09/28/2010 02:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Broader Conversation on Education

This week there has been a lot of news about our failing public education system. I have written before about the financial incentives to keep criminalizing parts of our society, and believe me you can see that in many of our schools. The high school to jail pipeline has been written about by many (for example, the National Juvenile Justice Network) and in many articles, schools' reliance on police for discipline, zero tolerance rules, and playground "jails" are decried. Teacher's failures are recorded, grim statistics are cited, and everyone shouts reform -- let's try charter schools, let's fire bad teachers, let's get rid of tenure, let's get rid of unions, let's get rid of bureaucracy and too many administrators (although now in some Chicago public schools there is no room for an assistant principals to deal with discipline -- one of their usual tasks -- because there aren't enough teachers due to layoffs, and so the assistant principals are teaching classes). I have no quarrel with looking to incentivize good teaching and leadership, changing that which doesn't work, and being innovative. Like nearly everyone in America, I believe we need a major overhaul of our educational system.

I would like to take a few moments, though, to add my perspective to the conversation about the need for educational reform, and the concomitant need not to demonize teachers and hold them accountable for everything that is wrong with our educational system. I feel that I can do this because I represent people facing the death penalty - and as a result have spent a lot of time developing mitigating evidence -- essentially investigating my clients' life stories in order to try to persuade a jury to punish them with imprisonment rather than execution. These clients do poorly in school, to be sure. Bad schools, poor resources in their communities have a lot to do with their criminality. The amount of violence experienced by our children in and around their schools is traumatizing and has profound effects on their development, often leaving them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, like our soldiers on the front lines, and prone to violence themselves. But it is not just the schools that have failed them, it is their families and our communities. We have many children being raised by single parents, many of whom are children themselves -- far too many live in poverty, and in communities where there is no legitimate work, no public transportation to get to legitimate work, and no positive role models in or out of their homes. My husband is a high school history teacher, and in pursuit of his masters degree he did a study of one of the "feeder" communities to his high school. Do you know what the mean age is in that town? 20. I am not kidding. 20. There simply are no adults there.

Let me tell you a story that may better illustrate my point. I represented a young man some years ago who I will call Joe. Joe grew up in very poor home in rural Mississippi and came to Chicago where an older brother was. He became addicted to drugs, followed that path to crime and ended up a part of a robbery where two people died. He was very responsible for the robbery and their deaths, although after the investigation I believe he was not the person who actually physically killed either person. Nonetheless, he was guilty of felony murder, and the question was only one of punishment -- life or death. I had spent a lot of time getting to understand his family and had found out, that for some reason, among the seven siblings, he had been continuously singled out for physical abuse from his father -- he had scars on his back from whippings, and deep scars in his heart as well. He wasn't very smart, but it was hard to tell since he was illiterate. One day at the jail I was talking to him about what we might tell the jury he would do with his time -- that is if they spared him, for what? He looked at me, thought for a bit, and said "Miss Lyon, I would really like to learn to read." Where, I thought, was someone when this child was five? Where was family services when he would come to school with no shoes, hungry and unable to sit back in his chair because of the welts on his back? What was wrong in that family, and why was there no help for him before he became an addict and a criminal? Were there serious problems in his school since they kept passing someone who couldn't read (he dropped out in the ninth grade, having been passed all the way through)? You bet. Would having better teachers and more resources for students have made a difference in his life? I certainly hope so -- but ignoring his hunger, lack of shoes and the abuse at home and only concentrating on school would probably not have been enough.

That doesn't mean we don't need educational reform -- we do. We need smaller classes, tighter discipline within the schools, books for the students (yes, many students have no books, and there often is also no money for a printer or paper for materials to make up for this lack). We need real attention paid to our children -- real critique and real praise, not this fake "self-esteem" related promotion. But having a national conversation about education without dealing with the depredations of poverty, poor nutrition, parents with no parenting skills, violence in our communities, and the fact that it is largely your zip code that informs your educational opportunities -- and thus your economic ones -- is incomplete, and unfair.