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Column: Public Education Sustains Democracy

— One of the most important conversations I have each year is with our new teachers. I ask them if they know why American public education is so important. The answer has always been clear to me: to help create literate, participating, productive citizens to sustain and enhance our democracy. That doesn’t mean that public and private schools are not part of the fabric of our country’s education; it does mean that the overwhelming majority of our nation’s children are, and will continue to be public school-educated for a very long time.

With Election Day quickly approaching, I ask this additional question: if public education is so important to our democracy, how are we doing? Specifically, how are we doing in ACPS?

This is a fair and important question.

So, some pretty straightforward facts give part of the picture:

  • SAT participation and scores increased. The percentage of seniors who took the SAT was the highest in nine years. Minorities comprised 72 percent of the test takers at ACPS compared with Virginia’s 41 percent and the nation’s 47 percent.

  • AP participation and scores are the highest ever in ACPS.

  • Reading scores as a division fell one point.

  • Math scores are not where we want them to be based on a new state assessment. This new assessment now serves as baseline data.

  • We have clear evidence that students in some schools and with some teachers are making remarkable progress. Our responsibility is to ensure consistency in achievement across the school division.

The challenge we are addressing right here in ACPS is one our country must address. We are the face of America. For example, the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch has risen from 49 percent five years ago to close to 60 percent this year.

When we look at the data supplied by a recent Virginia Education Association study, there is no doubt that our nondisadvantaged students perform as well as the highest achieving and wealthiest neighbors we have. And there is no doubt that our disadvantaged students perform as well as, and in several cases, better than, our neighbors’ disadvantaged students. The issue for all of us is that a gap in achievement must be closed if our democracy is truly going to thrive in the future. (Here’s a great fourth-grade math problem: If ACPS has a larger percentage of children in poverty than our neighbors have, and if the miserable truth for all school divisions is that poor students score lower than advantaged students, how will that affect the average score?)

The reality exists that there is an achievement gap in all school divisions, not only for our children in poverty, but also among our African-American, Hispanic, and white children. The closing of this achievement gap is the great civil rights issue of this generation.

So, there is clear data that we are making very good progress. Many indicators support the work we are doing in ACPS even as we have grown in population by about 20 percent in recent years.

ACPS is entering the second year of implementation of our new 21st-century curriculum. According to U.S. News & World Report (Sept. 17), the curriculum is right where it should be: shifting toward critical thinking in our classrooms. While other divisions making this shift are focusing on the high school level, the ACPS curriculum leads to critical thinking on multiple levels for students in all grade levels. We are confident that this training will well prepare our students for citizenship, work, and life as critical thinkers and life-long learners. We are confident that this curriculum will help students achieve at higher levels and reach full potential.

We are off to a great start this year. We experienced a very smooth start which lets us get to the serious and joyous responsibility of educating each and every one of our students. I am confident that this impressive beginning is a predictor of the stellar year that we expect for our students and staff. But we need the help of our community in understanding the students we serve, in respecting the remarkable educators in our schools, and in modeling the use of facts and data in talking about our ongoing and continuous improvement.

We in ACPS are so fortunate to have the community support necessary to meet the lofty goals of educating the children of our democracy.

Thank you.