When I hear people talk about the government, I envision Capitol Hill. I see people in suits walk up steps to the large buildings and disappear. As I stand at the foot of the steps, looking up, it feels like government decisions are happening so far away.
Sometimes it feels like important information about our public world is distant, too—tough to find or tough to navigate. And yet, it’s so important for communities to know what’s happening, especially when it comes to public schools and the policy decisions that impact them.
It seems to me that most people know too little about civics and the state of our nation, much less how their child’s school compares with others throughout the city, state and country.
To test this notion, I recently interviewed some of my former classmates—Matthew, Helen, and Carrisa—and gauged their understanding of New York’s education system. It went like this:
Priscilla: Do you guys know how New York ranks in terms of eighth-grade math and reading on the national stage? If not, hazard a guess.
Classmate 1: Well, I would guess No. 1 or something in the range of one to five We’re definitely up there.
Classmate 2: Yeah, I have to agree.
Classmate 3: Same here. So, what is it exactly?
Priscilla: 35th in math and 26th in reading.
Classmate 3: Seriously? Are you joking?
Classmate 1: Wait, how is that possible? I’m really confused .
Next, I asked my friends how they came up with their answers. As it turns out, my friends were simply making assumptions. But in order to have conversations that actually change things, we need to begin with the facts.
Then we need to feel comfortable having candid conversations about what’s good and not so good about our public schools.
For too long, our communities have seemed reluctant to discuss how New York schools cannot compare on the national level, much less the international level. That is beginning to change with groups like NYCAN and the governor’s New NY Education Reform Commission, which began a series of statewide public hearings last month.
Each year, for instance, NYCAN will publish a report that details the state of New York public schools. The most recent edition, released in January, identified the strengths and weaknesses of our system and was designed to educate citizens, who can then figure out ways to improve their system.
There are many great things about our state, and there are excellent schools—NYCAN’s 2012 State of Public Education Report shows that New York’s top students really are the tops. New York ranks second in the country in the percent of students who successfully complete an Advanced Placement class.
But even those top students are segregated by race and class, and fewer than 75 percent of high school students are graduating at time.
We need to talk about those facts. Thankfully, a real statewide conversation has begun.
As of April 30, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has established the New NY Education Reform Commission, which includes education, community and business leaders. Their mission is to help improve the performance of our public education system.
According to a press release from the governor’s office, the committee has been tasked with the following objectives:
- Finding ways to improve teacher recruitment, teacher performance, and teacher evaluation
- Improving student achievement
- Examining education funding, distribution, and costs
- Increasing parent and family engagement in education
- Examining the problem of high-need and low-wealth school communities
- Finding the best use of technology in the classroom
- Examining New York’s education system to ensure it meets the needs of the students while respecting the taxpayer
As they work toward these ambitious goals, they are asking the public to join the conversation. Just this month, the commission started a “listening tour,” visiting 10 regions throughout New York to hear public feedback on their public schools.
That’s a great place to start. Actually improving the system will be a very difficult job, but it can be done.
Priscilla W. Guo is a 2012 School Reform Blogging Fellow for NYCAN. She is a sophomore at Hunter College High School in New York City, where she participates in the debate team and Term Council. She also founded HUNICEF, a high school UNICEF club that educates, advocates and fundraises for children around the world.