The Fierce Urgency of Now

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Early today, President Obama spoke at the National Urban League Annual Conference in Washington, DC. He used the platform to talk mostly about education and his Race to the Top (RTTT) agenda. Race to the Top is a $4 billion initiative of the Obama Administration to improve education in US schools by awarding states who undertake “ambitious yet achievable” plans for reform. In March 2010, Delaware and Tennessee were awarded the first RTTT funds, with Delaware receiving $100 million and Tennessee $500 million. On July 27th, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced an additional 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) to be in the running for an additional $3 billion in funds.

RTTT is, for all intents and purposes, Obama’s “No Child Left Behind.” Within one year of entering office in 2001, then-President Bush enacted NCLB in a post-911 world. Today, Obama made clear that he doesn’t see RTTT as another form of NCLB. As the President noted, NCLB is different because it “gave the states the wrong incentives” by penalizing school districts when they didn’t meet their Annual Yearly Progress. “This isn’t about labeling a troubled school a failure and then just throwing up your hands and saying, well, we’re giving up on you,” said the President. “It’s about investing in that school’s future, and recruiting the whole community to help turn it around, and identifying viable options for how to move forward.”

Obama acknowledged that none of this is easy, but he took on his cynics that say that the education system is too entrenched. “We’ll just fall back into the same old arguments and divides that have held us back for so long…Fixing what was broken in our health care system is not easy.  Fixing what was broken on Wall Street is not easy.  Fixing what’s broken in our education system is not easy.  We won’t see results overnight.  It may take a decade for these changes to pay off.  But that’s not a reason not to make them.  It’s a reason to start making them right now, to feel a sense of urgency — the fierce urgency of now.”

The President is correct on all accounts, with the exception that NCLB did much good and wasn’t the nemesis of education. Antithetically speaking, NCLB paved the way for expanding data-driven decision-making in our schools. And it forced districts and states to look at themselves in the context of a global society.

But the “fierce urgency of now” is a refrain we should keep brandishing. There needs to be a fire lighted underneath people to get them to take serious the education of our youth. But education is a slow burn… akin to the proverbial frog in the warming water. Not enough to get attention, but a critical issue in the end.

Of course, we, as a society, love a good storm. We loved the invasion of Iraq back in November of 1990, and again in 2001. But we get tired of wars and they become “Afghanistan.” We followed the tragic events of Katrina and other storms that, in many cases, don’t even remember the name of. Does anyone even follow Haiti? We have a limited attention span, but one that wants a jolt at first, only to slowly die off. That’s human nature in most cases. We can only take so much.

But how do we create an urgency as the President suggests? In a political environment that forces incremental policy making to the point that we think that nothing ever gets done in Washington, or Ottawa, or many of our state and provincial capitals. The truth is, much gets done, but not much that matters too much, or at least matters to us, individually.

From a US point of view, we need this President leading the way and bringing 50 state governors (23 Republicans, 26 Democrats, and 1 independent) together to make a difference. Together. And work beyond individual ideologies.

Can it be done? Well, change is hard. But we can’t throw up our arms and walk away from our future. Let’s find out if we have the attention span to make this happen. This time.

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