On February 1 and 2nd, 2008, I had an opportunity to listen to a long-term advocate for children speak. While attending the NSBA Leadership Conference in Washington, DC, I attended a talk entitled “Learning 24/7: Critical Supports Our Students Need to Succeed”. The speaker was Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Mrs. Edelman started out by reminding the audience how we sometimes forget in this time of economic struggles about the 13 million poor, and 5.6 million extremely poor children who are trying to meet NCLB in our districts. Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. Edelman asks “America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and have-nots… There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is if we have the will.” The mission statement for the Children’s Defense Fund states that they “provide a strong, effective voice for all the children of America who cannot vote, lobby, or speak for themselves.”
The Wikipedia website defines Advocacy as the act of arguing on behalf of a particular issue, idea or person. If we go to the Institute for Sustainable Communities website, they have a very good working definition of Advocacy that we as board members can relate to:
“Advocacy is a set of hands-on technical skills and practices needed to effectively press for change. It is also the foundation of active citizenship, a process through which ordinary people learn to participate in decision making at all levels. Identifying priorities, crafting a strategy, stepping forward, taking action, and achieving results are critical steps to finding one’s voice, making oneself heard, and shaping one’s future.”
As board members in Delaware, we are a volunteer group of citizens who has taken on the responsibility of advocating Public Education. By building on the Vision, Structure, and Accountability we discussed previously, Delaware’s boards are using their voices to shape the future of the children in Delaware as Advocates. Let us look at some of the ways in which we act as advocates today. First, recognizing and celebrating the accomplishments of the students and staff of our respective districts by attending everything from open houses to graduations. Second, work with parents and parents groups to build relationships that foster the “developmental assets” needed to help students grow as citizens. Next, work with other stakeholders and education groups, state and federal, that can lend insight and help to see that all children have the right to a good education experience. Lastly, as board members we need to promote not only board service, but also long term service that research has shown is the best way to influence the education our children receive in Delaware. Now that we looked at what we need to do lets look at why it is so important in this day and age.
Education reforms started many years ago, but in the 1990’s it began to gain momentum and in the 2000’s schools faced NCLB. Most states and districts have had to adopt federal standards for outcome-based education in some form or another. Each state adopted these standards, and then developed performance-based assessments to assess whether the students knew the required content or could perform the required tasks. These “higher standards” have resulted in very difficult tests that in many states are being required for a high school diploma. As advocates, board members today are responsible for ensuring that these assessments are not, the “end all” for our students as not everyone performs their best on standardized tests! Going along with assessments is school finances and many people have argued that U.S. public schools are not underfunded. These same groups claim that despite this high level of funding, U.S. public schools lag behind the schools of other rich countries in the areas of reading, math, and science. Then to make things even harder we have an article by William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, stating that increased levels of spending on public education have not made the schools better. Being an advocate for education means in most cases doing more with less, and educating the next generation of taxpayers and voters.