Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Plea for Education Reform for Governor Deval Patrick

Click here for my notes on this speech.


Almost one year ago I stood before an audience here at the State House and had the pleasure to announce Massachusetts’ successful placement in the federal “Race to the Top” program. This competition was set up by the Obama administration at the beginning of his presidency to seek out and reward states that showed initiative and innovation in public education. Over the course of the program we worked hard to compete by reexamining our standards and protocols, and at the end of the program Massachusetts had scored higher than every other state in the nation. We established ourselves as national leaders in education through our willingness to reject the status-quo and put children first. It’s that spirit of leadership and pursuit of selfless goals that I came to talk about today. We won that competition and should be proud of our achievements, but we still have a lot of work to do before our students in Massachusetts have all the opportunities they deserve.

That quarter of a billion dollars of federal prize money went directly into our schools. Specifically, it went towards solving a problem that has plagued our state for decades. The phrase “achievement gap” gets used so often by politicians that you might forget the seriousness of what it refers to. It’s the name we give to the students we are failing; the gap between what different social and ethnic groups should be achieving and reality. Studies show time and time again that students from high income families attend school districts with better teachers, smaller class sizes, and better facilities, and that gets reflected in their test scores. No child in our state should ever be at a disadvantage because of where they were born or who their parents are, but unfortunately those are problems we face. The dropout rate for Hispanic students in our state is 26.5%. That’s more than four times the rate for other students. The rate for low income students is 22%- twice the average. There is no debate, these numbers represent an inequality that is totally unacceptable in Massachusetts and must be solved.

Last year we passed a law which gave educators some tools to start closing this gap. Amongst a number of changes, we doubled the amount of money under-performing school districts are allowed to spend on charter schools with already-proven records of success. These schools have shown their value and now can benefit the areas needing them most. I’m pleased to say that in the last year proficiency tests in English and math show progress is being made closing the gap in performance across social and economic groups. But it’s hard to celebrate these results when the same tests found that 25% of our tenth grade students scored “less than proficient” in math, and 22% were failing to meet proficiency standards in English. These numbers show that there isn’t just an issue of fairness, but that something is fundamentally wrong with what we’re doing. We’re facing the same stagnation in our schools that is occurring all across the country.

Since the 1960s, the United States’ education system has steadily fallen behind the rest of the world. The United States currently ranks 30th in high school math performance. We rank 20th on the United Nations Education Index- falling below Slovenia and tied with Lithuania. One in four American students do not graduate from high school, and only 27% of those attain a post-secondary diploma. In Cambridge our state hosts some of the great monuments to higher learning and human achievement, but the world-renowned universities our forefathers built are increasingly being visited by the brightest foreign students rather than our own children.

America prides itself on being the greatest country on earth, but when it comes to one of the most fundamentally important tasks a society performs we seem determined to fall behind. In recent years, states facing tough budget decisions consistently turn to education as the first program to cut. It’s estimated that 60,000 school employees have been laid off nationwide. Budgets have been slashed, forcing the elimination of extra-curricular activities, teacher training, and building maintenance and repair. This comes at a time when the country’s path to renewed economic prosperity is uncertain. While manufacturing jobs are dwindling, and it becomes more and more obvious our future depends on scientific and technological innovation, state governments are setting us up for failure by handicapping our future workforce.

It’s not just our economy that suffers from declining education standards. This is an issue that touches all parts of life. The well informed electorate that is vital to our democracy is at risk. How can we move towards the vision of Dr. King when we allow our inner city schools to fall by the wayside; when, in today’s America, half of all African Americans drop out of high school? How can we address monumental threats like global climate change while state legislators pass acts that force the teaching of politics rather than science? Where will we teach our children how to prevent HIV, AIDs, or teen pregnancy if we place limits on sex education? The negative effects of these policies take a long time to become apparent, but the decline in this country’s education that began three generations ago has finally caught up, and can be seen all around us.

This country needs a long term vision. It needs leadership- someone to come along and demonstrate that things can be different. Over the past half century business and politics have become obsessed with the short term. We think in terms of 24 hour news cycles and what’s going to happen next week rather than next year. A penny’s more profit per share takes precedence over appropriate risk management; a $300 tax rebate is more important than the country’s long term debt. But long term problems require long term solutions. During our never ending focus on the day-to-day we have forgotten how to produce and execute ambitious plans.

Any change to education, for better or worse, takes twenty years before children affected by the new system reach adulthood and enter the job market. That’s when we see results, and that’s why education has been the biggest victim of our short term fixation. The people making these cuts simply never have to face the consequences. Examining improvements quarter to quarter- or even year to year- never puts the incredible opportunity of education funding into perspective. That requires long term studies, like those done in Kenya and Zimbabwe which tied the miraculous drops in family size and child mortality rates with the commitment they made to educate women fifteen to twenty years earlier. Or economic studies of a preschool program in this country which show that, over the course of a person’s lifetime, society sees upwards of $300 worth of benefits for every single dollar spent to put them through the program. I think Massachusetts can become one of these success stories. We can unleash a new generation of students fluent in math, science, and technology into a job market where they can enjoy boundless potential. In twenty years, we can go from leading the country to leading the world- all we need is to decide today that we’re going to do it.

It starts with a longer school day. Six hours is simply not enough time to fit in a lunch, time for physical activity, time for the arts, and our state’s core curriculum.We need to extend the school day by at least two hours so our teachers have the time to teach. Similarly, the school year is currently just 180 days long. Our children are out of school more days than they are in it! Australia, the country with the highest UN Education Index ranking, has a 200 day school year. Japan has 240 days, with thirty of those set aside for field trips, sports days, or cultural events. I believe that to be competitive with countries like these, we need to add at least twenty more days onto the school year. For the children listening to this who suddenly find themselves wishing they could vote in gubernatorial elections: I don’t want to chain children to desks and have them toil the days away solving math problems. I want them to play sports, learn computer programing, take part in engineering contests. I want to increase the quality of schooling, not just the quantity.

To know the best ways to reform our system we need to ask educators and researchers. That’s why I am announcing the creation of an executive commission tasked with reevaluating every aspect of education from the ground up. My instructions are clear: take nothing for granted and accept nothing as sacred. I expect them to look at everything from preschool programs to the age children start formal education; community college tuition to teacher pay incentives. I want them to examine things normally taboo to educators, like the possibility of boys and girls having different needs or the ways we handle juvenile delinquents.Then law makers will take that expert advice and find the necessary funds. Enacting this reform is not a choice between spending or not spending.  The choice is to pay now or pay later- and it’s cheaper if we pay now.

This state has shown that it is willing to answer the call of history and produce leaders instead of mere politicians. This was the case in Boston, where Samuel Adams lead men who launched a revolution and became known as the “Sons of Liberty”. When William Lloyd Garrison came home to Massachusetts to publish his abolitionist papers. And when a man from Brookline stood on the steps of the Capitol and persuaded a generation to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. Massachusetts has been at the vanguard of social issues before. We paved the way for marriage equality, for health care reforms, and we can show how education reform can be tackled wisely, and the ways it can lift a society.

I ask you to show America it can be done. To sit down and find a way to do the things that must be done. There was once a dream across this state and across this country that the lives of our children would be better than our own. That dream has lost its way. America’s greatness is no longer guaranteed. We all must do our part, and now is our turn. Let’s be the ones to say that now is the time for selfless action. Let’s rebuild education, and get this country back on track.

Thank you.

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