The Greatest Generation would challenge us to do better for public education
Burlington (N.C.) Times-News
April 27, 2014
As is the case for many American families, my grandparents immigrated to the United States with very little knowledge of the English language. My dad’s father worked as a laborer for the city of Berlin, N.H., keeping the streets clean. My mom’s father worked in a pulp and paper mill – dangerous work that cost him his eyesight in one eye. My mother became her high school class valedictorian. My father used his G.I. bill benefits to earn a two-year business degree and worked for a single employer – General Electric – for his entire career.
One of the most important threads linking the generations of our family is the unflagging belief in the power of education to create better futures. Schools were the bedrock of the communities in which we were raised. Teachers were respected, even revered. Even though she currently lives with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, who can no longer remember all of her grandchildren, can vividly recall sweet stories about the teachers who inspired her as a girl.
For me, witnessing the decline of public education in North Carolina, and especially here in Alamance County, is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. More than any preceding generation, our children and grandchildren will require a world-class education to survive in a global economy. They will compete for jobs with people from Bangalore, Shanghai and Zurich. A young person entering today’s workforce will hold an estimated 29 different jobs over the course of his or her lifetime, and must be prepared to adapt to breathtaking technological changes to come.
Excellent teachers are at the very center of great schools, and yet we have allowed teacher pay in North Carolina to slip to 46th place among the 50 states. Alamance County is well below the state average on that critical measure. My parent’s generation supported bond referendums to build new school facilities when they were required. In Alamance County, well over 1,000 students have a trailer as their classroom. We must do better.
Here are some ideas that I believe our community needs to talk about:
- We must finally come to understand that our economic future is tied directly to the quality of education we provide for our children. Mediocrity (or worse) in public education will relegate us to second-rate status as a community, state and nation. A wisely spent dollar in education is the best economic development and anti-poverty investment we can make. We should be concerned about the number of great people who work in Alamance County but establish their residences elsewhere in order to enroll their children in better schools.
- We must foster innovation and excellence in our schools. Superintendent Lillie Cox is exactly right when she says that ABSS should offer high quality options, such as an International Baccalaureate high school and schools that focus especially on science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) fields, among many other options.
- Schools also need more funding for the simple basics – paper, books, teaching supplies, etc.
- We need to have our ABSS executives and the Board of Education on the same page, and it appears increasingly that they are not. A great step forward was made when a group of citizens articulated a powerful vision statement for ABSS. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to operationalize that vision with concrete plans and goals for which we will be held accountable.
- It will take years of hard work, investment, planning, vision and commitment to build better schools. We have many examples of successful institutions in Alamance County that have embraced the ideas of innovation and excellence and risen to national prominence. We should expect the same from our school system over time.
- It is going to take the commitment of parents, voters, civic groups, faith communities and most especially the voice of the business and employer communities to demand greater investment in education.
- Teaching is still the most important profession on the planet. Our future prosperity rests in the hands of creative, dedicated and inspiring teachers. Teachers certainly deserve more pay, but they also deserve far more respect and gratitude than we have shown them of late.
Each of us has a stake in making things better for the next generation. It is a responsibility for which the “greatest generation” sacrificed, and we owe it to our children and grandchildren to emulate their selflessness.
Leo M. Lambert
Leo Lambert is the president of Elon University. His daughters are graduates of Williams High School.