“Education has to be the one issue that we put politics and ideology aside.”
Famous words spoken by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan during the 2010 elections and certainly words that ring true in Rhode Island today. When I became the executive director of RI-CAN: The Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now, I had just left an eight-year tenure as a school administrator at The Met School in Providence. Known for its progressive approach to learning, The Met is where I first began my work in education. Before that, I was a parent and a professional whose daughter was struggling in her public school. When I walked my daughter into the Paul Cuffee Public Charter School in Providence, my passion for education reform was born.
I have never considered my views on education liberal or conservative. Though a lifelong progressive, it never occurred to me that teaching and learning in public schools was a partisan issue. At its core, education reform is about improving educational outcomes for kids. How could anyone – Democrat or Republican – disagree with that?
As it turns out, education is one of the most politicized debates we are having in this country today. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Those of us who believe in the tenets of change aren’t interested in partisan politics. We believe in accountability for the adults responsible for our children’s futures, in high-quality public school choices for parents regardless of demographics or geography, and in flexibility to let principals and teachers do whatever it takes to improve student achievement. This doesn’t mean we are anti-union and it doesn’t mean we have negative feelings towards teachers. Let me be clear – teachers changed my daughter’s life.
But our current system is not working for all of our children. Across all grades, a little less than half of Rhode Island students aren’t proficient in math – a critical skill for today’s 21st-century economy. In 2005, 52% of the state’s fifth-graders achieved math proficiency on the New England Common Assessment Program. In 2011, only 30% of 11th-graders did. This data shows that as the 2005 cohort of students advanced through school, their performance in math dropped significantly.
Our achievement gaps are unacceptably high, with our black and Latino students scoring between 20 and 30 points lower than their white peers. In 2011, only 9% of black students and 11% of Hispanic students in 11th grade achieved proficiency in math. Only 14% of low-income students were proficient.
As a citizen and a mother, these numbers make me cringe. As a lifelong progressive, they break my heart. Public education is one of the greatest assets we bestow upon our children in this society. It is our civic and moral responsibility to ensure that every child in our state, from all walks of life, receive a world-class education.
I welcome debate on the how. How can we solve this problem? No matter where we sit on the political spectrum, we must be part of the solution. Educating our children and preparing them for the challenges they will surely face in the future is our imperative. It is not a political agenda and it isn’t a Democratic or Republican ideal. It is an American ideal and transforming public education in this country must be our joint agenda.