(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
Remember the old song “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel from the ’60s? I thought about the song last week after the results of the NAEP science tests showed that California students were at or near the bottom in our nation in nearly every measure of performance in science. The lack of outrage from our leaders in Sacramento that greeted these depressing results made me “picture the sound of silence.”
Back when that song was topping the charts, you could still graduate from high school with the possibility of making a living for your family. Back then the wage difference between a college graduate and a high school graduate wasn’t so extreme. Even a high school dropout had the possibility of a decent life with a secure joband a house. Today, those pre-computer and cell phone days are as ancient history as the one-room schoolhouse. Today’s far more diverse California student population has to compete in a global economy that places a premium on math and science proficiency.
For the state that’s supposed to be the center of the technology universe, these results should be a shocking slap in the face. You’d think our state leaders would be calling for fundamental reformation of our education system. Yet, all you hear is the same old stuff we’ve been hearing for the past 30 years. “Just give us more money.” “The kids and their parents are the problems and when we have more money, we can fix them.”
With all due respect, Sacramento leaders, don’t you think a state that pays its teachers the highest salaries in the nation should be getting some better results for all those dollars? For nearly $50 billion a year, shouldn’t we be able to satisfy the desire of the vast majority of our parents who want their kids to perform at grade level in English, math, and science based on the tests we give them? These are parents who aren’t worrying about “narrowing the curriculum and tying the hands of teachers” but think it’s the job of schools to educate their kids well enough to get a great score on the SAT or ACT, graduate from high school, and not have to enroll in remedial math and English courses in college.
Thank you, Governor Brown, for recognizing in a recent speech that a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. But what new strategies – beyond just increasing funding – will your administration support to ensure that every child has the right to quality education in California? In contrast, last week, I heard your fellow Democrat, the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama, use clear language to define the education reform that taxpayers should expect for their hard earned dollars – from adding more math and science teachers to making fundamental changes in our teacher evaluation systems. He clearly talked about identifying and rewarding successful teachers and ensuring that no child has his or her civil right to a quality education violated by an ineffective teacher.
I heard a similar speech not so long ago from another Democrat, Antonio Villaraigosa – the mayor of our largest and most diverse city, Los Angeles. And recently, I heard another Mayor – Kevin Johnson, of the very city where you now make your home, talk about education reform in the same terms as our President.
As I listen to these leaders, I have hope for California. But I also know that California’s students cannot afford long-term hope. They need a Governor and legislative leadership who can stand side by side with our President on his education reform agenda. The danger of silence is irrelevancy – both nationally in upcoming debates on ESEA and locally for the millions of California students and their parents who want to hear how our leadership will fulfill the promise of an education system that actually prepares each student to succeed in college and career.
Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.