President's Corner

My Pledge of Performance

by BENJAMIN O. CANADA


Ienter my term as president of AASA with the excitement, enthusiasm and optimism of a kindergartner just beginning school. The opportunities for learning, sharing new experiences and making new friends seem limitless.

Yet a statistic about the 3.4 million children who started kindergarten in U.S. schools last fall shakes my optimism. In 2019, when they are 24, trends show that white children will be twice as likely as their African-American classmates--and three times as likely as their Hispanic classmates--to have a college degree. This is not simply an issue of race. Poor children are also caught in the achievement gap.

The social and economic implications of allowing these disparities to continue are devastating. Education continues to be the single best hope for alleviating the consequences of growing up poor and disadvantaged in America.

As leaders of our nation’s schools, we must recognize that the programs of the past are not meeting the needs of all students today. We must share the sense of urgency that our communities feel for raising achievement among poor children and children of color.

My top priority as AASA president and as superintendent of schools in Portland, Ore., is to erase the achievement gap. The central issue facing our school reform efforts today is the achievement of high standards by all students, not just some. Their future and ours depend on that success.

I am encouraged by many innovative strategies that are raising achievement across the country. We are seeing strong results in school districts that are strengthening teachers’ skills through professional development and mentoring, expanding early childhood opportunities, focusing resources on schools with greatest need, reducing class sizes, expanding the use of technology and implementing comprehensive, schoolwide improvement programs.

We also must empower families to support their children’s education. We cannot be content with merely increasing attendance at events. We should provide families with the tools they need to help their children learn. Schools also should be the focal point of community organizing and citizen engagement in the issues that have an impact on children and families. We must give voice to parent concerns and provide a vehicle for substantive participation in decisions.

Mustering resources from every quarter and establishing new partnerships, including families, the community, local government, business and local colleges, are imperative.

In Portland, we are just completing a year-long strategic planning process that has involved more than 400 community members. Our mission calls on the district "to support all students in achieving their very highest educational and personal potential." One of seven strategies states: "We will eliminate the achievement disparity of low-income children and children of color in relation to district standards."

I have pledged to my community that we will bring 95 percent of the city’s 3rd graders to academic benchmarks by 2003, up from 78.5 percent in 1999. By 2005, 95 percent of all 5th graders will be at benchmark, up from 68.3 percent. Portland’s daily newspaper, The Oregonian, has called our pledge "a bold and long-overdue commitment to the city’s neediest, most vulnerable children."

That pledge established a true test for my district and for me. In the future, my performance will be inextricably linked to how well Portland’s children achieve. The same will be true of all administrators. That is how it should be. We must be focused on achievement for all children, and we cannot be afraid to be held accountable.

The genius of American public education is its commitment to learning for every child, regardless of that child’s background. As leaders of America’s schools, the delivery of that promise is in our hands.

Ben Canada is president of AASA.