Mayors Call for Bold Reform to Improve Education, Student Achievement
By Kathy Amoroso and Megan Cardiff
March 7, 2011
A private screening of the Paramount documentary film "Waiting for Superman" was held February 23 for mayors atending the Mayors Work and Opportunity Summit and the Conference of Mayors 2011 Winter Leadership Meeting. The film, which has been named Best Documentary by The National Board of Review, was followed by a mayorsí panel discussion on reforming Americaís public schools.
The film explores the current state of public education in the U.S. and the struggles of low-income students to access quality educational opportunities. Following the screening, mayors were given the opportunity to engage a panel of education reform advocates and education officials, moderated by Conference of Mayors Public School Task Force Chair Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. The panel consisted of Newark (NJ) Mayor Cory Booker, Deputy Secretary of Education Anthony Miller, StudentsFirst CEO and Founder Michelle Rhee, and New Jersey Department of Education Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
To kick-off the interactive discussion, Miller opined that cities continue to make good use of competitive dollars to provide incentives for bold education reform. "The biggest push needed for success is to raise educational standards. Weíve been lying to kids Ė kids graduate all over this country who are not prepared for college." He also stressed the importance of high standards to prepare students for global competition. "Itís imperative that we raise the standards for teaching our children. I have met with ministries of education from all over the world, and they are aggressive about improving their educational systems regardless of how high they rank globally. We are at a disadvantage already; we simply have to raise standards. The vast majority of states recognize that and are working hard to do so," Miller said.
"We should all feel profound concern about the state of education in this country. We are letting too many people down, and we should have a strong sense of responsibility to do something about it," said Booker. He talked about the problem many mayors face in not directly controlling their schools; their only choice being to defer to softer initiatives for reform, such as afterschool programs. Booker called for a strong executive push for change and the need for mayoral control of schools. "If youíre willing to stand up for control of your school systems and say Iím unapologetically going to fight for change and reform, there are a lot of private dollars out there, and many people who will stand up and support you in driving change and reform."
Rhee, former Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, praised the film for its capacity to simplify complex education issues for the average viewer. "The movie portrays our Ďinside baseballí issues in a manner that makes it easy for all to understand," she said. "It shatters the misconception that poor education outcomes are all the parentsí fault, and puts a human face on every single one of the problems weíre facing. It brings difficult policy issues into the mainstream."
Rhee is the Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, a national organization dedicated to addressing education reform issues. The foundation advocates on behalf of children and puts their interests at the forefront of discussions to improve the system. "Oftentimes, people think the education problem only exists in inner city, poor communities. We need to make it clear itís not just an inner city problem, but also a suburban problem," said Rhee.
Cerf lamented the tendency to erroneously pit public schools against charter schools, pointing out that parents send their children to schools not school systems. Cerf challenged the mayors, stating, "The test for mayors is Ė who are you going to represent, the adults who vote or the kids? Thatís why school boards historically havenít worked; they often donít have the interest of the kids in mind." Cerf concluded that the goal isnít to first help kids escape a bad school system, but to first reform the bad system. "The system produces what we built it to produce," he said.