What It Takes to Fix American Education

We’re spending way too much time focusing on who is ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ debates over education, and not enough on implementing proven solutions.

11.23.14 11:45 AM ET

As a parent, a mentor, the son of a civil rights leader turned child advocate and a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy, and an advocate for children for nearly twenty years, I can tell you this with confidence: when it comes to helping underserved students succeed, there’s no silver bullet or quick fix.

But there are real solutions:

High quality, free preschool for three and four year-olds growing up in low or moderate income households.

High academic standards that are common across states, so students who move around have continuity and teachers can learn from each other and benefit from the best educational resources.

School principals who are effective instructional leaders, not just building managers, and who have the support they need to last in their difficult role.

Teachers who arrive with the skills and training needed to succeed and who are given the compensation, support, respect, and time to collaborate they need to stay in their profession, lead their schools, and improve their craft.

Engaging students’ families through home visits and ongoing communication so families and schools can team up to support children’s academic success.

Accurate, ongoing information about a student’s learning progress that enables teachers and families to help students stay on track and administrators to know when they need to intervene.

A multi-faceted approach to ensuring students reach the critical milestone of grade level reading by fourth grade.

Instructional materials and approaches that motivate, stimulate, and engage students.

Art, music, physical education, and, in high school, electives that make school more fun and relevant and tap students’ varied interests and talents.

A smart and fair approach to school discipline and meeting students’ social and emotional needs that keeps kids in school, promotes positive behavior, and creates an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn.

Systems and staff to ensure all students take the classes they need to graduate ready for post-secondary education and that students who are lagging behind don’t fall through the cracks.

Unfortunately, rather than centering on these solutions, the debate around public education too often highlights “sides” and “conflict” and which grownups are “winning.” That’s why I’m writing this column: to shine a light on how to help more students growing up in poverty get the education and support they need to graduate high school and go on to college or career training.

The reality is that growing up poor, in chaotic and sometimes traumatic environments, places tremendous roadblocks between children and academic success.

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Removing those roadblocks takes smart policies that actually get to classrooms, adequate funding that’s spent wisely, sustained and effective leadership, and great work every day from capable, committed, and caring teachers, principals and school staff.

It’s not easy and it’s not simple.

But it couldn’t be more important to make progress. Of the 16 million children growing up in poverty today, only 1 in 12 will graduate from college, and close to half of the students in school today in high poverty communities won’t even graduate from high school, which is economic suicide in today’s skills-driven economy.

We have to address the educational opportunity gap between the haves and the have-nots and we must interrupt the pernicious school-to-prison pipeline that starts with black and brown boys being disciplined excessively and harshly, causing them to think of themselves as “bad kids.” This is the number one civil rights issue of our time.

Here is the good news: as tragic as the lost human potential is and as great as the current challenges are, we can do way better. How do I know?

Because countries like Singapore, Finland, Poland, and Russia (yes, Russia) have dramatically improved their educational results over time, and because of the many bright spots in our country.

Kentucky was first to implement the Common Core State Standards, smart academic standards that mirror the best learning principles in our country and the world. And thanks to incredible work by the state’s educators, who developed lesson plans and instructional materials to align with the improved standards, Kentucky’s college-readiness rate went from 47 percent in 2012 to 62 percent this year.

Students in the Revere, Massachusetts school district, 75 percent of whom students are growing up in poverty, far surpass the national average in reading and math in all grades and are on par with the average performance in a state that continually leads the nation in education.

The on-time graduation rate for students in the Denver Public Schools has increased by 22 points since 2006-2007 despite nearly three quarters of the students growing up in poverty.

In Chicago, the Noble Network of Charter Schools has a 90 percent college enrollment rate, and 86 percent of those enrolling are first-generation college students and 90 percent are living in poverty.

Seventy three percent of students at David Douglas High School in Portland, Oregon are low-income. Children at the school speak more than 55 languages, and almost half started school speaking little or no English, and yet their graduation rate is 20 points higher than students at high schools with similar demographics.

Major progress—which lifts students out of poverty and changes generations to come—is indeed possible.

But it won’t happen if vitriol and polarized politics win out and practical problem-solving and partnerships are cast aside.

That’s why it’s so important for all of us who value equal educational opportunity to become informed about what actually works to help students succeed and then stand up for it.

Jonah Edelman is the co-founder and CEO of Stand for Children. Founded in 1996, Stand for Children is a national education advocacy organization focused on ensuring all children graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, a college education. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Jonah lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and twin 9 year-old sons, who attend public school.