Waiting for Change: Race to the Top unleashes potential of American schools

Millions of students wake up every morning, pack their books and walk to schools that are failing them and their country. For the first time in the nation’s history, many education scholars fear the current generation of high school students will be less educated than their parents. In order for American schools to produce a workforce for the 21st century, our education system needs to be reformed from the bottom up.

Federal funding has increased from $4,300 to more than $9,000 per student since 1971 when adjusted for inflation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This increase in funding should presumably lead to higher test scores. However, it is not. U.S. students are ranked 21st in science, 23rd in reading and 25th in math among developed nations, according to Newsweek. This is why reform is needed.

Since President Barack Obama declared America is going to “out-educate, out-innovate and out-build the rest of the world” in his State of the Union address, education reform has become the centerpiece of the White House’s efforts to “win the future.” Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is a step in the right direction. Correcting many of the flaws in former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, Race to the Top incentivizes school districts to change by tying funding to reforms. If schools are not willing to change and stop making excuses for underperforming teachers, then they are not going to receive additional funding.

Every president vows to be the “education president,” but Obama is doing more than merely throwing money at the problem. He has turned U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan into one of the most transformative figures in his cabinet by allowing Duncan to allocate more than $3.4 billion to school districts that embrace change.

One element of this overhaul needs to be an increase in charter schools. These once controversial experimental institutes are not bound by school district regulations or union contracts. They are publicly funded, but independently run. Along with voucher programs, charter schools provide options for parents who cannot afford private schools but want more for their children.

Perhaps the most successful charter school network is the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was founded by Geoffrey Canada in 1997. Assuring parents that every enrolled student will attend college, Canada applied a “cradle-to-college” approach to 97 blocks of uptown New York. The privately funded network emphasizes small classrooms, longer school days, and almost year-round attendance to prevent summer lag. While this approach is costly — more than $16,000 per student — the school’s graduation rate exceeds other public schools in Harlem, according to The New York Times.

Another measure that needs to be taken seriously is ending tenure and introducing merit pay for teachers. It has become increasingly difficult for administrators to fire ineffective teachers. In most professions, incompetence is not tolerated. One in 57 doctors loses their medical license, one in 97 attorneys are disbarred, but only one in 2,500 teachers are fired for negligence, according to the award-winning documentary “Waiting for Superman.” Contracts with teachers need to be rewritten so instructors are rewarded for the quality of their instruction rather than how long they have been teaching.

The teachers unions are not entirely to blame for these problems. The unions are doing their job: representing the teachers. Unfortunately, no one is representing the students.

To combat this problem, former Chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools Michelle Rhee started StudentsFirst. Rhee experienced firsthand the wrath of teachers unions when she became the chancellor in 2007. Her efforts to overhaul the district’s struggling education system were stymied at every turn. Unions fought to keep inadequate instructors in the classroom and administrators were lethargic to challenge the district’s culture of failure. Problems like these are not unique to D.C.; they rampantly extend across the nation and need to be fixed.

As former president George W. Bush said, “Childrens do learn.”

Duncan, Canada and Rhee are just a few of the many dynamic leaders heading the reform movement, but they need help. Now is the time for everyone to become a leader in their own community because the solution to the nation’s energy crisis, the cure for the next pandemic and the invention that will revolutionize American industry will come from our nation’s classrooms if students are given a chance.

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