School children from Camden, New JerseyIn The New York Times on Sunday, April 10, 2011, Jonathan Mahler has an interesting article about the “deadlock” that has settled into our debate about school reform in America today. Either we are for teachers’ unions or we are not; either we favor charters schools or we don’t; either we believe in increased testing or not — and “neither side seems capable of listening to the other.” We are paralyzed against any effective action.

I find the article rather cynical. In this “polarized environment,” the author implies, there seems to be no way forward. I don’t find that acceptable. I guess I don’t believe that paralysis on such a huge national issue is an option.

On Friday of this past week, Seattle Pacific University hosted some 1,300 community leaders for our annual Downtown Business Breakfast. Our topic was the crisis in our schools. What exactly is the crisis? Where are we headed? What are the solutions that just may be emerging? Our keynote speaker was Tavis Smiley, who did a fabulous job of framing the discussion. Our governor, Christine Gregoire, also shared her vision for the future of our schools. We had several heroes from our schools, many of them SPU alums. We had many of our SPU faculty represented, a group that is wrestling with the issue in very helpful ways.

I had the privilege of speaking to this audience as well, and I want to offer a part of my speech to my blog audience. I care about this issue a great deal. I think it may be one of the most important social issues of our time, and I have been wrestling with where we go from here.

And so here are some excerpts from my speech. I would love to know what you think.

Excerpts from A Nation At Risk: Why We Must Build Better Schools, delivered at the Downtown Business Breakfast for Seattle Pacific University, April 8, 2011.

Let me make a few comments on why we must build better schools in America. Part of my title for these remarks refers back to the 1983 President’s Commission called A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. This amazing report says that “our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”

Remember, this is 1983, but the theme is something we’ve grown accustomed to.

And here, according to the Commission, is the root of the problem: “While we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished . . . the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.

Those are tough statements. They ought to be frightening statements. But the Commission goes on to spread the blame quite widely: “This current declining trend” in our schools, says the report, “stems . . . from weakness of purpose, confusion of vision, underuse of talent, and lack of leadership.”

All of this is an indictment that ought to ring through this room this morning, calling us all to action. And we ask: Can this be America?

I was invited to go to China a few years ago with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and a group of 11 other presidents from universities from across the country. In Beijing I had the privilege to sit next to the Minister of Education for China during an elaborate luncheon they were throwing for our delegation. In the course of our conversation, the Minister leaned over and reported that “there are some 300 million children in China who are learning English.”

He pulled back for a few seconds to let that soak in.

And then he looked at me and smiled. His smile came from an appropriate pride, of course. It was a smile that said “we have a strategy in China to become world leaders.” Perhaps it was also a smile that said “we know you are not doing so well in your schools in America.”

300 million children: Of course the numbers are staggering, but couple that with a will and a plan and a determination, and our challenge in America becomes clear and daunting.

The statistics paint a picture that is not very pretty:

According to the Alliance For Excellent Education,

  • “70 percent of middle and high school students score below the proficient level in reading achievement.”
  • “Thirty years ago, the United States was the world leader in the quality and quantity of both high school and college graduates, but the United States has fallen to 18th of 24 industrialized nations.”

We have all been reading these kinds of statistics over the last decade and more, and we are puzzled and dismayed.

But statistics never tell the whole story.

The crisis in our schools starts with each kid who does not learn to read, each kid that drops out of school, each kid that cannot go to college, squandering the precious potential of one human being.

The crisis starts with the broken hearts of parents who see their kids lose in the school lotteries.

The crisis continues when kids grow up without enough education to get a job, thereby damaging a life, a family, a neighborhood, and the economic wellbeing of our country.

The crisis continues with every young person who tragically ends up in prison.

The crisis ends when our companies have jobs to offer but not enough of our own young people qualified to fill them.

America has never been a defeatist nation, and yet somehow on this issue we seem to be wringing our hands. We seem to be kicking the can down the road. We have let ourselves believe the problem is not fixable. We have accepted the mythology that kids from underprivileged and tough neighborhoods can’t succeed, and so we have virtually abandoned them.

So what do we do to address this enormous challenge in our midst? Here are some foundational principles I propose as we move forward:

  1. The first principle that guides our work at Seattle Pacific University is this: God wants all of his children to flourish. This is a theological, philosophical, and moral driver for us. Every child deserves the chance to read and write. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn and grow and thrive. Each child is precious in God’s eyes. There is no way to skirt this deep moral commitment for our nation.
  2. A second driving principle is this: Education is the path to human flourishing. From the Greeks and on through the whole of Judeo-Christian teaching, education is the path to growth, maturity, balance, the making of good choices. It is the path out of poverty, the path to both productive and meaningful lives. This too must be a bed-rock conviction for our nation moving forward.
  3. Third, we must recognize that education begins and ends with that profound encounter that happens between a teacher and a student. We know there is a magic moment in the learning process, where a great teacher, with passion about a subject matter, connects, quite profoundly, with a student. We have the tools to assess those teachers who are making this happen. This is where our focus must be moving forward.
  4. Fourth, solving our nation’s crisis in the schools will require leaders to step forward, leaders from our schools, leaders from higher education, from government, from business. We’ve got to stop slinging the mud and spreading the blame. We’ve got to reduce the territorial battles between self-serving organizations — all of that puts the focus on the adults and not on the kids.

Let me end with this. In 1955, Hannah Arendt, that provocative political philosopher of the mid-20th century, saw it coming. She sums up the looming crisis in education with this remarkable statement: “Education . . . is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices.

Our nation will falter and fail, she says, if we “strike from [our children’s] hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us.” We must “prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

The focus here is on the children of our nation. That’s where we start.

Clearly there are wonderful success stories in our midst, and we celebrate those stories this morning. We need to learn from those stories as we move forward.

But just as clearly we have a job to do.

I pledge to you this morning that Seattle Pacific University will be at this table of change and renewal and reform. I’m not sure where we are going with all of this, but I am convinced this is one of the most important challenges of our day.

In the end, Arendt has it right: We’ve got to “decide whether we love our children enough” to teach each one of them to read and write. We’ve got to decide whether we love them enough to give each one of them a chance to flourish.

And if we don’t, the warning is clear: Our nation is indeed at risk.