Four Questions That The Candidates Should Answer

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As we head into the second presidential debate tonight, there is one thing about which there can be no debate: the American public education system is in crisis.

While the economy has been the central issue of this campaign, both candidates have largely ignored the 800-pound gorilla in the room: our schools are not turning out enough graduates ready to compete in a global workforce or lead the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs we need for sustained economic growth. A recent Council on Foreign Relations report argued that "large, under-educated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy."

Add to that the fact that nearly one in four children in the United States is now growing up in poverty and the obstacles to improving our education system multiply. Poverty presents challenges to education that most classrooms currently can’t handle. Our schools, even with tougher accountability, higher standards and competition, have neglected to confront the impact of poverty on learning, haven’t properly trained teachers to help students succeed, and instead have lowered expectations for what children can and should achieve.

As a result, just 9 percent of college graduates today come from our poorest families.

The candidates alluded to these challenges in their first meeting, but beyond expressing their support for teachers and higher education, they offered little in the way of actual ideas. This country needs policies over the next four years that help schools re-think how they deliver education to poor children and give those schools the necessary tools to engage, support and motivate students.

Tonight's Town Hall at Hofstra University is a terrific opportunity to pose substantive questions about the candidates' plans. Here are my top four questions:

1. What will become of the Race to the Top initiative? While imperfect, RTTT has propelled a national conversation about teacher quality and accountability as well as incentivized states to pursue policies aimed at improving teacher effectiveness, standards and personalizing learning. This month, school districts are applying for $400 million in Race to the Top funds. This is a good next step but the program should place a much greater emphasis on designing schools with the core competencies to address the poverty challenges.

2. What’s the best way to measure a school’s success? Most would agree that No Child Left Behind has resulted in an overemphasis on testing, without addressing the underlying issues that prevent children from achieving in the first place. Testing is important, and the Common Core promises to deepen the curriculum, but schools should also be measured on the progress they make improving their culture and helping students become more engaged and motivated. Those are bedrocks of successful learning environments and by measuring them—and holding schools accountable for them—we can better focus our education system on providing the right ingredients for many more students to succeed.

3. Given the challenges of educating poor children, isn’t poverty a good excuse for school failure? There is no longer an argument over whether poverty is a problem for schools but it is not an excuse for failure. However, children do not shed the stress from their environments at the schoolhouse door so we need to give schools the tools to address these predictable challenges head on and help all children succeed.

4. How will you lower the temperature around school reform so we can finally make some progress? Despite its absence as an issue in the presidential campaign, education is one of the most polarizing issues in America. In the ongoing debate, we typically hear about teachers and teachers unions on one side and reformers on the other. It’s naïve to think this polarization will end, but the president can set the tone and again, use his bully pulpit to set the national agenda and lead both sides to solutions that are best for all children.

Fixing our public schools isn’t a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, rich or poor issue. It’s an American issue on which our country and its social fabric depend—our economy, our public safety, our national security and our global competitiveness. The presidential candidates need to speak up about how they will tackle the public education crisis — our future depends on it.