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Is America Ready to Have a Grown-Up Conversation About Educating our Kids?

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Early in 2000, locked in a tight battle for the republican presidential nomination, then-Governor George W. Bush decried a culture of public education policy that was more interested in adult's policies than in student achievement. "What's not fine," he stumped, "is rarely is the question asked, 'Is our children learning?' " Obvious irony aside, he was on to something. The successes and failures of our schools and their students wasn't part of the national discourse. Ten years later, the question (or a grammatically correct version of it) is being asked nationwide, in state legislatures and the halls of congress, in major movie theaters and national publications. We have seen that our public school system is failing too many of our kids, and it begs a new question: What is we to do about it? Do we as a nation have the attention span and the stomach to tackle what has become the civil rights issue of our generation?

In 1995 when we founded the not-for-profit PENCIL with the children of New York City in mind, it was clear that New York City public schools were being neglected, both practically and politically. That year, less than half (47.3 percent) of the City's public school students were reading at or above grade level. Yet not once in Mayor David Dinkins term ending in 1993 did he hold a single press conference dedicated to improving public education. And, even though only 65.8 percent of students were graduating from high school nationwide, the deplorable state of the country's public schools was front page news in the major New York dailies with the same frequency with which report cards are distributed: just four times all year. Despite the fact that New York City sank $7.8 billion that year -- one-fourth of its entire budget -- into what was a largely failing school system, there was no public discussion about the poor quality of our schools and what it meant for our kids.

And of course the same story was being played out across the nation where education was not on a state platform of either party. The problems were many and, yes, will seem quite familiar today: Money was being frittered away at all levels. There was little coordination between local, state, and national policies or priorities. Middle class families were moving to the suburbs, unable to afford private schools in the city and unwilling to consider public schools. Our students, it seemed, were being prepared to become society's burden, not its future. And though these problems screamed out for a solution, no one seemed to be listening.

So, while PENCIL's main focus has always been to galvanize and coordinate meaningful civic engagement in public schools -- now across the United States and beyond -- we started out facing another obstacle: raising the level of awareness. We knew we needed to not only make the state of our public schools a part of the public dialogue, but also put the importance of a high quality public education on the front of the policy burner. Adults needed to begin having serious conversations about our kids' futures. All adults.

Fifteen years later, the political landscape has changed immeasurably. Education reform now commands front-page headlines and primetime specials. Thanks to government officials at both the local and national levels, a slew of incredible not-for-profits, and the commitment of some major foundations, we are beginning to see the most substantive changes in public education since the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. This summer, the United States Department of Education awarded over $4 billion to 11 states and Washington, D.C. as the winners in the Race to the Top (RttT) competition. The real winners, of course, are our kids. All over the country the functioning of public education has dramatically shifted for the better. In applying for RttT, 34 states changed existing laws or implemented new policies to improve their school systems and 46 created comprehensive reform proposals. Thirty five states have adopted common standards in reading and math, replacing a hodgepodge of varying requirements with rigorous college and career-ready standards that will give focus and cohesion to the swelling momentum toward reform.

As a result of substantive progress, the public is beginning to pay attention. On September 27 and 28, NBC, under the brilliant leadership of Lisa Gersh, President of Strategic Initiatives, convened an education summit, Education Nation. Aiming to create a thoughtful public dialogue and engage the nation in the shared pursuit of providing all children the best education in the world, they brought together educators, elected officials, policy makers, and students, claiming "It's time to put education back at the top of the national agenda." But, now that it's finally there, what are we as a country going to do about it? As Congressman George Miller (D-Ca.) chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee told those gathered at the summit's closing panel, "This country talks about how they want a moon shot. They want a Sputnik moment. Folks, this is it."

The question remains, however, how much has really changed? Have we finally awakened up to the idea that the quality of our nation relies on the quality of our schools? Has public education truly sewn itself into the fabric of the dialogue of our cities and states? When this election cycle is over and our sound-bite attention span turns from campaign rhetoric to substantive issues, will America still be talking about education? When the Chancellor of Washington D.C. is no longer on the front page of our local papers and the latest Hollywood documentary is no longer in theaters, will we still pay attention? Is the discourse around public education simply a passing fad -- the policy equivalent of the Trappe Keeper or Silly Bandz -- or has the needle finally shifted?

Last week, I sat in the audience at the MoMA as the Broad Foundation gave $1 million in college scholarships to Gwinnett County Public Schools for improving student achievement and closing ethnic and income-based achievement gaps among its students. The woman next to me, a rather jaded education foundation veteran, turned to me and said "I know that Waiting for Superman' is flawed, but aren't we glad that at least we're talking to others and not just to ourselves? A lot of educators talking to one another hasn't brought about much change, has it?"

Change -- substantial, far-reaching, and permanent -- is what our students and our schools desperately need. Among 30 developed nations, our students rank 24th in Math, 17th in Science, and tenth in Literacy. We are the only OECD nation where 25-34 years olds are less educated than the generation before them.

In 1995, the year PENCIL was founded to increase engagement with the city's public schools, David Mathews and the Kettering Foundation released a groundbreaking study on our nation's school systems. In it, Mathews recognized that the success of our public schools is inescapably linked to our commitment to them as a community. "Fundamental change has to start with the public and within the community if it is to be effective against the structural impediments in schools systems that tend to block needed change," Mathews wrote: "It is unlikely that schools will change unless communities change, unless citizens increase their capacity to band together and act together."

One can only hope that the era of failing schools being met with silence is over for good. Our Sputnik moment has arrived. Now is the time for us to act together to demand excellence from our schools and do everything in our capacity to support our educators and students -- for their sake and for the sake of the future of our country. At the Broad Foundation presentation, in front of policy makers, elected officials, and members of the national media, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the audience, "We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for what happens in our nation's classrooms." Here's to hoping that America is ready and willing to do just that. For the long haul.