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Verelyn Gibbs Watson Headshot

Continuing the Conversation: Insights Sparked By 'Education Nation"

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I've just spent two rigorous days taking in all the conversations at the NBC News' "Education Nation Summit" at the New York City Public Library; I loved every minute of it. Attendees heard from the country's top thought leaders and influencers in education, government, business, philanthropy and media as they discussed the state of education in the U.S. and what it means for the future of the nation.

The program centered on the theme, "What It Takes." Clearly, it takes more than what we are doing right now. Perhaps the saddest part of the current scenario is everyone seems to be on the same page about what it takes yet we are all still struggling to provide the resources needed to really see a shift in the current state of affairs.

We heard how employers are frustrated with the lack of qualified workers, how we are falling behind other countries, how the income gap affects learning, and how the widening achievement gap affects our youth.

The discussions reminded me of my own scholastic journey. I was born in Georgetown, Guyana and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. At the tender age of five I clearly remember a teacher, for lack of a better term, "calling me out" for my West Indian accent and saying it was "not how we speak in this country."

Perhaps the teacher should have been more focused on the fact that I, as the newest and youngest kid in her first grade class, indeed had the correct answer to the math problem. I was also the only child whose hand was even raised. If she paid attention to these things she could have leveraged an opportunity to get the entire class excited about learning. Instead she sent the message that cultural differences were not appreciated or respected in her classroom and, because of my differences, my answers didn't matter.

The teacher's words still burn in me today. I think I did all right in the end, in large part because I had involved, supportive parents who decided private school would be a better option. But what about the others who didn't have options? I often imagine what my academic path could have been like if from day one in a U.S. public school classroom if I had received the message that I was totally accepted and what I had to say was more valuable than how I said it.

Education should be about lifting all of us, especially our children, to greater levels of success. Teachers have a lot of power in what they say and how they react to young minds that are still developing.

A common theme of the "Education Nation" conversations was the need for more great teachers who are passionate about their students and see beyond the actions to what might be the underlying reasons for some of the behaviors exhibited by underserved youth.

Longtime child advocate Marian Wright Edelman gave the best example on one panel by stating: "Don't suspend students for not coming to school; instead, find out why they aren't attending." If we can dig deeper to recognize what kids are going through we can help treat the real problem instead of reacting with symptom based discipline.

We also heard from a young man who, despite his humble beginnings, is now a student at Harvard who said "Children rise to the level of our expectations." Why do we set the bar lower for children based on their zip code or ethnicity? Are all children not capable of high achievement if simply given the opportunity to excel?

Helping students become high achievers early in their academic careers is a core part of our mission at NSCS, so this week's dialogue at "Education Nation" leaves me with renewed determination to do more to ensure we are a significant contributor in continuing the conversation but, more importantly, initiating the action so all our kids will have "what it takes."