A reader sent me a note, to which I sent a long reply. Concerned after reading in the AJC about all the problems in education lately, she asked a perfectly sane question: Is all hope lost?
I am sharing both her note and my reply as I thought this was a topic that could lead to some fruitful discussion.
Her note first:
I have been following the AJC’s articles about the APS scandal, then the FAMU tragedy, and there are always reports about charter schools in the news. I do not have children yet, but I clearly remember my elementary public school days (I transferred to a private school in sixth grade and graduated from there as well). While I’m quite sure I was unaware of the politics of education back then, I fail to understand now why public school education is so complicated to figure out.
My question, Maureen, is why is educating our children so difficult?
I’m the first to admit that my grasp of politics is tenuous at best. But I fail to understand why dozens and dozens of minds smarter than mine cannot figure it out, either. Especially if they all come together and all want what is best for children and the future of America, maybe even the world.
I’m afraid people are getting dumber by the day. I’m afraid of where we’ll be in another five to ten years when my future children start school; in 20 years when they’ve graduated, and in 30 or 50 years when they’ve produced children of their own and those children are well under way in the education system of this country.
Maureen, is all hope lost?
And here is my response:
I don’t think that the challenge is education, per se, but educating all kids, which was never a goal in the past.
Every state expected and accepted high dropout rates. Those dropouts could find work in mills and construction in the South and in factories in the North and Midwest. High schools, in fact, tracked kids academically, assigning only middle-class kids to the college tracks. It didn’t seem a crime as those lower-track students could still land jobs in steel mills and earn enough to support a family.
What has changed now is the job market.
Those kids who were ignored in the past — typically poor kids, no matter what their skin color — do not have jobs waiting for them if they drop out. So there is now a national commitment — perhaps unrealistic according to some people — to make sure every high schooler meets minimum academic standards. And we are going to test them to make sure.
There has also been a push to expose more kids to rigorous courses. So, even kids taking the so-called vo-tech track now take much tougher science and math. And it makes sense as factory manuals at chemical plants are as complex as college math textbooks, so kids have to have higher literacy and better math and science skills. Automation means that kids have to understand computer coding, which is math-driven.
So, is all hope lost? No, but I am not sure we, a nation, are willing to do what we need to do to close the achievement gap, which divides most acutely on income lines. My kids in middle school are taking math and science that I either never saw in a classroom or only saw once I reached high school.
To be ready for that level of material at age 11, kids have to have great reading skills, which are not hard to come by if your parents started reading to you when you were an infant and you grew up surrounded by books.
The first six years of children’s lives set the arc for their future academic success. If those six years are not spent in academic-rich environments — ideally in the home but, if not, in a great preschool — then the catch-up is costly. And I don’t think we are ready to pay that cost.
Kids of college graduates will, for the most part, do well in school because their parents believe in the importance of education and have embraced that in their own lives. And their parents will do what they can to live in communities with great schools. And there are many great schools in Atlanta.
But the schools in which most of the kids do not come from homes with a commitment to or history of academic excellence remain the challenge. How do you get the best teachers to agree to teach the most difficult and demanding students? How do you counter the anti-education messages those kids may be getting at home or in their neighborhoods? How do you keep them on track when they have no other supports?
I think those kids are the ones who are in trouble. And I am not sure that middle-class America has the political will to do what is necessary as it could be costly. I don’t think people want to deny these kids what they need; nervous middle-class parents are simply focused on their own kids and it is hard to see past their deepening concerns over getting their kids into good colleges, affording the tuition and then hoping their kids get a job in this lousy job market.
But I remain hopeful as I see pockets of excellence in many poor schools. Not enough. Not yet. But I think we are years ahead of where we were a generation ago when these kids and those schools were invisible. Now, we see them; we just aren’t sure how best to help them.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog