March 31, 2013

Education Reform NOW

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Friday night, John Legend rocked Bailey Hall with beautiful music and regaled a group of 1,200 students and faculty with the tales of this country’s education woes. He hit the high points of the intense need for education reform across the United States before singing a few of his greatest hits. His music was beautiful, but his call to action — that was truly inspiring.

Education, as Legend repeatedly said, has truly become the Civil Rights issue of our generation. This disparity is highlighted in high school graduation rates across races. Nationally, the percentage of students at public high schools who graduate on time has reached its highest point in nearly 40 years — approximately 78% of students earned their diplomas on time.

Breaking the graduation rates down by race, however, demonstrates the vast discrepancies and emphasizes the fact that educational attainment (and, by default, access to equal educational opportunities) is not equal in the United States. Asian students have the highest graduation rate with 93% finishing high school on time; white students are second with 83%; Hispanic students (with record growth in the past decade) are third with 71.4% graduating on time; American Indians and Alaska Natives follow with 69.1% and, lastly, a dismaying 66% of African-American high school students graduate on time. The almost 20 percentage point difference between white and African-American students’ graduation rates cannot be denied: quality education is, without a doubt, the most pressing civil rights issue facing our country.

Since his 2008 campaign, President Obama has touted the importance of sweeping educational reforms in this country. He has enacted several programs, like Race to the Top, geared at providing federal resources to states that have proven a dedication to district-wide school reform. Unfortunately for the students, in the years following this campaign, education has fallen out of national focus. In fact, in the recent budget cuts stemming from sequester, education is losing around $3 billion in federal funding.

So, how will these cuts impact the students and teachers struggling to find quality education across the country? In short, class sizes will dramatically increase, more after-school and arts programs will be cut (in addition to the programs that have been cut in the last decade), financial aid for college students will dwindle and programs for the most vulnerable students — the homeless, English language learners and those in high-poverty already schools — will be decimated. With the already drastic disparities in educational attainment, our nation’s most vulnerable students cannot afford these budget cuts.

President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and education reformers across the country have tried numerous measures to equalize educational opportunities. Charter schools, ending Last In, First Out (LIFO) policies, and creating alternative teacher certification methods are just a few of these such measures. These leaders recognize the importance of new, innovative attempts to provide quality education to all students — regardless of class, race or family background — across the country. These measures will not happen without a renewed dedication, and the accompanying financial support, to creating high quality educational options for all students. Without political and financial support, educational inequity will continue to run rampant across the nation.

Maybe I’m biased. Growing up in St. Louis city, I saw too many schools fail to provide a high quality education to their students and too many smart kids drop out of school because they felt like it was their only choice. Seeing this inequity spurred my decision to join the 2013 Teach for America corps as a middle school math teacher in Detroit. I understand that not everyone has experienced the negative effects of low quality education, but I also think — to echo John Legend — education reform is something that affects all of us.

The current middle and high school students are going to be the future politicians, doctors and teachers of our country. As a society, we have a responsibility to these children, and to the generations of children who will follow, to provide high quality educational opportunities to everyone. As Cornell students, we have the duty to use the amazing education we are receiving in the best, most productive manner possible. We must follow our passions, pursue our dreams and make the world a better place.

Original Author: Jessica Pachak