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From a distance, we have much to show for the $500 billion a year we spend publicly educating our children. The adult literacy rate in the US is 99%. A strong 85% complete high school. Where we fall down, is in providing an excellent education to the millions of American children who come from low-income backgrounds. Only 8% of children born into poverty graduate college by the age of 25, and about half don’t graduate from high school. In a country that stands for equality and opportunity, it has become increasingly painful to realise the disparities in our education system, especially for those who have the most barriers to overcome.As we begin to take this on as a national civil rights injustice, examples of classrooms and schools successfully narrowing the achievement gap proliferate. I had the opportunity to visit Robert A Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati last month, a school that increased literacy proficiency rates from less than 20% to more than 90% over the course of a decade. Whenever I need to recalibrate my bar for educational excellence, I observe at KIPP Infinity Middle School, a public charter school situated in Washington Heights, New York, where 98% of students were proficient in mathematics in 2009. Both schools serve low-income neighborhoods, and are rewriting history with their results.
Results like these used to be one-in-a-million, and those who could achieve it were destined for a Hollywood remake. Today, with hundreds of examples across the nation, the question is no longer “can it be done?”, it’s whether we will do it for all children. We’re even beginning to see hopeful signs of progress at a district-wide level in places like New Orleans that have seen double-digit increases in proficiency in the past decade. There are clear best practices rising to the top: hiring great leaders and teachers, building cultures focused on excellence, fostering trust and respect at every level, rewarding performance, building meaningful public private partnerships, establishing “wraparound” services that coordinate effectively, and focusing on making sure children don’t fall behind during the critical early years.
But if we know so much more than we did even 10 years ago about what is and isn’t working, then why aren’t we seeing dramatic change on a national scale? There are three major mindsets that I think we, as a nation, need to shift to create true change. First, we need to truly, unwaveringly understand that children living in poverty can achieve at the highest levels. We rise to the expectations set for us, and in lowering the bar for our most vulnerable students, we send the explicit message that we don’t believe in them. Second, we need to stop our constant search for easy scapegoats and the next silver bullet solution. Instead, we need to acknowledge that the challenge we face is deeply complex and that it is going to take leadership and hard work at every level of our system to truly turn things around. Last, we need to treat this critical civil rights issue like it is worthy of our top talent, our time, and our sustained focus.
As our nation increases its commitment to educational equity, growing numbers of school, district, and community leaders are committing to making this their top priority. Here at Teach For America, we have seen record breaking numbers of exceptional college graduates and professionals join the effort to close the achievement gap, with two-thirds of our 24,000 alumni continuing to work full-time in the field of education, including many who run some of our nation’s highest-performing schools serving students from low-income communities. City Year, College Summit and so many other great efforts are increasing in scale and working in partnership with communities, families, and schools to support students to increase literacy, graduation, attendance, and college application rates. This is a generation marked by passion for active participation in change-making.
Here in Miami, our local leaders have asserted their commitment to progress with a visionary plan to focus additional support for the lowest performing schools. Superintendant Alberto Carvalho and Assistant Superintendant Nikolai Vitti are moving the needle with the creation of an Education Transformation Office (ETO) responsible for dramatically increasing performance in schools that have historically performed in the lowest 5%. They targeted resources, increased expectations, and concentrated sources of high-potential teachers and administrators toward these schools. In just two years, the results have been notable. Of the original 19 ETO schools, 12 were rated “D”s or “F”s. Today, 3 are rated as “Bs”, 13 as “Cs” and none are “F”s. In just two years, graduation rates have increased by 10 per cent. While we still have a long way to go, the results speak volumes.
When communities decide unequivocally that they will tackle the achievement gap, progress follows. As a country committed to its ideals we must fuel the pockets of momentum we’re seeing. As we do this, we need to remember to keep our expectations high and encourage an ever-growing number of talented, passionate and committed people to join community efforts in the fight to end educational inequity. The only remaining question is whether we’ll have the courage and will fight at every level to maintain our focus long enough for every child to have access to a truly excellent education.
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