Guest Voz: Reforming education leads to narrowing disparities and achievement gap

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By Yvette Donado
LatinaLista

(Editor’s note: The following is the opening address by Yvette Donado, chief administrative officer and senior vice president of nonprofit Educational Testing Service (ETS), at the National Urban Fellows 45th anniversary conference.)

…Leadership for a Changing America is the right theme: Two words – leadership and change – that command the attention of many. Indeed, these are challenging times. And leadership – however we define it – is needed more today than ever before.

Past and current conflicts called for leadership – perhaps of a different kind, but leadership, nonetheless. An enduring debate is whether leaders are born or are created by challenges.

“Four score and seven years ago” ….
“The only thing to fear is fear itself” …
“We shall overcome,”
“Ask not what your country can do for you,”
“I have a dream …”,
“Sí, se puede.”

How would those who uttered these phrases respond to today’s challenges? The economic downturn; the government shutdown last year; polarization in the Congress;
Congress’s failure to pass what surveys show Americans want: immigration reform and gun control. The list goes on.

Leadership and ETS

ETS’s tagline is Listening, Learning and Leading. We adopted it to show that we did listen about educational challenges, learned about how to address them, and led with solutions.

We learned that assuring access to equitable assessments was not enough, that deeply rooted inequity is not easily uprooted. We learned that community-based organizations have programs that had little to do with assessments and a lot to do with inspiring youth to stay in school, to persevere and to go on to higher education. They had to with encouraging parental engagement and responsible fatherhood, with reforming schools and assuring better teaching.

So the worldwide “leader” in assessments undertook to support such groups as the Asian American Pacific Islander Scholarship Fund, Parents Step Ahead, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement and the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, among others. We made the New York-based Institute for Student Achievement a division of ETS.

In 2011, I had the privilege of helping launch an initiative to address the needs of the 6 million English learners in our public schools. There is no “market” there, some said. Three years later, we are “leading” with tablet-based solutions that we will unveil later this year.

Going forward, we want to ensure that everything we do aligns with our mission: to advance educational opportunity for all people worldwide.

I am a “proud Latina.” My parents came from Puerto Rico in search of opportunity in New York City where I was born. So I can relate not only to our mission but also to today’s challenges. My parents did not complete high school, but they made sure my sisters did better and got a college education.

After many years in the corporate sector, I joined ETS as an executive and have been here for over a decade. ETS has a presence in 180 countries. R&D, the largest ETS Division, with 1,100 employees, produces policy reports on the achievement gap, on the relationship between poverty and education, on civic engagement and on our nation’s competitive position in the world, among many others.

I say this because ETS is known more for its assessments than for its other work. But our vision doesn’t stop at assessments. We are looking at education reform to narrow disparities and the achievement gap. We are looking at charter schools and best practice models.

We are monitoring progress on common core standards. We want not only to deliver the best teacher licensure tests, but to help improve teaching. And we are looking to help the nation’s English learners.

A Changing America

We recognize that our country is changing perhaps more than at any time. I refer you to a hallmark ETS report, America’s Perfect Storm, that identified three trends – or forces – that if left unaddressed imperil our very democracy.

The first force is declining skills. Many adults lack the skills needed to participate fully in an increasingly competitive work environment.

The second force is sweeping demographic change. We will be 360 million by 2030, increasingly older and more diverse. The workforce is being shaped as never before by immigration, retirement of baby boomers and birthrates.

The third force is seismic changes in our economy. Profoundly restructured, today’s labor markets are far different from those of earlier decades.

The authors of America’s Perfect Storm tell me that conditions have worsened. You’ve seen reports that bemoan our educational standing among OECD countries. We have a way to go if we are to realize President Obama’s goal to have the highest percentage of college graduates by 2020.

How This Relates to You

I need not draw a picture. You NUF fellows illustrate the challenges and the opportunities of demographic change better than any research report. You are the products of it. You live it every day.

You know the numbers. By 2050, we will be a minority majority nation. America was not finished in 1965 when around that time, immigration from developing nations surpassed immigration from Europe. America is changing. Diversity is nurturing us, improving us more than at any other time.

Do you know that the biggest creators of new businesses in the United States are Latinas?

We must not – we cannot – turn away these engines of change, prosperity and competitiveness. If we can harness the entrepreneurship, the hard work and the will to succeed of new Americans, our country will be the better for it.

The Urban Connection

Another key word for us is “urban.” Cities – urban centers – account for great innovation, job creation, economic growth and global competitiveness.

You veteran NUF fellows are in important leadership positions. This is not small stuff. This is monumental. You must be proud of NUF’s contributions and eager to add to its legacy.

We face seemingly insurmountable challenges. To surmount them, we must draw on your talents, commitment and dedication. I know that you did not apply for an NUF fellowship just for a free ride. You applied because you are prepared to work hard to make a difference.

Coming from a nonprofit whose mission compels us to work to level the playing field, I offer some of the challenges that NUF fellows – past, present and future – must overcome:

First, increasing educational opportunity for the disadvantaged. We leave the disadvantaged behind at our own peril. Whether you labor in education, environmental affairs, health care, civil rights… whatever you do, education is at the heart of it all.

Second, how to better serve the nearly 6 million English learners in our public schools? They are the fastest growing cohort in K-12 education, and too many are being left behind. The solutions are local; the solutions are yours.

Third, how to improve classroom instruction. Educators and school administrators around the country have told me of their hopes for better pre-service and in-service training. It seems that much teacher education is still rooted in the past century.

Fourth, how to replicate education models that work. For example, can we replicate what Mayor Julián Castro did in San Antonio – a successful ballot initiative to strengthen early childhood education?

Fifth, how to harness the power of new Americans. How will we take advantage of the 11 or 12 million who are poised to become new citizens or residents with legal status?

Sixth, how to change attitudes. Outdated attitudes are alive and well, as is a lack of civility. Such attitudes limit opportunities, including your own, and must be met with conviction.

I think a lot about what our country will look like a generation from now. African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos will be the majority of our population. Spanish, already our second language, will be more pervasive.

Diverse cultures will shape the mainstream culture as never before. The digital age will have been surpassed by another technology age. Good health will be more related to good education (our diets, I hope, will change, and we will be healthier physically and intellectually).

Massive Open Online Courses — or MOOCs — will include assessments; and assessments, by the way, are the great equalizers. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, the STEM fields, will be more important than ever.

These and other changes await your leadership. And, they await our willingness to give back. Because the changes I just mentioned will not be part of the lives of millions of Americans who live on the margins.

Toward Solutions

Now, I could give my prescription for how to overcome these challenges. But late last year, JoAnn Sernke, Wisconsin’s 2013 Superintendent of the Year, said it best.

“Systems of all kinds, she said, can create environments that embrace innovation and creativity instead of stifling it.”

Here is how:

First, Create a context. Help people see why they should commit to doing something differently.

Second, Change the field of perception. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into one sector or improvement method. Be curious, break the duplication trap, find diverse information sources and get outside your comfort zone to find ideas and inspiration.

Third, Embrace dissonance. Conflict is part of the process of addressing mediocrity. Welcome conflict and make it productive.

And fourth, Collaborate. Good ideas often start as hunches that mature by getting attached to other hunches and ideas. The only way for good ideas to mature is through open communication, teamwork and divergent thinking.

Conclusion

You are on the front lines, in the trenches. You are grappling with change, overcoming the challenges – and leading.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” speaks of choices.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” he wrote. And, in the end, the traveler said he would take the road less traveled.

The well-traveled road is familiar, safe, secure and comfortable.

The less-traveled road, however, poses obstacles, rough terrain, challenges, unknown features.

You have chosen the road less traveled. It is the road of uncertainty, yes, the road of challenges and potential obstacles. But it will also be the road of returns, of benefits, of learning and of accomplishments in service to others. I am certain that you will prevail.

So, you have accepted the challenge of leadership for a changing America. You are asking or will soon ask the tough questions. With the help of others, you will search for the answers and harness the resources to implement them.

So I put forth to you…

“Don’t ask ‘why?’ Ask ‘why not?’”

Yvette Donado is the chief administrative officer and senior vice president of nonprofit Educational Testing Service, a leading educational research and assessment organization.

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