U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's belief that education has become the civil rights issue of our time, underscores public schools' failure to adequately prepare youth to compete in a rapidly changing global economy.
That's also the sentiment of a panel which convened during the Congressional Black Caucus' recent 42nd Annual Legislative Conference. The "Education BrainTrust" forum, held earlier this fall at the Washington Convention Center in Northwest, included overviews of the nation's public school system by former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Education Denise Forte and Texas American Federation of Teachers Secretary Louis Malfaro.
"When it comes to the economy, education ensures it remains on track," said Forte. "But in order to out-compete the rest of the world, we have to out-compete right here in the United States . . . Good paying jobs have math and science as [firm] foundations [and] the gap that undermines our economic future has to be filled if this country is to continue to grow."
Forte, who stressed that young people need to know algebra and calculus well before eighth grade, said that while earlier initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB] of 2001, have focused on students and communities that were in academic decline, NCLB provided flexibility for teachers and principals to work on closing the achievement gap between black and white students.
"Currently, three states and the District of Columbia are working [vigorously] to close the achievement gap, and nine more states have requested flexibility," Forte said. "So, this is not about moving backward," she said. That flexibility has come into play with President Barack Obama's commitment ensuring accessibility to Pell Grants which have been boosted by about $800 more per student.
The president's wants to increase the number of African Americans who graduate from college, from the current 25 percent, to a significantly higher rate by getting them enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math-based courses of study, also known as STEM.
"We're increasingly becoming more reliant on a higher skilled and educated workforce," Forte said. To that end, "we have to get youth thinking of themselves as individuals capable of change."
Malfaro said however, that it's important to realize all the work shouldn't be shouldered by teachers.
"Teachers cannot do it alone, they have to work with parents, the community, advocacy groups and elected officials," he said. "We've got to be in deep relationships with schools, superintendents, elected officials, parents and faith-based leaders," to ensure standards are met.
Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said that in order to help save public schools, attention not only needs to be focused on reducing the dropout rate, but in getting students ready for college.
"Of 10 ninth-graders sitting in class right now, we know that 25 percent of them are not going to graduate from high school, and that for students of color, that number will go all the way to four out of 10," Wise said. "And, we know that for those students who do graduate – they'll get a diploma, but won't be college-ready. For African Americans, only one in 20 [will be] college-ready."
Wise added that when it comes to "individual equity," a high-school dropout, who reaches the height of his employment career some 20 years later, will only be earning about $19,000 a year, or roughly $9 an hour.
"So will our economy be based on a $9 an-hour economy," Wise asked. "In 1973, I didn't need a high school education to go get a $9 an-hour job in the coal mines . . . but try buying a car or a house making that kind of money today."