Jul 08, 2015 - 4:00pm

What Can Robert DeNiro Teach Us About Education?

Vice President of Education Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Senior Vice President of Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

Recently, I watched a Robert DeNiro film from the early 1990s called “A Bronx Tale,” where he plays a father struggling to keep his only son from the influence of a local mob boss.

Throughout the movie, DeNiro keeps telling his son that “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent” in the hope that his son will shun the mafia life and pursue something more meaningful:  staying in school and going to college.

This line in the movie got me thinking — about No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In a Washington Post editorial about NCLB, the board criticized the lack of accountability in the current version of the Senate bill to reauthorize the law. And more specifically, the board noted the negative effect this would have on mostly poor and minority children — precisely the students the law was written to protect.

They write, “Dozens of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, have criticized the bill … so do business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which know it is foolish as well as immoral to let talent go to waste.”

Let talent go to waste.

These five words sum up the reason why the business community is so invested in getting the reauthorization of this law right. We can’t afford to let talent go to waste. Not in a highly competitive 21st century global economy.

If we are to expand opportunity and grow our economy so the next generations can imagine, create and innovate, we must guarantee those students who have traditionally been left on the sidelines are fully in the game.  

In April, the Chamber’s President and CEO Tom Donohue and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights President and CEO Wade Henderson penned an Op-ed for The Washington Post outlining the three core provisions in the law that must remain intact to garner both organizations’ support.

The Senate bill as it currently stands includes two of the three—annual statewide assessments and public reporting of data. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle deserve praise for this. Where the bill falls short, however, is in its weak language around state accountability systems.

In the proposed Senate bill, there are no consequences for states that continue to fail underserved students. This is unacceptable and lawmakers need to strengthen this provision. States are given $15 billion a year by taxpayers to improve achievement among our neediest students. We must have policies in place that allow for intervention if states aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.

If this country is to remain a global leader, we must make certain that more kids are able to reach their full potential and become drivers of economic growth.

If we claim to be the greatest nation on earth, where anyone can succeed if they put their mind to it, then let’s be steadfast in ensuring we can develop those minds. These are the kids who could create the next Apple, the next Amazon, the next Tesla, the next innovation that changes the world.

Who knows what extraordinary possibilities could be realized if ALL students were given the tools to reach their full potential?

So, let’s do the right thing for these students. Because, as Robert DeNiro so rightly said, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

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About the Author

About the Author

Cheryl Oldham Headshot
Vice President of Education Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Senior Vice President of Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

Cheryl A. Oldham is vice president of education policy at the U.S.