NDAve: Kids must come first

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

This month, Notre Dame began a year-long conversation about equal opportunity in K-12 education, and the four high-profile panelists who conversed from red leather chairs on the Leighton stage said just about everything this parent wanted to hear.

Not that their 90-minute conversation on “The System: Opportunity, Crisis and Obligation in K-12 Education” exhausted all that can be said about the problems with U.S. public education. But their analysis of all that’s right and wrong with the current system and how we might serve children better rang true to me.

The discussion covered teacher quality, dropout rates, preparation for college and the workplace, school violence, parental choice, the contributions of Catholic and charter schools, and all kinds of achievement gaps: racial, economic and international — the gap between U.S. students and their peers across much of the developed world.

Then there’s the chasm separating student achievement and teacher evaluations. When panelist Michelle Rhee became chancellor of Washington D.C.’s public schools in 2007, she learned that only 8 percent of the city’s eighth graders were at grade level in math. Yet 95 percent of their teachers were evaluated as doing an “excellent” job in the classroom.

The takeaway message can be distilled into four short words: Put the kids first. Put them before the interests of “The System” that gave the April 13 panel its name — the government bureaucracies and teachers unions and textbook publishing companies and school boards that fight harder to keep their funding than they do to introduce young minds to the marvels of language, mathematics, science, the arts and their own imaginations.

An earlier reformer, Saint John Bosco considered education “a matter of the heart” for both teacher and pupil. Nothing will change until, as the panelist and University of Pennsylvania political scientist John DiIulio put it, teachers see their work not as a profession but as a vocation. He said it’s only reasonable to expect that if you teach well in an atmosphere where kids are loved and treated holistically as people, they will learn.

Some things are OK

Here’s a sampling of what the panel said is going right. Rhee praised the hundreds of thousands of “heroic teachers” who are doing great work, especially those dedicated to making a difference in our inner cities. That’s not quite all 3.1 million teachers in our public schools, but it’s a start.

Charter schools, she added, have broken the myth that disadvantaged students can’t achieve at high levels. DiIulio and fellow panelist Sara Martinez Tucker credited Catholic schools with the same accomplishment.

Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee school system, noted an important rhetorical shift since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision to a broad-based conviction that “all children can learn.”

And the fact that hundreds of Notre Dame undergraduates turned out on a charmed spring evening to hear what they had to say represented to the panelists the opportunity now open to us to rethink the future of education.

Many are not

What’s wrong with the system? As Rhee put it, “Pretty much everything else.” Tucker cited a recent National Association of Manufacturers finding that 40 percent of factory floor jobs will demand a postsecondary education by next year, while 90 percent of the fastest growing job sectors require at least a bachelor’s degree. She said we’ll fall 3-million college graduates short of filling those jobs.

Meanwhile, we play the blame game. Employers gripe to universities about the quality of recent graduates. Colleges point to high schools, which turn to primary schools and throw up their hands. Tucker, a Bush administration education official, argues we must hold them all accountable for their outputs.

So far, we aren’t. “This is the first time in American history that we have a generation of kids that’s less educated than the generation before them,” she warns.

DiIulio cited a recent Philadelphia Inquirer series that found a “pervasive culture of violence” in city schools: robberies, sexual assaults, beatings of students and teachers.

People with resources can always opt out when their local school is a mess. But for parents without options, the situation is heartbreaking. And for all of us, that’s unacceptable. Law professor Nicole Garnett, the panel’s moderator, asked the group to advise Notre Dame on how it can help, primarily through the Institute for Educational Initiatives and its expansive Alliance for Catholic Education.

Keep talking

Some answers: Keep talking. Reject one-size-fits-all solutions. Change the way we evaluate kids, breaking the tyranny of standardized testing. Perhaps most controversial of all: Demand laws that attach education dollars to children rather than schools.

When the panel ended, some students stayed behind to chat in circles of professors, South Bend schoolteachers and local residents. Some expressed concern that the panel hadn’t probed far enough into the problems posed by poverty. Others hoped to hear more about Notre Dame’s role in the community.

But it seems to me there are other, subtler way that adults put their own priorities first — ways in which we parents in particular become part of The System, too. We ask wriggly toddlers, especially boys, to sit still at desks in the name of classroom control. We eject teenagers from their beds hours before their bodies are ready to learn because we have to go to work. And we have built an entire summer industry — day camps and youth leagues and family vacations — around that old, comfy, 10-week break in the middle of the year. Maybe we need to rethink our commitments here, too.

That’s at least a year’s worth of big things to talk about.

John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Watch a complete video of the April 13 panel discussion.