Americans like to tout the importance of a high school diploma, but research reported in The Mirror recently shows that record-high graduation rates do not tell the full story of academic opportunity for Connecticut’s students. In the study, an unacceptable number of the state’s black and Hispanic high school graduates needed post-secondary remedial courses when compared to white students. In today’s world, students need some form of post-secondary education – whether it be a traditional four-year institution, training or credentialing program – to be prepared for success.

For the sake of our country’s future, it is imperative that we inspect the inequitable structural forces at play in our education system. We cannot continue to buy into inaccurate narratives about individual students or families of color. And we cannot tolerate a system of learning that produces such uneven results. Today’s students are our future neighbors, colleagues and leaders. The future of the state is dependent upon examining and correcting these inequities so that all of our learners can prosper, and our communities can thrive.

Our greatness as a country rests in part on the strength of a great public good – our system of public education. But as the world changes, as our country evolves and as the people who define us diversify, so must this great, but weary institution.

Research reminds us about the importance of relevancy to learning. But too frequently, the material young people study does not reflect their histories or celebrate their cultures in ways that engage them in learning. Organizations like Students for Educational Justice (SEJ) in New Haven are campaigning for more relevant history curriculum.

This is because focusing exclusively on European-centric content is not preparing any of our young people fully enough to become our future leaders. SEJ is advocating that “A History of Race and Racism in the United States” become an elective course in New Haven, New Haven County and Fairfield County high schools. This is a promising step in ensuring that all students are well-prepared to effectively address issues that continue to limit our progress as a just, vibrant democracy.

We also need to rethink how, when and where teaching and learning happens. Recall and recitation are no longer enough to prepare young people for today’s workforce. Today’s young leaders need to be able to think critically, integrate knowledge and skills to address complex problems, and address multi-dimensional challenges in real world contexts.

Educators can learn from Chinma Uche in Windsor, who is passionate about improving access to computer science and increasing representation of people of color in the STEM fields. Instead of students sitting in rows, frantically scribbling notes and taking tests, Uche’s class is project-driven, with a focus on problem solving, communication and collaboration.

Our systems of discipline further stack the deck against young people by keeping too many of them out of school. A recent study found that Chicago Public Schools saw test scores and attendance rise when the district reduced its suspensions. Instead of relying on antiquated forms of punishment that disproportionately suspend students of color, districts should embrace restorative justice tactics to resolve conflict.

In New London, Hearing Youth Voices has gathered youth from across the state to call for an end to a school-to-prison pipeline shaped by suspensions, expulsions and arrests of students of color. Instead, these Connecticut residents seek to replace old-school, counter-productive institutional habits with opportunities to teach students about the American values of responsibility, accountability and community.

In addition, parents are valuable partners for improving education and should be involved in the decisions affecting their children. But many face linguistically and culturally biased barriers that prevent them from engaging with educators throughout the course of their child’s educational development.

This presents a disconnect with parents who want to share their voices, but feel shut out from knowing what is happening in their kids’ schools. We must support districts to work with organizations like Hartford Parent University, which provides programming for families to actively address inequities within schools.

College remediation rates are one important example of why we must decide if we want education to be an unfair competition, or if we can correct deep, persistent disparities to prepare all students for successful futures. The good news is that many of our communities have already chosen the latter and are beginning discussions that shine light on the tensions and limits that unchecked structural racism promotes. If Connecticut wants to grow its economy and strengthen its democracy, it must pursue the thoughtful, modern renovation of a hallowed public good, our system of public education – and face the social issues that keep it that way. I know the residents of this great state are more than up to the task.

Nick Donohue is president & CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

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