Closing the Education Gap

By:Kim DeCoste Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables Closing the Education Gap

We do not know where the next great mind of the times will be born. When this person is born, will the talent be nurtured and developed? As a hemisphere, we must recognize our collective obligation to continue to improve the public education we provide to our citizens. We must elevate program quality to ensure we are able to compete with countries outside of the Americas. We have a ways to go, but it seems we have a lot more in common than one might guess. It also seems that we have arrived at some excellent conclusions and we need the resources, talent and the will to implement.

At the Roundtable on Education for the Biennial of the Americas, the distinguished panel focused on several issues where there is an opportunity to improve services we deliver. We must stay focused.

Clearly much progress has been made across the Americas, but more is needed. United States Congressman, Jared Polis, was among the first to speak and he said, “Hemispheric human capital development is the critical competitive advantage of the future.” So what was the achievement gap identified to be? Who is most impacted? "...Human capital development is the critical competitive advantage of the future." - Jared Polis

The achievement gap in the Americas affects every one of the 35 member countries. In general, it is narrower in the U.S. and Canada in some segments, but even there it is real. There are socio-economic gaps, gender gaps, race and culture gaps and language gaps, to name the obvious. There are more of these among the poor and working class. The countries that have made a strategic commitment to closing these gaps have made excellent progress.

One example was Colombia where the Minister of Education, Cecilia Maria Vélez, spoke of her country’s five-step commitment to improving education. These five key steps included: 1) encouraging lifelong education for all citizens, 2) educating for innovation, 3) strengthening the education institutions themselves, 4) modernizing to keep education current, and 5) participative management. With these new guidelines, Colombia has seen 1.8 million people enter its education system for the first time. These people were part of the previous gap but now account for substantial relative success.

As moderator Michael Shifter pointed out, it also helps that Ms. Vélez held her post for eight years. He says that continuity of leadership and priorities is essential and has been lacking in many countries. We must fully commit to addressing the problems over the long term, he asserted, if we are to have an impact.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet agreed. He made it clear that we do have significant issues, “but not for lack of effort.” Bennet cited the increased reading gap in Colorado since 1998 as an example and said, “We have to stop treating public education as if it were somebody else’s problem.” Taking it further and to a point that echoed throughout the discussion, he said, “We must realize that the hand of God did not decree that K-12 education must begin with K.”

Former Minister of Women’s Affairs for Chile, Laura Albornoz noted, though great progress has been made in her country to close the gender achievement gap, there is still a significant problem with teenage pregnancy. She and Ambassador Francisco Villagrán of Guatemala spoke about the socio-economic problems that keep the working class and poor children from finishing primary school because they are needed as family workers. They discussed the much improved literacy rates in both countries with Ambassador Villagrán citing that 95% of the children in Guatemala now attend primary school, but only 60% complete it and of the ones who do not attend, seven of ten are girls. This problem is particularly present in indigenous families. In Guatemala, they have gone so far through the “Mi Familia” program to subsidize the families to allow their children to stay in school. At the rate of approximately $37USD/week the kids have been allowed to stay in school and at least achieve basic skills through primary school.

These issues are not limited to the developing countries of South America or the Caribbean. Indeed, Rose Marie McGuire, the program manager for Indian Education Programs at Denver Public Schools, said it is true in Colorado as well. While we may see an overall dropout rate around 7% in Denver for Native American students, the number is really 12%. "The programs we have are not quite offering the appropriate language and cultural support required, so that these students can succeed. Where adjustments have been made and more native language and culture have been inserted into programming (even the obvious areas such as U.S. history), there is marked improvement for indigenous youth," she said.

Then, Michael Shifter commented, "A lot can be done with the resources we have available." And we have to work to find how we can replicate successes. "We must realize that the hand of God did not decree that K-12 education must begin with K." - Michael Bennet

One such success is that of Miami Dade College in the United States. President, Dr. Eduardo Padrón, was proud to cite success statistics. While it appears on paper to be a case study for potential failure, this school has had tremendous success with a “minority” majority. At Miami Dade, the largest portion of the students are Hispanic and African-American. Two-thirds of the students are low income, and nearly 70% of the students are below the poverty level. Yet, with high standards and high levels of support, students begin to develop the confidence required to believe success is possible. Once they do that, they are able to succeed, even if doing so around a part-time job takes twice as long as it might for someone else.

Marie Levens, director at the Department of Human Development, Education and Culture for the Organization of American States, Andrea Taylor, director of Community Affairs for Microsoft, Asha Williams, program manager for POETA Youth, and Father John Foley, executive director of the Cristo Rey Network, all offered excellent ideas around the importance of partnerships. The public school system must look to opportunities between countries, with private sector businesses and non-governmental organizations to bring forth real world, relevant programs that further educational success. As Ms. Levens pointed out, we do this partly to show support for one another and partly to learn.

Certainly technology is part of the answer, Ms. Taylor asserted. Microsoft currently contributes to efforts in 110 countries to help deliver new skills to students and to create more work-ready societies. She suggested that rather than worrying about a "race to the top" that we concern ourselves with a “race to the finish line” where educated youth and adults step forward to contribute great ideas. Ms. Williams agreed and further said that it is critical to look at the gap with at-risk youth and others to find out what is needed to create programs that will have a high level of applicability in the workforce. Her work in 18 countries indicates that this information must come from private industry so public education can deliver what is needed. The private sector can also continue to drive for change at the policy level which non-governmental agencies cannot do.

Father John Foley of the Cristo Rey Network based in the U.S., talked about programs now running in 24 schools where students are given jobs and work on a rotating schedule five days per month to fund their education. Not only does it pay for their schooling, but it gives them the confidence of having worked. What was once thought to be a fine education solution became an operating model in real world experience. In the cases where young people become engaged in the job market early, they have much more self-confidence and are more dedicated to learning. Rather than worrying about a "race to the top" we should concern ourselves with a “race to the finish line” where educated youth and adults step forward to contribute great ideas." - Andrea Taylor

Speaking on behalf of the military, Lieutenant General Michael Gould, head of the U.S. Air Force Academy underscored the value of diversity. “Better solutions come from diverse populations,” he said. In the newest class at the Academy, 28% of the 1,293 cadets are from different minority backgrounds.

All participants agreed that it is this spirit of collaboration, diversity, inquisitiveness and sharing best practices that will help to narrow the education gap across the Americas. If we continue to try to understand the challenges people face and work to solve the underlying problems collectively, we can bring forward future generations with stronger educations. We can distill from the Americas the next great minds to lead us forward if we dedicate ourselves to educating as many of our citizens as possible. As Dr. Peter Senge wrote in The Learning School, “All human beings are born with unique gifts. The healthy functioning of our community depends on its capacity to develop each gift.” In this case, the community is the entire hemisphere.