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Lesson Plan for Change: Heroes of Education Reform
Meet six inspiring individuals who are working hard to reform schools in America
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The education crisis has gone on for too long, and our kids are paying a high price:
Out of 30 developed countries, our students rank 25th in math and 21st in science, despite the fact that the U.S. spends more per pupil than almost any other nation. It's estimated that in just ten years, there will be 123 million high-skill, high-paying jobs in the U.S., but only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill them. The worst part is that even in 2010, the chance of getting a quality education is a matter of luck. In the arresting new documentary Waiting for "Superman," the sheer injustice of it all is brought to gut-wrenching life as the filmmakers follow five students from around the country.
Parenting is proud to partner with the film's producers -- the same folks who gave us Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth -- to spread the word that our education system doesn't simply need reform, it needs a massive overhaul.
For our part, we're enlisting you. Because if real change is going to happen, it has to begin with moms and dads. Here's how you can get started:
1) See the movie.
2) Check out the change makers on the following pages. These six individuals are super-heroes in the world of education reform.
3) Jump into action at home. Parenting's Mom Congress delegates created a blueprint for driving change in local schools that will work whatever your cause. Collectively, we have the power to fix our broken schools. Let's get started!
U.S. Secretary of Education
Arne Duncan was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, no small shakes, when he was nominated by his good friend, basketball buddy, and fellow Chicagoan, then President-elect Barack Obama, to be the Secretary of Education, the top job in the American Educational system. He's working with a larger budget than any other secretary of education has ever enjoyed and is positioned to become the most effective education reformist in recent history. Duncan grew up in large part at his mother's after-school program -- the Sue Duncan children's center -- in the South Side of Chicago, tutoring and being tutored by underprivileged kids. So he has seen firsthand the struggle many families face trying to find quality education. In his confirmation hearings, Duncan called education the "civil rights issue of our generation."
He's taken on the onerous task of reforming the No Child Left Behind law. The mission: Develop a common curriculum for the country, but give the states back control on how to implement it. His most well-known initiative thus far, though, has been the $4.35 billion race to the Top grant competition, in which states win stimulus money by proposing educational reforms that better prepare students for college and the workplace, and recruit and retain effective teachers and school officials. Though the program has not been without controversy, Duncan insists that the alternative of only "investing in the status quo" is unacceptable. "For far too long," Duncan told the Mom Congress in his speech about the responsibility parents have to the school system, "we have created schools that are good enough for somebody else's children, but not our own."
Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools
Michelle Rhee has, for lack of a more accurate word, cojones. During her first year in one of the biggest jobs in education, she shut down 23 underperforming schools and laid off 270 teachers and 36 principals. "I know the number one thing that determines a child's success is the teacher," Rhee says, which is why she is fighting to reward the best teachers and compensate them deservedly when they produce strong students. That may sound logical to you, but Rhee is changing decades of entrenched thinking and outdated policies regarding teacher protections that are unheard-of in any other professional field. (Unlike at universities, many public school teachers can receive tenure as a matter of course after two or three years on the job, after which it's nearly impossible to fire a bad one.)
These bold actions have not made her popular with teachers. But Rhee doesn't care what adults think of her. "The kids inspire me to be strong," she says, and her strength gets results: Following nearly three years of negotiations, Rhee brokered an unprecedented agreement with the Washington Teachers Union this past summer. According to the new contract, teachers will finally be measured, in part, against their students' achievement.
President and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ)
Geoffrey Canada is a poster child for the slogan "Think globally, act locally." The Bronx, NY-raised Harvard graduate's mission is to transform New York City's Harlem -- historically, a poor neighborhood plagued by drugs and violence -- with the power of good teaching. Through the HCZ -- a nonprofit organization of community-outreach programs and two charter schools (see "What's a Charter School?" below) known as "Promise Academies" -- Canada has been recruiting neighborhood children as early as birth into what he calls an "education pipeline." The Promise Academy schools are rigorous, with longer school days (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), after-school tutoring and activities, plus classes held over the summer.
But Canada knows success doesn't just come from studying hard: He teaches new parents how to encourage language development; he created the HCZ Asthma Initiative and an obesity program to deal with two of Harlem's biggest health crises so that kids don't miss school; and he implemented a Clean Living and Staying Sober project to help keep families together. Canada's holistic approach has paid off: More than 90 percent of his high school seniors were accepted into college last year.
What's a charter school?
Charter schools are "public schools of choice." They still receive government funding and are free to students, but they are not beholden to the same regulations as traditional public schools. Instead, each school has a "charter" -- a performance contract spelling out its program, goals, and methods of assessment -- and is accountable to its sponsor, which is usually a state or local school board. They operate with increased autonomy but must stick to the contract and produce positive academic results. Often there are many applications for enrollment, so a random lottery selection process is used. Learn more at Publiccharters.org.
Vice President, National Education Association
Strumming a folk song on her guitar in front of 9,000 teachers, Lily Eskelsen sang, "A bureaucrat came to our town / And at first we thought he jested / He said, 'When I get through with you folks / There'll be no child left untested.'" This was no kids' song. Eskelsen doesn't just speak out against the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, she sings out. Eskelsen, who began her career in education as a lunch lady, is an impassioned and funny advocate for students and teachers who'll do anything to get her message across. ("It's impossible to embarrass me," she's admitted.) Her message: NCLB's overemphasis on teaching basic skills has meant the neglect of the "STEM" curriculum (science, technology, engineering, and math). That's dangerous, since eight out of ten of the fastest-growing, highest-paying jobs in America are STEM-related.
As VP for a union representing 3.2 million public education employees, Eskelsen works to keep good teachers on the job. Right now, 20 percent of new teachers at high-need schools leave the profession in the first three years, and almost half leave within five years. It's time to give these professionals more freedom in what and how they teach, she says, and pay them fairly.
Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin
Founders of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of charter schools
Know many kids who would agree to attend school on some Saturdays and during the summer? Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin know about 26,000 youngsters who would -- and did. Friends now for nearly 20 years, the two educators met as first-time teachers in an inner-city Houston school through the teach for America program. They launched their own charter school for fifth-graders in 1994. After just one year in KIPP, Feinberg and Levin's students were outperforming fifth-graders from almost every other part of Houston.
Today KIPP is the largest charter chain in America, with 99 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. All KIPP-sters sign a "Commitment to Excellence," saying they will do whatever it takes to help them learn. The schools' hallways and classrooms are plastered with the slogans that make up Feinberg and Levin's core educational philosophy: "No excuses," "No shortcuts," and "Think like a champion today." Their primary message to students, though, is encapsulated in the title of a book about their success by Jay Mathews: KIPP -- Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.
The parents of all 1,332 students at the KIPP schools in New York City, where Levin is superintendent, have his cell phone number. "That's part of the key to what we do...we build these relationships with the kids and their families," says Levin. "And if you believe that promises to kids are sacred, you do whatever it takes to keep that promise." Even if it means phone calls during dinner.