Opinion
Education Opinion

Headlines To Save A Nation

By LeaderTalk Contributor — March 20, 2009 4 min read

What is your headline?

While the nation waits nervously for the Obama Administration to breathe life back into our moribund economy, the President has set his sites on other issues that are equally as important. Like our schools. Last week, in an address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C., he shared his vision for public education. The next morning the newspaper said: “Obama looks for schools to improve.”

There is an interesting exercise often used with organizations that are trying to arrive at a sense of common purpose or mission. They are invited to look into the future, four or five years after their ideas have been implemented, and to envision how the headlines in the local paper will describe their success.

So if we were to ask President Obama to project what the headline for the Washington Post might be on the morning of March 20, 2013, exactly four years from today, he might predict that it will say:

‘“ACHIEVEMENT GAP EVAPORATES AMIDST POWERFUL REFORMS”

There is cause for such optimism. In his address to the chamber he outlined his five pillars for education reform:

• Invest in early childhood initiatives
• Develop standards and assessments that promote 21st century skills: including problem solving, critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity
• Recruit, prepare and reward outstanding teachers
• Promote innovation and excellence; raise the cap on charter schools and extend the school day and school year
• Provide every American with the opportunity to pursue quality higher education

NCLB has been a debacle, not on the scale with the housing market meltdown perhaps, but close. After 8 years of narrowing our curriculum to basic skills, for example, our 8th graders remain 9th in the world in mathematics. So the President wants a return to a climate of innovation, where we teach children to think and solve problems beyond bubbles on a multiple choice test. If he succeeds the headline might read:

“5 PILLARS CREDITED WITH INSPIRING CHILDREN TO THINK AGAIN”

Last week’s news headlines addressed more than just the President’s remarks however. One headline in Time Magazine read: “Report Says 1 in 50 US Kids are Homeless.” In light of our fragile economy, that number can only get worse. The study’s definition of homelessness included children who live in the streets, in shelters, or who are doubling up with relatives. It described the link between children’s life circumstances and their level of academic achievement: homeless children are twice as likely as other children to be retained. With each school change they are at risk of falling as much as six months behind. 25% have witnessed violence. 75% are in elementary school. Nearly half suffer from anxiety and depression.

Of course those of us who work directly with children and their struggling families every day in Title I schools have been aware of these trends all along. But in the ethos of NCLB, to call out the obvious difficulty of learning to multiply fractions when your family is living in an old Volkswagon is merely “making excuses"; an aversion to being held accountable. (For the record, I am more than willing to be held accountable as a school leader. I would just like someone to be accountable for the fact that there are children in America who have to sleep in a Volkswagon.)

Perhaps if we get the “5 Pillars” right, and we get the economy breathing again, we might see a headline on March 20, 2013 that says:

“DRAMATIC GAINS IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT TRANSCEND ALL DEMOGRAPHICS” or
“AMERICAN CHILDREN NOW FIRST IN THE WORLD IN SCIENCE!”

There was yet another headline last week that trumpeted the release of a joint study between the University of Colorado and ASU. This report identified seven “out-of- school” factors that also profoundly influence students’ academic success and lead to inequalities among children. Those factors include prenatal care, health care, food insecurity, environmental pollutants, family stress, neighborhood characteristics and the absence of extended learning opportunities.

Like most schools, we realized long ago that we cannot unilaterally eliminate these out-of-school factors, so instead we use our resources and the innovative nature of our charter school to foster “resiliency” in children; we enhance their ability to rise above their life circumstances and achieve at the highest levels in spite of the obstacles. We teach our students to build on their personal assets. We have, in fact, become experts on the topic of childhood resiliency, a very non-NCLB approach to engendering student achievement.

Taken together, last week’s headlines dramatically illustrate how the future of our nation, our economy and our schools are all so inextricably bound.

On March 20, 2013, four years from now, I predict that my school will have benefitted from our own forward momentum as well as the implementation of President Obama’s hopeful vision for our economy and our schools. If I could project the headline in the local paper for that day, it would say:

“CALIFORNIA’S TOP PERFORMING SCHOOL LIVES UP TO ITS NICKNAME: EL MILAGRO”

I’m just curious, school leaders, especially those of you who are saving a nation- four years down the road from now what will your headline say?

Kevin W. Riley
Cross-Posted with a Little Different Spin at El Milagro Weblog

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.