By Julia Johnson
In the wake of one of our most divisive elections, Americans are looking to our leaders to bring the country back together. No issue has greater potential to unite the country than improving the way we educate our children.
If we love our children and our country, success is our only option. Yet today, far too many students, especially minorities, drop out or graduate from high school unprepared for college or careers in our knowledge-based global economy. How did this happen?
A look at history reminds us that the modernization of American public education has for three generations been driven by the principle that all children deserve equal opportunities in the schoolhouse. After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, our school systems struggled to find a way to do right by minority children. Leaders of both parties joined with civil rights organizations, teachers, parents and communities to end school segregation.
Unfortunately, there followed a campaign of massive resistance. Even in progressive cities, implementation of the court’s mandate proved difficult. In large cities plagued with housing segregation, massive busing was never an option, so segregated poor performing schools remained the norm.
For decades, too many well-intended policymakers believed that simply pouring money into a broken educational system would produce positive results. But to ensure that tax revenues were being spent in a way that would produce success, school systems needed accountability: measureable goals, thorough and fair evaluations of performance, incentives for achievement and interventions for poor performance.
Without systems of accountability, students were allowed to fail and that failure was written off as a natural consequence of societal inequality. That was wrong. Poverty, racial prejudice and a weak social safety net are not excuses; they are challenges to be overcome.
For each school, no matter the demographic makeup of the students, there is only one metric that really matters: are children truly learning to their full potential?
In 1999, Florida became one of the first states to respond to the challenge of truly educating each child by creating a comprehensive system of school reforms. Failing schools and underperforming students were quickly identified. Districts often changed leadership and brought in new teachers and resources.
Florida’s public school results have been impressive. Under school accountability measures, schools that received D’s and F’s began celebrating B’s and A’s. These grades stood up even as the state increased the rigor of its academic standards and grading formula.
Florida also gave low-income parents more choices with charter schools, school transfers and scholarships to private schools. Perhaps most important, Florida invested in early literacy. Children who were functionally illiterate in the third grade were not socially promoted to the fourth grade. Instead they received intensive reading instruction, an approach that is working.
Black and Hispanic fourth graders have advanced two grade levels in reading since 1999.
Florida also focused on preparing all students for college by becoming a national leader in giving low-income students access to Advanced Placement (AP) classes and encouraging them to take college entrance exams. Last year, SAT scores for Florida’s African American and Hispanic students increased even as they stagnated in most of the country.
Julia Johnson is the founder of NetCommunications, LLC.