Bipartisan work helps schools improve

ByRandy Dowell (op-ed)

The 2012 election season has painted a picture of a deeply divided America, but as President Obama reminded us, “we are not as divided as our politics suggests.” And one effort where both sides of the political aisle have been increasingly aligned is the quest to transform our public schools.

Over the past four years, we have made great strides, and in Tennessee this has been a largely bipartisan effort. The federal Race to the Top competition awarded funds to states such as Tennessee that encouraged high standards for evaluating teachers, opened doors for charter schools and paved the way for more rigorous standards.

As the founder and executive director of KIPP Nashville charter schools, I have three suggestions to build on this momentum:

Recruit more high-quality science and math teachers. Great teachers are the rocket fuel that powers innovation. But especially in science and math, we don’t have enough of them. According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks 47th out of 144 economies in quality of math and science instruction. Tennessee has taken an important step to raise the bar by adopting rigorous Common Core standards. To ensure students learn these standards, we must increase the pool of talented teachers. There are already proven teacher preparation programs we can tap — including some education schools and alternative pathways such as Teach For America — but we need to funnel more to these programs so they can prepare more teachers for our classrooms.

Support charter schools with proven results for low-income students. In tough economic times, we must be thoughtful in allocating our scarce public dollars. Investing in high-performing charter schools is one way to make those dollars count. There is no magic potion when it comes to education, but there are many charter schools proving what’s possible for underserved students. In Nashville, STEM Prep, Liberty Collegiate, Nashville Prep, LEAD Public Schools, KIPP Nashville and others are making a difference for students growing up in poverty. By supporting and expanding proven educational models, we can help prepare thousands more students for success.

Take Race to the Top to college. As President Obama considers the second phase of Race to the Top, the opportunity gap between students from high- and low-income communities should be front and center. According to an analysis of U.S. Census data, students in the nation’s lowest-income households are 10 times less likely to graduate from college than their affluent peers. Colleges and universities need to provide more support to students living in poverty or who are the first in their family to attend college. We need a Race to the Top 2.0 that rewards colleges and universities that have a high graduation rate, especially for students from low-income communities.

As President Obama embarks on his second term, many challenges and opportunities await. I hope he will continue to drive us forward to create a world-class education system that opens doors for all our nation’s kids.

Randy Dowell is the executive director of KIPP Nashville.