OP-ED| Bobby Austin, former vice president for university relations at the University of the District of Columbia, is managing director of onlinethinktank.com


This national debate over education reform has been going on for a long time, and still no groups — teachers, parents, politicians or others — seem closer to defining how our students are supposed to “Race to the Top.”

To me, a longtime educator, the issue looks unsolvable without the involvement of a more diverse chorus of voices. This is not a debate to be solved only by teachers, parents and politicians. After decades of following the same worn road toward education, it’s past time to do more than reform. It’s time to re-envision. Before we blame teachers, parents or students, perhaps it’s time to ask larger questions such as, what is the purpose of education? After decades of proceeding in the same direction — and failing — isn’t it time to look at what it is we are trying to do? Are we preparing citizens of the world who are technologically savvy and can navigate successfully in today’s economy? Do we just want children who can test well? Does the structure support an educational mission that will bring children to the levels of proficiency required today?

To help start this dialogue, I helped found an online think tank that launches Friday. The American Education Think Tank (AETT) seeks to use technology as a means of broadening the conversation by offering blogs of noted educators and to include some of the brilliant “brains” at historically black colleges, who are often left out of the public debate. Equally important, there will be dialogue that connects parents, educators and educational innovators from around the world with a goal of producing better-educated and better-prepared students.

It was a speech by Duncan that pushed AETT’s founders to the point of action. Speaking at the Education and Workforce Committee of the National Governors Association in July, Duncan talked about his desire to stimulate parental involvement among both inner-city and suburban parents. The secretary thought such involvement could make a huge difference in the educational outcomes for their children. He said President Obama asked Lee Myung-bak, the president of South Korea — a nation with students who perform at high levels on tests — what his biggest challenge was with regards to education. Lee said his greatest challenge was to satisfy the demands by his poorest parents for a world-class education for their children.

Duncan said he wished he had parents banging down his door “demanding greater educational success for their children. I wish we had a lot more grass-roots pressure.” He told the governors that this country needs a “grass-roots movement in education,” and he noted that he wasn’t talking about just politicians, businesspeople and foundation heads, but the involvement of families and the American citizenry.

“We have not crossed the Rubicon,” said Duncan, who wants us to get beyond the point of no return in our commitment, so there will be no retreat from the work that has to be done. “Complacency is the enemy. ”

AETT is proposing a way to nudge the procession toward the Rubicon, a means by which a grass-roots movement can begin. I know too many parents who believe their voices are not being heard. Our ongoing dialogue will be a lifeline for these unheard voices, and periodically we will report what is being said and what novel ideas might push the conversation forward.

But first, we have to honestly confront the issues that are holding our children back, whatever they are. We have to participate in education decisions and care about the education of our citizens, whether we have children or not.

AETT suggests the following steps as part of a grass-roots strategy to get us across the Rubicon:

1. Be informed. On AETT’s Web site, you can read about ground-breaking programs that are working in other parts of the country and around the world. You can learn about educational issues and their impact.

2. Ask questions. Take advantage of posing and offering your opinion about this public discussion on the definition of education. Is it just testing and measuring?

3. Demand accountability from schools, teachers, administrators, union leaders, politicians and parents. We will encourage and suggest ways to go about this, but it will be equally important to know the methods being used by others.

Some of these are questions we need to ask others, but most are questions that all of us (we, the people who suffer or benefit from the education system) must ask ourselves. The education process and function has never stood outside of the social, political and economic structure of a community or nation. In fact, education makes plain for those in a society exactly who they are and how they fit into the world in which they live. All of these questions and more will be at the heart of the blogging dialogue from AETT and must be at the heart of the public debate.

At the recent Republican National Convention in Tampa, Condoleezza Rice called education the civil rights issue of our day. At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Obama said education was the gateway to a middle-class life. Both of these great Americans are signaling to the nation that we cannot afford complacency.

AETT is poised to act on the challenges presented by the president, the former secretary of state and the secretary of education. We are seeking to provide the forum where these and other educational issues lead to collaboration between institutions, and partnerships between government and citizens, and where the whole education enterprise can be not only reformed, but also re-envisioned.

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