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Accepting Our Moral Obligation

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I was attending a debate between members of the education establishment and members of the business community at a conference in Orlando, Fla. The topic was a familiar one, "How To Improve America's Schools." Two days earlier, the president of the United States, 40 governors, and 49 top corporate executives had brought closure to a meeting in Palisades, N.Y., where they discussed the same topic, and two days before that, I had visited three high schools in one of the nation's most impoverished areas, on the South Side of Chicago.

The solutions for what ails the American system of education being proposed at the debate I was attending mirrored those advanced by the governors and corporate executives in Palisades, N.Y.--standards, accountability, performance bonuses, charter schools, choice, and technology. I was attending the Orlando conference, as a presenter, because I have championed many of these same "solutions," particularly standards and accountability, in my own school and across the country for at least the last decade. Indeed, my visit to Chicago earlier that week had included a brief discussion with the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools on the importance to any school-improvement effort of standards for student achievement.

And yet, something about what was being proposed--my proposals--struck me at that moment as being terribly shallow, terribly insignificant, even terribly wrong. Providence had provided me with a special sequence of experiences that week that changed my perspective on the "education question" and the needs of America's youths.

No student in America, regardless of the economic conditions of the family and community from which the student comes, should have to go to school under the conditions I witnessed in some of the schools on the South Side of Chicago. By conditions, I am not referring to the people or educational programs in those schools. Some of the schools I visited had well-designed, state-of-the-art programs in place, and the students, staff members, and parents I met in each of the schools were dedicated and caring. I am referring, instead, to the deplorable, and in my opinion totally inexcusable, physical environment of those schools. Dingy and dark corridors, dilapidated and inoperable windows and doors, broken-down and abandoned plumbing and electrical fixtures, a dearth of the most basic instructional equipment, and a colorless milieu that had the look and the feel of neglect, decay, and abandonment. I would not have expected to see worse conditions in a war-torn area of Bosnia, and I have no reason to believe that these conditions are unique to Chicago. For the most part, the schools I visited served a student population that was 100 percent "minority." What a surprise.

I said that those of us from education and business were not accepting our moral obligation to demand that no student in America attend school under conditions that we would not tolerate for our own children.

The attack on my moral conscience continued when I returned home from the conference, with media reports that left me little reason to believe the physical conditions of the schools in many of the country's poorest neighborhoods are or would soon be improving. Education Week reported on a survey by the National League of Cities concluding that officials in most U.S. cities feel that meeting the needs of children and families will be harder and that serving children and families will be more difficult in the years to come "as a result of changes in federal and state roles, policies, and actions." My own local newspaper reported that the U.S. House had passed a bill that would allow states to deny a free public education to children of illegal immigrants. And of course, we are all familiar with the plethora of other statistics related to the welfare of our children. A new report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, states that the number of families living in "worst case" housing conditions stands at an all-time high in this country, with the number of households (5.3 million) spending more than half their incomes on rent or living in "severely substandard" housing having increased substantially in the last 20 years. The groups experiencing the greatest growth in this problem, according to the HUD report, are families with children and minorities.

So there we were last spring, middle- and upper-level managers and executives from the education and business communities admonishing one another to vigorously pursue standards, accountability, performance bonuses, charter schools, choice, and technology in an effort to save our schools, save our children, and save our country. Then I said it. I said that to my way of thinking it has always been the responsibility, indeed the obligation, of the well-educated, the well-off, and the politically enfranchised members of society to advocate for, and even insist upon, the protection and advancement of those values and rights important to the heritage and preservation of the country. I said that those of us from education and business attending the debate that day, the president, the governors, and the corporate executives who attended the summit in New York, and the countless others privileged to occupy similar positions in American society were not accepting our moral obligation to demand that no student in America attend school under conditions that we would not tolerate for our own children, that America is not a poor country, and that we can afford to do this. I said that standards, accountability, and other reform ideas being promoted as solutions to America's educational problems, meritorious as they may be, are not a satisfactory substitute for accepting and fulfilling our moral obligation to the youths of this country and to the principles upon which this country was built. I said that the formal and informal leaders in America cannot allow ourselves to be deluded into believing that we can avoid our moral obligation by simply admonishing one another to "tighten up" and "tune up" the present educational system. And I said that if we accepted and fulfilled our moral obligation, test scores would skyrocket and there would be no crisis in education.

The room grew silent. No one had any further comments, and the panel moderator declared that session of the conference adjourned.

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