When a reporter from the magazine Education Week put together a profile on my involvement in the movement to better America’s schools, a detractor observed, “Nobody’s ever called her subtle.” And that’s just fine. I’m full-blooded Italian; we don’t do subtle.
For decades, I’ve been in the mix—as a student, as a parent, as a reformer, and sure, as an agitator—in the matters that most affect America and its future: how we prepare our youngest citizens for their futures. Everything depends on this. The nation’s economy and workforce, its culture and stewardship of its past, even the functionality of its democracy—these are the greatest stakes imaginable. Accordingly, there isn’t time for delicacy.
Over a century ago, my maternal grandparents left Italy for a better life in America. My father would also come with his family a few decades later, all to achieve the American dream. My family obtained access to this dream through the institutions meant to enable them to do so – our schools. But for those arriving today or, more disturbingly, the next generation of descendants of those who arrived here in a previous century, the outcome is in doubt.
Confronted with the dreary fact that a paltry 35% of American children are reading at their appropriate grade level, does anyone really still believe that our nation’s schools remain where the American dream begins? The truth is there is now an enormous chasm between where this country once offered the opportunity of a full life and where it now disappoints and undermines that very dream for millions.
As I look at my personal and professional experiences in the larger education sphere from the earliest years of my career to the present, it is uncanny—no, unfortunate and even irresponsible—that what occurred a generation ago is still very much in play. We are a nation that prides itself on independence and entrepreneurship. We can do anything! But improving the delivery of and access to education and skills needed to work is still not a national priority enough to truly change what we do so that it actually works.
It was during a visit to Bella Italia that I was motivated to use history to carve some thoughts for the future. When archeologists dig through centuries of ground and uncover ancient cities and ancient ways of life, they study what transpired not just for idle interest. Rather, they do this so we can learn and know more about how history unfolds and what impact we can have on its course.
Consider this a bit of an archeology of education. An Unfinished Journey explains why I am motivated to not just share but to learn more about how we do what we do and why it is we often cannot move forward but why we must. I recall the sacrifices and reasons my family tree came to America, the nation they and so many others helped build and which we must preserve as well as expand to other nations less fortunate.
We must not be still or silent when generations are at stake. And education—varied by person, location, needs, skills, and aspirations and not tied to any one approach, system, or agency—is the key.
Since the above was written I have been blessed with my first grandchild. That he stands on the shoulders of giants who wanted a better future for generations to come, and that such a future demands exceptional education, provides even more urgency for the mission at hand.
You can order a copy of An Unfinished Journey here.
Jeanne Abate Allen is a long-time and respected leader in Washington, DC. She started her career on Capitol Hill in the Office of the late Rep. Marge Roukema (another Italian-American) before becoming a senior official in the U.S. Department of Education during the Reagan Administration. She founded the Center for Education Reform (CER) in 1993 and nurtured it to become the nation’s premier voice in advancing education innovation and opportunity. Readily admitting that her most important work is her family and four children, Jeanne somehow found time in the midst of all this to earn a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Education Entrepreneurship program.