There are many things we must do as a country to counteract the steep rise of economic inequality and steep decline in social mobility, but none is more important than providing a quality education to all of our children.
As a new round of international studies is showing, the U.S. is one of the most economically unequal amongst all developed countries. And despite the stories that we tell each other and the world about our role as the “Land of Opportunity,” we now have one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world. At the macro level, more and better education isn’t the only answer; there are a lot of things that enlightened public policy can and should do to reverse this trend. But at the individual level, education is indeed the main answer. As generations of African-American and Latino parents have told their children, “A good education is the only thing that can never be taken away from you.”
While the effects of poverty and racism are brutal, schools can be incredibly powerful vehicles for overcoming them.
Many Americans—and, indeed, many American educators—assume that underachievement among low-income students and students of color is the inevitable outcome of poverty, entrenched racism or poor parenting. Yet every year, our staff identifies and examines the practices of schools that serve very poor children and children of color and consistently rank among the top-performing schools in their respective states. No, they are not filled with superhuman principals and teachers. Instead, they focus like a laser on the things that matter: Creating an atmosphere of respect for both children and adults; building team-work and can-do spirit among the adults who work in the school; assuring high quality teaching in every classroom; and partnering with parents to extend and reinforce what goes on in school.
Among all the adults in a school, teachers are the most powerful of all in changing the life chances of children.
In our roles as parents, we educators know how important teachers are to our children—both to their learning, but also to their sense of themselves. And indeed, many of us have acted on our knowledge of differences among teachers by trying to worm our own children into the classroom of an especially good teacher, or out of the classroom of an especially weak (or unpleasant) one. Yet in our roles as educators, we often deny this essential truth. When parents ask us to do what we can to make sure their children are assigned to a particular teacher, we often tell them not to worry, that their child will learn what he or she needs to learn from ANY teacher in our school.
Fifteen years of data and countless research studies show that parents have been right all along. In just one year with a particularly effective teacher, children can gain six months or even a year more learning than they will with a less effective one. And those differences accumulate over time—with huge social and economic payoffs to the children who are lucky enough to be taught by our strongest teachers.
There are many essential qualities of a good education leader, but communication may be the most important…and least appreciated.
Like everybody else, educators like to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Yet, school, district, and state education leaders don’t often approach them that way. Rather than speak to the nobler aspirations of their teachers and administrators, these leaders often play to their fears. Think of the language many use. “Our sub-group problem.” “We need to raise our scores because the state or feds will come down on us.” “It’s not fair to compare us: we have far more poor kids and English language learners.”
The leaders making the most headway on student achievement don’t talk like this. They know they are the tone setters and the meaning makers, and that their words can either build a collective sense of agency or undermine it. Retired elementary school principal Molly Bensinger-Lacy put it this way: “There is a place of incredible possibilities within the neighborhoods of these so-called ‘disadvantaged’ children—their free public schools. And inside those schools, there are educators (us) who have the power and the privilege to develop in our children perhaps the most powerful resource of all—the mind.”
Though they may not always appreciate the pressure at the time, change-minded education leaders gain much-needed leverage when the surrounding community is demanding “More, Faster!”
During my first year leading a change process at the University of California system, our effort was boycotted by an important student organization. That was a particularly painful time for me, because I was a recent graduate and the leaders in this organization were friends and kindred spirits. We eventually worked things out. But what I learned from that experience, and from many since, is this: Though criticism and pressure from the outside can be hurtful, it really helps to speed improvement efforts.
If all of the pressures on a change-minded leader are from folks within the system wanting to “slow things down,” then the best he or she usually can manage is to split the difference. If, on the other hand, there are countervailing pressures from the outside clamoring to “speed things up,” splitting that difference can help drive change further faster.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Kati Haycock currently serves as President of The Education Trust. Established in 1996, the Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college. The organization’s goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that consign too many low-income students and students of color to lives on the margins of the American mainstream.
Before coming to The Education Trust, Haycock served as Executive Vice President of the Children's Defense Fund, the nation's largest child advocacy organization.