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Fuhrman Calls for Focus on Education in Presidential Campaign

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Susan H. Fuhrman

Susan H. Fuhrman, president of Teachers College, Columbia University

By Susan H. Fuhrman

In his March 18 speech in Philadelphia about race, Sen. Barack Obama spoke of the “gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”

The persistent inequities in education are at the heart of that gap, both as a cause and as a reflection of other causes, such as poverty, unequal health care, a lack of physical safety, and inadequate housing. Or, as Sen. Obama put it: “Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.”

The flip side of that statement: If we improve education for disenfranchised children and communities, then education itself becomes part of the solution to the full range of society’s inequities and broader ills. And that is why education, which has not gotten much attention from the presidential candidates, must move front and center in the 2008 campaign.

Three education issues demand immediate attention.

The first is the lack of equal access to high-quality teachers. Most of us who have enjoyed success in our lives had a teacher who saw our potential, set high expectations, and had the skills to help us reach them. Yet, as of 2006, no states were on pace to achieve the target of hiring 100 percent “highly qualified” teachers, as legally required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and many had failed even to establish a clear definition of the term. A year later, only seven states got a thumbs-up for their plans to ensure that quality teachers are made equally available to poor and minority students.

So, step one: Let’s agree that teachers must have sophisticated knowledge of their subjects and how to teach them, and let’s focus on attracting and retaining such teachers in the most disadvantaged schools and neighborhoods.

A second critical issue is expanding time for learning. Research clearly shows that children from poorer circumstances are more likely to live in dangerous neighborhoods, face health and nutritional issues, live with only one parent, be exposed to fewer books in the home, have been read to less, have smaller vocabularies, and perform poorly on simple math tasks. English-language learners, for their part, must learn curriculum and a new language at the same time. Not surprisingly, these children often require more help and attention, including via after-school programs, extended-day programs, extended-term programs, and other services. This “scaffolding of care,” as the psychologist Edmund Gordon of Teachers College, Columbia University, calls it, must also include quality early-childhood education. Technology is another missing piece of the puzzle. At its best, software can individualize and personalize instruction, whether at home or in the classroom.

So, step two: Let’s talk about reaching underserved children through a variety of “supplementary education” channels, and let’s take a clear-eyed look at evidence about the return on investment for both the individual and society as a whole.

Lastly, all students—but especially those in impoverished neighborhoods where basic skills dominate classroom time—need a rich curriculum that includes challenging content, the arts, physical education, exposure to cultural institutions, and more. Certainly addressing the fundamentals is important. But we must also prepare our children to be caring, engaged citizens; to be thinking, feeling individuals capable of recognizing and discovering their own emotions and reactions to the world around them; and to be physically and mentally healthy people who live full lives. We hear every day that children in other nations work hard in school and score higher on international assessments than American students. But changing that picture is not a zero-sum game, in which we must choose between basic literacy and a deeper understanding of important disciplines.

So, step three: Let’s talk about putting the richness back in the curriculum, so that we don’t raise young people who are technically enabled but intellectually, socially, and civically stunted. Instead of eliminating important areas of learning, let’s create thoughtful curricula that—to avoid the danger of “a mile wide and an inch deep”—are well-focused within key subjects to promote both enrichment and achievement.

The bottom line: If we’re serious about overcoming entrenched racial attitudes and barriers, let’s recognize how important education is to that conversation. Let’s insist that the candidates debate policy solutions in this campaign.

Susan H. Fuhrman is the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.
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