November 12, 1999
By Bob Chase
During the First World War, America's citizen soldiers knew how to fight, but many of them didn't know how to read or write. Indeed, the level of education in the United States was shockingly low. Less than half the population finished high school, and only a tiny fraction graduated from college. That's why, in 1921, war veterans in the American Legion teamed up with the National Education Association to create "American Education Week" our nation's annual salute to the importance of strong public schools and high-quality teachers.
In the years since, public education has undergone some major changes. A much greater percentage of children are now getting an education, and a much more diverse pool of students are walking through the nation's classroom doors. Today, our children are striving for the highest academic standards in history. Unfortunately other changes, including a drop in parental and community involvement in local schools, have not been good.
Years ago, young people could drop out of school and still find decent-paying jobs. As our economy evolved from an agrarian to an industrial base, jobs for the less educated and less skilled were fairly plentiful. But as we've moved toward global competition and the Information Age, our economy has changed. Less brawn and more brainpower is needed. By next year, six of every 10 new jobs will require computer skills now possessed by less than a quarter of the labor force.
Public schools are attempting to meet the challenge of preparing students for these 21st century jobs. Chalk and chalkboard are being replaced by mousepads and computers almost overnight. Classrooms are no longer solely defined by four walls, as students interact with teachers and peers via cyberspace.
How well the nation's students are prepared to meet the future continues to weight on the minds of the public as poll after poll shows education a leading concern of parents and voters. And more and more experts are advocating for improvements that will really make a difference in student achievement small classes, modern schools and quality teachers.
The majority of Americans recognize that while not all schools are where they need to be, for the most part, public education is on the right track. More children are tackling more difficult coursework, and it's paying off. Standardized test scores have risen steadily for the past few years, and student SAT scores in math this year are just one point shy of last year's record setting 511 mark.
While that's a positive sign, more must be done to ensure that our 46 million public school children receive a quality education that prepares them for good jobs in the future and helps them contribute to society. It is not an effort that can be undertaken by educators alone. Just as children will plan a role in our future, we must each resolve to play a role in theirs.
November 14-20, as banners and signs across the country declare "Students Today, Leaders Tomorrow" the official theme of this 78th anniversary of American Education Week schools and educators will reach out to business leaders, civic activists, clergy, and all citizens to help build stronger school-community partnerships.
Today's students are tomorrow's leaders, but they look to their parents, educators and the community for guidance. We can all make contributions to schools to help students succeed in the future. Whether it's a retiree who volunteers in the school's administrative office, a professional who comes to class as a guest speaker, a parent who ensures that his or her children come to school ready to learn, a technician who offers to wire a classroom, or a local business that "adopts" a school and takes pride in its achievement, there are ways we can each make a difference.
Use American Education Week this year to take that step toward helping your local public school become a true community cornerstone. It's an investment that pays off for everyone.
Bob Chase, president of the nearly 2.5 million member National Education Association.