There are 100 members of the U.S. Senate, and they and their desks fit into a relatively small room where history is made from time to time. Imagine, as I have occasionally, that the chamber was a schoolroom and those 100 senators were American children from poor families.
Of our student-senators, only 14 would be able to read properly by the fourth grade – fully 86 would not. By the time our group reached eighth grade, only 12 would read at grade level and just 13 would be proficient eighth-grade mathematicians.
By the end of 12th grade, 57 of us would still be around to graduate high school. Of our graduating class, 19 would go to college, with more than a third needing at least one remedial course. Only nine of 100 would ultimately graduate from a four-year college into an economy in which a degree is becoming a necessary, though not always sufficient, passport to the middle class.
These outcomes reflect a cruel, but astonishingly accepted, reality in our country: that the quality of your education is largely determined by the zip code into which you are born. We tell our children this is the land of opportunity while denying them one of the most fundamental
opportunities of all. This is the brutal plight of America’s poor children as Congress takes up the work of fixing No Child Left Behind.
It is certainly true that the real work of reforming our schools must be done at the state and local levels. But the moral, economic and civic implications of a system that consigns children to a life of poverty and imposes, as the management consultancy McKinsey has noted, the equivalent of a permanent national recession on our economy leave us little choice but to make a national commitment to give all our children the chance for a proper education.
Our goal in Washington must be not to impose but to expect and assist: Expect the most of educators and students and assist them as they work together to meet those expectations. Rather than tightening our grip, we should set clear, ambitious goals and support innovative local efforts to achieve them.
As a former school superintendent who has been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but often unhelpful policies hatched in Washington, I believe there are four key areas that must serve as the focal points for reform of No Child Left Behind.
Fixing our schools must begin with reforming the way we attract talent to teaching. We’ve done a terrible job of hiring, supporting and retaining the people tasked with the difficult responsibility of teaching our children. We need to bring teacher hiring into the 21st century by creating a system of incentives that inspires people to enter and stay in the profession.
Second, increase local flexibility by setting fewer, clearer and higher standards and providing teachers and schools the support necessary to meet them. We need to create a sane accountability system like the Colorado Growth Model, which measures student growth and actually shows us how much progress students and schools are making toward our goals.
Third, spur innovation by creating opportunities for people on the ground to try different things. Competitive programs such as Race to the Top provide incentives for communities to develop new solutions for old problems. Because of Race to the Top, states have raised their standards and committed to fixing schools that have persistently failed students.
Fourth, we can no longer allow children’s zip codes to determine the quality of their education. We are one of only three countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that invests more money in the most advantaged schools and less money in our least advantaged schools. We need to ensure that our sparse federal dollars actually go to the disadvantaged children they were intended to serve, while also encouraging more equitable spending locally among schools.
With NCLB, Congress has the chance to begin the hard work of fulfilling the promise that children across this country believe we’ve already made to them. Given the horrendous outcomes, it’s time to shift the burden of proof from those who want to change the system onto those who want to keep it the same.
Our work will be easier if we in the Senate recognize as our own the educational challenges facing children in poverty. As the father of three girls, I doubt very much that if any one of us faced the same odds for our children, we would remain in Washington very long. We would rush home from the Senate floor to make sure that our kids were in the best school with the best teachers. Shouldn’t there be the same sense of urgency about the education of every child in America?
Michael Bennet is a Democratic senator from Colorado and a former superintendent of Denver’s public schools.