Guest Column

A ‘Can Do’ or ‘Can’t Do’ Profession?

by Kati Haycock

Why is it that just when we start to get serious about remedying the deep inequities in the American educational system, somebody always comes along to tell us not to bother?

We educators know that our system is far from fair. All across the country kids who come to us with less end up getting less in school too — less in the way of rigorous and well-balanced curricula and less in the way of experienced and well-trained teachers. State and local governments even spend less on the schools that serve them.

As a result, the very students who come through our doors a little behind leave a lot behind. The gap, in other words, between different groups of children grows wider and wider the longer they remain in school.

But just when we’re starting to get serious about righting what can only be described as disgraceful and morally wrong practices — when communities around the country, for example, are offering incentives to especially strong teachers to teach the children who most need their expertise — we’re brought up short by “research” that purports to tell us that all of this is a waste of time.

Blaming Barriers

The most recent example is Class and Schools, a book in which author Richard Rothstein argues that it is impossible to substantially narrow the achievement gap without fixing all of society’s problems. In fact, if you believe Rothstein, all we need to do is listen to working-class black and Latino mothers talk to their children on a New York City bus to decide that these children will never learn.

His basic message to us is that what educators do doesn’t matter. After all, the kids are simply too damaged by (pick one) poverty, dental decay, vision problems, inept parents, low birthweight and the like to truly benefit from what we offer.

No one who has worked in public education would argue these things don’t matter. Clearly, poverty and family problems make both teaching and learning more challenging. Yes, in a country as rich as ours, it is unconscionable that we allow so many of our children to live in poverty. And, yes, all of us who care about children should raise our voices about the need for our country to do more.

But the argument we can’t get better outcomes for poor children and children of color until all of our social problems are solved denies the incredible power of schools to produce better outcomes for children in poverty and deprives countless young people of the very thing most likely to enable them to participate fully in the economic and cultural mainstream of our society — a quality education.

Moreover, by dismissing them as statistical flukes and outliers, Rothstein and his ilk demean the countless educators who have worked so hard to produce spectacular results among the very children who aren’t supposed to be able to learn.

Every week or two I get a letter or e-mail from one of those educators eager to share their results with somebody who appreciates the work that it took to get there. One recently came from a principal in a Kentucky school where more than 90 percent of the students received free lunches; there, focused work from teachers and administrators had produced five years of steady improvement and students were now performing not much differently than those in nearby schools with less than a third of their students in poverty.

How should Rothstein have me respond to these educators? Tell them that, in the years ahead, their students’ results will inevitably fade? Tell them that their kids, once born poor, black or Latino, will inevitably remain on the margins of our society? Or should I keep thanking them for what they do for the kids and for our country?

Remedying Inequities

Let’s be clear: In the short term, we may not be able to make up for all the advantages that some well-to-do parents provide for their children. But we can at least do this: Get the vast majority of our students to meaningful state standards so they have a fair shot at completing college or earning a decent salary.

We’re at a crossroads as a profession. Asked to do more with children few people ever cared about before, we can either follow the naysayers’ advice and absolve ourselves from tackling the quality problems and inequitable practices in our system by saying that fixing them won’t really make a difference to kids. Or we can roll up our sleeves and go to work, pressing policymakers to do their part in rectifying inequitable education funding policies, but also doing our part to remedy inequitable practices within our direct control — practices regarding who teaches whom, what to expect of whom and how to organize time and people in our schools.

A “can do” or “can’t do” profession? The choice is yours.

Kati Haycock is director of Education Trust, 1250 H St., N.W., Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005. E-mail: khaycock@edtrust.org