Deval Patrick

A rescue mission for education

By Deval Patrick
January 7, 2010

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FORTY YEARS ago, I changed schools. On the South Side of Chicago, my school had few books, 40 children in a classroom (most of us poor), teachers whose role was mainly to keep order, and police at every intersection of the halls. The school I changed to was a private New England prep school with small classes, longer school days, teachers with the latitude to innovate and experiment, and high expectations of each child.

I still want to change schools. But private schools are not the answer. Public schools are where most children get their education, and they should be consistently excellent.

The Legislature is now in final deliberations on a new education bill I filed last July that will close, once and for all, the pernicious achievement gaps that damage the lives of low-income, special needs and minority children. I applaud the House and the Senate for bringing us to the precipice of real and lasting reform.

The bill promotes the creation of “Innovation Schools’’ - a new type of public school featuring more autonomy and flexibility. It authorizes a targeted lift of charter school caps in the Commonwealth’s lowest-performing school districts, allowing only those charter operators with a proven record of successfully serving high needs students. Most important, it expands the ability of local superintendents or the commissioner of education to intervene in low-performing schools by providing new tools to attract the best and brightest educators, and new supports to help teachers, students and families overcome the disadvantages of poverty.

Changing schools rescued me 40 years ago. This bill is a rescue mission for every child in the Commonwealth trapped in an underperforming school. It’s all about the kids. And our future.

Some have portrayed the bill as a showdown between union and management interests - a debate focused on adults and not children. Both sides of the debate have occasionally fallen back on entrenched positions where the goals of compromise and common purpose become harder to reach. Our children can no longer afford that kind of debate.

Seventeen years after the passage of landmark education reform in Massachusetts, it is past time we launch the next chapter of reform. We need to give educators and leaders in our lowest-performing schools the kinds of supports we know can make a difference. We need to give students more time in school and the health and human services necessary to overcome the disadvantages of poverty and other conditions that interfere with their readiness to learn. Whatever gets in the way of that has to yield.

And yes, sometimes that may mean changing the principal or a teacher or some of the rules governing a handful of the state’s lowest performing schools. But this is not too much to ask to ignite a life-long love of learning in a child, and is long overdue. And it can and will be done in ways that are respectful and transparent. Tinkering at the margins of underperforming schools, only to see them continue to languish, is no longer acceptable.

Urgent problems, especially ones involving children, demand urgent and new solutions. Now is no time for us to retreat to our familiar foxholes to fight the same, tired battles. We can deliver the next great stride forward in a quest to deliver on the promise of American public education: an excellent school for each and every child. That is a more important educational, economic, and moral imperative than the interests of any adult.

Deval Patrick is governor of Massachusetts.