Voices in Education

This Is the Moment
I don’t want to be overly dramatic—but this is the moment.

This is the moment when the education field can prove its mettle. Public interest in schools and the political will to improve them have never been higher. If we don’t seriously increase the knowledge and competence of today’s students, we may bequeath to our children and grandchildren a nation in decline.

So that’s why I say: This is the moment to save public education.

The problem is that not enough people know how to do it.

We as a nation have vastly increased our expectations of public education—to educate every kid who walks through the door. But too often those expectations falter on the very real, practical problems of the classroom.

For example, how do you teach biology to a high school student whose background in science is so weak that he has never looked through a microscope? How do you teach algebra to a child who has never strayed far enough from his neighborhood to see the horizon? How do you help a student who in fifth grade gave up reading pretty much anything to graduate from high school with enough knowledge and skill to go to college or a trade school? How do you teach English to a 13-year-old who just arrived in this country? How do you impart excitement about learning to students who have been beaten down by failure?

These are among the hundreds of questions educators face every day. Because the vast engine of education research has not, for the most part, concerned itself with answering those kinds of practical, everyday problems, teachers and principals cannot rely on a solid base of evidence such as the one that establishes the “standard of care” informing the field of medicine.

That leaves a vacuum of knowledge. Two possibilities exist for filling that vacuum: the carefully built-up craft knowledge that successful educators have developed; and the nostrums of charlatans.

Those charlatans are already circling around the Race to the Top money. A principal who took over what is being called a “turnaround school” told me: “I’m floating in money—and all I get are sales calls.”

I don’t worry about him—he knows what he’s doing. But too many principals, superintendents, and others face the pressures of accountability without having a secure base of knowledge. They are particularly susceptible to sales pitches with nothing to offer but unproven claims and eye-popping invoices.

That’s why it’s so important for the field as a whole to step up and recognize that as complicated as it is to educate children, some people have figured out how to do it. Recognizing those experts’ hard-won knowledge and learning from them may be our only real hope.

We need to learn from educators in Massachusetts, for example, which scores near the top of the world in international math and science assessments. And we need to learn from schools like George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Ala., whose students—almost all of whom are poor and African American—perform at levels usually associated with children from very wealthy families. And from Graham Road Elementary in Fairfax County, Va., whose students—almost all of whom are from low-income families who recently immigrated to the United States--outperform the students from much wealthier schools in Virginia.

This is a perilous moment. If the education field does not become much smarter so that schools quickly become much better, I fear that public support for public education will weaken. Those who argue that the system is so broken that it needs to be blown up seem to be making inroads into conventional wisdom.

For too long, complacent educators and policymakers have resisted improvement and relied on a public that was mostly satisfied with public schooling. That complacence is part of what has led to this moment of peril, where the public is beginning to demand much more from its schools.

But I have a lot of confidence. This is America, where we relish a big challenge. If teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards understand the stakes, they can and will muster their energy and will to succeed.

At least, I hope so. I’d hate to see the charlatans take over.

About the Author: Karin Chenoweth is senior writer at The Education Trust and author of "It’s Being Done":Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2007) and How It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2009).