The nation's public schools have been battered by a continuing stream of bad news in the past few years, challenging what at one time was considered one of the world's leading education systems. In 2010, the results of international testing comparing students in 34 developed countries showed a stunning decline in U.S. test scores. The U.S. had sunk to the middle of the pack in reading and science and near the bottom in math. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "The hard truth is other countries have passed us by during the past two decades. Americans need to wake up to this educational reality — instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership."
This year, the nation's leaders will be tested to put aside partisan differences to respond to the demands of a highly competitive global economy that requires a skilled work force. Preparing to meet this challenge will become a major part of this election year's political debate. As the new year begins, here are three recommendations for policymakers to consider.
•Rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This punitive law, which in its current form is known as the No Child Left Behind Act, is long overdue for renewal and is now a drag on the nation's schools. Even though most members of Congress agree NCLB has outlived its usefulness, the House and Senate are promoting two different approaches. The last time the federal law was amended, in 2002, it had bipartisan support. Both sides must again come together for the sake of our schools. The new law should focus less on using assessments to penalize schools and teachers and more on student growth and achievement.
•Recruit and retain the best teachers. Most studies show that countries scoring high on international tests place a higher value on teaching than the U.S. and attract their top students into the profession. Teaching candidates compete for positions in schools of education where only the best prospects are accepted. Teachers' opinions, in those countries, are respected on matters of classroom curriculum and school reform. In contrast, educators here feel undervalued. The U.S., where 50 percent of teachers leave the profession after five years, needs to design new ways to draw the best candidates to the classroom and develop career ladders to make it more attractive to stay there.
•Address the growing income gap. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in December that the income gap between the rich and poor is now greater in the United States than in any of its members except for Chile, Mexico and Turkey. For years, policymakers have played down the implications of how increasing income equality undermines the education poor children receive. Last fall, two researchers, Richard Murnane of Harvard and Greg Duncan of the University of California-Irvine, published a landmark study, called "Withering Opportunity," analyzing the impact of this trend. The study reported that the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 percent to 40 percent higher among children born in the last decade that those born 25 years earlier. (As noted in the report, the family has more influence on a student's performance than either school or community.)
Our society's long-held belief that those born poor can rise above their circumstances is no longer a reality. If you're born poor, the chances are you'll stay poor. Among other proposals, the authors recommend improving the learning environment of low-income children, especially during the early years, by providing high-quality child care, universal pre-K programs and economic support programs such as the earned income tax credits. (A proposal for universal pre-K is to be introduced during the Maryland General Assembly session that begins this week.)
In a presidential and congressional election year, many doubt there will be any action on reauthorizing NCLB, which is already five years overdue. President Barack Obama will be sparring with the Republicans over his ideas of an expanded federal role in education and their support of return to more local control. Gridlock is widely predicted. Yet 2012 could still be a critical year for U.S. education.
Some have called the recent release of the international test scores our "Sputnik moment." Hopefully, we can overcome our differences and find the resolve, as we did more than half a century ago, to once again consider what seems impossible.
James Campbell, a former member of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, works as a senior communications manager for the Johns Hopkins School of Education. His email is email@example.com.