Our educational system isn't working. As a community, we are failing our children. But we have an unprecedented opportunity to make progress. At no other time in the recent past have so many forces converged to speed reform.
The problems have become too urgent to ignore. Our children will come of age in the 21st Century, yet they are ill-trained for a future economy based on services, information and international movement of goods and capital. More than ever, career options and advancement will depend on knowledge, flexibility and problem-solving ability--qualities we are not providing our children.
In Los Angeles, there are additional reasons for alarm. Dramatic population growth has resulted in serious classroom and teacher shortages, widespread busing of children to schools outside their communities and a year-round calendar in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
At least 80 languages are spoken in the district, and educators are badly equipped to meet the needs of their multiracial, multicultural and multilingual students.
--More than 50% of the children in the Los Angeles Unified School District live in poverty. These children are three times more likely to drop out of school.
--Forty percent of the children in Los Angeles leave school before high-school graduation.
--Three major California employers report that more than 50% of their job applicants fail entry-level tests.
No surprise, then, that parents and the business community are mobilizing to demand a better education for children. Another factor underscoring the need for change is the fiscal crisis at all levels of government. The U.S. deficit makes it unlikely that federal dollars will flow to state and local governments while budget battles in Sacramento make it improbable that any help will come from there.
Local school districts can no longer look to Sacramento to cover their operating deficits: The Los Angeles Unified School District was forced to cut operating expenses by $220 million this year. Jobs have been eliminated, and more cuts are likely next year. The administration is being reduced by 27% and other services cut back just as the student population is increasing. It can no longer be business as usual.
The teachers are also flexing their collective muscle through their union, United Teachers of Los Angeles. The recent contract negotiations resulted in a salary increase and, at the teachers' insistence, school-based management.
The district leadership is now speaking the language of change. Superintendent William R. Anton, who takes office Monday, is expected to provide new vigor, and union leader Helen Bernstein is more interested in the reform agenda and community cooperation than was her predecessor.
Community leaders are pushing for reform. The Los Angeles Educational Partnership provides corporate and foundation support for innovative teacher training and educational programs. The coalition Kids First, in partnership with business leaders, is mobilizing parents to take part in educational reform.
On the state level, Superintendent Bill Honig's most recent reform effort has been to convene a California Education Summit while others, such as the California Business Roundable, have pushed for statewide legislation to improve the quality of education.
Given the many individuals, organizations and forces at work, there is a remarkable convergence of thinking about goals. Everyone agrees that if we are to compete globally and nationally, and if all our children are to have opportunities, then more students must be better educated. We must reduce the dropout rate drastically, help high-school graduates make a successful transition from school to work and send a greater number of students to college.
It's not simply a question of spending more time in the classroom. Students today must develop an understanding of fundamental concepts and apply knowledge creatively.
One of the reasons that reform is now possible is that community groups, educators and business leaders agree in principle on what must be done:
--Prepare children for school and assist them once they arrive. Every "at risk" child should receive basic health checkups, participate in nutrition programs and attend a Head Start program. A comprehensive plan should be developed to coordinate services to children. It should stress prevention as well as crisis intervention for their families.
--Increase parental involvement. Schools must do more to welcome and engage parents in the life of the school.
--Strengthen the teaching profession and improve teaching methods. Incentives for recruitment of minority teachers, retention of outstanding teachers and professional development would enhance the quality of instruction.