sustain a high level of effort over time.
No magic bullet
Unfortunately, too many of us are looking for short cuts, a magic bullet that will close the achievement gap between student groups, maximize the academic potential of each student and make the United States once again the shining star in global competitiveness. We want the gain for our students without the pain.
So it was enlightening once again to hear views about and from countries with the top-performing students about what makes them fly so high. The short film shown at Monday's meeting didn't tell us anything we didn't know. A couple of years ago I researched and wrote a guide book for the nonpartisan Kettering Foundation for nationwide community talks on closing the achievement gap. What I found then matches perfectly what was relayed in the film.
In the high-performing countries:
Teachers are well educated, highly respected, provided ongoing skills development training and have nurturing work environments.
Students are taught by teachers trained in the fields they teach, i.e. only trained math teachers teach math.
Schools have the up-to-date equipment needed for class work, particularly lab equipment.
The countries have clear and ambitious national standards and goals.
Students have a strong work ethic, taking challenging courses and attending school eight or more hours a day. They also have Saturday classes.
And parents are committed to making education the top priority in the home – accepting no less than their child's best effort and providing tutoring and other aids to make sure the child meets his or her potential.
State Rep. Becky Carney of Mecklenburg saw that for herself in a visit to India. She said in one school students started the day by reading the newspaper, then talking about the most important issues. (I really like that idea!) She said the value of a good education is enshrined in India. Policymakers believe they must promote good thinking and a good education.
One key difference between the United States and some high-performing countries is this: The U.S. aims to educate all children. We don't leave or push some out of school, based on their pedigree or interest level. We aim to help every child reach his or her potential. Carney says that's the challenge: “To achieve both equity and excellence.”
But it's not an insurmountable challenge – if we all put in the time and work to achieve the goal.