As President-elect Obama prepares for the presidency, his attention necessarily is occupied by the deteriorating economy and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As important as it will be to respond appropriately to these crises, President-elect Obama also must focus on another crisis, one arguably more important to America's future: the vast disparities in the quality of our public schools.
After eight years of misguided policies and inadequate funding, the current state of education for too many students in our country is disgraceful and inexcusable. Despite promises to "leave no child behind," whole segments of the student population are indeed left behind today, as they have been for decades - particularly students of color.
With a clean slate and his party in control of Congress, President-elect Obama has a rare opportunity to reinvigorate federal education policy, driven by the principle that an equal opportunity to a quality education is every American child's birthright. A new, progressive education policy should embody these basic goals:
• Equal resources for every school. The funding gap between high-minority and low-minority school districts amounts to more than $600 a year per student - or $920,000 a year for a typical high school. As a result, students from such areas are more likely to receive a subpar education; those who do graduate will have trouble competing in college or the workplace. We must end this unfair disparity to ensure true equality of opportunity for all of our kids.
• Appropriate trained teachers in every classroom. The No Child Left Behind Act mandated that core classes are taught by "highly qualified" teachers, but allowed states wide latitude in defining that threshold. Today, students of color are twice as likely as other students to take core classes instructed by a teacher who was trained in another subject. In 78% of schools with high minority-student populations, the math teachers are teaching out of their subject area, according to one study. Without access to appropriately trained teachers, students will continue to struggle. With them, we could see dramatic improvements.
• Greater parent and family engagement. President-elect Obama has spoken eloquently of the need for parents to act as role models and to encourage their children to excel in school. Many studies have indicated that children whose parents take the time to read with them and supervise their homework are more likely to stay in school and become lifelong learners. The federal government can do more to encourage parent and family involvement - and to improve families' economic security, access to healthcare and other elements of basic quality of life, so that all parents have the time and energy to give to their children.
• Investment in early childhood and literacy programs. Far too many minority children enter kindergarten at a disadvantage, because they have not had the same access to early-childhood education as other kids. For obvious reasons, the same disadvantage exists for children born to parents who speak another language. We can work to overcome these disadvantages through investment in programs that get kids where they need to hit the ground running.
This agenda may seem ambitious, but it's unconscionable that we as a nation have settled for less for so long.
To turn our schools around, we need not only new policies and leadership but a new debate. The tired distinctions between "reformers" and "traditionalists" lead to squabbles over peripheral issues about which the majority of Americans could not care less. If President-elect Obama were to fully fund those common-sense programs that are supported by most Americans, our schools would be improved immeasurably.
Finally, with so many issues competing for his attention, President Obama will need a first-class education team. He got off to a good start by naming Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond -- a professor of education at Stanford University with a long list of achievements both academically and in the real world of education reform -- to head his education transition team. A bridge builder with strong ties to both teacher's unions and reform-minded activists, Dr. Darling-Hammond embodies the kind of visionary yet realistic approach that has been sorely lacking over the past eight years. She would make an inspiring and effective Secretary of Education.
For too long, America has invested more in some kids than others, and as a result our educational system represents a promise unfulfilled. The same could be said for the nation as a whole. By making education a true priority, President-elect Obama has a rare chance to move our country closer to the vision so many of us share: equal opportunity for all.
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