Four national leaders in education urged the Notre Dame community to use its resources to help improve the American school system at a panel titled, “The System: Opportunity, Crisis and Obligation in K-12 Education,” held at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center Wednesday.
The panel marked the beginning of the 2011-2012 Notre Dame Forum. The Forum will focus on the challenges K-12 education faces in the United States.
Panelists Michelle Rhee, Howard Fuller, Sara Martinez Tucker and John Dilulio discussed the successes and failures of the current system.
“We’re at a specific moment in time right now [when] there’s more attention being paid to public education reform, and we have the opportunity to radically transform it,” Rhee said. “If we can’t take advantage of this opportunity, then I don’t know if another one like this is ever going to come up.”
Fuller said the American ideal of universal education was important but policymakers still need to do what is necessary to make that ideal a reality.
“The education agenda in our country has been driven by special interests,” Rhee said. “The problem in that dynamic is that you don’t have a national, organized interest group with the same heft as the teacher’s union.”
Rhee said the lack of a powerful group looking out for the children in the system was a problem.
“If there is not an equal or greater force [than the teacher’s union] at the table that’s saying what is at the best interest of the children, then you’re going to end up with a landscape of laws and policies that are skewed, and not towards children,” she said.
Dilulio identified school violence and drop-out rates as two major issues facing American education. He said school violence is under-reported, whereas graduation rates are over-reported.
Fuller said American students are performing significantly worse in the classroom than their foreign peers are. American students, however, have high intellectual confidence compared with students in other nations.
Fuller said talking about the problems was not enough, that action was required.
“We cannot intellectualize this achievement gap for another generation,” Fuller said. “You all have got to demand more from those of us who have verbalized about this problem, but when it comes time to make real, hard decisions … it’s clear to me that adult interests far outweigh student interests. As long as we allow adult interests to dominate, we will never close the achievement gap in this country.”
Rhee said the leaders in the educational system were hesitant to point out ineffective teachers in fear of being labeled “anti-teacher,” especially when some teachers fail under harsh conditions rather than from a lack of effort or care.
“There is this real aversion right now to wanting to differentiate between teachers,” Rhee said. “We have to create a dynamic with teachers where, when we start to talk about effectiveness, it doesn’t become an anti-teacher thing … Being a teacher in an urban school district is the most difficult thing you can do. And because of its difficulty, not everybody is going to be good at it.”
Fuller said many teachers work at schools where they would not send their own children but demand those schools remain open in order to maintain their salaries.
“When you tell a parent that you have to keep your kid in a school that is clearly failing … we have now put the system in front of the needs and interests of our kids.”
Tucker said Catholic schools are valuable because they encourage students to believe intelligence is malleable instead of predetermined.
“Students that have this belief that intelligence is incremental end up setting goals for themselves, persisting and dealing with academic challenges better,” she said.
Tucker also asked Notre Dame to reconsider the ways in which it evaluates applicants. She said post-secondary institutions tend to overweight standardized test scores and should place greater value on students that believe in their own intellect.
Rhee said people need to be less averse to conflict and more willing to combat the injustices of the American education system.
“We need people who are going to come along and take a harder and harder stance and be willing to risk everything along the way,” she said. “In my mind, there is nothing that is more worth fighting for to ensure that the next generation of Americans … can have a chance at a great life and live the American dream because they’re getting a good education.”