by Larry Smith
Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a stirring speech at last week's Republican National Convention in Tampa that focused on education in America. As a top foreign policy expert, she noted that "strength begins at home." Although in American terms this refers to leadership in military technology, we thought her more general message would be a useful one for Bahamian policymakers to hear.
Along with Barack Obama, Rice is a key role model for the African-American community. Born in 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama - the only child of a Presbyterian minister and a schoolteacher - she grew up surrounded by racism in the segregated South, but went on to become the first woman and first African American to serve as provost of Stanford University. In 2001, she was appointed national security adviser by President George W. Bush, and became the first black woman to serve as secretary of state (from 2005 to 2009.)
Rice earned her bachelor's degree in political science in 1974; a master's in 1975; and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver's Graduate School of International Studies in 1981. After leaving her government job, she became co-chair of the Independent Task Force on US Education Reform and National Security, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The task force includes 31 prominent education experts, national security authorities, and corporate leaders.
This group of experts has warned Americans that "Educational failure puts the United States' future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk. The country will not be able to keep pace—much less lead—globally unless it moves to fix the problems it has allowed to fester for too long."
And education reform is not a question of money. The United States invests more in K-12 public education than most other developed countries, yet American students rank 14th in reading, 25th in math, and 17th in science internationally. More than a quarter of students fail to graduate from high school in four years; and for African-American and Hispanic students this number approaches 40 per cent.
Does that sound familiar? It should, because both sides of our political divide have recently acknowledged the failure of the Bahamian public school system in the face of even worse statistics. This is after many years of political stonewalling and prodding by private sector leaders and commentators. The business community in particular has long complained that a large percentage of Bahamian students leave school functionally illiterate - in other words, unable to compete for a decent job.
Just recently, in a letter to the newspapers, Farrington recalled how he (a senior executive at the Atlantis Resort) and the late hotel union president Pat Bain had recognised the serious difficulties that major businesses experienced in recruiting Bahamian staff because of the "appalling level of illiteracy".
So they decided to research the issue and make recommendations for reform. To do this, they formed a coalition including the hotel union and hotel associations, the National Congress of Trade Unions and the Bahamas Employers Confederation, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Nassau Down Town Development Association. Their first report was published in 2005 and the second in 2007.
"I cannot help but feel extreme disappointment with what was largely an indifference to the content of the report," Farrington wrote. "I am still irked that what we had done was historic, (but was) ignored. In all likelihood, such a partnership will not be repeated. The leadership of our country had within easy reach a foundation consisting of partners, irrespective of political affiliation, on which we could have crafted real reform in education for the benefit of all citizens."
Now here we are another election cycle later and the politicians seem to be slowly waking up to the dangers we face in education.
Prime Minister Perry Christie recently acknowledged that poor results from government schools threaten our national development. Former Education Minister Desmond Bannister said our schools suffer from an entrenched bureaucracy that protected "unqualified teachers in critical subjects". And current Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald admitted that half of all Bahamian students are flunking high school and called for "a frank and open discussion" on reforming the system.
It will be interesting to see if such a discussion ever takes place, but clearly it is something that should have happened a long time ago. Education reform is a long-term project with no quick payoffs for politicians, but a smart administration would make it a centrepiece of its five-year term. Instead, we are arguing over the stationing of police in schools, without any evidence of whether or not this makes sense.
At a recent function in honour of the late Dr Keva Bethel, one of the country's greatest educators, the prime minister said he would reserve his substantive comments on education for a future occasion. In the meantime, here is the kernel of what Rice had to say about this subject last week. Aside from the rhetoric on American exceptionalism, she could easily have been talking about the Bahamas.
"What really unites us, is not nationality or ethnicity or religion. It is an idea. And what an idea it is. That you can come from humble circumstances and you can do great things, that it does not matter where you came from, it matters where you are going.
Ours has been a belief in opportunity. And it has been a constant struggle, long and hard, up and down, to try to extend the benefits of the American dream to all. But that American ideal is indeed in danger today. There is no country, not even a rising China, that can do more harm to us than we can do to ourselves if we do not do the hard work before us here at home.
More than at any other time in history, greatness is built on mobilizing human potential and ambition. We have always done that better than any country in the world. People have come here from all over because they have believed our creed of opportunity and limitless horizons.
They have come here from the world's most impoverished nations just to make a decent wage. And they have come here from advanced societies as engineers and scientists that fuel the knowledge-based revolution across this great land.
We must continue to welcome the world's most ambitious people to be a part of us. In that way, we stay young and optimistic and determined. We need immigration laws that protect our borders, meet our economic needs, and yet show that we are a compassionate nation of immigrants.
We have been successful, too, because Americans have known that one's status of birth is not a permanent condition. Americans have believed that you might not be able to control your circumstances but you can control your response to your circumstances.
And your greatest ally in controlling your response to your circumstances has been a quality education. But today, when I can look at your zip code and I can tell whether you're going to get a good education, can I honestly say it does not matter where you came from, it matters where you are going? The crisis in K-12 education is a threat to the very fabric of who we are.
My mom was a teacher. I respect the profession. We need great teachers, not poor ones and not mediocre ones. We have to have high standards for our kids, because self-esteem comes from achievement, not from lax standards and false praise.
And we need to give parents greater choice, particularly poor parents whose kids, very often minorities, are trapped in failing neighborhood schools. This is the civil rights issue of our day.
If we do anything less, we can damage generations to joblessness and hopelessness and life on the government dole. If we do anything less, we will endanger our global imperatives for competitiveness. And if we do anything less, we will tear apart the fabric of who we are and cement the turn toward entitlement and grievance.
On a personal note, a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham. The segregated city of the south where her parents cannot take her to a movie theater or to restaurants, but they have convinced her that even if she cannot have a hamburger at Woolworths, she can be the president of the United States if she wanted to be, and she becomes the secretary of state."
The task force that Rice co-chairs has proposed three key policy recommendations to address the failures of education in America. They boil down to higher standards, more accountability, greater choice, better teachers, and deeper public engagement.
In a commencement address this summer, Rice summed up her views this way: “Education is transformational. It literally changes lives. That is why people work so hard to become educated and why education has always been the key to human beings and their dreams, the force that erases arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture and unlocks every person's God-given potential.”