“Public education is broken: How will you fix it?”

July 11, 2011

In April, NewSchools teamed up with the student-led nonprofit Students for Education Reform (SFER) to host a national essay competition. We all recognize that public education is broken; we wanted to hear from students how they propose to fix it. Macy Olivas, a junior at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, authored the winning essay.

“Public education is broken: How will you fix it?”

I hate to say that I lucked out on the education I received, because the truth is that education should never be a matter of luck. Winning a game of poker, finding a dollar bill on the floor, making it home on that last little bit of gas—that is luck. But ensuring that a child receives a great education should never be a gamble. It should be guaranteed.

The lottery worked in my favor nine years ago when I was admitted to attend a charter school on the University of California San Diego’s campus. Going to a school dedicated to helping low-income minorities become first generation college students encouraged me to want to advocate for all of today’s youth to have the same educational opportunity that I enjoyed.

I may just be an undergraduate student, but I can see the flaws in today’s current education system. Open up your local newspaper and you will see the discord and strikes consuming your neighborhood schools. Pink slips, tenure, a dearth of qualified teachers in the classroom; these are just some of the issues haunting our current education system. It is not a matter of whether something needs to change in today’s public schools; it is a matter of when. When are we as a nation going to step up and realize that future generations—those who we hope will finally secure world peace or find the cure for cancer—are not being equipped with the knowledge they need? Moreover, we are not even preparing them to have successful futures of their own. While there is no end-all solution to fix our broken public education system, there is a place we can start.

We must start by recognizing that we are here to serve the students. Education is becoming an increasingly polarized issue. Pro-charter, pro-magnet, pro-teacher unions—many are either on one side of the spectrum or the other. But, as a young education reformer, I choose to describe my position as simply pro-great schools. The best way to continually remind ourselves that students must come first is by promoting constructive discussion between education leaders from all parts of the reform spectrum. Courageous conversations and collaboration can happen between people that may not see eye-to-eye, but are willing to put aside their differences to figure out how we can make sure our education system is not failing our students. For example, Michelle Rhee recently named George Parker, former president of the Washington Teachers Union, as the first senior fellow of her organization StudentsFirst. While the two may have butted heads during Rhee’s tenure as DC Public Schools Chancellor, their new partnership shows us first hand that bringing equity to education requires a united effort.

Proposing constructive discussion does not explicitly resolve issues like “Last in, First Out” or reform teacher training. But my hope is that by pushing adult differences aside, we can align every aspect of our public education system with what is in the best interest of the students. One way I stay student-focused is always remembering to invest time in listening to the stories of the students I work with. Hearing the dreams that they have for their own lives fuels my efforts and helps me remember that winning a debate over issues in education will never be as satisfying as seeing a student achieve their highest and best.

My advice to people in the world of education on how not to get sucked into petty politics: interact and get to know the students for whom you are advocating. For some that may mean becoming a mentor; to others that may mean spending more time in schools to get a firsthand look at what is really going on in classrooms. Whatever method you choose, I challenge you to really listen to what students have to say. They can offer real insight into their schooling experience and say firsthand what has and has not been working in our public education system today at the most critical level—that of the student.

Whether you are an educator, administrator, or education reformer, I encourage you to never be driven by anything but wanting to see student success. Whether or not you are aware, your actions have a direct impact on the lives of many children, families, and communities. You have one of the most important jobs: fostering our tomorrows. With that comes great responsibility, but also so much empowerment. You have the ability to change students’ lives for the better and help open up a world of opportunities for them. There is no room for polarization. We must wake up and realize that there are students out there who need to be heard, served, and fought for.

Macy Olivas is a rising junior at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington where she serves as the chapter leader for SFER Whitworth. This summer, she is working on the Teach for America New York Summer Institute staff at St. John’s University.