I have been involved with the US Education system for more than 27 years - as classroom teacher, assistant principal, principal, district administrator, regional superintendent with a portfolio of more than 100 schools in Brooklyn NY, and school superintendent in two large cities. I have seen evidence for the challenges we face at every level, from the student with his head down in a South Side Chicago classroom, to district-wide data demonstrating vast underperformance and inequity, to our nation's weak standings on international assessments. The cause for concern is serious and urgent. There is evidence that we are making progress toward closing the opportunity gap, but I am worried - we are not closing the success gap.
As CEO of the public schools in Chicago I felt the great responsibility of our charge to educate each of the 403,770 children in the country's third largest school system. Chicago Public Schools has had many successes, but after decades of progress, there is still unequal access to quality education across the city. While much has improved since former Education Secretary William Bennett dubbed Chicago schools the "worst in the nation" in 1987, twenty-five years of reform initiatives have led to only incremental improvements for the majority of Chicago's students.
Other cities have wrestled with similar challenges, attempted similar reforms to those in Chicago, and are facing a similar reality: we are not making progress fast enough. School systems must radically evolve as we educate a more diverse student population and accommodate extremes of need not imagined when the current systems were designed. As former Education Secretary Richard Riley stated, "We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist...using technologies that haven't yet been invented...in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."
In his most recent essay, An Avalanche is Coming, Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead, Michael Barber outlines the need for an inspired generation, one that is well-educated, some of whom able to provide the bold, sophisticated leadership the 21st century demands. Clearly, we are far from fulfilling this need.
As he moved on from the chancellorship in New York City, Joel Klein said, "There were things that I wish we had pushed harder on and faster on. Everybody always said I was impatient. I guess I would say I wasn't impatient enough." Few would argue that we are moving quickly toward a solution to what ails our school systems. Is it time to admit that the current model of the school district is outdated and one that is not flexible or responsive enough to serve the needs of all students?
Over the last 27 years, I have seen improvements in our education system but the coming years will demand that we reassess what we teach - as Eric Schmidt, Exec Chairman of Google, said recently, "Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003"; how we teach - what is the role of technology, especially MOOCs in K-12? And how we assess - A recent report published by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University describes the need for an increased focus on 21st century competencies - the ability to analyze, synthesize, compare, connect, critique, hypoth¬esize, prove and explain ideas.
We need to engage in some serious soul searching regarding the structure of our school systems. While some are rightly focused on the issues of abolishing our agrarian calendar, radically improving school leader and teacher efficacy, next-generation curriculum, pedagogy and looking to the concept of "everywhere learning", others like Andrew Smarick, an Aspen-Pahara Fellow, are pushing the following question: "The smartest brains, deepest pockets, and strongest backs have thrown themselves at this, and every single one has failed: After half a century, we still don't have a single high-performing urban district. Given that millions of young lives hang in the balance, isn't it time to admit that this 50 years of failure isn't a coincidence and admit that the district is unfixable and must be replaced?"
While there are complex historical issues that led to the current situation in Detroit, the failures of the city's Public Schools are partly culpable for the troubles of this once great American city. There are similar dynamics at play in other cities. Whether or not the replacement of the school district is the answer, we need to be brave enough to dispose of the structures and strategies that have failed so many for decades and have no chance of preparing our students for the future. We need our educators, innovators and inventors at the table working furiously to give our students the opportunity to become the inspired generation.