Sunday, March 27, 2011 | 2 a.m.
We could use a country full of much smarter people right now!
I can’t remember a time when so many bad things were going on in the world, so many challenges needed solutions, so many happenings seemed well beyond our ability to control their outcomes and, at the same time, so many people appeared on television as pundits or experts with so many competing ideas, complaints and criticisms about those who are trying to make good decisions.
I don’t know anyone who can fix health care, solve Japan’s awful situation — one that shows the interdependence of countries around the globe — figure out which side in which country we should be on in the Arab Awakening, deal with the lagging, sagging and dragging economic situation in America that has put people in the foulest of moods, and be prepared for whatever else is thrown our way.
Actually, Bill Clinton would get my vote, but beyond that impossible dream, I can point to few who would have the mental and other capacities to sort through the world as we know it. My second option, then, is to try to do what I can to make sure more people growing up in the United States become the smartest, best-educated and best-trained people on the planet, so that when their time comes, they will be better equipped to deal with their issues. And they won’t be content to be stay-at-home snipes who contribute little or nothing to solutions.
In that context, I recommend everyone read the book “A Chance to Make History” by Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America 21 years ago. It is based on a simple premise — that educating our children is an adult problem, so we should act like adults and not children. And that means making sure every child is fully prepared for a college education. Actually, those are my words, not hers.
It should be no secret that people with college educations generally have greater earning power throughout their lives, enjoy a higher standard of living, achieve a higher quality of life in most cases and are able to cope with issues in less stressful and more satisfying ways. Again, my words, not hers.
Assuming that’s true, and knowing not everyone will go to college nor should go to college, aren’t we still better off as a society if we prepare our kids for higher learning should they choose to go?
What “A Chance to Make History” shows us is the traditional tenets of American education that suggest children from socioeconomically deprived areas are not, for the most part, college bound or college worthy are just bunk. In fact, what Teach for America has proved is that all children can learn and learn at the highest levels. And, to the extent that they can’t or won’t, it’s an adult problem.
In case after case, Kopp discusses the manner and modes of teaching that have come from Teach for America alumni, who enter the education workforce through a route different from traditional teachers. They are not trained at teaching colleges and universities. Rather, they are recruited from the top ranks of graduates in all areas of academic pursuit.
They can be biology majors, government, philosophy or premed students. They are among the best and brightest of their graduating classes, and they volunteer — to be paid and treated as any other teacher — for some of the toughest assignments available. They move into the economically depressed areas of major cities where the poor, often forgotten and most vulnerable of our citizens live. It is the children from those neighborhoods who are stereotypically slated for prison, gangs or some other form of failure.
What Kopp shows us through this book are the incredible turnarounds of schools that could have been closed and the unbelievable achievements made by children who might never have stood a chance to succeed. Instead, almost all kids fortunate enough to be taught by Teach for America teachers will go to college.
Imagine a United States in which our prisons become less crowded because people destined for lives behind bars have been given the advantage education that makes them productive members of society rather than drains on the treasury.
Imagine a United States in which our best and brightest are not just a relative handful of students but, rather, a deep and broad cross-section of Americans — each one eager to succeed and with the requisite academic skills to do so.
Imagine the discussions around the kitchen table and across the airwaves when those doing the talking and listening all have the benefit of what college can teach them.
That is the kind of America Teach for America envisions, and that is the vision that has impelled its teachers toward finding a better way to achieve academic success. It isn’t easy, but it is doable.
What Kopp has proved is that, contrary to the ideological positions staked out in the Nevada Legislature, there are no silver bullets, no simple answers to solving our broken education system. To be sure, money is important, but more important are the leaders with vision and the teachers with skills who can teach in an environment dedicated to the children rather than the adults.
Folks, we have a chance to make history. Take it!
I know an education takes time and I know that with the kinds of challenges we face today, time is more our enemy than our friend. But there will be other Japans, other kinds of awakenings and other financial crises.
Wouldn’t this country be so much better off if our citizens were smarter and more educated than those who must deal with the problems of today?
This shouldn’t be a difficult decision. Get the book. Read it. Then do something about it, because this is our chance to make the kind of history that means something.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.