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LOCAL COMMENTARY -- Thinking globally about 'Superman'

November 17, 2010

By DANIEL J. McKEE

The new film “Waiting for Superman” is generating a level of energy around education reform unlike anything we’ve seen in the past 25 years, and we must harness it to begin closing the global achievement gap between the rest of the developed world and America.
To do that, we need to build a coalition that spans all races and classes that’s forceful enough to demand systemic reforms to our public school system.
Right now I worry that our hyper-focus on the racial and socio-economic achievement gap keeps many citizens from getting engaged and unintentionally reinforces the political inertia that has plagued the education reform movement.
While the disparities between achievement levels- both between and within suburban and urban schools- are very real and the root causes of such disparities clearly unjust, focusing solely on that area masks the broader issues facing our school system. The fact is America is failing to competitively educate all students, and the achievement gap between the United States and other countries will have devastating economic consequences far beyond the current national recession.
For the challenges facing America’s schools, there is no shiny, brilliantly conceived system waiting in some suburb to be superimposed on cities across the nation. Take Rhode Island as an example. In 2009, only twelve of Rhode Island’s more than three hundred public schools, or 4 percent, were designated “high achieving” by the state department of education. To close the achievement gap between white and minority students in our state would mean raising proficiency rates in high school science from 3 percent, where black and Latino students currently reside, to 20 percent where white students score. Or from 8 percent to 33 percent in math. The goal, while certainly a moral imperative, is itself a low expectation. All of our students deserve much better.
The problems of our nation’s public schools are systemic. They have to do with how the workforce is recruited, developed and managed; with a poorly structured school day and school year; with organizational cultures that provide incentives for the wrong things, reinforce low-expectations and refuse to differentiate their programs and methods.
These challenges have put American students at a distinct disadvantage as the demand for high-tech jobs -- the kind of jobs that might revive, transform and feed our economy for the next fifty years -- continues to grow. Students from some 15 other industrialized nations, including France, Finland, Hungary, Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland, outrank U.S. kids on highly accredited standardized tests in math and science.
We need to spur change. And the only way we’re going to rock the status quo off its rusty old gears is if we have a cross-racial, cross-economic coalition saying in one voice, enough is enough.
In Rhode Island, this is beginning to occur. For the past three years a statewide coalition of more than a dozen municipal leaders, representing over two-thirds of our state’s population and every conceivable demographic, have advocated with one voice for changes in their communities and in state law. A new student-based school funding policy and the lifting of our state’s charter cap were passed with overwhelming majorities in the state legislature due to the broad-based support these reforms had among voters.
Most exciting to me, the state passed a law allowing mayors to create “mayoral academies” – diverse, regional public charter schools enrolling students from both urban and suburban districts. Approximately half the students at these schools are black and Latino and half are white. Roughly two-thirds of them live in low-income families. All of them are on the path to college. They are closing the racial achievement gaps in their schools with remarkable speed and have their eyes on the global achievement gap.
Waiting lists for these schools are long across all demographics. That demand, and the success of Rhode Island’s education reform effort in general, suggests that the opportunity to build a similar coalition across the nation is real, if we act now around ‘Superman’ to engage everyday Americans in this effort. The “Done Waiting” coalition, which I’m a part of, is trying to do just that.
Public education is the issue of our time. And the change we need will only come with the participation of a working majority of our citizens who stand-up and say we want our public education system to change, now.

Daniel McKee is the Mayor of Cumberland, Chair of the Board of Directors of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies and is a member of the national “Done Waiting” coalition, www.donewaiting.org.

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