In the first of many meetings to be hosted by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, education leaders pinpointed the myriad challenges in public education Thursday night.

Becker said urban schools especially are experiencing great obstacles, and he feels frustrated with the Legislature's "lack of understanding and willingness to listen" to the plight of inner-city schools.

"The Legislature seems to be very willing to recognize the particular challenges and opportunities associated with rural schools but turns, too often, a deaf ear to the unique circumstances we face in urban schools," Becker said.

The mayor added he is looking to "fill the gap the Legislature has left us."

Becker addressed a group of about 200 educators gathered at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center in Salt Lake City.

The mayor's summits are planned to run in a series over the next few years. The next event is planned for March.

Panel members discussed many education challenges — from the need to provide education earlier than kindergarten to narrowing the achievement gap.

Michael L. Hardman, dean of the University of Utah's College of Education, said he is looking forward to a national administration that "will see public education and higher education as part of the solution — not the problem. We have a lot of hope."

Paula Smith, executive director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center for Community of Caring, echoed Hardman's remarks, saying right now is an era of change nationally.

"We are at a very pivotal and critical time in education. We have an opportunity to look at education through a different lens," Smith said. "This is a time in history when we have a chance to really make a difference."

The center provides character-education programs in 1,200 schools nationally and in Canada.

Marilyn Cochran-Smith, an education professor at Boston College, said education leaders need to stop focusing "so narrowly on the need to produce the nation's work force and maintain the nation's place in the global economy."

Test scores aren't everything, Cochran-Smith said. Among other things, educators should help students think in a critical way. "Young people need to have respect for multiple views and other perspectives," she said.

McKell Withers, Salt Lake District superintendent and the 2009 Superintendent of the Year, addressed the achievement gap, emphasizing the importance of early childhood education.

"Poverty is our biggest obstacle," Withers said. "But also the lack of high expectations for our kids stands in the way of success."

Andrea Rorrer, director of the Utah Education Policy Center, which focuses on research and education policy issues, said the system has genuinely failed students by decreasing opportunities.

There is no magic answer — no one thing that will make a difference. Instead, there are dozens of anecdotes, Rorrer said. Providing more education funding and early childhood development, as well as reducing class sizes, tops her list.

Paula Smith, a former Head Start teacher, agreed with Rorrer, emphasizing giving children early skills so educators "can accumulatively build upon them across time."