For inspiration this New Year season, I am going to quote at length one of the most encouraging and challenging pieces of Congressional testimony I’ve ever heard.
It was delivered in May 2009 by Scott Gordon, CEO of the Mastery Charter Schools of Philadelphia, one of six programs awarded $1 million by Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network this year for pioneering work in turning around failing schools.
Mastery works in high-poverty neighborhoods, but the fact is that most school systems in the country need a dose of what’s been so effective in Philadelphia.
As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush noted in the keynote address Dec. 1 at his Foundation for Excellence in Education, right now only one-third of U.S. students graduate from high school ready for college or careers.
Another third don’t graduate at all, and another third require remedial work either in college or the workplace. “Those numbers are shameful,” he said.
And they are dangerous to the country’s future, as demonstrated by the latest report of the Program for International Student Assessment, which ranked U.S. students 23rd in the world in science, 32nd in math and 17th in reading.
The U.S. trailed all its major competitors and trading partners in Europe and Asia, notably in advanced regions of China.
In Philadelphia, as Gordon told the House Committee on Education and Labor, of 20,000 students who enter first grade each year, only 3,000 are likely to graduate from college.
Half never graduate from high school, and of those who do, two-thirds don’t score “proficient” on Pennsylvania’s assessment exam.
“An absolute catastrophe,” Gordon said. “Year after year. Our house is on fire. ... We are failing generations of youth in urban schools across our nation.”
But Mastery’s record demonstrates that “we don’t need to tolerate this failure,” he said. At three failing schools that Mastery took over, with the same students in them, assessment scores increased by 35 percent per grade in every subject. Violence decreased 85 percent.
And 93 percent of Mastery’s first three graduating classes went on to higher education, 67 percent to four-year colleges.
“It can be done,” Gordon told the committee. “It can be done quickly at scale. There are no excuses.
“How? First, we need urgency and accountability. Set the bar high. College readiness must be the bar for nearly all our youth.
“You will hear critics say that standardized tests do not appropriately assess a child’s learning preparedness — that they result in ‘teaching to the test.’
“Why don’t we hear the same outcry against Advanced Placement tests? Or the SAT or ACT” college entry tests?
Next, Gordon said, “we need to ruthlessly focus on outcomes. Grow what works and eliminate what doesn’t. We exercise this type of common sense in every area of our society except education. ...
“High-performing organizations set clear goals. They hold management and employees accountable for results. They measure progress continually. They hire the highest-quality talent and promote the best. And exit non-performers.
“In contrast, at most public schools, pay is based on seniority or educational degrees that have no proven relationship with student outcomes. ... As a field, we don’t attract the best and brightest. We don’t fire the worst.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.