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Do good

Observer Editorial Board | Friday, September 23, 2011

When you’re finished reading this editorial, take a walk.

Walk past the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, through Irish Green and down Eddy Street. Cross South Bend Avenue, and just as Club 23 comes into view on your right, turn left.

You’re standing in front of Perley Elementary School.

Perley is a microcosm of education in modern America. The performance statistics are startling. In the 2003-04 school year, only 24 percent of Perley’s students met Indiana standardized testing requirements. Since then, the numbers have improved steadily, but not dramatically. In 2008-09, the most recent time frame for which performance data is public, 44.6 percent passed.

While this improvement is a step in the right direction, four out of 10 is not good. Perley students perform nearly 20 percent below the state average on these tests, and the Indiana average is middle-of-the-road compared to other states. But 60 percent is not good enough. Not in Indiana, not in Alabama, not anywhere. Suffice it to say, America has an education problem.

The American educational system has long been envied around the world. Recently, however, our priorities have shifted to domestic security, economic prosperity and international turmoil. Discussion of education reform often emits more heat than light, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has been widely criticized.

Education experts say the government must provide ways for schools to improve instead of simply punishing schools that perform poorly on standardized tests or throwing money at the problem. Accountability needs to be the main priority. While federal funding for education increased nearly 30 percent since the Act, test scores from 2000 to 2003 are nearly identical to those three years after the implementation.

Something needs to be done.

This week, Notre Dame announced that its annual Forum will be titled “Reimagining School: To Nurture the Soul of a Nation.” The University will host events throughout the year to discuss the problems — and the solutions — in American schools. In an email to the student body last week, University President Fr. John Jenkins quoted Notre Dame’s founder, Fr. Edward Sorin. In an 1842 letter to the Congregation of Holy Cross in France, Sorin proclaimed that Notre Dame would become “one of the most powerful means for good in this country.”

This statement emboldens us to act when met with challenges.

When you walk back to Notre Dame, you will rejoin a vast majority of students who matriculated from top-performing public and private high schools across the country. In this environment, it is easy to sit in our comfortable ivory tower. Yet because of the Notre Dame mission to “do good,” many of us feel an insatiable urge to help. We volunteer at schools like Perley here in South Bend, we sign up for summer service projects aimed at helping schoolchildren and we give up two years of our lives after graduation to work with Teach for America or the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE).

But something more needs to be done. Why should we do it?

Two reasons, really.

First, because as the statistics from Perley illustrate, something more needs to be done. Second, because we can.

The Forum begins Monday with a keynote speech by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, younger brother of the president that signed the No Child Left Behind Act. Bush is now CEO of the Foundation for Education Excellence, a think tank working to prepare American schoolchildren for success in a competitive global economy. After his address Monday, four of the leading American voices on education will convene Wednesday to discuss ways to meet education’s extraordinary challenges.

Assuming you’re back from your walk by Monday, go to the Forum.

Ask questions. Make your voice heard. Listen. Learn.

Start talking about these issues with friends around campus. Talk to professors, and find out what you can do to help. Go over to Perley, and tutor local children. Sign up for ACE.

Education is the foundation of our country’s future. and our system is crumbling before our eyes. It is too big of a risk to do nothing.

Do what Father Sorin asked of you — do good.