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Closing the Achievement Gap: An Obama Signature Program?

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I posted earlier that President Obama needs to create a sense of agency and engagement among the American people as we face depressing economic and social times. A signature program to close our achievement gaps would be a good way to do that. I say gaps because there is more than one, though they are all related.

There is the academic gap between Asian and white youth on the one hand, and black and Latino youth on the other.

There is also an academic gap between all American youth and their counterparts in 24 other industrialized countries. This gap is in large measure a function of the racial and economic inequity of our public education system, an inequity that is much greater than in any of our competitor countries. The Wall Street Journal reports this inequity has "created the equivalent of a permanent, deep recession in terms of the gap between actual and potential output in the economy."

There is also a gap in civic and community engagement affecting many of our youth, regardless of background. This gap could be lessened if our youth, regardless of background, became engaged in bettering themselves and others in educational terms. The International Association for Research on Service-learning and Community Engagement (IARSCLE) is one of the organizations working to bridge this particular gap.

Finally, there is a significant gap between our concern for those who are close to us and those who are not, and that doesn't just affect the youth. (Some trace this back to the influence of Ayn Rand on conservative political and economic figures such as Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan. More recently, Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan has declared himself a follower of her teachings, apparently ignoring her atheism and focusing instead on her philosophy of enlightened selfishness.)

All these gaps can be engaged by tackling the first one.

The achievement gap is in many ways the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement. Some of this idea informs the new movie Won't Back Down. Indeed, Daniel Barnz, who co-wrote and directed the movie, in his recent blog states:

The character played by Maggie Gyllenhaal is poor and lives in a neighborhood with a failing public school. She can't afford to move or send her daughter somewhere else, which means like many Americans, her daughter is doomed, educationally-speaking. That's fundamentally unfair -- as in civil rights unfair.

It is ironic that the achievement gap still exists, and has indeed worsened, since Brown v. Board of Education was decided. The opening salvo of the Civil Rights era, the case opened doors that were the pathways to great strides in housing, employment, and voting rights. These struggles, however, were carried forward by grassroots activism. In contrast, the issue of education was left to lawyers and academic professionals.

"Professional" solutions have not solved the problem because they have been only institutional -- test-focused legislation, vouchers, charter schools -- and have not engaged the community. "It takes a whole village to raise a child," says the African proverb. That doesn't mean just the village government, or village businesses, or even just the village teachers. It means everyone.

One way to engage the entire village would be to focus on elementary schools. Elementary schools are naturally located at the center of communities. They are close to the homes of the children who attend them.

A mentoring program, teaching soft skills to elementary school kids could bring people into the schools that actually see each other at bus stops and in local stores, so they have the potential for strong ties instead of weak ones. (Soft skills include planning, problem-solving, management of effort and collaboration, reflection, system-navigation and ethics. They supplement and complement the "three Rs" and STEM the kids are taught in formal school settings.)

From the elementary schools, you branch out. Reach up to the middle schools, then the high schools, the community colleges, mentoring all the way. Then the mentored children begin mentoring those younger than they. (Or start at college, work down and branch out) I recently discussed these and other concepts during a keynote speech for the IARSCLE conference in Baltimore, Md. My theme was the "Invisible College," a learning environment based in the community, which complements, and creates synergies with the "Visible College" of formal schooling.

Brown v. Board sputtered as an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court, courtesy of decades of Republican presidential appointments, turned away equal protection claims that protected minorities from discrimination. Early casualties included lower court cases finding equal protection violations where school districts skewed the distribution of resources to affluent neighborhoods and away from poor and minority communities. That lies at the core of the achievement gap.

In contrast, the much greater advances in housing, employment, and voting rights did not rely so much on the courts. Grass-roots mobilization fueled passage of the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, and the Voting Rights Act. There has been no Fair Education Act, no Equal Education Opportunity Act, no Education Rights Act.

But with a massive, well-organized social movement to close the achievement gap, there could be.

There should be civil rights workers in communities registering people for the parent-teacher associations at their local school the way their counterparts registered people to vote in the rural South in the 1960s.

Local Citizen's Assemblies could engage mentors to assist in school and after school. They could mobilize communities to demand that government, federal state and local, respond to structural inequities hampering our entire educational effort. They could hold school boards, school superintendents, principals, teachers, and teacher's unions accountable.

The Assemblies could also lobby local and national businesses to step up to the plate with internships, "soft skill" mentors, and STEM tutoring.

The Obama Administration could provide a national focus for all these efforts with a signature program to close the achievement gap, not displacing the contributions of community and business but facilitating and focusing them.

Why not?

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