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Make education an early priority in administration

Resource type: News

Houston Chronicle |

Original Source By MIKE FEINBERG At the end of his stirring acceptance speech in Chicago on November 4, President-elect Barack Obama said that this is the time “to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids” and “to reclaim the American dream.” While Obama’s election as president is a barrier-shattering moment in our history, the American dream still remains elusive for far too many young people growing up in our country. Improving our pre-K-12 education system should be a major priority for President-elect Obama. A stark achievement gap exists in public education today. Fourth-graders growing up in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities. I saw this injustice firsthand when I began teaching in 1992 through Teach For America, and the experience continues to fuel my determination to improve education in this country. While education was not a major focus of the presidential campaign, it remains a priority among Americans. When asked to identify their top concerns in an Associated Press voter poll in June, education ranked third behind the economy and gas prices, but ahead of the Iraq war and the environment. As co-founder of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) – a national network of 66 public charter schools in 19 states with a track record of preparing low-income and minority students for college – I am exposed daily to the potential of young people across America. Take the example of Rocio Mendoza. Rocio, a first generation Mexican-American, enrolled at the original KIPP school in Houston back in 1995. After completing KIPP Academy middle school, Rocio graduated from Hotchkiss School and Stanford University, and is now attending law school at the University of Texas. President-elect Obama can begin to tackle America’s education challenges and make Rocio’s story the norm rather than the exception by focusing his attention on three areas: • Create streamlined pathways to the teaching profession: At KIPP, we believe that people make the difference. We need to create incentives for top achieving college graduates to enter the teaching profession. Alternative pathways, such as Teach For America, the New Teacher Project and Troops to Teachers, are increasing the pool of qualified professionals in the classroom and clearing the way for people with valuable content skills to move into education later in their careers. As an alumnus of Teach For America, I have seen the impact of the program firsthand in Houston. Since 1991, more than 1,400 Teach For America teachers have taught in Houston’s public schools, reaching nearly 115,000 students. These teachers have not only had a significant impact in the classroom, but many have gone on to become leaders in education. Of the nearly 700 Teach For America alumni residing in Houston, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, 18 alumni currently serve as public school principals. • Pick a secretary of education committed to accountability and public school choice: When Obama picks his Cabinet, he will make a strong statement about the direction of his administration. President-elect Obama should pick a secretary of education who deeply understands the issues of funding and accountability on the federal, state and local levels, and who is passionate about student achievement and growth. Having one national test with one rigorous set of national standards will ensure our children can compete in the global marketplace as well as help parents know how well their children are progressing in school. The secretary of education must also support the growth of public charter schools, which give educators freedom in exchange for increased accountability. Families will benefit from the healthy competition resulting when multiple high-quality public schools serve the same community. • Focus on the early years: Even in this time of economic uncertainty, we need to make critical investments in pre-K and early childhood education. In his recent book Whatever It Takes, New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough notes that by age 3, children in low-income communities have been exposed to 20 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. By providing a language-rich learning environment at an early age, schools can offset this gap and give children the tools they need to succeed. In Houston, KIPP has 11 public charter schools, including three early childhood schools that have opened since 2004. At our flagship pre-school KIPP SHINE Prep, students who enter school as non-readers reach reading and writing levels that are above grade level by kindergarten. By making education a priority in the early part of his administration, President-elect Obama can help this country come closer to truly fulfilling our promise as a nation and build a better tomorrow. Feinberg is co-founder of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) and superintendent of the KIPP schools in Houston.