Wake Up! We Know How to Fix Our Schools

Ensuring that all American children can access a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. We cannot stand idly by and allow this institutionalized inequality to continue.
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You might have heard the dirge of depressing education statistics: The United States has dropped from first to 18th place in high school graduation rates among developed nations. First to 14th in college graduation rates. First to 35th in math. First to 29th in science. First to 32nd in reading. Oh and 30 percent of our kids -- much higher among poor and minority children -- aren't graduating from high school during a time when a college degree is increasingly required to earn a living above the poverty line. And we spend more per student than any of the countries that are beating us.

Many of our schools are literally and figuratively crumbling. They aren't providing American children with the quality education that is the fundamental right of every citizen.

So what do we do? Give up? Move to Finland (#1 across the board)? Canada (#2 in reading and science)? Shrug our shoulders and blame the kids and their parents? No, we can't afford to do that. Ensuring that ALL American children can access a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. We cannot stand idly by and allow this institutionalized inequality to continue.

But things are starting to change for the better. We, as a society, are starting to wake up. I wrote music for a powerful new film, "Waiting for 'Superman' ", which movingly illustrates the tragedy of our broken education system. The Show Me Campaign -- a nonprofit I founded to fund proven solutions to fight poverty and reform our schools -- is funding a project to ensure that thousands of low-income parents are able to see this film for free so they can understand the problem and the solutions and get involved.

We know how to fix our schools. We just need to DO it. "Waiting for 'Superman' " highlights some schools that are working against all odds.

Although the successful schools featured in the movie are charter schools, they were not highlighted to say that charter schools are the only answer. No one is proposing that every public school should become a charter school. But we'd be crazy not to try to replicate the conditions that make great charter schools work. What charter schools have created is the opportunity to experiment -- free of traditional bureaucracy -- and figure out what works.

I work with one of the most successful charter schools -- the Harlem Village Academies. They are only a few years old and their students come from challenging backgrounds, yet when you walk into their school, you feel the dedication, discipline and hard work the students and teachers put in every day. When their first class of fifth graders started, they ranked in the lowest 20 percent of students. Three years later, they ranked #1 in math in New York. In the most recent tests, 100 percent of their eighth graders passed the state science test, 96 percent passed social studies, and 100 percent passed math (If you'd like to peek inside a HVA classroom, watch this recent video clip.

Harlem Village Academies are not an isolated case. The Green Dot Schools in inner-city Los Angeles were basically considered gang-controlled not too long ago. Only five percent of their students graduated. A group of determined local parents and leaders took over and turned around these schools. In just a few years, their graduation rate is 81 percent and they made Newsweek's Best American High Schools list.

So how do we make sure all schools achieve such success? My friend Dr. Roland Fryer, an economist who started The Educational Innovation Laboratory at Harvard is working to do just this -- he conducted a scientific evaluation of many high performing charter schools around the country and discovered five universal, research-based, successful school strategies:

  1. Effective Principals and Teachers in Every School (while getting rid of the ineffective ones).
  2. More Instructional Time (An extended school day and year).
  3. Use of Data to Drive Instruction (Always be aware of students' strengths and weaknesses, and when the students don't learn it, re-teach!).
  4. High-dosage, Individualized Tutoring (so every child in the classroom can learn).
  5. A Culture of High Expectations for All (no excuses for failure).

Dr. Fryer and the Houston Independent School District are currently working to improve academic achievement and create models of excellent teaching and learning for replication nationwide.

Let me be clear: we cannot turn our backs on failing public schools and just hope they will be taken over by high performing charter school organizations -- this would require time and money we don't have. Charter schools are not the only solution -- but the strategies that have been proven in charter schools are the solution -- solutions that can be replicated in all schools using existing funds. Let's not allow the contrived charter versus public school argument distract us from providing quality schools for all children.

At the end of the day, it's the kids that matter. Every kid deserves a school where teachers, administrators, parents and community members look at them in the eye regardless of where they live or what they look like and say, "You are valuable. You are the future of America. We expect great things from you and we will make sure you get the education you need to succeed in life." We are responsible for our nation's students now and we know what needs to be done.

There is no excuse.

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