We’ve been hearing a lot about public education reform lately; No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization and the Race to the Top is one of President Obama’s top policy initiatives. But all this talk about reform is not really about public education. “Public education” is a code phrase for education for the poor and the achievement gap that exists between lower- and higher-income students.
The conventional wisdom is that failing schools are the cause of the problem and, as a result, should be the point of intervention for fixing the problem. Public education reform these days focuses on improving schools by raising academic standards, requiring rigorous student testing, calling for more teacher evaluation and training, and demanding accountability, all admirable and valuable goals to be sure. But these efforts are doomed to fail for the same reasons that such efforts have failed for decades. Why such abject failure? Because we are attacking the problem in the wrong place; the cart is clearly before the horse. The real problem with public education today is failing students, not failing schools.
To solve the problem of public education in America, school reform is not enough. I’m not saying that we should ignore the schools. To the contrary, because the challenge of changing children’s lives is enormous and may take years to implement, changes in schools also need to be addressed. The reality is that we need to do it all for poor children if they are to have a chance at getting a good education.
It’s easy to compare successful and failing schools and see the obvious differences in facilities, resources, and support. But these “causes” of public education’s problems have blinded us to the real difference, namely, how prepared students are to achieve academic success. The majority of students in “good” schools are prepared to learn when they enter the public-school system while most students who attend “failing” schools are not.
Research has shown that low-income parents use fewer words with their children on a daily basis, engage in less bidirectional conversation, and expose their children to books and reading far less often compared to middle- and upper-income parents. These differences in early childhood experiences between these groups of children are striking and demonstrate why failing students are the problem. It seems clear enough: schools are failing because they are trying to educate students who are not prepared to learn.
Until we embrace this seemingly obvious fact, we will never find a real solution to our public education problem. We will continue to play a mostly futile game of catch-up. It’s quite simple (though not the least bit easy), if we fix the students, we fix much of what is wrong with our public education system.
Obviously, parents are responsible for the early experiences that do or do not prepare their children for school. And poor parents must accept just as much responsibility as well-to-do parents. The reality is that some low-income parents do find a way to prepare their children for school; we periodically hear stories of disadvantaged families who drove their children to academic success and out of the vicious cycle of poverty. As a result, it would be easy to invoke negative stereotypes of poor parents and simply demand that they step up to the plate for their children. But to do so would be to unfairly deny the challenges they face in their lives and to absolve our society of its significant role in this enduring culture of academic failure.
Our current economic system makes it almost impossible for low-income parents to prepare their children for success in school. Some of these obstacles include the absence of a living wage, parents working two jobs (meaning little time with their children), too many single-parent families, young, poor, and uneducated young people becoming parents, many parents who speak little or no English, and costly child care. All of these all-too-real barriers conspire to prevent many poor parents from doing right by their children.
We need to give poor parents the resources and support they need so they can devote the time and energy necessary to prepare their children for academic success. We also need to provide poor children with the chance to develop all of the necessary attitudes and skills for learning with quality child care and pre-school. If we can create the economic, social, and family foundation for learning, low-income parents can better prepare their children for school. And the schools, which most people mistakenly believe is the real problem, would start performing a whole lot better as a result.
I realize that some of these steps are already being taken. For example, Head Start has been working toward these goals for more than 45 years. And President Obama’s Department of Education budget includes funding for Promise Neighborhoods, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, a program that provides parenting-effectiveness, early-education, and after-school programs for disadvantaged children. But the funding and these efforts are on far too small a scale to make much of an impact.
The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and, by extension President Obama, just don’t seem get it. Mr. Duncan may cheerlead that, “When I was in Chicago, people used to warn me that we could never fix the schools until we ended poverty…But I reject this idea that demography is destiny. Despite challenges at home…I know that every child can learn and thrive.” I’m sorry to say that decades and billions of dollars would argue otherwise. Until the horse is placed appropriately before the cart, we seem destined to repeat history because we have not learned from it. And given the audacity of hope that President Obama has inspired, isn’t that a tragedy for all of the poor children who just want a chance to get ahead.