What I Told President Obama About Education Reform

Muhammed Chaudhry President, Silicon Valley Education Foundation
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This week I attended what will likely be the last major event President Obama hosts at the White House for the American Muslim community — an Eid celebration to mark the end of the month of Ramadan.

At the 2014 White House Iftar, President Obama graciously recognized the work we’ve done at the non-profit I lead — Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF). In particular, he praised our progress on STEM education and in the opportunities we’ve created for girls and children of color — two severely underrepresented demographics in the American education system.

As the father of twins, a boy and a girl, this hits close to home. Pew reports that as of 2013, children of color comprise more than 50 percent of the student population. Girls have always represented more than half of the student population. Yet, notwithstanding the insufficient opportunities we afford girls and children of color, overall America is nowhere near the top of the education ladder when compared to other developed nations worldwide.

While we still have a long way to go, the past eight years under the Obama administration has meant dramatic improvements for how our children learn, and the resources with which they learn. Many of SVEF’s programs have run parallel to President Obama’s education programs. This is critical because the next administration must reflect these policies if we hope to regain our world leading ranking in education.

For example, when the 2008 recession hit, most school districts eliminated summer programs and many actually cut the number of school days. President Obama responded to these and other cuts by pumping $100 billion in funding into local school districts. SVEF echoed this strategy with our Elevate [Math] program—which was often the only summer school offered in many districts and critically provided more instructional days than students otherwise would have received. We’ve now managed to position thousands of students for college readiness, whereas otherwise they would ‘fall through the cracks,’ so to speak.

Likewise, the President’s “Race to the Top” competition invested $4.35 billion into school reform projects. This encouraged, among other things, the adoption of high standards such as the Common Core standards. The SVEF Elevate [Math] program I mentioned was among the first in California to include Common Core standards. We designed a proven model for measuring the success of districts in 8th grade Algebra. Perhaps more than any other subject, success in Math is a student’s best indicator of success in college. Our model combined state data on Algebra achievement along with student enrollment, which enabled districts to accurately evaluate their overall Math success.

SVEF has echoed the President’s i3 grant program by advancing our STEM education. We’ve responded to the President’s expansion of Pre-K education by relentlessly advocating for Pre-K children since our early collaboration with California’s First-5 program. Last year the President signed ESSA, which replaces “No Child Left Behind,” and brings a ‘lighter hand’ approach to education from the federal government. This means that local and state governments have much more say over their children’s education — an initiative SVEF fully supports.

But all this said, I’ll tell you what I have conveyed to the president and his education advisors — we have a long way to go to ensure our children receive the education rights to which every child is entitled. The next administration can help us fulfill these obligations. But parents must also play an integral role. If you are a parent, or soon to be parent, the next administration’s policies will directly impact your children.

First, we must support Common Core and high standards for all students. For some reason Common Core has received a bad rep in some political circles. I’m not sure why. The curricula are locally developed and state run. Far from being a cookie cutter or out of touch approach, Common Core empowers local teachers and administrations to develop customized education for their kids.

Next, it is imperative we make college more affordable — possibly through tuition free public universities — particularly for those of modest means. This will create a greater incentive for our youth to pursue higher education as the fear of massive debt won’t prevent their progress. And on a long term note, graduates will have more expendable income to turn our economic engine.

Last, and perhaps most near and dear to our hearts at SVEF, the next administration must invest heavily in STEM education and new technology. This means every school should have high speed internet, advanced computer science education, ESSA, and overall school modernization. These advances will make our schools safer, educate more capable students for a future ingrained in technology, and ultimately save money through higher degrees of efficiency.

I’ll miss collaborating with this President on advancing our nation’s education goals. I’m confident, however, that we can ensure we close the education gap and give an equal chance at education success to all our children — girls and children of color. Most importantly, if we continue on this roadmap together — educators, government leaders, and parents alike — we can accelerate our rise through the world’s education rankings.

Our children deserve nothing less.

Muhammed Chaudhry is President and CEO of Silicon Valley Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @EducationIQ.