With a third of U.S. beginner teachers leaving their positions within their first five years, it is no wonder the United States education system is a topic of heated discussion.

The Leaders in Education Advocacy and Reform Network held an all-day conference Saturday at the Penn Law School. The conference, “Bridging Sectors to Rebuild Education,” brought together professionals from different aspects of education and cities across the nation to discuss improving American education.

Education means opportunity, said Congressman Chaka Fattah, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, in his opening keynote address. “If you got an education, it’s going to earn you one million plus more [over your lifetime] than if you only had a high-school diploma.”

The keynote panel that followed consisted of six leaders from legal, business, teaching, nonprofit and policy backgrounds.

Valerie Strauss, editor and education reporter for The Washington Post, moderated the event.

“Depending on your point of view, the times we live in, the educational world is either the best of times or the worst of times,” Strauss admitted. And Strauss and all six panelists agreed, no one sector can do it all.

Diane Castelbuono, associate vice president of Community Impact and Education at United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, discussed how her nonprofit experience from 10 years ago helped improve education.

Thousands of children were covered under health care but never saw a doctor. It turned out that parents could not figure out the paperwork or did not have time to take their children to the doctor, or a combination of the two.

The solution Castelbuono and her group came to tracked and nudged students to get their annual check-up, helping them with transportation and forms in the process. The project was a success and 20,000 students who had never received a check-up before finally received their deserved health care.

Damon Hewitt, director of the Education Practice at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, touched on the even more sensitive issue of racism, “something that haunted me and still haunts me today,” he said.

African-American students are still targeted in school, as black males are three and a half times more likely to receive out-of-school suspension than white males.

One African-American girl threw a temper tantrum and was put in handcuffs for it. “She didn’t have a gun, knife or brass knuckles,” Hewitt said.

The controversy over discipline does not stop at race. Corporal punishment is still legal in 20 states; hundreds of thousands of students are still getting “whacked with paddles,” Strauss said.

The multi-sectored approach continued at the conference’s breakout sessions after the keynote panel.

The government and policy-making panel — featuring the Delaware Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery and Mayor Nutter’s Chief Officer of Education Lori Shorr, among others — discussed money’s role in quality education.

“We’re spending, on average, more per student, but the money is going to the wrong places,” said Susan Gobreski, the executive director of Education Voters Institute.

For example, even though Montgomery County, Pa., is one of the wealthiest counties in America, according to former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, students still do not have books to bring home.

We are “over-reliant on property taxes,” Gobreski said, and as a result people with better houses are getting a better education.

Teachers also play a big part in a student’s education. Should they be accountable for how poorly low-income students perform in school? Are students of low economic status condemned to bad teachers?

Gobreski notes it is difficult to compare one teacher’s performance to another without considering the students and environment.

With over 150 graduate students, teachers, attorneys, superintendents and directors present, many saw the conferences as a step forward in raising awareness and sharing different perspectives about education issues.

Though second-year Masters of Social Work graduate student Melissa Skolnick doesn’t see this conference as an eye-opener per se, since she has a lot of knowledge about the issues, it made her “aware of the different ties and ideas that other people have in order to make systemic change in something such as education.”

“It’s nice to have a diverse background of speakers,” Alanna Tievsky, a third-year graduate student at the School of Social Policy & Practice, said. “And while they come from various backgrounds, I think they share similar opinions and similar goals. The solution to fixing education isn’t going to come from just one of them.”

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