It was 54 years ago when the Supreme Court declared that separate schools for Black students and White students were "inherently unequal."
"In these days," the Court wrote, "it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
Today, if you are born Black or Latino, chances are good that America's public schools will fail you. You're more likely to drop out of high school. If you stay in high school, you're likely to score lower on the SATs, and you're less likely to graduate from college. You're likely left woefully unprepared to achieve what's supposed to be our shared American Dream.
We all need to recognize that fixing our schools is the civil rights struggle of our time. And we can't just recognize it. We have to take action. Rhetoric won't fix our schools' problems.
For real change, we must be willing, as a nation, to tackle five major problems. For each one, we must ask ourselves if the status quo helping students learn. If not, we have to ask how we can fix it so that they do.
First, we must be willing to ensure that there is an effective teacher in every classroom by paying teachers as they professionals they are, by giving them the tools and training they need to succeed, and by removing teachers who prove that they aren't able to help students learn.
Today, instead of judging teachers on the basis of their work, there's a lock-step pay scale based on seniority and back-heavy pension plans.
And it's hard to believe, but today, some teachers, year after year, are dragging down student performance–leaving kids worse off academically than they were at the beginning of the school year. And the highest needs students are the most likely to get the least talented teachers.
Second, we must be willing to create real accountability at all levels of our school system. This doesn't mean tests and compliance. It means making sure that educators are educating, that students are learning, that we're measuring results in a rational way, and that we're making decisions based on what we learn.
Third, we must be willing to empower parents by giving them a meaningful voice in where their children are educated. This means increasing public-school choice, including creating significant charter school opportunities for high-need students.
Fourth, we must be willing to set national standards, so all American students, whether they're growing up in Los Angeles, Kansas City, or New York City are learning what they need to succeed-and are held to the same high expectations. We can't allow states to continue a bar-lowering "race to the bottom," gaming the Federal standards at the expense of students.
Finally, and probably most importantly, we must be willing to challenge politicians, union leaders, educators, and anybody else who stands in the way of necessary change and seeks to preserve a system that isn't working for too many of our children.
These things won't be easy–but we owe it to our children to fix what our fathers left unfixed in the last century. We cannot afford to give up until we reach a day when your parents' skin color, zip code, and tax bracket no longer determine the quality of your education. It's time for our nation's leaders to lead.