Ken Plum: No time to lose

ken plum“Our Nation is at risk,” thus began a report on schools given to President Ronald Reagan in 1983. “We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.” (A Nation at Risk, U.S. Department of Education, 1983)

Just two weeks ago at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) I heard a similar report from its Study Group on International Comparisons in Education: “The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.” (No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class System State by State, NCSL, August, 2016)

The Nation at Risk report led to numerous reforms, from high stakes standardized testing, charter schools, standards of learning, common core and others, many of which have themselves already been reformed. I question the accuracy of another report that predicts doom for our public schools.

That there is an unacceptable level of disparity in achievement among groups of students is undeniable. That our goals for our students may be greater than they can sometimes achieve may be true. That our schools do an incredibly wonderful job for most students has been my experience.

What I hope will not happen with this most recent report is that legislators will not jump in with both feet with the latest and greatest ideas they have about reforming schools, lay down unrealistic and inflexible regulations, or assume somehow that the private sector can do a better job than public schools.

Instead, I hope that citizens, advocates, and business representatives will make clear our expectations for our schools and give educators the responsibility to meet those goals with full accountability. That would mean paying our teachers and administrators commensurate with the responsibility they have, and that would be a significant increase over what they are paid today. I think preschool education should be fully funded for all children. The evidence of the return on investment that we would get with preschool programs is overwhelming. And I think we should give local schools flexibility in the curriculum to work on developing problem-solving skills in children along with creativity, innovation and interpersonal skills.

Too many times when the regular decade cycle of concerns about our schools are expressed in a report, politicians all of whom have been to school will revert to experiences they have had for the next cycle of reforms. Let’s do it differently this time. Let’s give the responsibility to our professionals to do the job, pay them adequately, hold them accountable, and not tie their hands. This is no time to lose.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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