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Three steps for better American schools

Education policy wasn't a significant issue in the 2012 presidential election, but it needs to be one in 2013. Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with public education, and no small wonder: studies continue to show that our schools, once the envy of the world, have fallen to the middle of the pack or worse. Such concern prompted a task force led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City School Chancellor Joel I. Klein to issue a report for the Council on Foreign relations stating that the "The United States' failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country's ability to thrive in the global economy."

Yet the prognosis for action is mixed, at best. With the reelection of the president, Arne Duncan will stay as secretary of education, giving some stability at the national level. On the other hand, crippling budget issues, Congressional gridlock, and changing student demographics pose significant challenges. Here are three steps policymakers should consider to better prepare students to reach their full potential:

•Rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Congress has put off for too long reauthorizing this decade old law that has outlived its usefulness. The law, currently referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act, imposes strict accountability measures and harsh penalties on schools districts including a requirement that all schools be proficient in math and reading by 2014. As a result, half that nations' schools are arbitrarily designated failures.

Stepping into the leadership void, the Obama administration is granting waivers to Maryland and other states from the requirements of NCLB in exchange for accepting new academic standards and accountability systems including enhanced teacher and principal evaluation. While many question the legality of this backdoor approach, it does provide direction that is otherwise lacking. If the U.S. is to regain its prominence in education, nothing would send a stronger message than a bipartisan reform bill committed to ensuring that our students have the knowledge and skills to compete in the international marketplace.

•Fund Common Core standards. In the next couple of years, new academic standards, called Common Core Standards (CCS), will be implemented in most classrooms across the country to better prepare students for college and careers and to improve our overall competitiveness in the international economy. Developed by the nation's governors and chief state school officers, 46 states have adopted CCS for the teaching of math and literacy. The new standards, which will be fully implemented in Maryland in 2014, will take students deeper into subject matter to improve critical thinking and problem solving abilities.

Such enhancements do not come without a cost, and no additional dollars have been provided for new instructional materials and professional development of teachers. Common Core will put additional strain on already overstretched school budgets, especially in poorer neighborhoods where the new standards are most needed. If the nation is serious about upgrading our curriculum to compete on the world stage, we must find the dollars to make it work.

•Make schools more diverse. Today, there is a quiet but growing movement to expand the number of schools where children learn in racially and economically mixed settings. Some 80 districts across the country, including urban, suburban, and rural areas, are now working to reduce the number of high-poverty schools by integrating students from middle- and low-income families. The National Alliance for Public Charter schools has seen a "noteworthy rise" in the number of high-performing charters serving diverse populations and, in Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins School of Education will be opening a pre-K-8 school next fall that will serve a diverse, mixed-income community for those who live and work in East Baltimore surrounding the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex.

The movement is based on research going back almost 50 years when Johns Hopkins researcher James Coleman turned the education world upside down with his landmark Equality of Educational Opportunity study, which found that a child's family life and the characteristics of his classmates had as much impact on student achievement as what happened in the classroom. Confirming Coleman's work, a more recent study on the Future of School Integration reported that low-income students are likely to learn more in a middle-income school where their peers have larger vocabularies, higher levels of engagement, and view education as a pathway to a greater goal.

With students of color making up almost half the U.S. school population today, new approaches to closing the achievement gap will take on added significance. Our historic inability to provide all children with a quality education can no longer be tolerated. As stated by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy group working on high school reform, "failure to close the gaps in educational achievement and graduation rates, especially given the nation's changing demographics, will have dire consequences for the American economy."

James Campbell, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates (1978-2002) and a former member of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners (2003-2010), works as a senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. His email is jcamp@jhu.edu.

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