Whether you live in Baltimore or across the country in Seattle, you probably believe that every child deserves a high-quality education. But what does that mean? What does that look like? How do we know whether that is happening?
As it turns out, these simple questions are quite difficult to answer. A big part of the reason why is that that we have no shared understanding of what we want our schools to look like and do. There is no common vision; no generally-accepted standard of quality. Think about that: isn’t it amazing that on education—the one issue we all talk about, and have an opinion on—we have allowed those most fundamental of questions to often be answered district-by-district, school-by-school, and even teacher-by-teacher? Or even worse, by a small group of powerful politicians, business leaders, and super-wealthy individuals?
Our utter lack of a positive vision of education is one of the primary causes of the massive inequalities and inequities in the quality of education received by youth across states, across school districts, and both across and within schools. Let me be very clear: I am not suggesting that the education process should be uniform. Far from it. What I am suggesting is that there should be a baseline level of quality that every student, and every parent, should expect; that every educator should know what they should be providing to students; and that there should be a simple, transparent process through which any shortcomings can be identified and addressed.
A good example of an effort to address these problems is the National Campaign for Quality Education’s Youth S.U.C.C.E.S.S. (Striving for Unity, College, and Careers through Equitable Schools and Supports) Act, a youth-led federal legislative initiative that aims to address the foremost structural barriers experienced by young people in pursuing an education that will prepare them for college and/or living-wage careers. The crux of the Youth S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Act will be its robust Student Bill of Rights, which will define in clear, plain language the essential needs of students and the broad vision to which other education policies and practices should be directed. It will address all the essential elements of a high-quality education, from facilities and curriculum to school climate and wraparound services. Everything that is necessary for all young people to receive the educational opportunities they deserve. Moreover, this Student Bill of Rights would have real teeth: it would direct data collection and reporting, serve as the basis for school accountability, and determine school funding. In short, for the first time (incredibly), we would all know what to expect from schools, and policy would be aligned with those expectations.
So why is all this important? Because of what it means for those with the most at stake in this issue. Parents and students from low-income communities, and especially communities of color, are all too often shut out of any meaningful involvement in the education decision-making process. Instead, they are expected to merely accept whatever policy decisions are handed down, and are then blamed for any poor performance. Something like the Youth SUCCESS Act could change all that, and allow communities of students, parents, educators, and other stakeholders to come together around a shared vision for improving the quality of their schools. It would move power and control over schools away from the few and toward the many, which would truly be audacious.