11/03/2011 01:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

Compete to Succeed in Motown

During a recent visit to Detroit, President Obama hosted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for a visit to a General Motors plant in Orion Township. Standing before the assembly line, the two heads of state announced a new free-trade deal that would significantly expand U.S. auto exports and preserve some 70,000 jobs for an industry hit hard by foreign competition.

While this deal is welcome by many as a short-term step toward Detroit's revitalization, sustaining our economic vitality in the Motor City -- and across our country -- over the long haul requires an educated workforce well-prepared to compete in the 21st-century global marketplace.

If America is to remain competitive in today's knowledge economy, we must ensure that all of our students -- regardless of their background -- are positioned for success as our next generation of leaders. Yet, high schools in our low-income communities today, on average, are graduating only half of their students -- and those who do graduate can read and do math at an 8th-grade skill level. In my hometown of Detroit, students' reading and math scores are among the lowest in the country.

For many, this is old news -- but here's a new headline: growing evidence from hundreds of schools across the country demonstrates that we can turn the tide on this challenge. From these proof points and an unshakable belief that all kids can succeed, I'm incredibly optimistic that we can deliver an excellent education for all kids in Detroit and across the country. Here's why:

First, we can see what's possible for all students by looking at the progress made by school systems such as New Orleans and Washington, DC, in just a few short years. Through diverse strategies, leaders from both districts have set a clear vision for change, built a strong culture of achievement and accountability, and focused on recruiting and retaining talent at every level of the system.

Both districts have adopted a mandate to ensure that all students from low-income communities receive the educational opportunities to get on a trajectory that broadens educational and life opportunities. In New Orleans, we can learn from the post-Katrina Recovery School District's focus on setting high expectations and giving strong leaders on each school campus the autonomy to innovate, establish curriculum, and competitively hire and compensate staff, in exchange for achieving strong results. In DC, we can learn from the powerful centralized system leaders have created whereby principals and teachers have a clear sense of expectations, are effectively managed, and receive the support needed to achieve clear measurable goals for students.

While these districts still have a ways to go, both have made incredible progress, climbing the ranks from two of the lowest-performing to the fastest-improving systems in our country. These and hundreds of other proof points -- at the school and district levels -- give me unflinching hope that improvements like these can be replicated across the country.

Second, I believe we can build the strong leadership force we need to successfully prepare every student to compete in the global marketplace. Across the country, bold district and school leaders are innovating ways to move the needle against the pervasive achievement gap and putting entire buildings of students on a different life trajectory than their backgrounds would otherwise predict -- which takes extraordinary leadership beginning with transformational teachers at the classroom level.

At Teach For America, our 200 teachers in Detroit (and 9,000 teachers across the country) are driving relentlessly toward this goal to set their students up for success in the classroom, in college and beyond. They work in partnership with other dedicated teachers across our city, channeling the leadership necessary to help their students achieve at-pace with their more affluent peers.

From examples of success, we know that putting schools and districts on a new path requires a collaborative approach at every level of the system -- and schools aligned around a common vision. I'm hopeful that those at the helm in Detroit will replicate these effective innovations and lead with the same relentless drive to get us where we need to be.

Third, I believe our community leaders want to be engaged in this effort, which is critical if we are going to provide an excellent education to every Detroit student. Like our city's teachers and education leaders, our business and philanthropic communities share a deep commitment to closing the achievement gap. Building any successful partnership is two-way street, and I encourage business and civic leaders to advocate for the education our students need today to become the educated workforce and leaders of tomorrow. I also urge our education leaders to engage community advocates for support to achieve ambitious outcomes for our students. Simply put: overcoming our education challenges will require an all-hands-on-deck approach across our communities as well as leaders at every level who insist on an excellent education for every student.

To compete with countries like South Korea, we must build up an education system that provides all kids, regardless of their background, with a top-notch education. Achieving that requires hard work and leadership across school systems, our communities and indeed, our country. With a city deeply committed to this charge, I'm confident Detroit will be our nation's next success story and will prosper for generations to come. And I'm hopeful that we'll see communities everywhere follow suit.

Annis Brown is Executive Director of Teach For America in Detroit.