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Good Schools for All: A National Imperative

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The academic achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other young Americans are lethal, shameful and completely unnecessary.

Over the coming decades, our country will see big growth in the number of these students -- the ones that our school system has shortchanged for generations. Our global status has slipped in recent years, but it will plummet -- and with it, our competitive edge and hopes for increased prosperity and security -- if we don't muster the will to turn things around and provide these students with the educational opportunities they need and deserve.

The good news is that there are schools, districts and even whole states making important strides in education fairness. They are improving results for everybody, but making especially fast progress for those who have lagged behind their peers.

The bad news is that there are too few of them, a point underscored by the new documentary film, "Waiting for 'Superman' ". The work of successful schools isn't easy and demands as much -- or more -- from adults as it demands from the students themselves.

Many Americans look at underachievement among kids of color and low-income kids and say, "Well, what else would you expect? They are poor. Their families are disorganized. Their neighborhoods are dangerous."

Although I agree that poverty and everyday racism are blights on our nation that present real obstacles to academic success, I'd also ask the folks who use these things to explain away low achievement to take a careful look at what our educational system does and doesn't do for some groups of students.

The simple truth about our country is this: We take the kids who have the least at home and, when they get to school, we give them less of everything that matters to high academic achievement.

We spend less on their schools, which are disproportionately staffed by the least able teachers. And the courses they're assigned and curriculum they're taught are weak tea, indeed. Then, to add insult to injury, when they don't perform so well, we turn around and blame the students themselves, their parents and their communities.

If we truly wanted to close the achievement gap, we'd turn this equation around. We'd grab the students early and provide them with all the in-school extras they need to help make up for the difficulties they face outside of school. We'd fund their schools adequately. We'd match them with our strongest teachers. We'd ensure that they took the toughest courses we have. And we'd stop wringing our hands about parents who can't or won't be involved in their children's education and all the other factors in these kids' lives that we can't control.

This is not to say that parents don't matter, nor should they be let off the hook for helping their children succeed. We educators need their help. Parents absolutely need to turn off the TV, lock up the iPod and unplug the Xbox. They need to read with their kids and check homework, too.

But some parents can't or won't do as much as we'd like them to do. The question is how schools respond. When wealthy parents don't spend much time with their kids -- and many of them don't -- we don't say to each other, "Well, let's just expect less of them." That, however, is precisely what we do when the families are poor: We expect less of their children. It's high time we stopped.

When educators refuse to surrender to out-of-school problems and acknowledge instead that a high-quality education is the best hope their students have for a better life, extraordinary things happen.

Take Norfork Elementary, located in a rural Arkansas town where many residents have not completed high school and 56 percent of students are from low-income families. Once a relatively low performer, this school is now anything but. Indeed, in 2009, 91 percent of sixth-graders in the school met statewide math proficiency standards and 85 percent met statewide literacy standards, surpassing far wealthier schools around the state. Why? Because instead of excusing away low performance, the educators in this school see it as their moral responsibility -- as some of the best educated people in their community -- to teach their students to the highest levels.

Or consider Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School in New York. This Long Island school serves approximately 2,000 students, the majority of whom are African American and Latino, in grades seven through 12. Of the students who were freshmen in 2004, 96 percent graduated on time and 97 percent of them planned to attend college. Back in 2003, fewer than two-thirds of Elmont students earned a coveted Regents diploma, meaning they met New York state's more rigorous, college-prep requirements. By 2008, 90 percent of Elmont's graduates received a Regents and 42 percent of those were with an Advanced Designation.

Norfork and Elmont are but two examples of what is possible when we provide great schools for poor kids. The question is when we will do this at scale.

It ought to be un-American for education quality to remain predictable by zip code. If we really put our minds to turning that around, we could do it in a decade. For that to happen, though, one thing needs to change. Instead of just worrying about quality schools for our own children, we have to stand firm for quality schools for everybody's children.

It's way past time.