Don’t write off impoverished kids

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A retired elementary school principal recently submitted that urban parents will rise up against the Common Core in the face of the recent Smarter Balanced Assessment results. Parents, he says, are going to be so upset that their children aren’t meeting academic standards that there will be a backlash against efforts to improve public education. He claims “reformers” (myself included) are seeking to do damage control in the face of these results. The argument is as illogical as it is disheartening.

What parent would ever look at low scores and conclude that the state should stop testing, stop sounding the alarm about this problem? Why would parents protect a system’s failure to educate their own kids? In fact, no damage control is required. This latest round of test results simply reinforces the fact that we need to change our educational system if we want to improve student learning. A student’s address does not need to define his or her future. And that’s not a truth that is hard for parents to get behind.

I became an educator because, as a child, I saw firsthand that my circumstances weren’t my destiny. Growing up, I watched my father, a Cuban immigrant, work to provide for his family. Self-employed with no medical insurance, no paid vacation, no sick days, he returned to work just days after being injured in a terrible accident because our bills wouldn’t get paid if he didn’t work. At the same time, I watched my mother return to school after having dropped out to raise three children. She eventually became the principal of a school. Through hard work and education, they proved that you can make something of yourself no matter where you come from. It is upon this foundation that they created the luxury of opportunity for me, sending me to college and setting me up to earn advanced degrees. They exemplified what this country is all about.

The education system can’t just write off tens of thousands of children for being poor or for having extra needs. Giving up on these kids means willfully ignoring the many examples of schools and districts that have managed to meaningfully improve educational results for students of poverty. In order to do so, they had to have collaborative teams of professionals who didn’t assume that the job couldn’t be done. They had to use data to understand what aspects of the educational experience needed to be adjusted. They had to focus their limited resources on programs that were producing measurable results — that were helping teachers and students to meet benchmarks on the way to success.

These success stories demonstrate that quality systems of education can help America’s children to raise themselves out of the circumstances into which they were born. The only people who can’t clearly see the moral of these stories are the apologists for a system that isn’t working —people who need to blame the victims instead of trying to help them. These are the people who shrug and say, “Poor kids can’t learn, so educating them is not my problem. We should just ignore their test results.” Shame on them.

Regardless of what these nay-sayers might say, there are thousands of Connecticut teachers who are with me. They go to work each day in our neediest schools, and they give their best and believe in their students. They’re working to make a difference in these children’s futures. To honor them and their hard work, our state needs to ensure that they are surrounded by efficient, high-performing systems that give them the information and the resources that they need so that they can attack the incredible task of reaching each and every child.

The Common Core, which sets up measurable expectations for students, is a critical first step to building such high-performing systems. Nobody, however, is claiming that merely completing that first step is sufficient to solve the problem. And nobody should expect scores to skyrocket overnight. It takes careful, long-term, dedicated implementation of a plan—day after day—before you see results. Changing children’s futures is hard work.

I am walking proof that the American Dream is still a tangible reality. But poverty will continue to be an insurmountable barrier as long as we allow it to be.

Jeffrey Villar is Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform and the former superintendent of Windsor and Rocky Hill Public Schools.

 

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