Andrew Delbanco has written an excellent article in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books discussing two recent books about American public schools and what we need to do to improve them. The first book, Reign of Terror, is by Daine Ravitch, a leading historian of primary and secondary education. The second book, Radical, is by Michelle Rhee, who gained fame, some would say infamy, as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools between 2007 and 2010. Ravitich and Rhee couldn’t be more different in their assessment of the status of our public schools or what we should be doing to improve our education systems. Get a hold of this article and read it. It will make you think.Ravitich and Rhee agree that our public schools need improvement. Rhee likes testing and charter schools. Ravitich is skeptical of both. Rhee says “poverty ought not to be an excuse for poor academic performance.” Ravitich says ”poverty is the most important factor contributing to low academic achievement…so, we must work both to improve schools and to reduce poverty.” Many of you know me, so you will not be surprised that I agree with Ravitich and believe Rhee’s prescriptions will do more harm than good, if fact if full implemented would be a disaster.
We dare not ignore the impact of poverty on our ability to educate our future workforce. In an ideal world, all children would come to school having enjoyed a nutritious breakfast and would go home to enjoy an equally nutritious dinner. All children would have parents who valued education and were confident about their and their children’s future. All children would have parents who read to them, encouraged them to read, and engaged them in conversations that would challenge them mentally. All children would feel safe and loved and get a good night’s sleep every night in a home well heated, cooled and maintained. All children would have a mother who appreciated the importance of and had access to excellent pre-natal care. All children would have parents who weren’t alcoholics or drug addicts or, if they were, were in good treatment programs. All children as infants would have parents who talked to them, smiled at them, and surrounded them with sites and sounds to stimulate their minds and feed their brains’ natural desire to learn when they were infants. In short, all children would come from a family like the one I was lucky enough to be born into and my daughters were born into. My mother was a teacher. My father never completed college but he valued education so much that he made it possible for all of his eight brothers and sister to get a degree. My two daughters were lucky to spend their formative years in a household in which both parents were working on graduate degrees. They were surrounded by books and, from an early age, saw both of their parents studying, doing research, writing papers, and otherwise engaged actively in the pursuit of an education every single day. I’m very proud to note that both of my daughters have advanced degrees, one a PH.D. from Notre Dame and the other a Doctor of Audiology degree from the University of Florida. However, many children don’t have the advantages I had or my children had. I didn’t grow up in poverty. Neither did my kids. Don’t tell me that didn’t make a difference in our education—a big difference.It is unrealistic to expect that we can separate the experiences a child has during the school day from the experiences he or she has in the rest of life. The two are intertwined. We need teachers who are rigorously trained, highly motivated, well-paid, and, most importantly, highly respected for the difficult, but oh so critical job they do. But, the best teacher in the world can only do so much. Yes, we should hold teachers, and ourselves by the way, accountable for the quality of education we are providing our youth. Yes, we should measure student performance but we should use measurement, not to punish, but to find opportunities for investment, financial and otherwise. If we want to compete in the world, we need an educated workforce. We need to address poverty and its affects on a child’s ability to learn. Sadly, when some of our leaders place all their faith in testing science and math, when politicians seek to cut funding for Head Start and other early childhood intervention programs, when nutrition programs like Food Stamps are cut in the name of deficit reduction and ending “dependency,” we are doing just the opposite of what we need to do. We are robbing our children by failing to invest in their future. We can do better—a lot better. And, we had better get started—soon.