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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Clean Sweep: Let's Fix the Mess We've Made of Urban Public Schools

A call for support, consideration, and care for urban public schools.
By Bill Cosby
Credit: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

I'm looking at a room. It's the junkiest room I've ever seen. A child did not make this room junky; this room was made junky by generations of litterers. Educated people -- legislators, school board members, superintendents, principals, taxpayers, teachers, and presidents -- have entered this room and added their mess to the mess that was already there.

Turn around and examine this junky room called school. Look at it and wonder why there is so little sympathy and support for those students and teachers who must live in the mess. Today, it is a wonder that our schools are able to do even as well as they do. I think we must be grateful that there always have been talented and determined teachers who find their way through the maze of rules and special interests and help their students shine.

On top of the mess is a new mess -- a slew of new directives stretching budgets for more tests, more requirements, more unfunded programs -- creating even more gaps in the education given to our wealthiest kids compared to our poorest kids. What is it that these children, these victims, have done to deserve this?

Wealthy people drive by the junky school and comfort themselves that money is not the issue. But nothing that is dear to America was ever maintained without it, from our nation's security to our communications systems, from our airlines to our highways. Believe this: The poor performance of schools and the lack of achievement among many of our students is indeed about money. We need money to secure great teachers, money to update teaching methods, money for technology and supplies, and money for time.

We can sweep up all of this mess and get back to what education comes down to: caring, intelligent, trustworthy, and knowledgeable adults who will ensure that every student can learn. For when the junk is cleaned out of that junky room, its structure is sound: Public education is a good foundation on which to build a better life for each of us, for our families and society.

I have lived a good part of my life as a public figure with a strong commitment to education. I receive letters all the time, and I know they can make a difference. Here is a small piece of one from a young woman, a teacher returning to graduate school to improve her craft. Her name is Sheena Oommen, and she attends Teachers College, Columbia University.

I always knew that I would become an educator, but I never thought that I would want to teach in the urban world. I asked myself, as well as others, "Why do I want to teach children who do not have a safe environment to learn in and who lack resources and support from administrators and family? Why do I want to put the time and effort in to teach these children, knowing that the only certain thing I will get is stress?" I sometimes think that I will wake up one day and not want to teach in the urban world. But this never occurs. My students need people who will love and support them through the good and bad times. My heart and mind are dedicated to urban youths. I believe I can make a difference.

What do we owe this young woman and those just like her who refuse to give up and who continue to work amidst the poverty, the violence, and the junk? If she will not turn her back, can you?

Bill Cosby, author, entertainer, and educator, wrote the prologue to Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do About the Real Crisis in Public Education (Teachers College Press, 2004), from which this is adapted. Used by permission.

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