I started teaching more than 30 years ago, in a summer program designed to help students prepare for high school. My first job after college took me to Central America, where I taught English in rural classrooms. Since then I’ve taught American government at the Community College of Aurora, Metro State University of Denver, Red Rocks Community College, and the University of Colorado Denver.
Every teaching assignment reminds me, as my parents and grandparents always did, that education holds the key to opportunity. When we make good on the guarantee of free public education, we promote equality, propel our economy, and protect our republic.
Yet that guarantee, like so many other core tenets of democracy, is fragile. Some seek to sabotage public education in order to justify their calls to dismantle it.
Society itself has increased the demands at both ends of schooling: too few children start first grade ready to learn, and many who graduate find that a good-paying job requires more than a high-school diploma. That’s why we need to invest in early childhood education, recruit and retain top-flight teachers, and expand access to post-secondary education—instead of privatizing our schools, slashing their funding, or scapegoating our teachers and their unions.
Schools aren’t factories, and students aren’t widgets. We’ll continue to lose effective teachers if we force them simply to teach to a test. The real task of improving student achievement can be time-consuming and difficult, but it’s worth it. Above all, it requires us to use evidence, rather than ideology, to determine what works.
Here are some of the keys:
- Guarantee universal, high-quality preschool and full-day kindergarten, so that every child can start first grade ready to learn.
- Equip teachers with the time, training, resources, and compensation they need to succeed, including opportunities to learn from master teachers and engage in professional development.
- Ensure that students receive the benefit of high-quality instruction and individualized attention from well paid, certified teachers.
- Remove barriers that prevent students, especially students of color, from accessing a 21st-century education.
As an instructor in Colorado’s community colleges, I saw firsthand how important it was to keep student loans affordable, work-study funding and other forms of financial aid available, and tuition within reach. I championed those priorities as a state legislator.
Today’s economy makes post-secondary education ever more valuable. Yet for a large and growing share of the population, higher education remains out of reach. The skyrocketing cost of college has left 44 million students $1.5 trillion in debt—more than all Americans owe on their credit cards or automobile loans.
Student debt makes it harder for young people to support themselves or start a family, much less buy a home or save for retirement. Freeing students from debt will spur economic growth. Student debt relief would increase the nation’s gross domestic product by an estimated $1.1 trillion over the next decade and create as many as 1.5 million jobs per year.
Even more important, opening the doors of higher education reflects our commitment to the American Dream. We demonstrated that commitment as a country when we created a system of free public schools. Now we need to ensure that all Americans are prepared to pursue—and able to obtain—more than a high-school diploma.