Silicon Valley Must Lead the Nation in Improving Public Education

How many more years will the country and Silicon Valley put up with broken promises made to our children, before it is too late for us to recover from the lack of political will?

This year we commemorate the 30-year anniversary of a national report that provided a clarion call to improve our public education system. On April 26, 1983, before a jam-packed pressroom and a national audience, President Ronald Reagan held up the first published copy of an alarming report 18 months in the making: “A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.”

The report was only 36 pages, but it shook the bedrock of the education institution. One of the most troubling sentences in the report: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” All citizens, elected officials and community leaders should be arming themselves to fight this battle, so each and every child has the requisite skills to succeed in college and career.

In the 30 years since “A Nation At Risk,” only marginal improvements have been documented. The results for student achievement today are just as abysmal as then.

Last week I attended two inextricably related events, even if the connections are not obvious. The first was a press conference convened by Matt Hammer, announcing the release of a new report by Innovate Public Schools titled, “Broken Promises: The Children Left Behind in Silicon Valley Schools.

It took place in a jam-packed boardroom with a phalanx of television cameras and reporters. There is no doubt that the contents and data of this new report will spur conversations in some districts and board rooms, but not nearly enough to move the needle to get the results we need in publicly-funded Silicon Valley schools.

In the forward of the Broken Promises report, Hammer writes: “The reality now is that our children will be entering a job market that is increasingly global and highly competitive. Our public school system is nowhere near delivering the quality of education called for by that reality.

“But we can make it so. The good news is that there is an ever-growing number of great pubic schools here in the Valley that are bucking the trends. Those schools are proving what is possible. The question now is whether we have the political will to replicate and grow what is working…”

On Friday, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Carl Guardino hosted a second event, “SV Region- CA Economic Summit,” at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. There was a stimulating collection of panels with entrepreneurs, elected leaders, policy makers and community leaders.

In the first panel of the morning, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said that Silicon Valley is the most important region in the country. Jed York, president of the San Francisco 49ers, proudly exclaimed that Silicon Valley is to this era what Florence was to the Renaissance. Yet on the same panel, Preston Smith, president of Rocketship Education, said that CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) is being used as a weapon to stop education reform. San Francisco Supervisor Scott Weiner lamented the inequities between schools in technology and fundraising.

Mayor Reed was at both events, and on Friday he noted that in the 19 school districts in San Jose, 60 percent of Latinos do not read at grade level. But he ended his remarks with “Si, se puede,” or “Yes, we can,” the motto of the United Farm Workers.

The report released by Innovate Public Schools chronicled the data throughout all districts and schools, from traditional, public and charter. In fact, two of the top five schools with strong achievement results for Latinos in all of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are: No. 1: Rocketship Mateo Sheedy; and No. 4: Rocketship Si Se Puede, both chartered by the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

If Mayor Reed and Jeb York are correct—relative to the importance of this region to the economic success of this country—we have little time for lawsuits and lukewarm responses from education and political leaders. It will take bold and courageous leadership from superintendents, mayors, school board members, teacher union leaders, college presidents and other elected leaders and policymakers to employ the political will. 

At the closing of the SVLG Economic Summit, Guardino said he is bullish on California’s future. My brain can’t allow me to agree with him when a few minutes before, from the same microphone, Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, said that 40 percent of 3rd graders read below grade level and 60 percent of 3rd grade Latinos read below grade level in Silicon Valley.

I will become more agreeable with Mayor Reed and Guardino, if we set out on a regional effort to ensure every child, from birth to age 4, has consistent high quality learning experiences that prepare them for kindergarten. It is the most important next step. For the sake of the nation, this region must step up.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

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