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Forum continues discussion of education reform

Emily Schrank | Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Notre Dame Forum continued Wednesday as four experts wrestled with the most prominent issues currently affecting American education during the panel discussion “The Conversation: Developing the Schools Our Children Deserve.”

The panel, which included perspectives from the founder of Teach for America and a bishop, reflected on which aspects of American education they would like to change.

Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) in Chicago, which is the largest national Hispanic charter school operator, said his work with the organization highlighted holes in the way Americans approaches immigrant education.

“In many ways we’ve forgotten what the public school system is all about for immigrants,” he said. “I think if public schools do their job of educating a new American community across the board, we’re going to see a very prosperous nation.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a former lawyer said many Americans make the mistake of fixating on one specific problem affecting education, rather than looking at the big picture.

“One thing that I would do is to create a shared understanding in America that public schooling should be about ensuring that all kids, not just some kids, have the opportunity to engage in their future effectively,” she said.

Gerald Kicanas, bishop of Tucson, Ariz., focused on children’s attitudes toward education, as well as the impact of teachers.

“I hope that they would see schooling as a wonderful opportunity for them,” he said. “Something they feel drawn to.”

Kicanas said it is important for teachers to enjoy what they are doing.

“The best teachers I had were able to cultivate a passionate interest in me,” he said. “I wish that teachers in general could live that tremendous vocation of being a great teacher.”

Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach for America, said she would like to change the notion that the place where a child is born determines their educational prospects.

“In a country that prides itself on equal opportunity, we have an education system that doesn’t live up to that,” she said. “We have a crisis in our country.”

Kopp said it is important to recognize how extreme the crisis is and to be able to respond to it.

“We know it doesn’t need to be this way,” she said. “It requires our embracing a new concept of what education is and requires changes inside and outside of the system, but it can happen.”

The panel also addressed the achievement gap in American education.

Rangel attributed the ever-increasing gap to the politics of education.

“It has nothing to do with the kids, but a lot to do with adult interests,” he said. “Adults have forgotten what the premise of a public school education is about.”

Kopp said the achievement gap has occurred because children in low-income communities face challenges that other children do not.

“Schools aren’t designed to meet their extra needs or level the playing field for them,” she said.

The panel also touched on the presence of faith-based schools in American education and the issue of school choice.

Kicanas said financial assistance is becoming increasingly important in faith-based schools.

“Without some kind of funding, faith-based schools are not going to be viable,” he said. “We have to work in a way to try to get there together.”

According to Kopp, every parent should be able to choose where he or she sends their child to school.

“I have to say from my vantage point we should be incredibly optimistic [about school choice],” she said. “I’m optimistic because we know now it’s possible and we can actually make it happen for our kids.”