America expects a lot from its frequently maligned public schools but we do relatively little to make it possible for schools to meet our expectations. Our schools are expected to educate the neediest children and are blamed when students whose most basic needs for housing, nutrition and healthcare are not met, do not do as well academically as more privileged children. Our politicians want schools that will enable the United States to maintain its economic and technological dominance in the world, even though we continue to pay teachers salaries that make it unlikely that our top college students will enter the profession. We expect schools to provide students with the knowledge, understanding and frame of mind to participate intelligently in civic life, but increasingly the curriculum is so focused on preparing students for state mandated exams that there is little time for critical thinking on topics like war and civil liberty, that are essential to our democratic order. We call upon our schools to play a role in solving a wide variety of problems that confront our nation, from global warming and substance abuse, to sexually transmitted disease and race relations, yet we rarely provide the resources schools need to even come close to meeting these challenges. Given our unrealistic and unfair expectations, it is hardly surprising that schools typically disappoint and fall short of the unrealistic goals that have been set.
With the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, we have given yet another responsibility to our public schools: the requirement that they produce evidence that all children are learning. As simple and reasonable as this goal might seem, it actually represents a radical departure from generations of past practice. American schools have never been expected to educate all children, and even more importantly, they have never been expected to eliminate racial disparities in achievement. For the first time in American history, closing the racial achievement gap has been embraced as a national priority. The profound significance of such a crusade can only be appreciated if one considers that for most of Americas history racial differences in achievement were presumed to be natural (i.e. rooted in innate ability), unalterable and even acceptable.
I spend a great deal of time working with school districts throughout the country on efforts to close the achievement gap. While I rarely question the sincerity of those who lead these efforts I have come to understand that the reason why some schools succeed in closing or at least reducing the racial disparities in achievement while the overwhelming majority fail, has less to do with skill than with will. Schools like Edison Elementary in Port Chester, NY, Henshaw Middle School in Modesto, CA, or Fenway High School in Boston provide the proof that it is indeed possible to educate poor Black and Brown children. Their striking deviation from norms of failure and mediocrity, cannot be explained by their possession of a secret curriculum or extra resources, rather what sets them apart and makes them unique is the dedication, commitment of the educators who work there and deliberateness of the approach they take in meeting the needs of the students they serve.
Of course, there is more to it than that. In the best schools where all children are achieving regardless of race or class, there are typically several strategies in place, including: 1) a commitment to engage parents as partners in education with explicit roles and responsibilities for parents and educators laid out; 2) strong instructional leadership focused on a coherent program for curriculum and instruction that teachers support and follow; 3) a willingness to evaluate interventions and reforms to insure quality control; 4) a recognition that discipline practices must be linked to educational goals and must always aim at re-connecting troubled students to learning; 5) a commitment to finding ways to meet the non-academic needs of poor students.
Of course there is more that could be mentioned but these are the main strategies identified in the research literature. When this combination of ingredients can be brought together on a sustained basis, it is amazing what poor and disadvantaged children can accomplish.
Ironically, very few of the schools where I find the greatest progress in closing the racial achievement gap are in affluent suburbs where resources are abundant and poor and minority children are few in number. In such places it is more common to find highly predictable racial patterns of achievement -- White and occasionally Asian students at the top of the achievement hierarchy, Black and Brown students at the bottom. Even more disturbing is the air of complacency surrounding perceptions of this phenomenon that characterizes so many of these schools. There usually are many individuals who publicly lament the fact that racial patterns in achievement are so consistent but there are even more who have come to believe that is just the way it is.
This is why it is ultimately the beliefs of the educators that determines whether or not gaps in achievement close and all children learn. Whenever the educators refuse to blame others for low achievement or to make excuses for student failure but instead accept responsibility for their role, children benefit. Children know when they are taught by adults who care about them and who believe in them. They typically respond by displaying the qualities that are so essential to school success -- self motivation, self discipline and resilience. The fact that schools like Edison, Henshaw and Fenway produce such students regularly is further proof that the problem is not the kids or their parents, but the schools we send them to.
Published in In Motion Magazine July 29, 2007.