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Reshma Saujani

Reshma Saujani

Posted: June 10, 2010 08:44 AM

Don't Just Reform Our Schools -- Transform Them

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Last July, President Obama announced Race to the Top, an educational grant competition to provide critical funds to states that make concerted reform efforts, including provisions for performance-based teacher evaluations and expanding the cap on charter schools. What unfolded was a familiar political battle. Interest groups and union officials took out their spears and shields, while politicians opened their pockets. In the end, New York's children lost out on the first opportunity to secure $700 million in essential educational funding.

We are on the verge of graduating the first generation of Americans that will be less literate than the one before it. That's why we need to move beyond the old debate about how to reform our schools, and start thinking innovatively about how to transform them. To give our children the education system they need to compete in today's global economy, we need to move past 20th century battles and get serious about 21st century transformation.

First, it's not about teachers versus reformers. A majority of teachers I have met entered the profession because they care about kids and want them to succeed. In fact, I wouldn't be running for Congress if my public school teachers didn't let me stand on their shoulders and see the world. However, too often, outdated systems have not enabled our instructors to succeed nor met our children's classroom needs. The reform movement is coalescing around a truth that we've long known. In the words of President Obama, "America's future depends on its teachers."

One central plank of reform must be working with districts and teachers to ensure that every child in America is taught by an excellent teacher, period. In New York City, teachers are given lifetime tenure after only three years of teaching and layoff decisions are made on the basis on tenure, not performance. At the same time, most teachers are often rightly nervous that historically outdated training and support models will not position them to meet accountability standards. I propose creating a Teachers to the Top program to provide Race to the Top grantees with supplemental teacher training in data management, performance tracking, and technology. In addition, we must re-balance our evaluation system from a high-stakes "testocracy" to one that more holistically measures student growth and performance.

Another myth is that reform is about charters schools versus traditional schools. It's not. Most parents I talk to are not interested in political squabbling. They want the best solutions to provide a solid education for their children.

Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that are privately operated, with stricter data-driven accountability and usually a non-unionized environment. Even after recent action in Albany, charter schools will only constitute roughly a quarter of all New York City schools. We need to move beyond the surface debate about school designation and focus on the conditions that enable any school to be an excellent one. I propose creating RAISE, or the Readying All Instructors and Schools Exchange, an online platform facilitated by the Department of Education to promote collaboration and best practice sharing of successful instructional and school management strategies among all schools.

We also know that legislation alone cannot ensure learning. We need to promote a culture of innovation and community collaboration to provide a 21st century educational foundation. That means tackling problems with school closings and overcrowding to ensure that every child has access to a healthy and safe learning environment. As students graduate into an economy more dynamic and uncertain than ever before, it is critical they are equipped with 21st century skills, such as technological fluency, financial literacy, and foreign language training. We also need to get back to the basics to ensure that every child participates in arts, music, and physical education classes and has access to healthy meals and after-school programs. And in an era when new industries can emerge, evolve, and dissolve in one lifetime, learning cannot stop at high school - or even college. We must re-conceptualize workforce transition and continuing studies education.

I am the product of public schools. For generations, a strong system of public education has been the foundation for unleashing the innovation potential of every American. As we confront the challenges of a new economic order, we must move past 20th century reform roadblocks to ensure a prosperous 21st century future for our children. This is a time for new ideas, innovation, and transformation. That's what I'll fight for in Congress.

 

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